Jesus the “Nazarene” Redux (vs. Jonathan M. S. Pearce)

Jesus the “Nazarene” Redux (vs. Jonathan M. S. Pearce) December 19, 2020

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce’s “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” His words will be in blue.

Jonathan wrote the article, “Jesus the ‘Nazarene’ – What Is the Prophecy?” [12-5-20]. Then I replied with Jesus the “Nazarene”: Did Matthew Make Up a “Prophecy”? (Oral Traditions and Possible Lost Old Testament Books Referred to in the Bible) [12-17-20]. Jonathan (the fastest atheist debater in the west) responded to that with Jesus the “Nazarene”: More Prophecy Debate [12-18-20]. This is my counter-reply in turn.


I showed in my piece that (an analysis of the language and the OT prophecy) that:

[1.] Nazarene does not mean someone from Nazareth – there is confusion over whether it means someone from Nazareth, someone of the Nazirite religious sect, or from the Hebrew word meaning branch; the latter seems the most probable.

And I think that I showed in mine that there is no such confusion.

[2.] This prophecy is absent from the OT unless it does, indeed, refer to the branch meaning.

This I agree to, so it is not a point of debate. It doesn’t have to be, in the case that I laid out. I’m not confined to that. Rightly understood, even the Protestant worldview is not required to find this in the Old Testament, since they acknowledge that the New Testament does cite extrabiblical sources.

This, then, looks like Matthew is somewhat wrong.

Really? We shall see! Me thinks Jonathan is “somewhat wrong.”

He provides no balance to this in the context of the analysis I provided other than to invoke JP Holding (I will refrain from giving my true opinion of invoking Holding here) and not dealing with the original extract, . . . 

I cited JP Holding (whom atheists despise because he’s a Christian apologist: I know the feeling well!) simply because his name came up in a search when I was trying to find something — anything — about this guy Hayyim ben Yehoshua, about whom we seem to be able to find out nothing at all (as Holding noted, which is why I cited him). Here’s the Google search: see it for yourself. Hayyim is the source of the “analysis” that Jonathan “provided”: the citation that he produces again (completely missing my point about credentials, it seems).

It’s a case of “dualing linguistic authorities.”  I don’t know Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek (let alone biblical Koine Greek), and I suspect that Jonathan doesn’t, either. So if and when we get into disputes about the meaning of biblical texts involving the meanings of words, we must necessarily rely on folks who do know those languages (and hopefully, linguistic scholars: not just someone pulled out of a hat, with no discernible credentials). Jonathan’s methodology was the latter. He cited Hayyim ben Yehoshua (a polemicist, as we know from the work this is drawn from: Refuting Missionaries), Wikipedia (very handy and helpful — I use it all the time — , but certainly not the height of scholarship), and another article from the polemicist organization, Jews for Judaism (which likes to oppose itself to Jews for Jesus: i.e., Jews who became Christians).

He merely, using Holding, asserts that he doesn’t know the author of this,

Yeah, in other words, Jonathan “merely” cites some guy he found on the Internet, with no known scholarly credentials. That’s supposed to be impressive? I challenged him to present us anything about his credentials. I guess Jonathan couldn’t find anything (which is a bit embarrassing).

and that Gerhard Kittle,

It’s Kittel. And he was the editor of the ten-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which is a standard linguistic source. I have the one-volume edition. Agree with its conclusions or no, it is a scholarly source on the Greek of the New Testament. Unknown, mysterious Internet polemicist Hayyim ben Yehoshua is not. Sorry . . . 

the author of his theological definition (of course, without biases of his own) is a much better authority.

Yes, of course he has biases, like everyone does. It doesn’t follow that he and the other editors / translators were not scholars, or that they couldn’t accurately and authoritatively comment on the present question. For many atheists, many Christian scholars appear to be immediately suspect simply because they are Christian, just as Bertrand Russell, infamously and ridiculously (in his History of Philosophy) “argued” that St. Thomas Aquinas couldn’t possibly be a philosopher because he was a Catholic. That’s like saying that Einstein couldn’t possibly have been a trustworthy advocate of the theory of relativity because, after all, he heartily believed in it!

Kittel certainly is a much better authority on this question than Hayyim ben Yehoshua: a guy who thinks “There was absolutely no historical evidence that Jesus, Joseph or Mary ever existed”. He is supposedly a less biased source regarding biblical terms than Gerhard Kittel? He has no bias that would severely affect his opinions?

A sort of argument from authority rather than dealing with the actual content.

Again, “authority” (i.e., scholars trained in language and — hopefully — in biblical exegesis to some extent, too) is all we both can appeal to in this instance. It’s not the fallacious “appeal to authority” when one simply goes to an expert in the field to get their opinion about a controversial topic. 

I went to Raymond Brown, the famous Catholic exegete whom I highly rate (all quotes from The Birth of the Messiah, 1977, London: Geoffrey Chapman). 

Now isn’t this interesting! When Jonathan likes a Catholic or otherwise Christian scholar (and no doubt he does because in many areas Fr. Brown was a heterodox dissident, by Catholic criteria), then it’s a whole different story. Now there are no profound biases in play, you see. Fr. Raymond Brown is gospel truth, while Gerhard Kittel is dismissed for having “biases.”

However, in this instance, I find Brown’s exegesis somewhat interesting… Brown actually advocates that all the meanings are possibly true. Matthew meant them all – religious sect member, branch, and person from Nazareth! See Brown p. 208-213.

Well, that’s his opinion. If I dared produce any scholar who argued in such a way, Jonathan would roundly mock my argument, as proof that my sources were special pleading and rationalizing, by throwing every mere possibility up against the wall and hoping that some of it would stick. But when one of his favorites does it, it’s just “somewhat interesting.”

Fr. Brown also wrote in the same book:

Such highly competent Semitists and exegetes as Albright, Moore, and Schaeder, . . . argue on purely philological grounds that the form Nazōraios is quite defensible as a derivation from Nazareth, if one takes into account dialectical phonology in Galilean Aramaic.  . . .

Matthew may have delighted in the irony that the title that Jesus received from his unlikely home town gave him a similarity to heroes like Samson and Samuel. (pp. 210-211)

Yeah, I have no problem with a double application of prophecies. In fact, I just strenuously argued that very point in a paper I put up yesterday, in response to Jonathan, who expressly denied that there was such a thing. No Christian who knows his or her Bible has any problem with it whatsoever. It’s a common scriptural motif. The biblical writers and ancient near-eastern Mesopotamian / Hebrew culture thought in terms of “both/and”; not “either/or”: which was more of a Greek thing.

He also accepts that no mention of Nazareth exists in pre-Christian writings (p. 207) and so it would be odd for a place that seems not to have existed yet to fits coherently into an OT prophecy. 

Well, this is the thing: prophets know a lot of stuff that other people don’t know. So it’s not difficult at all (for anyone who believes that biblical prophets and prophecy existed, and that the prophecies were accurate and predictive; and it’s our views that atheist anti-theists attack and critique) to believe that a prophet could mention a very obscure town. It was pretty tiny still in Jesus’ time, too. Our very informative Palestinian guide in Israel in 2014 told us that the town in His time was about as big as the parking lot around the Church of the Annunciation: hardly as large as a football field.

Again, it doesn’t have to be an “OT prophecy.”

This also coheres with Rene Salm’s thesis in The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, according to archaeological analysis, and not until at least 70 CE.

Really, that would come as big news to the folks described in this article: “New archaeological evidence from Nazareth reveals religious and political environment in era of Jesus” (David Keys, Independent, 4-17-20). They actually do science, rather than sit in armchairs and make historically and archaeologically clueless remarks about towns and people like Jesus not existing or never existing:

[T]he archaeological investigation revealed that in Nazareth itself, in the middle of the first century AD, anti-Roman rebels created a sizeable network of underground hiding places and tunnels underneath the town – big enough to shelter at least 100 people. . . . 

The new archaeological investigation – the largest ever carried out into Roman period Nazareth – has revealed that Jesus’s hometown is likely to have been considerably bigger than previously thought. It probably had a population of up to 1,000 (rather than just being a small-to-medium sized village of 100-500, as previously thought). 

“Our new investigation has transformed archaeological knowledge of Roman Nazareth,” said Dr Dark, who has just published the results of his research in a new book Roman-Period and Byzantine Nazareth and its Hinterland. . . . 

The newly emerging picture of Roman-period Nazareth as a place of substantial religiosity does, however, resonate not only with the emergence of its most famous son, Jesus, but also with the fact that, in the mid-first or second century, it was chosen as the official residence of one of the high priests of the by-then-destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, when all 24 of those Jewish religious leaders were driven into exile in Galilee.

See also: “Did First-Century Nazareth Exist?” (Bryan Windle, Bible Archaeology Report, 8-9-18; cf. several related articles from a Google search). Did it exist before Jesus’ time? It looks like it did:

The Franciscan priest Bellarmino Bagatti, “Director of Christian Archaeology”, carried out extensive excavation of this “Venerated Area” from 1955 to 1965. Fr. Bagatti uncovered pottery dating from the Middle Bronze Age (2200 to 1500 BC) and ceramics, silos and grinding mills from the Iron Age (1500 to 586 BC) which indicated substantial settlement in the Nazareth basin at that time. (Wikipedia, “Nazareth”)

That’s science. Sorry to disappoint! Jonathan then goes on to describe several more of the numerous possibly hypotheses of Fr. Raymond Brown. He has many theories; so do many others. Jonathan opines:

[H]e goes onto say that this doesn’t matter because some influential conservative Christian scholars such as Albright think it derives from Nazareth (p. 209-10).

Brown is usually very good but here he is weak, in my opinion, deferring to conservative authority and then saying it doesn’t really matter anyway because Matthew meant all three.

See how when a “conservative” scholar like Albright comes up, he is immediately described in terms — not of his scholarship — but as conservative authority.” It just gets childish: this sort of polemical silliness. I can recognize that Fr. Brown has many good things to add to scholarly discussion (he clearly does in this discussion), even though he holds to several heterodox opinions, according to his own Catholic Church. Truth is truth wherever it is found. Jonathan ought to simply accept the dreaded “conservative” scholarship on its merits, too; judge its veracity or lack thereof in individual instances. Fr. Brown himself doesn’t have to run down Albright. He calls him a “highly competent” Semitist and exegete.

Fr. Brown appears to reference Carey A. Moore. Here are his credentials:

emeritus professor of religion at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA, received his Ph.D. in semitics from The Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of four volumes in the Doubleday Anchor Bible series, as well as of over fifty articles in the areas of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha.

I have no idea whether he is “conservative” or not. But he sure is a highly qualified scholar: of the sort that could figure out the mystery of “He shall be called a Nazarene”, isn’t he? Why can’t Jonathan respect his scholarly achievements without putting him into the “conservative” box and dismissing him? That is the genetic fallacy: if we want to talk about fallacies being committed. 

Fr. Brown also referred to H. Schaeder, who wrote the piece, “Nazarenos, Nazoraios”, in [whaddya know?!] Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, IV:874 f. I found this information in Wikipedia, “Nazareth”.  The guys involved with those volumes were not theological conservatives; they are a bunch of German Lutheran liberals, for the most part. Germany has been a hotbed of theological liberalism in both Lutheran and Catholic circles for 200 years. But I think all can usually agree on linguistic matters, where philology and etymology rule more than theology.

I am arguing as to whether he meant merely (i.e., at least) that Nazōraíos meant someone from Nazareth. Brown does at least deal with arguments both for and against a reading of all three, and in this case Nazareth (as discussed above). This is by no means an easy or closed case.

Brown does give a very in-depth analysis of all three options but the largest section (p. 2112-213) is devoted to it meaning “branch” as derived from nēser, such that it holds a lot of scholarly backing, and this fits in with my conclusion later that the prophecy is best explained by “branch”. Either way, Matthew’s use must at least mean someone from Nazareth because that is the causal language used.

I agree with the last sentence. So does the New Testament, it seems clear to me. It can also have other meanings as well (the “dual fulfillment” issue again . . .). It’s pretty tough to botch the interpretation of “he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth” (Mt 2:23). “Jesus of Nazareth” ain’t rocket science, either. If someone says “Dave of Detroit” (birthplace and childhood home) or “Dave of / from Tecumseh” [Michigan]: my current residence, no tremendous insight is needed to figure out what those things mean.  

What’s the conclusion from all of this? Since the scholarly conclusions are not QED on either side, it doesn’t matter; the skeptic will find the ones supporting their conclusion (that Nazōraíos does not mean someone from Nazareth) of more value and Armstrong and other Christians will confirm their own biases by affording the conclusions that it does mean someone from Nazareth more value. It’s how the game works.

Atheists need not give up anything they believe in affirming that Jesus existed (refusing to commit intellectual suicide by denying that) and was born in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth, and also Capernaum for a time. These things are common knowledge. Like I said, it’s not rocket science to see that the plain meaning of Nazarene or Jesus of Nazareth is “someone from Nazareth.” If it has other meanings, it does, but this is the central one and it’s not “contradicted” if there are also secondary meanings. 

Here, though I believe the former, I think I have a better case than the Christian since I am also taking into account the OT prophecy itself

There is no such OT prophecy. That’s the whole point of this debate.

and since Nazareth didn’t appear to exist at the time, you can bet that the OT prophecy was not referring to the place.

There is at least some evidence of its existence then. But it was very small. So was ancient Jerusalem: the city of David. I walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which runs the whole length of ancient Jerusalem, underground. It only took about 20 minutes. It was a small town. How much smaller, ancient Nazareth!

If you take into account Salm’s whole thesis (which you don’t have to go that far), it didn’t even exist at the time of Jesus (work that wasn’t available to Brown in his life, and was followed up in 2015 with NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus).  I also genuinely find some of the arguments more forceful (such as quoted from Brown above).

Take that up with the folks doing the latest “digs” going on in Nazareth now. I go with current science, not desperate atheist myths, made up on the fly (or any fringe Christian conspiracist myths, either).

I almost forgot to talk about what Armstrong believes? It turns out, whatever JP Holding tells him to, or whatever source better confirms his position – in this case, the theological dictionary he uses.

Right. I happened to run across JP Holding critiquing this unknown guru that Jonathan cited as a “scholar” and so “presto!”: that means I believe whatever he tells me! And then I am gullible enough to cite an abridged version of a ten-volume standard work on biblical linguistics and Jonathan acts like this is some novel, outrageous position to take. It’s exactly what anyone who is seeking the meaning of biblical words ought to do: seek out an expert on the meaning of biblical words! DUH! 

And of course, Jonathan shows no bias whatsoever in citing an (as far as we know) uncredentialed guy with regard to biblical language: a person who thinks Jesus, Joseph, and Mary never existed. No bias there at all! Complete objectivity! 

Curious, I searched my blog to see how many times JP Holding was mentioned. It’s five times out of my 3130 articles posted (including my most recent mention). This means I will cite him in one out of every 626 of my papers! Obviously, he’s my main man, that I constantly rely on. Now let’s search Jonathan’s site for a big cheese in the atheist world like, say Bart Ehrman or Richard Carrier. Ehrman came up 44 timesCarrier  a whopping 115 times (though a few of them was the word in its ordinary usage). Oops! I forgot about good ol’ Richard Dawkins. He appears in 134 of Jonathan’s articles. The late eloquent if massively mistaken Christopher Hitchens also shows up in 64.

So with this sort of rapt admiration and dependence going on, Jonathan can spare me the gut-laughter claim about “Armstrong believes . . . whatever JP Holding tells him to.” I am happy to let anyone know who my intellectual heroes are: St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. Lewis has been my favorite writer since the late 70s, Chesterton a great favorite since the mid-80s, and Newman my biggest hero and influence from 1990 and my conversion to Catholicism. My personal library reflects this: they are all massively represented (Newman in about 20 books from 1910 or so and some even from the 1800s). But even those three I cite relatively few times because of the nature of the materials I am writing as an apologist in many different areas. 

Out of interest, I doubt there is a single theological dictionary that seriously critically analyses or concludes to positions that cast doubt on the historical claims of the Gospels, but there you go.

That’s not true at all. I sometimes find positions stated in the works I use that I know are not orthodox, according to historic Catholicism or Protestantism. As I noted, these are a bunch of German theologically liberal scholars. It doesn’t mean that an orthodox Christian has to be skeptical of everything they say. Much of it is fine and helpful. One must simply exercise caution. Darrow Miller, who has “pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies” has stated about Kittel and his comrades:

Kittel and his peers were overwhelmed by the evolutionary “spirit of their age.” This affected their theology. Kittel was a liberal German rationalist, as were most of the 100 German scholars who worked on the TDNT. They approached their work from a naturalistic framework. They denied the authority of Scripture as divine revelation and placed their trust in rationalism – man’s reason alone. They saw the Bible through the rationalistic lens of German higher criticism. For them, the Bible was a product of human processes, a collection of books of religious men searching for God. They argued that the Bible may contain revelation, but it was not in its essence the special revelation of God.

And yes, Kittel was wrapped up with the Nazis somehow: before that is thrown in my face. I know that, and so does everyone else who knows enough to use his linguistic work as a source.

But my source is certainly not biased in my favor, by a long shot. He simply has made a study of biblical Greek and of biblical exegesis. He was likely more liberal than Jonathan’s favorite, Fr. Brown. How ironic, huh?

I, at least, have worked hard to look at a religious scholar whom I think is the best in the field and one of the fairest.

Good for him. Of course, Fr. Brown, like virtually every other scholarly exegete, makes use of the ten-volume Kittel source. It’s right there in the list of abbreviations (“TDNT”) in the 199 paperback edition, p. 21 (as a search on Amazon can quickly verify). And he commended on this very question under consideration, a man (Schaeder) who wrote about it in TDNT.

But this is all contingent upon there actually being an OT prophecy that can and does refer to Nazareth and Nazōraíos being used to refer to the place.

There isn’t an “OT prophecy.” But it could have been a lost written source or an oral prophetic tradition.

Or, no, you can’t find it in the OT but people could have said it… I do congratulate him for at least admitting this:

The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Nazarene”: 1911) casually states regarding Matthew 2:23: “No explicit prediction to this effect is found in the recorded Old Testament prophecies, and various theories have been advanced to explain the reference. . . . but these interpretations seem far-fetched, to say nothing of other difficulties.”

Something fairly honest. I’d take that.

Thanks. But it’s no big deal, really. It’s a position widely held by orthodox Christians of all stripes. As we can see: that was a big Catholic source (though not “magisterial”) from 109 years ago. I’ve held the view for many years. Suggested Bible “problems” are “ours” to deal with as Christians. C. S. Lewis observed: “the rules of chess create chess problems.” Likewise, belief (in faith, but in accordance with reason and logic) in biblical inspiration creates “biblical difficulties” that apologists like me and exegetes and theologians and pastors and priests grapple with. I’m happy to do it. I find it enjoyable, and I invariably get a blessing in discovering how much evidence exists and how weak skeptical and atheist positions invariably are. This is the blessing of the apologist.

I am aware [of explanations I provided], I just don’t find it particularly satisfying and nor would I, had I been a Christian. Brown is aware of this, too, but has this to say (p. 208):

…the canon of the Jewish Scriptures had not been completely fixed in NT times…; yet the ambiguity about books was chiefly in relation to the Writings, the third section of the Jewish Scriptures, coming after the Law and the Prophets. Matthew refers to “the prophets,” a relatively fixed part of the canon…. The main objection to this explanation [Armstrong’s] is that all other times Matthew mentions a prophet in his fulfillment formulas, he is citing known OT books.

And we also see a passage like this one in Jude, noting that Enoch “prophesied” a thing not found in the Old Testament:

Jude 1:14-15 (RSV) It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, [15] to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

Obviously, cited prophecies in the New Testament are not confined to the canonical OT prophets. John the Baptist is considered a prophet (Mt 11:13). His father Zechariah “prophesied” (Lk 1:67). Even the non-Christian high priest Caiphas did (Jn 11:49-52). Philip the evangelist “had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (Acts 21:9). Acts 21:10 mentions “a prophet named Ag’abus.” See more passages on “prophesying”. “Prophets” are referred to in the Church in Acts 13:1; 15:32; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 14:29, 32, 37; Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Timothy 4:14.

With all this data, obviously a prophecy cited that is not part of the Old Testament is no big deal, and not even particularly controversial, since the prophetic gifts and prophets still exist in the Church age, many years after the Old Testament books were written.

This means, as Brown concludes, “The citation given by Matthew is not a verbatim form or even a clear adaptation of any known OT passage” (p. 208).

Bingo! Welcome to the club.

Whilst the canon wasn’t set, it pretty much was for the prophets, whom Matthew was quoting.

This is assuming what needs to be proven. Circular reasoning . . . 

And, even then, Matthew each and every time he does quote the prophets elsewhere, it is from the OT. Armstrong has a big inductive uphill battle.

So what? There can be exceptions to rules. All I have argued for here are possibilities beyond the “OT canon.” And I have made my case from the Bible itself.

Which leads us right back round to what it could mean since there is no OT prophecy that mentions Nazareth. That much is indisputable. Armstrong goes off-piste here to assert that Matthew must be using an OT prophecy that is noncanonical

That’s not all I argued. I said that was possible, but also that it might have been from a book now lost (Akin’s argument that I cited).

(since it is a real squeeze to even get archaeology that supports it existing in Jesus’ time). 

See the article on this I cited above, and go argue with them.

Most of the rest of Jonathan’s argument is relative minutiae or beating dead horses, and I’m nearing almost 4,500 words. I’ve addressed the heart of it. I do enjoy and greatly appreciate the opportunity to dialogue about these issues, and again highly commend Jonathan for his intellectual courage in defending a position and challenging someone outside it, which is getting rarer and rarer these days among all belief-systems. Jonathan put a lot of effort into it (the old college try), but in my (hopefully humble) opinion it’s a case of “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” He didn’t have much to work with, but did his best.


Photo credit: Head of Christ on the Cross, anonymous [public domain / Library of Congress]


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