A Nativity Meditation for 2016

For Charity Adele (my sister).

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:30)

The words quoted above were spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel, who came to announce the birth of Jesus and the inauguration of the messianic era. It strikes me with awe and joyful wonderment to consider that God’s rescue mission of redemption and salvation began with a proclamation of acceptance and divine approval: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” This simple fact should not be missed: that divine favor is the source of the gospel. The story of Jesus’ birth begins with God’s goodwill toward humankind.


Sometimes we can forget that divine favor is at the heart of the gospel message. So often we can look at the world and only see what is wrong. We look at nature and we see the pollution of the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans, and the razing of majestic rainforests. We think about global climate change and the extinction of species. Or we look at society and we see injustice and callousness toward our fellow human beings. We see the privilege of the rich and the exploitation of strangers. We look upon corruption and incompetence with incomprehension. We look at the Church and we see how disappointing it can be, that in the Church there is just as much idolatry and sexual immorality and justification of violence as there is in the rest of the world, but practiced with an air of self-righteousness that makes it all the more appalling. Then we look at one another and see the faults and flaws and annoying habits in the people we deal with: our co-workers, our family members, our friends. Finally, if we are honest, we look at ourselves and we see our own failings and shortcomings, and, worst of all, our hypocrisy, for deep in our heart of hearts we know that we are no better than the worst specimen of our kind. It is all too easy to be disgusted, to respond with contempt, with disdain, and in anger.


We know that things are not right and we long for God to put them right. We want judgement. We want punishment. We want revenge. We want all those stupid, wicked, blasphemous people to see how wrong they have been. We want them to feel that pain, the frustration, the disappointment, the shame we have been made to suffer.


Our feelings of hurt and anger are justified. The world is broken and life is unfair. But it is part of the great good news of the gospel to know that God’s response to the human condition is not one of anger or rejection, but of favor. God set his rescue mission into motion because when God looked upon us he found something there to love, something worth saving. The gospel does not begin with divine wrath or rejection, it begins with a proclamation of God’s favor for all humankind.


“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It would be Jesus’ task to proclaim the LORD’s favor to the entire house of Israel, to share the good news that God is receiving everyone back again: men and women, high and low, children and elders, pure or impure, the simple and the wise, the observant and the unobservant, the faithful and the unfaithful, too. Everyone was welcome to join the Kingdom of God. And yet the open invitation began with the proclamation of favor to just one individual, a young woman of Galilee whom we call Mary.  If so great a movement could begin with just one person receiving the gift of divine favor, how much more when we hear and believe that God’s favor includes each of us as well?

The image at the top of this page is an artistic representation of an angel created by Meister von Cefalù (ca. 1150 C.E.). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Census of Quirinius and Luke 2

This article is a sample chapter from Windows into the Bible: Cultural & Historical Insights into the Bible for Modern Readers by Marc Turnage, which is reproduced on JerusalemPerspective.com with the kind permission of the publisher.

Think of the year 1776 and the day of September 11, 2001. Most Americans identify these dates with specific events in our history. For Americans, 1776 is the year the American Revolution began and the thirteen colonies sought to gain their freedom from England. September 11, 2001, of course, recalls the terrible and tragic events of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Although other events occurred in the world in 1776 and on September 11, 2001, the collective American conscience ties these dates to defining moments in our history.

In his Gospel, Luke offers a similar defining date that was part of the collective Jewish conscience of the first century:

And it happened in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census took place for the first time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1-2; emphasis added)

Modern readers tend to overlook the significance of the date of Quirinius’ census. Preachers and interpreters frequently point to Luke’s mention of the census as proof that God maneuvered even the pagan Roman authorities to bring about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Few note the significance of the date within the history of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. It’s my feeling that the events surrounding the census of Quirinius drew Luke to mention it within his narrative and connect Jesus’ birth to this event. He intended his mention of the census to illicit a connection in the minds of his readers between the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, and the events that happened in the land of Israel as a result of the census. The historical and political outcome of the census provides the backdrop that Luke expected his first-century readers to relate to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

A coin of Herod Archelaus. Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
A coin of Herod Archelaus. Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.

The census of Quirinius resulted from the removal of Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, as ethnarch (“ruler of the people”) of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea by Rome in AD 6 (Josephus, War 2:111-12, 117-18; see Matt. 2:19-23). Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC (Matt. 2:1-18), Rome had divided his kingdom among his three sons: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus was exceedingly cruel to both the Jews and the Samaritans, who eventually sought Rome’s aid. Rome removed him as ethnarch and confiscated his territory, bringing it under direct Roman rule, which took the form of Prefects (e.g., Pontius Pilate) and Procurators (e.g., Felix; see Acts 23:23-24:23).

The village of Gamla, viewed from the east. Gamla was the hometown of Judah, who originated the "fourth philosophy." Photographed by Tod Bolen. Image courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.
The village of Gamla, viewed from the east. Gamla was the hometown of Judah, who originated the “fourth philosophy.” Photographed by Todd Bolen. Image courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

The Jewish historian Josephus recounts Quirinius’ census and its fallout among the Jews of Judea: “Quirinius, a Roman senator…arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius…was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority. Quirinius also visited Judea, which had been annexed to Syria, in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus” (Ant. 18.1-2; see 18.1-10). Josephus relates the indignation of the Jews at Rome’s annexation of Judea, which brought it under direct Roman rule: “Although the Jews were at first shocked to hear of the registration of property, they gradually condescended, yielding to the arguments of the high priest Joazar, the son of Boethus, to go no further in opposition. But a certain Judas, of Gaulanitis[1] from a city named Gamla, who had enlisted the aid of Zaddok, a Pharisee, threw himself into the cause of rebellion” (Ant. 18.3-4; see Acts 5:37).

Quirinius’ census annexed the lands of Archelaus that formed the Roman Province of Judea, which brought the land and its people under direct Roman rule. The Jewish people living in the Province of Judea never resigned themselves to the reality of Roman rule, which led to bitter struggles between the Jews and Romans throughout the first century AD and into the second century AD. The principal source of this conflict was the religious-ideological worldview of the Jewish people, which hinged upon two central convictions: (1) the God of Israel was the only God, and worship of other pagan deities was idolatrous, and (2) the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and therefore unique.[2] For some of the Judean Jews, submission to the idolatrous empire of Rome meant profaning God’s name. But if the God of the Jews was the only God and all-powerful, and the Jews were His Chosen People, then how should the people respond when forced into subjugation by a wicked, idolatrous empire? Herein lay the foundation of Jewish resistance to Roman rule.

In his tale about the census of Quirinius, Josephus introduced the figure of Judas of Gamla, who “threw himself into the cause of rebellion.” Josephus relates that Judas viewed the Roman census as carrying “with it a status amounting to downright slavery” (Ant. 18.4). He, therefore, “appealed to the nation to make a bid for independence” noting “that Heaven (God) would be their zealous helper to no lesser end than the furthering of their enterprise until it succeeded” (Ant. 18.5). In response to Judas’ message, Josephus notes that “all the more if with high devotion in their hearts they (Judas and his followers) stood firm and did not shrink from the bloodshed that might be necessary” (Ant. 18.5). Judas’ words, however, didn’t appeal to just a few followers. Josephus describes that the populace responded gladly to what he said, and that Judas’ ideology continued to impact the Jewish people throughout the first century (Ant. 18.6-10).

Elsewhere, Josephus identified Judas as the founder of a “fourth philosophy,” referring to him as a “sage” (σοφιστής; sophistes: War 2.117-18; Ant. 18.23-25). Judas appealed to his fellow countrymen to fight against Rome for their independence, “upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord” (War 2.118; Ant. 18.4). According to Judas, for Israel to accept foreign, pagan rule was a sin. Given this line of reasoning, Israel’s response to foreign rule should be to take up the sword, spill Gentile blood, and drive the idolatrous pagans from the land of God’s people. Judas believed that if the people took up the armed struggle against the Romans, God would come to their aid and bring them independence (Ant. 18.5-10).

According to Josephus, the “fourth philosophy” agreed in general with the Pharisees, but they exceeded the Pharisee in that “they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master” (Ant. 18.23-25). Many scholars think that this Judas was Judah ben Hezekiah, mentioned by Josephus, who led a revolt in Galilee against the Roman governor Varus after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC (Ant. 17.271-72; War 2.56). Josephus mentions that Judah ben Hezekiah had aspirations to the throne of Judea. He apparently escaped from this revolt and reemerged ten years later during the census of Quirinius, by which time his ideology was established and popular among the people.[3] Luke alone of the ancient witnesses relates that Judas perished at the hands of the Romans (Acts 5:37).

Judas’ descendants (Ant. 20.20; War 2.422-48),[4] however, continued in his ideology and violently opposed Rome and its rule, which culminated in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 66-73). Josephus identified Eleazar ben Yair, the commander of Masada, as a descendant of Judas: “This fortress was called Masada; and the Sicarii who occupied it had at their head a man of influence named Eleazar. He was a descendant of the Judas who, as we previously stated, induced multitudes of Jews to refuse to enroll themselves when Quirinius was sent as censor to Judea. For in those days the Sicarii banded together against those who consented to submit to Rome and in every way treated them as enemies, plundering their property, rounding up their cattle, and setting fire to their habitations, protesting that such persons were nothing but aliens who so ignobly sacrificed the hard-won liberty of the Jews and admitted their preference for the Roman yoke” (War 7.252-55).

View of Masada from the west. Visible are the ruins of Herod's North Palace and the Roman siege ramp. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
View of Masada from the west. Visible are the ruins of Herod’s North Palace and the Roman siege ramp. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

Josephus identified the faction known as the Sicarii, a Latin term given to this group because of the sica (dagger) they concealed in their garments and used to murder their enemies (War 2.255; Ant. 20.186), as part of Judas’ movement. His mention of this group during the census of Quirinius seems anachronistic. He first described this group as a new phenomenon during the events of the procuratorships of Felix (AD 52-60; War 2.254-57; see Acts 21:38; 23:23-24:27) and Festus (AD 60-62; Ant. 20.186-87; see Acts 24:27-25:12). The Sicarii represented a faction within the “fourth philosophy” that gained their name and reputation for their technique and brazen actions in assassinating their political opponents. They dealt in terror, mingling among crowds, particularly at the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, using their concealed daggers to stab their enemies (both Romans and Jews) before disappearing into the crowd without being discovered.

Whenever we read the Gospels and Acts, we cannot forget that during the first century the Jewish people in the land of Israel lived under Roman occupation. This fueled the socio-religious hopes of many that God would deliver them from their Roman oppressors. These ideas carried an eschatological-messianic hope with them; thus, they were both political and religious. Quirinius’ census, according to Josephus, played a catalyzing role in the emergence of the extremist ideology of the “fourth philosophy.” Luke attests to the large shadow cast by Judas and his movement when he mentions him in the book of Acts (5:37).[5] Josephus opposed the “fourth philosophy” and its ideology, and in his works, he blurred the messianic outlook of Judas and his descendants, especially those who participated in the First Jewish Revolt (see War 2.433-48). Nevertheless, it seems certain that Menahem, Judas’ son, (and perhaps Judas as well) had messianic aspirations.

The so-called we sections of the book of Acts (16:11-28:31) indicate that Luke, the author, accompanied Paul during his time in the land of Israel, and while he was under house arrest in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-26:32). Quite possibly during this period, Luke gathered the literary and oral accounts for his Gospel and the first part of Acts (Luke 1:1-4). During this time, he also heard about the census of Quirinius and the emergence of the “fourth philosophy” as a result of it (Luke 2:1-2; Acts 5:37). It is significant that both Josephus and Acts (21:38) connect the rise of the Sicarii with the procuratorship of Felix, the very time when Paul and his companion Luke were in the land of Israel. The riots initiated by the Sicarii were taking place while Luke was in the land of Israel, and political tensions brought about by their actions did not go unnoticed by Luke (see Acts 21:38). The growing hostilities between these Jewish freedom movements and the Romans prefigured the catastrophe that was to erupt in the year AD 66, a few years after Paul and Luke left Israel for Rome.

This Istanbul mosaic depicts Mary and Joseph as they register for taxation under Quirinius. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This Istanbul mosaic depicts Mary and Joseph as they register for taxation under Quirinius. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Against this backdrop, Luke set the birth of Jesus: “This census took place for the first time when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:2). Luke’s readers would have connected Quirinius’ census with the emergence of the messianic “fourth philosophy.” While many in Luke’s day were looking to the freedom ideology of the “fourth philosophy” and the Sicarii as the hope for God’s redemption, Luke subtly suggests that God’s redemption indeed began in the year of Quirinius’ census, but not through the rebellion of Judas of Gamla. Rather, God’s redemption came in the form of a child whose parents submitted to the Roman census, the very thing Judas upbraided his fellow countrymen for doing (War 2.118). Luke, writing his Gospel prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, sought to confront the ideology of the “fourth philosophy” by presenting Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah.

Jesus, too, was critical of the ideology of the freedom movement. He, like the sages of Israel, identified with Jewish hopes of redemption (Luke 21:28; see also Matt. 11:28-30; Luke 11:27-28; and 22:24-27), yet Jesus and the sages viewed Israel’s subjugation to foreign kingdoms, like Rome, as the result of her sin. God’s redemption, then, according to this way of thinking, came about because of the repentance of the people, not through force and violence (Exodus Rabbah 1.36; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exod. 2:25; Mark 1:15; Matt. 4:17; Luke 13:1-9). A certain party of the sages responded to the freedom ideology of the “fourth philosophy”—bringing about God’s rule on earth through force—by coining the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as an anti-slogan. For these sages, God’s rule would be established visibly in the future, but presently God reigns wherever His people obey His commands and submit to His will: “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.” At the time, Israel was subjected to foreign domination because of its disobedience; if Israel repented and returned to God, no nation could rule over them (see Ant. 14.176; Sifre Deuteronomy, 323; Targum on Ezek. 2:10; Sifre Zuta to Num. 15:40; b. Avodah Zarah 5a; b. Baba Batra 8a).

Jesus saw Himself at the center of God’s redemptive actions (Matt. 11:2-13). The “kingdom of heaven,” which more accurately means the rule (or reign) of God, appears upon the lips of Jesus more than any other phrase in the Gospels. Jesus’ use of the phrase parallels its use among the Jewish sages, but Jesus, because of His high self-awareness, came to identify His movement as the “kingdom of heaven.” For Him, through His message (see Luke 19:41-44), God’s rule was breaking forth (Matt. 11:2-13), so the passive future aspect of the “kingdom of heaven” among the sages became an active force in Jesus’ mind due His messianic consciousness. And He expected His followers to be characterized by their obedience and submission to God’s commands (Matt. 5:19; Luke 11:27-28; 22:24-27)—which identified people as part of His movement, the kingdom of heaven. When we do that, we are truly His followers and the breaking forth of God’s reign on earth.

The ideology of the “fourth philosophy” remains with us today, even among followers of Jesus. But Jesus’ invitation to His contemporaries rings across the centuries:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30; Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 20; m. Avot 3.5; Sifre on Deuteronomy 32:39; Genesis Rabbah 67.7; Midrash ha-Gadol on Gensis 27:40).

Luke wanted to make a point. He wanted to contrast the ideology of Judas of Gamla with Jesus of Nazareth. So he mentioned the census of Quirinius, knowing that his ancient readers would immediately make the connection with Judas and his movement, and they would see the couple from Nazareth as submitting to Roman authority. It was about the child born to this couple that the angels declared: “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, goodwill towards all mankind” (Luke 2:14).

Windows Into the Bible


This article is just one chapter of Marc Turnage’s, Windows into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights into the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, Mo.: Logion, 2016). If you enjoyed this chapter, be sure to check out the entire book!


  • [1] In the Lower Golan, on the Transjordan (eastern) side of the Sea of Galilee. In the parallel passage from Josephus’ War, Josephus identifies him as “a Galilean” (2.117). Although Judas was from Gamla (in the north), his uprising as a result of the census took place in the south, in the former territory of Archelaus (i.e., in the environs of Jerusalem).
  • [2] Menahem Stern, “Zealots and Sicarii,” in Encyclopedia Judaica (2nd ed.; 22 vols.; New York:
    Macmillian Reference, 2006), 21:467-78; Flusser, “The Image of the Masada Martyrs in Their Own Eyes and in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period: The Jewish Sages and Their Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 76-112.
  • [3] Stern, “Zealots and Sicarii,” 468.
  • [4] Judah’s father, Hezekiah, also resisted Roman intrusion into the land of Judea in the 40s BC (War 1.204-5; Ant. 14.159-60). Based in Galilee, he stirred up trouble in the countryside for the Romans, which led to his execution by the young Herod the Great, who had been appointed governor of Galilee. Hezekiah’s execution generated unrest in Judea and resulted in Herod having to stand before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
  • [5] See Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 AD (trans. David Smith; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 79.

Feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s Day)

For Agnes Dyck and the Bonhoppers.

The first of January, celebrated around the world as New Year’s Day, is also the eighth day of Christmas and, as such, the Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus. Of course, no one knows on what day of the year Jesus was actually born, but since it has become traditional to celebrate Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December, it follows that the first of January is the day on which Christians celebrate the circumcision and naming of Jesus.[1]

According to the Gospel of Luke, “At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21; RSV). In fact, the Gospel of Luke is the earliest source to mention the Jewish custom of naming an infant on the day of his circumcision.[2] In the first century, circumcision was a rite performed in the home and celebrated by family and friends (cf. Luke 1:59).[3] It was significant not only because it was the fulfillment of a commandment, but through circumcision a Jewish boy was understood to enter God’s covenant.[4] In a sense, a Jewish boy was not born an Israelite, he became an Israelite by virtue of his circumcision.

Although only the Gospel of Luke records the event of Jesus’ circumcision, the Apostle Paul mentions the significance of Jesus’ circumcision for Gentile believers on more than one occasion.[5] In the Epistle to the Colossians Paul wrote:

In him [i.e., Jesus—JNT]…you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in [or, by means of—JNT] the circumcision of Christ. (Col. 2:11; RSV)

Despite Paul’s vehement contention that Gentile believers in Jesus should not formally convert to Judaism (which would have required male circumcision),[6] Paul nevertheless maintained that Jesus’ circumcision had vicarious effects for Gentile believers.[7] Exactly how Jesus’ circumcision vicariously affects Gentiles is not altogether clear, but it is possible that we find a partial answer in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where Paul writes:

…remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the foreskin” by what is called “the circumcision” (that done by [human] hands)—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13; RSV adapted)

Rembrandt van Rijn, "The Circumcision," oil on canvas (1661). This painting correctly depicts the circumcision of Jesus not in the Temple, but in the family's private dwelling. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Circumcision,” oil on canvas (1661). This painting correctly depicts the circumcision of Jesus not in the Temple, but in the family’s private dwelling. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The questions raised by this passage are manifold: What is the covenant from which Gentiles were excluded? What blood could have brought Gentiles into the covenant? Why is circumcision such a big part of the discussion? Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is to recognize that the main issue is exclusion from God’s covenant with Abraham. Israelites enter the covenant through circumcision, but since Gentiles are not circumcised on the eighth day they are obviously excluded from the covenant unless they undergo formal conversion to Judaism. Jesus’ crucifixion could not vicariously gain entrance for Gentiles into the Abrahamic covenant, but if by “the blood of Christ” Paul referred to the blood of Jesus’ circumcision, then we can comprehend how Jesus’ blood could vicariously bring Gentiles into the covenant between God and Abraham.[8] Paul seems to suggest that Jesus was circumcised on behalf of the Gentiles so that a believing Gentile’s foreskin need not be a barrier to entering the blessings of the covenant between God and Abraham. Paradoxically, the very thing that would seem to separate Jesus from Gentile believers—circumcision—is the thing that unites Gentile believers to Jesus and the Jewish people. What a wonderful thing to celebrate on New Year’s Day!

For further reading on this topic, we recommend R. Steven Notley, “Can Gentiles Be Saved?”—JP.

Although hymns have gone out of style these days, for traditionalists such as myself, here is a hymn for the Feast of the Circumcision which I composed in the days when I served as the pastor of a small Baptist congregation:

Hymn for the Feast of the Circumcision

To listen to the tune to which I set the lyrics, check out this youtube video.

I wish to thank my wife, Lauren Asperschlager, for proofreading this blog, thus saving me from embarrassing mistakes.

  • [1] The Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus is still marked on the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations.
  • [2] See Shmuel Safrai, “Naming John the Baptist”; Chana Safrai, “Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and Their Child Prodigy.”
  • [3] See Shmuel Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (2 vols.; CRINT I.2; ed. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 767.
  • [4] The vocabulary of “entering the covenant” via circumcision is attested as early as the Dead Sea Scrolls: באו…בברית אברהם (“they entered…the covenant of Abraham”; CD XII, 11). Similar terminology is found in rabbinic literature: אבי הבן צריך ברכה לעצמו ברוך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להכניסו בבריתו של אברהם אבינו (“the father of the son must recite a separate blessing [for circumcision] for himself: Blessed is he who sanctified us through his commandments and commanded us to cause him [i.e., the eight-day-old boy—JNT] to enter the covenant of our father Abraham”; t. Ber. 6:12).
  • [5] See further, David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai, “Who Sanctified the Beloved in the Womb,” Immanuel 11 (1980): 46-55.
  • [6] See 1 Cor. 7:17-19; Gal. 5:2; 6:15; Phil. 3:2-9.
  • [7] On Paul and circumcision see Paula Fredriksen, “Paul, Purity, and the Ekklēsia of the Gentiles,” in The Beginnings of Christianity (ed. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor; Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Tzvi, 2005), 205-217; idem, “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010): 232-252; Peter J. Tomson, “Paul’s Jewish Background in View of His Law teaching in 1Cor 7,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law (ed. James D. G. Dunn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 251-270.
  • [8] In rabbinic literature the blood of circumcision is referred to as דם ברית (“blood of [the] covenant”; t. Ber. 6:13).

Matthew 1:1-25: In the Year of Jubilee?

Considerable ink has been spilled regarding Matthew’s selection of the individuals in his genealogy (including three women: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth), and the differences between his list that of Luke 3:23-38. My attention is drawn, on the other hand, to the underlying structures of the two lists and what they were intended to tell us about the message of the Evangelists concerning the time in which Christ was born.

Matthew summarizes the chronological structure in the final verse of his genealogy of Christ:

Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ  πὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.

Therefore, all of the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, from David until the exile to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the exile to Babylon until Christ fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)

J. T. Milik in his masterful work, The Books of Enoch,[1] has commented on these two genealogies in his preliminary study of 4Q180-181 (4Q Pesher on the Periods). He has drawn clear comparisons between this Qumran work and other known chronographic works. According to Milik: “…this chronological work presented the sacred history divided into seventy ages corresponding approximately to seventy generations, from Adam to Noah ten generation-weeks, from Noah to Abraham ten weeks, etc., up to the advent of the eschatological era.”[2]

The seventy generation-weeks structure clearly belongs to similar chronological speculation heard in Daniel 9:24-27 and Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10. In it seventy weeks-years is equivalent to ten jubilees (70 x 7=10 x 49). Yet, an alternate chronological structure is heard in the Greek Testament of Levi 16:1 and 17:1-11 where the division is not according to a patriarchal genealogy but according to the generations of priests:

In each jubilee there shall be a priesthood: In the first jubilee the first person to be anointed to the priesthood will be great, and he shall speak to God as father (17:2)…[until the final generation] in the seventh week there will come priests: idolators, adulterers, money lovers, arrogant, lawless, voluptuaries, pederasts, those who practice bestiality (17:11).

This dark time is followed immediately by the advent of the priestly redeemer: …And then the Lord will raise up a new priest (18:2).

The jubilee structure of the Greek Testament of Levi then represents a chronology of seven jubilees rather than the ten jubilees of 4Q180-181, Daniel and Jeremiah. In another work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13-Melchizedek) we find a combination of these two systems of thought. The priestly redeemer is identified with the biblical Melchizedek, but his advent is marked at the conclusion of ten jubilees rather than seven:

the first Week of the jubilee, after nine jubilees…the end of the tenth jubilee. (2:7)

So, we hear in various Jewish works of the pre-Christian era two alternating chronological expectations for redemption presented within a jubilee framework. One describes the advent of the redeemer in the tenth jubilee and the other in the seventh jubilee. These two opinions assist us to discern the varying genealogies of Matthew and Luke. As Milik observed on the genealogy of Luke 3:23-38, we find seventy-six names. “If one deducts the first six patriarchs, one finds again in the era of the patriarch Enoch the beginning of a computation of seventy generations—exactly the same, therefore, as Enoch 10:12…. In Matthew 1:1-17 the reckoning begins with Abraham, and the series of ancestors of Christ is divided into three great ages, each one embracing fourteen generations. In other words, the sacred history from Abraham up to the birth of Jesus is looked upon as the cycle of six weeks (3 x 14=6 x7) which will be completed by the seventh—eschatological—Week ushered in by Jesus Christ.”[3]

Illumination of Jesus' family tree by an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish miniaturist. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Illumination of Jesus’ family tree by an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish miniaturist. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, Milik noted that in 4Q180-181 the significant biblical events remembered were marked by the intervention of angels, “messengers of God who is the special protector of Israel (Deut. 32:9 ff.).”[4] Should we understand a similar understanding in both Matthew and Luke where we find angelic intervention in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus?

What we witness, therefore, in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is neither haphazard nor accidental. They reflect diverging Jewish opinions about the time for the advent of the redeemer. The Evangelists intended for us to understand that the birth of Jesus inaugurated the era of redemption—expressed by way of a jubilee chronological framework. While unnoticed by most modern readers, both Matthew and Luke have gone to great effort to underscore the importance of the very time in which Jesus was born. His birth is presented as the fulfillment of the hope for a jubilee redemption. Against this background Jesus’ first public words in Luke’s Gospel take on added poignancy as he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of Nazareth: “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19; Isa 61:2).

  • [1] J. T. Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).
  • [2] Milik, Books of Enoch, 252.
  • [3] Milik, Books of Enoch, 257.
  • [4] Milik, Books of Enoch, 252.

Be Not Afraid

Christmas approaches with its usual frenzy of decorations, shoppers, carols, cookies, and lights—all wrapped in joy, peace, and goodwill that is often, sadly, as thin as colored tissue paper. But this year, it’s even harder to “get into the spirit.” Hearts are heavy with grief and fear, especially following the deadly and deliberate attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. People around the world are in shock at a seemingly unparalleled and unbridled reign of terror. Some might even wrestle with a growing sense of futility, as cruelty, corruption, and injustice run rampant.

Yet, another reality coexists with this present evil, just as it did on the first Christmas, when human misery also abounded—the reality of goodness. Today, many people struggle to be selfless and caring, maintaining a life of integrity and self-control in spite of countless obstacles. That, too, is real. And though the first Christmas led inexorably to the horror of Good Friday’s cross, it also led to Jesus’ ultimate triumph of good over evil on Easter.

An angel with drawn swords guards a locked door in an illumination from the Orthodox church in Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
An angel with drawn swords guards a locked door in an illumination from the Orthodox church in Capernaum. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Perhaps it’s noteworthy that the Gospel stories of Christmas and Easter share a link that catches our attention, especially during these disconcerting times. Both stories tell of our spiritual companions, angels. At the time of these events, angels acted as messengers. Christmas angels announced Jesus’ birth with joy, almost a catchy jubilance. Easter angels announced his resurrection with a calm, somber serenity that substantiated its almost unthinkable truth.

In the Hebrew Scripture, angels are often portrayed as protectors; for example, they saved Lot and his family (Gen. 19:15) and delivered three men from a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:28). Angels comforted Jesus after his temptations in the desert (Matt. 4:11) and during his agony in the garden (Luke 22:43). In Revelation 12:7-8, they appear as warriors. Three angels are named: Michael (Jude 9; Rev. 12:7), Gabriel (Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26), and Raphael (Tob. 12:15). Jesus himself said that children’s angels “continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).

The angels in Scripture have a relentless message: “Fear not.” We see this from “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30) to “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:20). Again, in Luke 2:10, the angel said to the awestruck shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Years later, as the first Easter dawned, an angel assured the terrified women at Jesus’ tomb, “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:1-7).

Skipping ahead to Acts 12:6-11, we read how an angel, almost playfully, helped Peter escape from his prison cell. Suddenly appearing in light, the angel “tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists.” Peter dressed and followed the angel out, but “did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.” Undetected, they passed the guards. The iron city gate “opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me.’” I shake my head in disbelief along with Peter. Am I dreaming? No, it happened.

Depiction of an angelic being from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Photo by Beate Paland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Depiction of an angelic being from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Photo by Beate Paland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Paul, too, encountered an angel while a prisoner aboard a ship bound for Rome (Acts 27:22-26). Caught in a wild storm, the passengers and crew feared for their lives. Paul stood and, with a boldness born of Truth, told the men that “an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship” had appeared to him the night before and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” I picture those rough seamen staring wide-eyed at Paul before they lunged at this madman in their midst, and I cringe for him. But that safe landing, too, came to pass.

“Do not be afraid.” The powerful certainty that emanates from these otherworldly beings grips and bolsters us. Moreover, their encouraging words are followed with answers to “Why shouldn’t we be afraid?”—answers that point to their Creator and ours, in whose hands lies the future. Mary will be the Mother of God. Joseph will safeguard that Son.

Angels weep at the burial of Jesus in a mosaic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
Angels weep at the burial of Jesus in a mosaic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

The shepherds will share the good news. Peter will lead the early church. Paul will give witness in Rome. God has a purpose for each of us and, until that purpose is fulfilled, we will walk through flames unscathed.

Though overshadowed by evil, we continue to fight our daily inward battles, striving to live with awareness of God’s presence, courage, gratitude, and love for all. It’s comforting to know that, beside us as we journey, are the angels—Heaven’s invisible messengers and our guides, guardians, and fellow warriors.

Mosaic from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
Mosaic from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Matthew 2:1-23: A Nazorean Shall Be Called

In The Master's Steps

Frequent contributor to Jerusalem Perspective, Dr. R. Steven Notley, has recently published the first volume of a new atlas of Bible lands in New Testament times entitled, In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015). The atlas examines not only geographical issues related to the New Testament, but historical, literary and linguistic issues, as well. Professor Notley’s discussion in this article, which is meant to whet your appetite for this indispensable new resource, is further developed with greater detail in In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land.

Against the backdrop of looming danger Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions (Matt. 2:13-15). Only when Herod was dead would it be safe to return home. When the Judean king died in his winter palace in Jericho (4 B.C.E.), Herod’s will divided his kingdom between his surviving sons (Ant. 17:188-190; J.W. 1:664-669). Contrary to Herod’s final wishes, Augustus did not award Archelaus his father’s throne. He was instead appointed ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria (J.W. 2:93; Ant. 17:317). Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea in the Transjordan, while Philip was appointed tetrarch over an amalgam of districts in the north (Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, Panias) on the frontier with Syria.

Archelaus exceeded his father’s tyranny. The situation became so intolerable that after ten years of Archelaus’ rule a delegation of Samaritan and Jewish leaders traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar Augustus to remove Herod’s son (Ant. 17:342-344; J.W. 2:111-113; Geog. 16.2.46; Dio 55.27.6). Augustus investigated the charges, deposed Archelaus to Gaul and appointed a Roman governor to administrate Judea from Caesarea.

Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1907), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1907), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the time we encounter Joseph and his family in Egypt, Judea was still in the throes of Archelaus’ cruel grip. According to Matthew, Joseph was warned in another dream not to return to the environs of Jerusalem, which fell under the shadow of the ethnarch’s rule (Matt. 2:19-22). Instead, Joseph settled in Nazareth, a small, nondescript village perched on a chalky ridge overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Little attention is given to Joseph’s likely geopolitical reason for choosing Nazareth. The remote village lay within the boundary of Galilee, under the jurisdiction of Antipas, and beyond the murderous reach of Archelaus.

The story of the heavenly warning and the relocation to Galilee reminded Matthew of the words of the Hebrew prophets.

καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matt. 2:23; NIV)

Centuries of Christian readers have pondered the meaning of the Greek term Ναζωραῖος (Nazōraios), usually rendered Nazarene, and which Old Testament passages Matthew had in mind when he interpreted the relocation to Nazareth as a fulfillment of Scripture. Where in the Hebrew Scriptures is it expected that the Redeemer will be called a Nazarene or come from Nazareth?

Most modern readers assume that the enigmatic epithet is somehow related to the name of the Galilean village because of the similarities in their spelling, i.e. Ναζωραῖος (Nazōraios) and Ναζαρέθ (Nazareth). So, when the Greek term recurs elsewhere in the New Testament beside Jesus’ name, English translations routinely render it as a gentilic adjective, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; et passim). However, Nazareth never occurs again in conjunction with Ναζωραῖος.

Is their appearance together in Matthew 2:23 intentional or coincidental? Or stated another way, can it be that the meaning of Ναζωραῖος relates to the heavenly warning and Joseph’s care to keep Jesus out of harm’s way in the remote reaches of Galilee, rather than a play on the name of the village in which Jesus grew up?

Various suggestions have been put forward to identify the Semitic term represented by Ναζωραῖος. If we assume that the Greek word accurately characterizes a Hebrew term, then it is important to recognize that the “o” vowel in the second syllable (na⋅ZŌ⋅rai⋅os) eliminates the popular Hebrew suggestions, נֵצֶר (nētzer, “branch”) or נָזִיר (nāzir, “nazirite”). Instead, we should expect a term resembling the Hebrew passive participle נָצוּר (nātzūr, “one who is protected,” “kept”) with an attached personal pronoun to convey the sense, “One whom I have kept, protected, preserved.”

A ready solution to the riddle of Ναζωραῖος has been further obscured by the reading of Matthew’s verb in our verse, “he shall be called.” Most read it to convey the sense “he shall be named.” Yet, Matthew’s style elsewhere in the infancy narratives to name or entitle is different. He uses the fuller Greek expression “to call by the name” (Matt. 1:21, 23). Our verse, on the other hand, matches the style of Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In both these passages from the second chapter of Matthew, the verb “to call” means God has chosen Jesus and charged him with a divinely appointed task. In our verse, God is assumed to be the subject of the action. Matthew’s elliptical allusion is thus to a prophetic passage that describes one whom the Lord has kept, protected and called.

The key to identifying which verses Matthew had in mind is to find a passage in which the two verbs “to call” and “ to keep” coincide. This style of signaling specific Old Testament verses through the collocation of key words is a peculiar style of ancient Jewish exegesis. The Evangelist’s plural “the prophets” (cf. Matt. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17) suggests that Matthew had more than one prophetic verse in mind. In the Old Testament there are only two verses found among the Hebrew prophets in which the Hebrew verbs to call (קרא) and to keep (נצר) coincide: Isaiah 42:6 and Jeremiah 31:6.

A cruel son of Herod remained in power in Jerusalem, and it was not yet safe to return. At the angelic warning, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth to keep his son safe. Their relocation to the security of this remote Galilean village, where Jesus could grow to adulthood reminded Matthew of the divine care reflected in the words concerning the Isaianic Servant of the LORD:

“I, the LORD, have called you (קְרָאתִיךָ, qerātichā) in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you (אֶצָּרְךָ, ’etzorchā) and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations.” (Isa. 42:6)

The scriptural pair from Jeremiah 31:6 forms a literary complex that may be a vestige of a lost homily, “There will be a day when watchmen (נֹצְרִים, notzrim) call out (קָרְאוּ, qār’ū) on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’” We have little information how the Hebrew epithet evolved and changed in the first century, but the verse in Jeremiah may have contributed to the use of the plural form of Ναζωραῖος to identify Jewish adherents to Jesus’ movement. At the end of Acts, Paul is accused of being an instigator, “He is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5b). Eventually, the term “Christian” (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) replaced “Nazarene” to designate the followers of Jesus. However, among Jews, including those who believed in Jesus, the term “Notzri” continued to designate Jesus and his followers. It likely came to mean one who keeps the commandments. Eusebius (305 C.E.) attests to a shift in terminology, “Previously we who are now called Christians were also called Nazarenes” (Onom. 138:24).

R. Steven Notley, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins and Director of Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins at Nyack College in New York City.

Evidence for Hebrew Roots of Matthew 1:21

Many have argued over which language(s) Jesus spoke. Many will say He spoke Greek because the New Testament was written in Greek. Some will argue that Jesus spoke Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the time, while a growing number are coming to believe that Jesus spoke Hebrew, at least with His disciples and fellow Israelites. In this short essay it is not my intention to examine all the evidence for each of these arguments, but to present just one case which I hope will add to the discussion.

Matthew 1:21 states that “she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” When we read this verse in English there doesn’t seem to be anything special about it. However, when we read the verse in Hebrew something sticks out.

וְאַתָּה תִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יֵשׁוּעַ, כִּי הוּא יוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת עַמּוֹ מֵחַטֹּאתֵיהֶם.‏

And you will call his name Yeshua, for he will save (yōshia’) his people from their sins.

Do you hear the similarity between the two words, Yeshua and yoshia? The root or consonants are the same and only the vowel soundings change. In English, this would be similar to saying, “and you shall call His name Salvation because He shall save His people from their sins.” This is the exact same Biblical naming formula which we find over and over again in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Gen. 17:19 reads, “you shall call his name Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “he laughed,” because Abraham laughed when God told him Sarah was going to give birth to a son. In Gen. 25:26, Jacob is given his name, which in Hebrew means “heel,”  because he “came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel.” These are only two of the many examples in the Hebrew Bible. Others include Abraham and Moses. In Hebrew, the comparison between these names and the reasons they were given these names is obvious.

What is interesting for our argument is that it is not only in English that Jesus’ naming formula does not work, but it does not work in Greek or even Aramaic, which is much closer to Hebrew. In Greek, the text reads,

καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

And you shall call His name Iēsoun for He shall sōsei His people from their sins.

In Greek, as in English, the name of “Jesus” does not share a common root with the verb “to save,” as it does in Hebrew.

In Aramaic, the verse reads,

ותקרא שמה ישוע הו גיר נחיוהי לעמה מן חטהיהון

You shall call His name Yeshua for He shall nechiohi His people from their sins.

In Aramaic, Jesus’ name, Yeshua, is the same as in Hebrew, but the verb “to save,” nechiohi, is very different.

So what does this mean for our discussion? The oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament were written in Greek, but by comparing Matt. 1:21 in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek with the knowledge of the naming formula so common in the Hebrew Bible, we see that this verse only makes sense in Hebrew. This verse, or the oral tradition behind it, had to be in Hebrew.

A Nativity Meditation for 2014

For Louise Kelly, with love.

There is an aspect to the nativity narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that I have been thinking about lately: the repeated failure of the main characters in the story to communicate with one another. Again and again in the nativity narratives communication somehow breaks down. The old priest Zechariah is the most glaring example. When Zechariah entered the Temple and was approached by God’s heavenly messenger, Zechariah was not able to receive the good news Gabriel announced to him (Luke 1:8-20).[1] Incredulity got in the way of proper communication. Right in the opening scene of Luke’s Gospel communication between God and man breaks down.

This breakdown in communication with Zechariah had further consequences. Unable to successfully communicate with God, the priest also found himself unable to communicate with the worshippers who had come up to the Temple to pray (Luke 1:21-22). Zechariah was unable to hear and unable to speak, unable to make himself understood because he had been unable to listen. By making signs the old priest only managed to convey to the worshippers the vague idea that he had seen some sort of vision in the Temple.

But poor old Zechariah was not the only character in the nativity narratives who had difficulty with communication. His wife Elizabeth, although she was able to speak, seemed unable to share with her friends the good news that God had opened her womb and that she was finally going to have a baby (Luke 1:24). Instead of sharing her joy Elizabeth bottled it up inside.

Andrea Mantegna, "The Adoration of the Shepherds" (c. 1450).
Andrea Mantegna, “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (c. 1450). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think we can also detect a breakdown in communication between Joseph and Mary. Scripture never tells us exactly what happened between them, and there are many songs and folk tales about Mary’s attempt to explain her pregnancy to Joseph and his unwillingness to believe Mary’s fantastic story. But I am not sure it happened like that. Scripture seems to suggest that Joseph discovered on his own, without Mary telling him, that she was pregnant. Luke implies that as soon as Mary knew she was pregnant she ran away to her cousin Elizabeth without saying a word to Joseph. Somehow Mary just could not bring herself to tell him. And it does not seem as though Joseph discussed the matter with Mary either. Matthew’s Gospel says: Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matt. 1:19; NIV). The words had in mind seem to suggest that Joseph had not spoken of his plans with Mary. It was only by an intervention from Heaven that the matter was explained and Joseph and Mary were reconciled (Matt. 1:20-25).

There is one more point. Scripture goes out of its way to emphasize that Joseph was a righteous man (Matt. 1:19). Gabriel tells us straight out that Mary was highly favored and that the LORD was with her (Luke 1:28). Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God and that they kept all of the LORD’s commandments blamelessly (Luke 1:6). Despite their being good people, despite their best efforts to honor God by doing the right thing, communications nevertheless broke down. That is a mystery, but for me it is also a comfort.

I find the failures of communication in the nativity narratives to be comforting because as a married man, as a preacher, and as a human being I have experienced failure in communication even when I was trying my hardest. In my married life I have often found myself putting up walls of resistance and contriving arguments and explanations when what my wife really needed was reassurance that I was hearing her. At other times I have found myself growling and grumbling about my troubles when what I ought to have been focusing on was the gratitude I have for the many things my wife does for me every day that make my life worth living.[2]

In my efforts at preaching I used to get so frustrated because I could not seem to get out in words the message I had in my heart. I did not seem to be able to inspire the wonder and excitement I was experiencing as I studied Jesus’ message. Somehow the space between the pulpit and the pews seemed to swallow up the good things I wanted to share with my congregation. So often I was shocked to discover that the good things I had to share were perceived as threatening and disturbing. I used to be so disappointed at my inability to bring other people along with me on my journeys into the Scriptures.

And on a more basic human level, I know that I often fail to say the important things and fill up the space with trivialities instead. How often do I say “Thank you” or “I love you,” “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to the people who need to hear those words? And when I try, why is it that it seldom comes out the way I wanted?

And so, because I find these shortcomings in myself, I find the similar failures of the characters in the nativity narratives to listen and to make themselves understood to be comforting. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary are people who faced the same difficulties and who struggled with the same problems I do. And yet, despite their failures, God used these people to bring Jesus into the world. Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah are woven into the story and into the family of Jesus. They became a part of him as he became a part of them. God’s favor and goodwill toward humankind overcame their weaknesses.

The story of Jesus’ birth begins with scrambled communications, but that is not where the story ends. The story ends with Mary trusting Joseph and with Joseph caring for Mary. The story ends with Zechariah speaking up for his wife Elizabeth and using his newfound voice to praise the living God. The story ends with the shepherds rejoicing at the good news they have believed. The story ends with the angels of heaven praising the LORD for what he accomplished through the cooperation of Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary. In the course of the story, God works through imperfect people to give them the perfect gift of the Messiah. This gives me hope that as I do my best to share Jesus’ story and his message, God will not allow my failures to stand in the way of his great mission to redeem Israel, humankind and the whole of his creation.

Did women go through a mikveh (ritual immersion pool) after childbirth?

Question received from Mary R. Carse that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 46 & 47 (Sept.-Dec. 1994): 6.

According to Leviticus 12, the presenting of the two turtledoves constituted the purification for childbirth. And in fact, the same thing seems to be implied concerning a woman’s menstrual period (Lev. 15:19ff.). Anyone who touches her or anything she has touched has to purify himself by washing, but nothing seems to be said about the woman washing herself at any time, either after childbirth or after her monthly period. So where did the idea of the mikveh come from? Was that a later introduction? Still, I know that mikva’ot [plural of mikveh] have been excavated at the base of the steps on the south side of the Temple Mount which led up to the Temple. What were they for? And if a woman had to present an offering for her purification both after childbirth and after her monthly period, did she have to travel all the way to Jerusalem every month?

Shmuel Safrai responds:

It was not necessary for Mary to go immediately from Nazareth in Galilee to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice for her purification. To quote from my daughter Chana Safrai’s article, “Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and Their Child Prodigy”:

According to Scripture, a mother is impure for forty days after the birth of a son. At the end of this period, she is to bring to the Temple an offering for her purification (Lev. 12:1-8). Rabbinic sources indicate that a woman was allowed to postpone her sacrifice until she had an opportunity to go to Jerusalem. Sometimes a mother waited until she had given birth a number of times before offering the prescribed sacrifice for her purification (Tosefta, Keritot 2:21; Mishnah, Keritot 1:7, 2:4). Often, she waited to fulfill this obligation until the family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, some women performed this rite at the end of the forty-day period in keeping with the biblical injunction. Mary observed the commandment in this way.

As Chana points out, a mother could postpone the prescribed sacrifice after the birth of a son; however, she could not postpone the ritual immersion. Therefore, this was usually done at the local mikveh in the woman’s hometown. It was not necessary for a woman to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem for the immersion. As Mary Carse has supposed, women were also required to immerse themselves after the menstrual period, and this, too, was done at a local mikveh. It is true that nothing seems to be said in the Torah about a woman’s requirement for immersion after the birth of a son and following menstruation, but the sages viewed immersion in these cases as scriptural commandments. They based this view on their understanding of Leviticus 12:1-8; 15:18; and 18:19. (For further details of the sages’ view, see the discussions in Mishnah tractate Niddah.)

Just when in history the mikveh came into being we do not know; however, it is certain that its use was already well-established in Jewish society by Jesus’ time. Immersion as part of a woman’s purification was also practiced by Essenes and Samaritans.

Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.
Large ritual immersion pool (mikveh) at the Temple Mount—possibly used by priests for their ritual washing. Photograph by Todd Bolen courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

The mikva’ot adjacent to the monumental stairs leading to the south entrance of the Temple Mount were used by persons who intended to enter the inner courts of the Temple. One could ascend the Temple Mount and visit the outer court (the so-called Court of the Gentiles) without having to purify oneself in a mikveh, if one did not proceed beyond the Court of the Gentiles. In fact, if in a state of ritual cleanness, a Jew could even enter the Women’s Court, the outer court of the sanctuary, without undergoing ritual immersion. However, to proceed further (to the Israelites’ Court and beyond), he or she had to bathe in a mikveh, even if ritually clean. There was a mikveh located in the Lepers’ Chamber, in the northwest corner of the Women’s Court (Mishnah, Middot 2:5; Negaim 14:8), and there were many other mikva’ot scattered over the Temple Mount. These were not just for the priests, who served in the inner courts of the Temple, but also for non-priests—when offering their sacrifices, non-priests could enter the Priests’ Court (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma III, 40b).

Gentiles could also ascend the Temple Mount; however, they were not permitted to enter the sanctuary itself. On all four sides of the sanctuary was an ascent of fourteen steps and a five-meter-wide walkway or rampart (in Hebrew, Hel) immediately adjoining the outside walls of the sanctuary. Encircling these stairs and walkway was a stone balustrade (1.5 meters in height), called in Hebrew, the Soreg. Gentiles could not go beyond this barrier and, according to Josephus (War 5:195–197; Antiq. 15:417; cf. Mishnah, Kelim 1:8), there were warning signs in Greek and Latin affixed to the Soreg at regular intervals forbidding Gentiles, under penalty of death, to proceed further. Two of these signs written in Greek (one complete, and one partially preserved), have been discovered in Jerusalem.

Masada's southern mikveh (of the rain-fed, double-chambered design. Top Right: Plan of the southern mikveh at Masada: A. Rainwater collection pool (dormant chamber); B. Active immersion chamber; C. Pool for washing of hands and feet; d. Settling trough. Illustration: Janet Frankovic
Masada’s southern mikveh (of the rain-fed, double-chambered design. Top Right: Plan of the southern mikveh at Masada: A. Rainwater collection pool (dormant chamber); B. Active immersion chamber; C. Pool for washing of hands and feet; d. Settling trough. Illustration: Janet Frankovic

To make sure that no one willfully or inadvertently violated the purity regulations, Levites were appointed as supervisors. (Remember that the Levites were the Temple gatekeepers.) We learn this from, among others, the first-century Jewish historian Philo (On the Special Laws 1:156). The Levites conducted spot-checks, asking people entering the Temple whether they were ritual clean, or, in the case of persons entering the Israelites’ Court, whether they had bathed in a mikveh. In addition, it was required of worshippers that they ascend the Temple Mount with freshly washed white garments and barefooted (War 2:1).

In a third-century C.E. fragment of a non-canonical gospel written in Greek (Oxyrhynchus Papyri V, 840), there is a very interesting tradition about Jesus. According to this source, Jesus and his disciples were accosted in the Temple by a Levite supervisor and accused of having violated the purification regulations:

“Who has given you permission to walk in this holy place and to look upon these holy vessels without first bathing yourself and even without your disciples having washed their feet, but in an unclean state you have walked in this holy and purified place, although no one who has not first bathed himself and changed his clothes may walk in it and venture to view these holy vessels.”Jesus replied, “I am clean, for I have bathed myself in the pool of David. I have gone down [into it] by the one stair and come up [out of it] by the other, and I have put on white garments that are ritually clean, and in that state I have come here and looked upon these holy vessels.”

While this story about Jesus may not be historical, much authentic detail about the customs of those who came to the Temple is preserved in this fragment, such as the changing of one’s clothes, the wearing of white clothes and the ritual bathing before entering the Temple. This source contains authentic Jewish traditions from the first century C.E. These traditions cannot be literary inventions. A third-century Gentile author would not likely have known, for instance, that on every Jewish pilgrimage festival, the holy Temple utensils were brought out and put on display in the Israelites’ Court for the benefit of visiting pilgrims.

Jesus’ Devout Jewish Parents and Their Child Prodigy

John the Baptist was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and on the eighth day the neighbors and family gathered to celebrate the baby’s circumcision (Luke 1:57-58). On this occasion, John was given his name (Luke 1:59). Jesus also received his name at his circumcision: “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus” (Luke 2:21).

Circumcision on the eighth day is a biblical commandment (Lev. 12:3; Gen. 21:4), but the public naming of a baby boy on the eighth day and the gathering of family and acquaintances to celebrate the occasion are Second Temple-period Jewish customs.[1] These two customs, attested in the gospel of Luke for the first time, are still common in Jewish practice.

Two More Ceremonies

Luke mentions two other Jewish customs (Luke 2:22-24) observed by Jesus’ parents: Mary’s offering of the sacrifice for her purification,[2] and Joseph’s payment of the ransom for his firstborn son.

According to Scripture, a mother is impure for forty days after the birth of a son. At the end of this period, she is to bring to the temple an offering for her purification (Lev. 12:1-8). Rabbinic sources indicate that a woman was allowed to postpone her sacrifice until she had an opportunity to go to Jerusalem. Sometimes a mother waited until she had given birth a number of times before offering the prescribed sacrifice for her purification.[3] Often, she waited to fulfill this obligation until the family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, some women performed this rite at the end of the forty-day period in keeping with the biblical injunction. Mary observed the commandment in this way.

According to Numbers, a firstborn son can be redeemed from his thirtieth day. The rabbinic interpretation of this passage encouraged fathers to pay the firstborn’s ransom on the thirtieth day, as soon as the baby reached the age of redemption.[4] Luke’s story reflects this interpretation: near the time of Mary’s purification offering, Joseph paid the ransom for his firstborn son.

The gospel account demonstrates that Jesus’ parents observed the commandments strictly. Toward the end of Mary’s period of impurity, they came to Jerusalem so that Joseph could ransom his firstborn son, probably on the child’s thirtieth day, and so that Mary could offer the sacrifice for her purification, on the child’s forty-first day.

Typical Jewish Parents

“The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,” painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. Dating to c. 1455, it is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The Virgin Mary, in the foreground, is holding the Child while a bearded priest is near her. At the center, in penumbra, is Joseph with an aureola. Also in the background, at the sides, two spectators without aureola have been identified as possibly Mantenga’s self-portrait and a portrait of his wife.

John, too, was a firstborn child, yet there is no mention of Zechariah paying his son’s ransom. According to a Jewish tradition still observed today, if a firstborn son’s mother or father belongs to a priestly family, the child does not have to be ransomed since the father is exempt from paying ransom money to a fellow priest.[5] Perhaps this is the reason that Luke, though he records both John’s circumcision and naming, makes no mention of John’s redemption as a firstborn son. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly families (Luke 1:5), and therefore Zechariah was not obligated to ransom their son.

Why does Luke not mention that Elizabeth brought a purification sacrifice on her son’s forty-first day? Apparently, like most other women of her time and culture, she postponed her purification until a more convenient time. If Elizabeth’s practice with regard to the purification sacrifice is typical of contemporary Jewish women, it clearly accentuates the excellence of Mary’s conduct in that respect. Luke’s account, therefore, underlines Jesus’ exemplary Jewish family background.

The First Pilgrimage

Luke includes another detail that draws our attention to the quality of Jesus’ Jewish upbringing. He informs us that Jesus’ parents used to go on Passover pilgrimage every year (Luke 2:41).[6] Exodus 23:17 speaks of the obligation to appear at the LORD’s temple three times a year, for all major holidays.[7] However, the sages did not take this command literally. Rather, they ruled that “to appear” means that when one does make a pilgrimage, one is to bring an “appearance” sacrifice.[8]

A pilgrimage from the Galilee was so expensive and time-consuming that a Galilean usually conducted it only once, or at the most, two or three times in his or her lifetime. Thus, observant Galileans usually did not “go up” to Jerusalem every year.[9] Jesus’ parents were exhibiting an exceptional devotion by making an annual pilgrimage.

The Lost Child

Luke records an incident that may give the impression of parental irresponsibility on the part of Joseph and Mary. For the whole first day of their return journey, they apparently failed to notice that Jesus had been left behind in Jerusalem; they assumed that he was somewhere among the group of pilgrims with whom they were “coming down” from Jerusalem (Luke 2:44). Rabbinic tradition may help to resolve this difficulty and show Jesus’ parents in a more positive light.

We learn from rabbinic literature that at the start of each pilgrimage pilgrims gathered in their towns and villages. Whole households would set out, leaving very few people at home.[10] Along the way, the pilgrims joined other bands of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem.[11] After arriving in Jerusalem, members of these expanded groups tended to remain together, worshiping, studying, and walking about the city in the company of those with whom they had journeyed to Jerusalem. By the time pilgrims began their journey home, they had spent more than a week with the members of their group. A self-confident child could easily have spent the first day of the return journey away from his parents, among the large number of new and old acquaintances, without his parents becoming concerned or being thought irresponsible.

The next part of this story is also unusual. When Jesus is finally found, he is in the temple court, almost holding court himself, sitting and discussing issues of Torah with his elders (Luke 2:46-47). How far should we believe this of a twelve-year-old boy? Two aspects of the episode should be taken into consideration.

In the rabbinic world, a special effort was made to give everyone an opportunity to participate in discussion. When a question was raised, the first to answer was not the greatest scholar, but rather the youngest. Quiet was not considered of major importance. Neither was there a demand for uniformity of opinion. Students were encouraged to voice their opinions and argue their case.[12] Therefore, it is quite possible that the boy was given a hearing and an opportunity to show his ability, even in the very exalted company of teachers found in the temple courts.

Jewish Child Wonders

Despite its possibility within a first-century Jewish context, we must still view a discussion between the twelve-year-old Jesus and some of the greatest teachers of his time as exceptional. This story should be compared with a very small number of similar stories about Jewish child wonders who demonstrated their brilliance in the presence of adult scholars.

For example, there is an interesting story in the Talmud about Rabbi Ishmael.[13] As a child, sometime after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., he was discovered in a prison by Rabbi Yehoshua. As a result of an exchange between Yehoshua (at the gates of the prison) and Ishmael (within the prison) in which Ishmael answered Yehoshua with great wisdom, Yehoshua realized that the child was a prodigy and determined to ransom him. In the course of time, Ishmael became a great scholar and sage.

There is a story about Victor (Avigdor) Aptowitzer (1871-1942) that is remarkably similar to the story about Jesus. Born in Tarnopol, Galicia, Aptowitzer became a prominent Jewish historian and Talmudic scholar. He was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Vienna from 1909-1938. As a young boy, Aptowitzer once traveled with his parents from his hometown of Tarnopol to the market town of the district in which he lived. While the parents were busy with their shopping, he disappeared. After much searching, his parents found him in the local bet midrash (house of study) standing among the scholars and their students and debating with them about matters of halachah.

In the Jewish world of learning, such stories about boy scholars are perfectly believable. When read from a Jewish perspective, the story about Jesus and the teachers in the temple has an authentic ring and leads one to expect great things of the sage-to-be.[14]

  • [1] See Shmuel Safrai, “Naming John the Baptist,” Jerusalem Perspective 20 (May 1989): 1-2. The traditional Jewish celebration of a birth is also the major background to the circumcision of Elisha ben Avuyah, which took place about the last quarter of the first century C.E. (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 77b, chpt. 2, halachah 1).
  • [2] The Greek text of Luke 2:22 contains the phrase, “When the days of the purification of them were fulfilled.” However, a baby is not impure, nor does it have a period of impurity. The Old Syriac Sinaitic Codex and the Latin Vulgate, as well as part of the Old Latin manuscripts, have “of her,” a reading that corresponds to the language of the biblical command. Cf. Shmuel Safrai, “The Role of Women in the Temple,” Jerusalem Perspective 21 (Jul./Aug. 1989): 5.
  • [3] Tosefta, Keritot 2:21; Mishnah, Keritot 1:7; 2:4.
  • [4] Mishnah, Bechorot 8; Babylonian Talmud, Bechorot 12b.
  • [5] Mechilta, Bo 16; to Exod. 13:2 (ed. Horovitz-Rabin, 58). This priestly privilege is not Scriptural, but we know that the priesthood had a tendency to develop such privileges in their favor (Mishnah, Shekalim 1:4).
  • [6] Note the conduct of Samuel’s parents. They also made annual pilgrimages to a temple of the LORD at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3).
  • [7] Cf. Exod. 34:23 and Deut. 16:16.
  • [8] Cf. Mishnah, Hagigah 1:6. The verb יֵרָאֶה (yera’eh, will appear) in Exod. 23:17 was interpreted, “will bring a re’iyah [‘appearance’ sacrifice],” that is, when a pilgrim comes to the temple, the pilgrim should not come empty-handed (Deut. 16:16).
  • [9] Shmuel Safrai, Die Wallfahrt im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981), 44-97; S. Safrai, “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus,” Jerusalem Perspective 22 (Sept./Oct. 1989): 3-4, 12.
  • [10] Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12, Version A.
  • [11] Mishnah, Bikkurim 3:2-3.
  • [12] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 36b.
  • [13] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 58a.
  • [14] Safrai, “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus,” p. 4.

No Room in the Inn?

Bethlehem is hardly mentioned in rabbinic literature. In the time of Jesus it was probably a small village of a few hundred residents, and consequently had only one inn.

The typical inn in such a small settlement had one room with no allowance made for separate quarters for men and women. However the boarders did not have to undress in mixed company, because they slept in their clothes. The men, for instance, removed their talit, or outer heavy woolen garment, and slept in their haluk, their lightweight, inner robe (see “The Hem of His Garment,” Jerusalem Perspective 1.7 [April 1988]: 2). Families slept together on simple mats thrown on the dirt floor. The innkeeper provided little more than space, but at least it was shelter and protection from marauders.

The rabbinic ruling was that a man could not sleep in the same room with two women, unless one was his wife (Mishnah, Kiddushin 4:12). It was assumed that this would prevent promiscuity. However, it was considered acceptable that when a man was on a journey he could sleep in an inn in the same room with other women even when unaccompanied by a wife. The inn was viewed as a public place because of its open arrangement.

The traditional “Inn of the Good Samaritan” located along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo © BiblePlaces.com

Luke 2:7 states that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, but this may only have been the excuse the inn­keeper gave. Probably the real reason the Bethlehem innkeeper refused to accept the couple was because Mary was obviously pregnant. The innkeeper could not be sure how long Mary and Joseph would stay, and if Mary had given birth while at the inn the other guests would have been inconvenienced by having to leave the room. Having no alternative, Mary was forced to give birth in a stable.

“He Shall Be Called a Nazarene”

One of the titles given to Jesus was “Nazarene.” Where did the title come from, and did it have any special significance? Ray Pritz traces the title’s origins.

The title “Nazarene” may have derived from the town of Nazareth where Jesus grew up, but this is not at all certain. Nazareth is never mentioned in rabbinic literature nor in any other writing outside the New Testament before its mention by the Hebrew poets of the seventh or eighth century. Its first post-New Testament appearance came with the discovery of an inscription listing the twenty-four priestly courses. This inscription, found in the summer of 1962 in a synagogue in Caesarea, has been dated to the third or fourth century.[1] The spelling of the name in the inscription is נצרת (natsrat), the same as in the much later Hebrew poets.

Two Problems

The New Testament starting point for investigating the title Nazarene must be Matthew 2:23: “[Joseph] came and resided in a city called Nazareth so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'”

This was one of the most difficult verses faced by the editorial committee of the annotated edition of the United Bible Societies’ Modern Hebrew New Testament. The main problem is that nowhere in the extant body of Scripture do we find the statement which Matthew seems to quote from the Prophets.

Which Prophecy?

Matthew uses the Greek word Ναζωραῖος (Nazoraios) for the title by which Jesus will be called according to “the prophets.” This most likely represents the Hebrew word נוֹצְרִי (notsri), a name by which Jesus is called several times in the Talmud.[2] The name נוֹצְרִים (notsrim, plural of notsri), referring to believers in Jesus, also occurs in the Talmud.[3] Many of these passages were removed by censors and can be found today only in collections of expunged passages taken from earlier manuscripts of the Talmud.

The Hebrew word notsri occurs six times in the Hebrew Bible.[4] In all cases it carries the sense of preserving or keeping. Some translations render the word in Jeremiah 4:16 as “enemies” or something similar (New American Standard Bible, Good News Bible, New International Version). However, other translations are consistent with the other references and speak of “watchers” (The Holy Scriptures [Jewish Publication Society of America], Luther’s sixteenth-century German translation, the Latin Vulgate). None of the other Gospels provides a parallel to Matthew’s statement, which comes at the end of his infancy narrative.

After fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the children in the area of Bethlehem, Joseph has been told it is safe to return to the land of Israel. However, since Herod’s son Archelaus is ruling in Judea, Joseph, Jesus and Mary do not return there but continue on north to Galilee, which had been given as a tetrarchy to another of Herod’s sons, Antipas. This move to Nazareth prompts Matthew to comment on the fulfillment of prophecy.

Fulfilled Prophecy

Such an emphasis on fulfilled prophecy is peculiar to Matthew, occurring over a dozen times in his Gospel, and in fact he had already used the formula four times previous to 2:23.[5] We get an idea of Matthew’s methods if we note that in all of the four quotations before this one he either mentioned a prophet by name or said “the prophet” (singular) in connection with a quotation which can be easily found almost exactly as quoted.

This pattern holds true for all other such quotes in Matthew, with three exceptions. One is in 26:56 where he also cites “the prophets”; the second is in 27:9 and 10, where he credits Jeremiah as the source for a statement which is found primarily in Zechariah; and the third is here in 2:23. A candidate for the source of Matthew’s quote should be clearly connected to a known prophecy or, to use Matthew’s phrase, “the prophets,” and it should have an evident link with Nazareth.


One possible source is Judges 13:5, where the angel of the LORD tells the wife of Manoah that her son, Samson, will be a Nazirite.

This potential solution has two serious problems besides the fact that it is not a prophecy in the sense in which Matthew normally uses the word. First of all, as far as we know Jesus was not a Nazirite. Indeed, he said of himself: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard’” (Luke 7:34).

The other difficulty is that the Hebrew root for Nazirite, נזר (n-z-r) is not the same as that for Nazareth: נצר (n-ts-r). The similarity of the two words is only superficial. English versions of the Bible use only one letter (z) to express the two Hebrew letters: ז, the “z” sound, and צ, the “ts” sound. Greek generally uses the letter ζ (zeta) to represent the Hebrew ז (as it does in Judges 13:5) and the letter σ (sigma) for צ. However there are also instances of צ being transliterated as zeta.[6]


The challenge is to find a scriptural prophecy or prophetic idea which yet maintains a connection with the town of Nazareth. One long-standing candidate has been Isaiah 11:1 which says, “A shoot will come forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” The word for “branch” is נֵצֶר (netser), which contains the same three consonants that form the root of the name Nazareth.

When we look in the Targum at the Aramaic translation of this verse, we see that the verse was interpreted messianically: “There shall come forth a king from the sons of Jesse, and a Messiah will grow from the sons of his sons.” The Targum goes on to read the Messiah into verses 6 and 10. The first ten verses of this chapter of Isaiah were almost always interpreted in Jewish midrashic literature as referring to the Messiah.[7] One interesting baraita[8] shows disciples of Jesus using Isaiah 11:1 in arguing with the rabbis about the messiahship of Jesus.

An attractive feature of Isaiah 11:1 as the source for Matthew’s statement is that not only is the verse itself messianic, but it also can be connected to a broader messianic context. The idea of the Messiah as a branch is found elsewhere in the prophets, although using other words than netser for branch. So, for example, Isaiah 53:2 speaks of a יוֹנֵק (yonek, tender shoot) and a שֹׁרֶשׁ (shoresh, root) out of dry ground. In Jeremiah 23:5 we read: “Behold days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous צֶמַח (tsemakh, plant) for David, and a king will reign and will bring about justice and salvation in the land.” Tsemakh is also used of a messianic figure in Jeremiah 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8 (“my servant, the Branch”) and 6:12.

When Matthew says that in going to Nazareth, Jesus was fulfilling something spoken by “the prophets,” perhaps he intended to point to the one idea which most unifies the biblical prophets, the idea of the Messiah.[9] Here, then, we have a solution to the puzzle of Matthew 2:23, which connects with “the prophets” while still linking to one prophetic verse that bears an etymological tie to the name of the town where Jesus went to live.

  • [1] Michael Avi-Yonah, “An Inscription from Caesarea about the Twenty-four Priestly Courses,” Eretz-Israel 7 (1964): 24-28 (Hebrew).
  • [2] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, 103a, 107b; Sotah 47a; Avodah Zarah 16b, 17a.
  • [3] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 6a and Ta’anit 27b.
  • [4] 2 Kings 17:9; 18:8; Ps. 25:10; 119:2; Jer. 4:16; 31:6.
  • [5] Matt 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18.
  • [6] See G. F. Moore in Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, The Acts of the Apostles (repr. Grand Rapids, MI, 1979), 1:427; and F. C. Burkitt, Syriac Forms of New Testament Proper Names (London, 1912), 28-30.
  • [7] Lamentations Rabbah 1:51; Tanhuma, Vayekhi 10, 110; Genesis Rabbah 3:4, 97:9, 99:8; Ruth Rabbah 7:2; Song of Songs Rabbah VI, 10, 6; Shokher Tov 21, 72.
  • [8] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. The term baraita refers to any of the halachot or sayings not included in the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, that is, sayings that predate 230 A.D.
  • [9] See Acts 3:24; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a.