SPECIAL TOPIC: JESUS THE NAZARENE

There are several different Greek terms that the NT uses to speak of Jesus.

A. NT Terms

1. Nazareth – the city in Galilee (cf. Luke 1:26; 2:4,39,51; 4:16; Acts 10:38).  This city is not mentioned in contemporary sources, but has been found in later inscriptions.  For Jesus to be from Nazareth was not a compliment (cf. John 1:46). The sign over Jesus' cross which included this place name was a sign of Jewish contempt.

2. Nazarēnos – seems to also refer to a geographical location (cf. Luke 4:34; 24:19).

3. Nazōraios – may refer to a city, but could also be a play on the Hebrew Messianic term "Branch" (netzer, BDB 666, KB 718 II, cf. Isa. 11:1; synonym, BDB 855, Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12; alluded to in Rev. 22:16).  Luke uses this of Jesus in 18:37 and Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 22:8; 24:5; 26:9.

4. Related to #3 nāzir (BDB 634, KB 684), which means "consecrated one by means of a vow."

B. Historical usages of the term outside the NT.

1. It denoted a Jewish (pre-Christian) heretical group (Aramaic nāsōrayyā).

2. It was used in Jewish circles to describe believers in Christ (cf. Acts 24:5,14; 28:22, nosri).

3. It became the regular term to denote believers in the Syrian (Aramaic) churches. "Christian" was used in the Greek churches to denote believers.

4. Sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, the Pharisees reorganized at Jamnia and instigated a formal separation between the synagogue and the church.  An example of the type of curse formulas against Christians is found in "the Eighteen Benedictions" from Berakoth 28b-29a, which calls the believers "Nazarenes."

"May the Nazarenes and heretics disappear in a moment; they shall be erased from the book of life and not be written with the faithful."

5. It was used by Justin Martyr, Dial. 126:1, who used Isaiah's netzer (Isa. 11:1) of Jesus.

C. Author's opinion

I am surprised by so many spellings of the term, although I know this is not unheard of in the OT as "Joshua" has several different spellings in Hebrew.  The following items cause me to remain uncertain as to its precise meaning:

1. the close association with the Messianic term "Branch" (netzer) or the similar term nāzir (one consecrated by means of a vow) 

2. the negative connotation of the region of Galilee of the Gentiles

3. little or no literary contemporary attestation to the city of Nazareth in Galilee

4. it coming from the mouth of a demon in an eschatological sense (i.e., "Have you come to destroy us?").

For a full bibliography of studies of this word group, see Colin Brown (ed.), New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, p. 346 or Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 209-213, 223-225.

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