Did Matthew *Invent* A Prophecy About Jesus?

The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth
The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth (photo: Register Files)

Matthew 2:23 says that Jesus was raised in Nazareth "that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'"

But this statement does not appear in anywhere in the Old Testament.

Does this mean that Matthew just invented the prophecy?

Recently a Muslim author responded to me by claiming just this.

Let's look into the matter . . .


The Background

Recently I made a video posing the question "Did the New Testament Authors Feel Free to Make Stuff Up?" (click here to watch it).

I looked at several lines of evidence showing that they did not feel free to simply invent material about Jesus, unlike the authors of the Gnostic gospels that were written in the second and third centuries.

The British blogger and convert to Islam Paul Williams posted a response on his blog, Exploring Life, the Universe, and Everything (he's also apparently a Douglas Adams fan, which I can appreciate), where he wrote:

Yes Jimmy, there is evidence they did [make stuff up] from time to time. Consider Matthew 2 for example:

“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.’”

There is no such prophecy anywhere in the Bible [emphasis in original].


Lost Prophecies?

I became aware of Matthew 2:23 when I read through the New Testament at age 20. The Bible I was reading had footnotes revealing where various quotations from the Old Testament could be found, and I was surprised to see that there was no Old Testament reference for the prophecy given here.

What did this mean?

What was Matthew quoting?

Was it a source that had been lost?

We know that there were many prophets in ancient Israel who genuinely spoke for God, even though their prophecies are not recorded in the Old Testament. 1 Kings even indicates that there were as many as a hundred prophets at once!

And Ahab called Obadi'ah, who was over the household. (Now Obadi'ah revered the LORD greatly; and when Jez'ebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadi'ah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave, and fed them with bread and water) [1 Kings 18:3-4].

Could it be that some of this material was passed down in the form of oral tradition, and this is what Matthew was referring to?

Possibly, but there is another option . . .


Lost Books?

We even know that some of them wrote books, because the Old Testament refers to them. Consider these verses:

As for the events of King David’s reign, from beginning to end, they are written in the records of Samuel the seer, the records of Nathan the prophet and the records of Gad the seer [1 Chron. 29:29].

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat? [2 Chron. 9:29].

As for the events of Rehoboam’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Shemaiah the prophet and of Iddo the seer that deal with genealogies? There was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam [2 Chron. 12:15].

The other events of Abijah’s reign, what he did and what he said, are written in the annotations of the prophet Iddo [2 Chron. 13:22].

These books apparently were around at the time Chronicles was written, but under God's providence they did not become part of the canon of Scripture.

Why that was, and what the exact status of these books was, we cannot know. But the books apparently were known in antiquity.

Could Matthew have known them, or at least some of their contents, and could that have been the source he was referring to?

Possibly, but there is another, more likely explanation . . .


"Then Was Fulfilled"

Let's look at the way Matthew tends to talk about Jesus "fulfilling" a prophecy. Consider these verses:

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah [1:17].

And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene" [2:23].

that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled [4:14].

With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive [13:14].

"But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" [26:54].

"But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples forsook him and fled [26:56].

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel [27:9].

That's it. That's the entire collection of verses where Matthew refers to Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled.

Notice that in four of the seven instances, he names a specific prophet.

In the other three cases, he gives a more general reference. In 26:54, he refers to "the scriptures" being fulfilled, without citing a specific passage--thus indicating that there is not a single, specific passage under discussion.

The same thing happens in 26:56, where we have a general reference to "the scriptures of the prophets"--again indicating that there is not a single, specific passage in view but some combination of passages.

Which category does 2:23 fall into?


Is This a Quotation or Not?

You might think it falls into the first category, because there appears to be a quotation in many English translations: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

But this is less of an indicator than you might think. Ancient Greek didn't have quotation marks. There were other ways it indicated that someone was being quoted directly--what is known as "direct discourse"--but they're not as clear-cut as modern quotation marks, and translators have to decide whether to use quotation marks or not in an English translation.

That's why not all of them do. Consider these translations of the passage:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene [KJV].

and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene [ASV].

And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was said by prophets: That he shall be called a Nazarene [Douay-Rheims].

and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene [ERV].

The translations that use the word "that" in front of the statement are rendering the Greek in the most literal fashion--hoti Nazoraios klethesetai--"that he shall be called a Nazorean." The word hoti ("that") is sometimes used in Greek to signal the beginning of direct discourse (like an open quotation mark in English), but not always. Sometimes it just means "that."

Which does it mean in this case?


"Prophets" . . . Not "Prophet"

You'll note that Matthew doesn't attribute the statement about Jesus being called a Nazarene to a specific prophet. Instead, he says it was said "through the prophets" (Greek, dia ton propheton).

That suggests that he's thinking of it more as a general theme in the prophets, not a specific passage, and that suggests that it would be better not to render it as a quotation.

Thus Bible scholars tend to take the passage not as a quotation but as a summary expressing a prophetic theme that could be found in more than one place.

Is there such a theme?


"A Branch Shall Grow out of His Roots"

There is indeed. It is often pointed out that Matthew is making a play on words involving the name of the town where Jesus lived (Nazareth or Naṣrat in Hebrew) and the Hebrew word nēṣer, which means or "branch" and appears in the Messianic prophecyof Isaiah 11:1--"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

Other prophets also spoke similarly of a messianic “branch” or “shoot,” although using different words (cf. Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 3:8; 6:12) [Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A, "Matthew 1-13"].

So the wordplay Matthew uses can be taken as a summary of what the prophets said regarding the Messiah.

This wordplay would have been even more obvious if, as the Church Fathers record, Matthew's Gospel was originally written in the language of the Hebrews, which would have been either Hebrew or Aramaic.

While it's possible that Matthew was drawing on an oral tradition from the Old Testament prophets or that he was quoting a book by a prophet which God chose not to have in the canon, it's more likely that he's just summarizing a theme found in multiple prophets and noting that Jesus' life story resonates with this theme and thus fulfills it.


What Matthew Wasn't Doing

Whichever of these explanations one prefers, though, it's clear that Matthew was not doing one thing in particular: He wasn't inventing this out of whole cloth (the subject of my previous video).

He's citing this fact as evidence for Jesus fulfilling divine prophecy--specifically, what was said "through the prophets"--and that makes no sense if he was simply inventing a prophecy.

If Matthew had said, "and thus Jesus fulfilled what was written through the prophet So-and-so, 'He would be born in the time of a king named Herod,'" then people would know that there was no such prophecy.

Matthew would damage his case by manufacturing a prophecy out of nothing.

As the other examples reveal, he's clearly concerned with showing his audience that the life of Jesus resonates with different Old Testament prophecies. It would be against his interests to invent a quotation that skeptical members of his audience would be sure to pounce on.

It is much more likely, given all that we've seen, that he is simply summarizing a prophetic trend that he was aware of and that his audience--who were in far closer touch with the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures than we are--would have been familiar with as well.

They were raised on Messianic prophecy, and the branch/shoot language--in Hebrew and Aramaic--would have been quite familiar to them.

So: Matthew didn't simply invent this. He didn't feel free to just make stuff up. What he was doing was either preserving an otherwise lost source or, more likely, summarizing and fleshing out the implications of sources we still have.

I do want to thank Paul Williams for raising the issue, though, and providing the opportunity to clarify this interesting passage.


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