~Out on a Limb~
In his appendix to Answering Jewish Objections volume 3, Dr. Michael Brown lays out some principles to try to help us see that Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecies.
Number five in his list is, “It is important to read every prophecy in its overall context in Scripture.” To explain his point, he elaborates on Isaiah chapters 7-11, hoping to connect the birth of Immanuel from 7:14 with the shoot of Jesse in 11:1. Following this thread, Brown remarks (pg. 192) that Matthew 2:23 alluded to Isaiah 11:1, adding parenthetically that “the Hebrew word for ‘Nazarene’ resembles the Hebrew word for ‘branch’.”
This argument by Brown and others seeks to solve a major issue many Jews have with the author of the first gospel. Matthew 2:23 says that Joseph “went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” We will presume that when the gospel writer wrote this, he was referring to Jesus’ dwelling in Nazareth being significant, not Joseph’s, but the major issue raised by the Jewish camp is that there is no verse in Tanach which says the Messiah, or anyone, is to be called “a Nazarene.”
Brown hints that since the word “Nazarene” (from the city Nazareth, or נצרת) is similar to the word for “branch” in Isaiah 11:1 (נצר), Matthew is correct in his claim in 2:23 and behold, Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
What makes this response from the missionary camp difficult to accept is the fact that there is still no verse that says anyone will be a “Nazarene.” Sure, the Hebrew words in question (נצר and נצרת) share three letters, but the word in Isaiah is not speaking of a city. Using the Christian logic applied here, one could also say that the Messiah is supposed to be a Choterene, perhaps from a city called Choteret, since the verse says a twig (חטר) will emerge from Jesse, and thus we have a verse Jesus didn’t fulfill.
Back to the point. It is a stretch to say that since the Greek Testament claims Jesus lived in a city with a name similar to the word “branch” in Isaiah, he therefore fulfilled a major messianic prophecy. We gain nothing from knowing where the Messiah lived (which may be why there is no explicit verse telling us this).
What about when Matthew states that “the prophets” said the Messiah will be called a “branch?” Perhaps he was paraphrasing a few oracles which, when we combine their testimony, can be summarized as “he will be called a Nazarene?”
Well, no. The word נצר, branch, appears twice in Tanach: once in Isaiah 11:1 speaking of the Messiah, and once in Isaiah 60:21 speaking of Israel. Yes, there are other places where the Messiah (Jeremiah 23:5) and Israel (Hosea 14:6-8) are described in botanical terms, but only once he the Messiah called a נצר.
The crucial blow to Matthew’s claim is the timing. At what point would one be able to say the Messiah is the “branch?” We could say either when the Messiah is born, at which point the “branch” has already shot forth from Jesse, or when he reveals himself as the Messiah for all to recognize, when it becomes clear who it is who is the branch from Jesse.
Thus, it would make sense for Matthew to appeal to Isaiah 11:1 during the infancy narrative in chapter 1, because then he could argue that now the branch is born. It would make sense for him to appeal to this branch concept during the baptism in chapter 3, when the voice from heaven proclaims “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Or even during his death, when, according to Christians, the main function of his “first coming” was fulfilled. I would go so far as to suggest it would be better had Matthew never written 2:23, and then any appeal to Isaiah 11 would be a basic appeal to actual, clear messianic prophecy.
But for apologists like Dr. Brown to suggest Matthew was pointing to Isaiah 11 only when Jesus moved to the north of Israel lends great credence to the Jewish claim about the first gospel: that a verse or concept was made up from whole cloth and applied to Jesus.
It sure is easy to fulfill hundreds of prophecies if one can make them up as they go along.