He Shall Be Called a Nazorean: Intertextuality Without an Intertext?

In 2010 I read a conference paper at SBL on the reference in the Gospel of Matthew to something prophets had supposedly said, “He shall be called a Nazorean.” I looked at it from the perspective of intertextuality, and also brought my work on the Mandaeans into the picture.

Since I still have not found the time to turn the paper into an article, I have decided to upload the conference paper in a slightly edited form to my institution’s digital repository, so that it can be read and, if there is interest, discussed and interacted with. It will be an interesting experiment in the sharing of the products of scholarly work online in digital form, in a more preliminary form than a journal article.

You can read the paper here:


"It seems like working for a large company, if employed for many years, is a ..."

By the Company
"As I blogged about. Do you not read what I write before commenting? I am ..."

88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will ..."
"The apostle Paulʼs predictions have proven as false as those of the Christians you mention: ..."

88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will ..."
"Tragic. Sorry to hear that. The "prophecy" delusionary obsession of so many religious leaders has ..."

88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ian

    Interesting paper. Thanks for sharing it.

    Some things that I found problematic (with the huge caveat that I am a total amateur).

    1. The idea that Nazorean is a typological descriptor that Matthew wants to appropriate, seems at odds with the phrasing. I.e. in “Jesus is from Nazereth therefore he is a Nazorean”, the direction of implication is from the place name to the designation. It seems strained to me to argue that Matthews purpose is to expand our understanding of Jesus into the domain of things which could otherwise be called Nazorean. The sentence seems to run in the opposite direction.

    2. The idea that Jesus is known as a Nazorean in some way, that such a designation is problematic for Matthew, and Matthew here wants to explain why that designation is mistaken, fits the direction of the sentence. But is in tension with both the prophetic allusion, and seems to rely too much on Nazareth being a safe term. So “Don’t worry that Jesus was supposedly a Nazorean, its only because he came from Nazareth” doesn’t work because a) in the context of where the passage lies, Nazareth is a big problem for Matthew, and b) the assignment of Nazorean as a designation to the ‘prophets’ works against the idea that it is a term needing rescuing.

    Obviously they weren’t the extent of the ideas you explored in the paper, but you did touch on both, and I felt objections such as those could be strongly marshalled against those ideas.

    Sorry if I’m overstepping my pay-grade here and missing some fundamental point. Or just discovering points that have been made and dealt with ad-nauseam elsewhere.

    In general there was a lot I didn’t know, both about the Mandean connection, and some of the references to prior work on the topic.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for these comments. I do understand that the sentence in the Gospel of Matthew “seems to run in the opposite direction.” And so why suggest what I do? Two key elements are: the fact that there seems to be no prophecy of the sort that Matthew claims, and so his claim that there is a prophecy may itself be part of damage control – whether in relation to Jesus’ association with Nazareth, or his association with a religious term Nazorean, or both; and the indications that the term Matthew interprets as meaning “from Nazareth” did not originally mean that. The fact that the Mandaeans, who don’t like Jesus, use the term positively is telling, as is the way Paul is described in Acts as a “ringleader of the Nazoreans” which is not at all a natural way of referring to the Jesus movement.

      I may well be wrong in what I propose. I was trying to see if my work on the Mandaeans, and on New Testament intertextuality, as well as my longstanding interest in Matthew’s appeal to a prophecy that seems not to exist, could all speak to one another in an interesting way.

      • Ian

        It is an interesting passage, one I’ve only closely paid attention to in the last month. Funnily enough because of the way Richard Carrier uses it in his mythicist argument.

        He claims that the passage is evidence that there was no Nazareth, that Nazareth was an invention based on some prior religious notion based of Nazorean, that both Jesus, and the early Christians were associated with. My gut reaction was to defend the sense that the passage was arguing away Nazareth, rather than Nazorean. But you’re right, it isn’t quite so cut and dry.

        I think the Acts passage seems to be a little tricky. Luke uses the form twice in Acts, but both in the words of opponents who (it seems to me from the context) Luke wants us to think are wrongly accusing christians of being from the sect of the Nazoreans.

        It is a fasinating question. Your paper was the first that I’d seen that brought my attention to the plural in prophets. And the Mandaean background is fascinating. Hmmm. All good stuff. Thanks, and thanks for the response.

        • Herro

          “[Carrier] claims that the passage is evidence that there was no Nazareth,…”

          [citation needed] 😉

          • Ian

            You’re right to ask. I checked and I had misremembered.

            Carrier says nothing about whether Nazareth existed, but does say that putting Jesus as being from Nazareth was a later invention.

            Jesus was probably not originally a Nazarene (Greek nazarênos), but a Nazorian (Greeknazôraios), based on a now-lost scripture (Matthew 2:23). This was actually one of the original names for the Christian movement (Acts 24:5) and remained the name of the original Torah-observant Christian sect (Epihanius, Panarion 9). It clearly did not mean “from Nazareth” (Christians did not hail from there, and the words do not share the same roots). Scholars speculate on what “nazorian” may have meant (Proving History, pp. 142-45). But its attachment to the town of Nazareth appears to have been an invention of the Gospel authors.

  • http://tunabay.com/ Keika

    And I thought it was a typo all these years. Seriously, an exceptionally well written and thought provoking paper/article! But where can I find this word ‘Nazorean’ as it is used in the bible? Have all recently printed versions been updated to change the word to Nazarene?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      Many translations do simply treat the words as though they are variant spellings with the same meaning. You can find the relevant texts through a word search, including a site like this one which has done that work for you: http://www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/nazoraios

      • 3SPARTUS8

        If you really want to understand the historical and linguistic complexities of words like “Nazoreans,” you can’t do better than the citations listed in the index of Jame the Brother of Jesus, by Robert Eisenman.

  • Arianne

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking paper!

    This is tangentially related, but have you given any thought to the origin of the term “Magdalene”, as in “Mary Magdalene”? It seems to be taken for granted by many that it’s a designation of town of origin (i.e. “Mary of Magdala” or something of the sort). In support of this, ppl draw a parallel between the name “Magdalene” and Nazarene/Nazorean in reference to Jesus, which was also thought to be originally a geographical description. But if it’s true that the epithet “Nazorean” had another meaning as well, one that wasn’t necessarily about geography, I wonder what implications that would have for the name “Magdalene”.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      In the case of Jesus, there are two different Greek terms used. One of them works perfectly well as meaning “Nazarene” in the sense of “someone from Nazareth.” Migdal, Hebrew for “tower,” is evidenced as a place name, and there does not seem to be the same issue of different terms that might reflect different etymologies that were subsequently associated because of similarities between them.

  • Susan Burns

    Another word that can be added to the long list, IMO, is “anasar”. Zoroastrians use the sun to separate pure light (anasar) from the decaying body during sky burial.

  • edwardtbabinski

    God, knowing all languages and exactly which words to inspire people even millions of years in the future, chose to have “Matthew” boast about Jesus being called “a Nazorean,” whatever that means.

    It’s questions like this that drove an award winning Harvard student to declare:

    It is remarkable, that the ablest modern advocates for the truth and divine authority of the gospel, as if they knew of no certain, demonstrative proof which could be adduced in a case of so much importance, seem to content themselves, and expect their readers should be satisfied, with an accumulation of probable arguments in its favour; and it has been even said, that the case admits of no other kind of proof. If it be so, the author requests all so persuaded to consider, for a moment, whether it could be reconciled to any ideas of wisdom in an earthly potentate, if he should send an ambassador to a foreign state to mediate a negotiation of the greatest importance, without furnishing him with certain, indubitable credentials of the truth and authenticity of his mission? And to consider further, whether it be just or seemly, to attribute to the Omniscient, Omnipotent Deity, a degree of weakness and folly, which was never yet imputed to any of his creatures ? for unless men are hardy enough to pass so gross an affront upon the tremendous Majesty of Heaven, the improbability that God should delegate the Mediator of a most important covenant to be proposed to all mankind, without enabling him to give them clear and, in reason, indisputable proof of the divine authority of his mission, must ever infinitely outweigh the aggregate sum of all the probabilities which can be accumulated in the opposite scale of the balance. And to conclude, I presume it will not be denied, that the authenticity and celestial origin of any thing pretending to be a Divine Revelation, before it has any claims upon our faith, ought to be made clear beyond all reasonable doubt; otherwise, it can have no just claims to a right to influence our conduct. http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2012/06/george-bethune-english-1787-1828.html

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    I understand “Nazarene” appears also in gMatthew, but never in gLuke, or Acts, or gJohn; they use “Nazorean” instead.
    One (unevidenced) theory of mine: after gMark was known, some of the first Ebionites called themselves “Nazarenes”. However those were not really Christians. That caused the other gospellers to switch to “Nazorean”, as meaning “from Nazareth” (except one case in Acts: Paul being said from the sect of the Nazoreans), even if Nazoreans were initially probably members of a particular Jewish (apocalyptic?) sort, with no relationship with Nazareth.
    Cordially, Bernard

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello, thanks for having called our attention to this interesting paper.

    I wonder about one thing. Is it possible (and not implausible) that Mattew might be reffering to an oral or written tradition he and others viewed asbeing inspired but which got lost?

    You wrote:
    “Even on this level, one could point out that Jesus in Matthew is far more “observant” than in other early Christian writings: he emphasizes that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and has him counsel his followers to observe what the scribes and Pharisees demand.”

    This is very interesting for me since it concerns a puzzling question: did Jesus contradict himself by saying every detail in the Torah was right while clearly rejecting specific commands during the sermon on the mount?

    Do you personally the historical Jesus taught that every letter of the Torah has to be observed? Or was it put into his mouth?
    I just don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m beginning to write a series of posts as to why Christian should not regard books within the Biblical Canon as being more inspired than book outside the Canon.

    The very article you’ve written gives us compelling grounds for having such an attitude!

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe, Marc.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      I think that the emphasis on doing everything the Torah requires probably stems from Matthew. Jesus seems to have recognized – as other rabbis also did – that sometimes two requirements of the Torah conflict and one must choose between them. And based on that, he seems to have approved of allowing humanitarian concerns like hunger, healing, and helping others in general, as taking priority over things like ritual purity and other comparable concerns and stipulations.

  • Susan Burns

    From the perspective of a female that has experienced pregnancy and childbirth, the answer is very clear. A male may accept the story of a woman about to give birth traveling on a donkey from the “lower Galilee” to Jerusalem as a simple accounting of an historical event. A woman, who is a mother, would not. Since this story is completely made up without a modicum of historicity the question is why? Why would a myth that defies reason be needed? This fantastic journey places Mary in Bethlehem to give birth and still have her son be a “Nazorean”.. Obviously, both must be true at the same time for Jesus to be considered a candidate for Messiah. If there had not been a requirement that the Messiah be a “Nazorean” then the birth would have taken place in Bethlehem (a definite requirement for Judeans) and that would be the end of it. The invention of a myth that could not possibly have any truth at its core is proof that there was a requirement for the Messiah to be a “Nazorean”. It may be that the Nazorean demand stemmed from the branch of Jesse in Isaiah or some Yazidi or Mandaic condition. In any case, it does not mean the lowland village of Nazareth that has nothing in common with the highland region of the Kinneret. I think the most plausible explanation is either that Nazorean refers to a priestly class that the Gospel authors preferred to hide or the true meaning had been lost to the authors.