Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nazareth


The worst thing, I thought, was the traffic.  That and a sign we passed in our taxi announcing “Nazareth Baptist Church”, for these things loudly proclaimed that we were in a modern city, which like any modern city of my acquaintance had traffic jams and Baptist churches.   
           Intellectually, of course, I knew this.  The modern city of Nazareth itself had a population in 2009 of over 50,000, with greater Nazareth boasting a population of 210,000, so the traffic jams really came as no surprise.  But whatever my head told me, my heart had come to find the Nazareth of the Bible, and in that rustic village, there were no traffic jams and no Baptist churches.                                                                                                       
            Indeed, the Nazareth of the Bible didn’t have much of anything.  Its population in the time of Christ was about 500, and it was so small and insignificant that it was not even mentioned in the Old Testament.  Even in Christ’s day, Nazareth’s neighbours didn’t seem to think much of the town.  When Nathanael from nearby Cana heard that the Messiah had been found in Nazareth, he could scarcely believe it.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scoffed (Jn. 1:46). 
            So, what’s the story with Matthew’s citation of the Messianic prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23)?  Bible expositors have long puzzled about this, since they could find no such verse in their Bibles.  Did Matthew maybe mean that Messiah was to be not a Nazarene, but a Nazirite, not a citizen of the town of Nazareth but someone pledged to holy continence such as mentioned in Numbers 6?  Even this is pushing it a bit, since nothing in the Old Testament which mentions the laws for a Nazirite vow are the least bit Messianic.  It seems that Matthew was reading his Bible in a typically Jewish way, and looking at the Hebrew text itself for deeper significance.  In Isaiah 11:1, the prophet refers to the Messiah as coming forth in humility from the ruined House of David, like a little twig growing out of a felled stump:  “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  The word here translated “branch” is the Hebrew nezer, with the same consonants as the Hebrew word “Nazareth”.  Matthew was making a verbal connection (a pun, if you will), linking the insignificance of the town to the fact that its name sounded like the word for a tiny little twig in Isaiah’s prophecy.  The image of the future Messiah coming as a little branch or twig is found in other Old Testament prophecies too, such as Jer. 23:5 and Zech. 3:8 (though there the Hebrew word for “branch” is semach), and this would explain why Matthew refers to “prophecies” about Nazareth (in the plural).  So, even in Matthew’s citation of the Old Testament, we find an emphasis on the insignificance of Jesus’ hometown. 
            As wonderful as I’m sure Nazareth Baptist Church is, I took the taxi to town to find only two sites:  the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel.  Both were well worth the time squeezing through traffic. 
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