Question: "What prophecy is Matthew 2:23 referring to regarding Jesus being a Nazarene?"
Answer: Matthew 2:23 says about Jesus, “He went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Where is this prophecy in the Old Testament?
Matthew is obviously not quoting a prophecy directly, as there is no Old Testament passage with the wording he uses. Three major options exist for interpreting this verse. First, it may be that Matthew is associating the word Nazarene with the Hebrew word netser (“branch or sprout”). The “Branch” was a common term for the Messiah, such as in Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Hebrew was written with only consonants, and netser would have appeared as NZR—the same main consonants as Nazareth. In fact, in Aramaic, the common language of Jesus’ day, the word for “Nazareth” and the Hebrew word for “branch” sounded very much alike. Matthew’s point could be that Jesus was “sprouting up” from an obscure village in Galilee; Jesus was the Branch predicted by the prophets, and the name of the town He grew up in happens to sound just like the prophets’ word for “branch.”
A second option is that Matthew is citing a prophecy not found in the Old Testament but in another source. If so, Matthew referred to a prophecy known to his original audience yet unknown to us today. However, this is unlikely and an argument from silence.
A third option is that Matthew uses the word Nazarene in reference to a person who is “despised and rejected.” In the first century, Nazareth was a small town about 55 miles north of Jerusalem, and it had a negative reputation among the Jews. Galilee was generally looked down upon by Judeans, and Nazareth of Galilee was especially despised (see John 1:46). If this was Matthew’s emphasis, the prophecies Matthew had in mind could include these two passages concerning the Messiah:
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:6–7). It’s true that Nazarenes were “scorned by everyone,” and so one could see this messianic prophecy as an allusion to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3). Again, in Jesus’ day, Nazarenes were “despised and rejected,” and so Isaiah’s prophecy could be viewed as an indirect reference to Jesus’ background as the supposed son of a carpenter from Nazareth.
If Psalm 22:6–7 and Isaiah 53:3 are the prophecies that Matthew had in mind, then the meaning of “He shall be called a Nazarene” is something akin to “He shall be despised and mocked by His own people.” Jesus not only identified with humanity by coming to our world; He also identified with the lowly of this world. His upbringing in an obscure and despised town served as an important part of His mission. Jesus identified Himself as “Jesus of Nazareth” during His encounter with Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:7–8). After his conversion, Paul mentioned Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 26:9). One of the names of the early Christians was “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), and the term Nasara, meaning “Nazarene,” is still used today by Muslims to identify a Christian.