Orthography is the study of how words are spelled and written in a text, or in general, the standardization of word-forms. Ancient Greek manuscripts frequently contain numerous instances of orthographical variations in the spelling of words (misspellings?) and other errors. Before the use of dictionaries, which help to standardize the use of language, the same is true in all languages. What follows in this essay is one of those orthographical oddities in the Greek New Testament with regard to words used to identify Jesus.
Matthew (2:1, 4-5) and Luke (2:4-7) agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and they connect Jesus to the village of Nazareth in different ways, as though Nazareth were the better-known identification. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Egypt and then go to Nazaret (Matt 2:13-23) in accordance with prophecy (Matt 2:14-15, 23).1 In Luke, Mary and Joseph return to their own city Nazareth (Luke 2:39)—no prophecy involved.2 There are, here, two different spellings of the small village associated with Jesus. And there is yet a third spelling of the village name, Nazara (Matt 4:13; Luke 4:16). In time, the connection of the village with the man has become a near mantra in confessional and academic circles alike. He is "Jesus of Nazareth." What has led archaeologists and scholars in general to settle on the name Nazareth for the village? I suppose the substantive question is: what was the village generally called some thirty or forty years before Mark wrote (which was around 70)? The present site of the village where Jesus grew to adulthood is apparently at best traditional, for the name of the site is unconfirmed by any ancient inscriptions or texts.3
Rather than "Jesus of Nazareth" there is another related title given to Jesus in the New Testament. He is described as "Jesus the Nazarene," and is referred to in this manner far more often than he is called "Jesus of Nazareth" in the New Testament. The word Nazarene also appears in multiple forms. It appears several times as Nazarēnos (Mark 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Luke 4:34; 24:19). More often it appears with an awkward form as Nazōpaios (Matt 2:23; 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 22:8; 24:5; 26:9). Bible translators more often translate these two words as a noun "Nazareth," rather than an adjective "Nazarene or Nazorean." Usually Nazarene is the preferred translation. "Jesus the Nazarene" (or Nazorean) is an expression describing who he is.4 Calling him "Jesus of Nazareth" describes where he is from.
Why would there be such plurality of orthographical forms to refer to Jesus? I can think of three. Possibly the author of the text is slavishly following some source or authority, or the author is simply too careless to standardize the terms being used, or because copiers of the text made mistakes that were perpetuated without thinking by other scribes.5
Some translators flag the problem of the awkward adjective Nazorean by providing a note that the word Nazarene, which they put in their text, is literally Nazorean (for example, Bart Ehrman's translation of the New Testament and the New Revised Standard Version). Most translators do not provide an explanatory note and simply use Nazareth or Nazorean instead.
The sum of the matter is that the problem of these orthographical differences in the manuscripts is not generally known and remains unresolved, so far as I know; Jesus remains generally known today as Jesus of Nazareth, rather than Jesus, the Nazarene (or Nazorean), as he was in the first century. In our earliest source, the Gospel of Mark, the name Nazareth does not even appear, and Jesus is known as the Nazarene.
Missouri State University
1For the name Nazaret see: Matt 2:23; Mark 1:9; John 1:45, 46.
2For the name Nazareth see: Matt 21:11; Luke 1:26; 2:4, 39, 51; Acts 10:38.
3Lamoine Devries, "Nazareth," in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol 4, 240-41. Devries says: "The unimportance of Nazareth is reflected in the absence of references to the name in any ancient inscriptions or texts."
4Matthew (2:23) says that Jesus was a Nazarene in fulfilment of prophecy, but there is no such prophecy in the Old Testament. Luke notes that Paul was accused of belonging to the sect of the Nazarenes (Nazōpaiōn, Acts 24:5).
5There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament texts and most of them were copies, which themselves were recopied by scribes.
I’ll need to check this again, but I looked at variants of the canonical spellings in the critical apparatus of a gospel synopsis I have (Zeba Crook’s). Obviously, Acts isn’t included. Though it says it is not extensive it used around 90 important mss. There were a few other variants. In “Nazarene” and “Nazorean,” I found a variant in Luke 24.19 (Nazarene, Nazarite). When obviously used as a place name (like “from the town of Nazareth), in Mt. 4.13 there was Nazara, Nazareth, and Nazarath. For Luke 4.16, there was Nazaret, Nazarat, Nazara, and Nazareth.
I had more written, but it didn’t address the spelling as much as the thought that Nazareth as a place name came after the notion of Jesus being associated with “Nazirite.” An interesting related thing I noticed when writing that: The translation I found of the LXX (from the U of Penn.) doesn’t seem to use the term “Nazirite” in 1 Sam.1, about Samuel. In the story of Samson, (Judges 13) there are two LXX versions I found, One used “Nazir,” the other “Nazirite,” so there seemed to be even a variant spelling of that in the LXX.
Another aspect of note: Tertullian wrote (AM 4.8.1), speaking about chapter four of Luke: “The Christ of the Creator had to be called a Nazarene according to prophecy; whence the Jews also designate us, on that very account, Nazerenes after Him. For we are they of whom it is written, ‘Her Nazarites were whiter than snow;’...” [Lam. 4.7, I think, the version also in the KJV. My Jewish versions say “elect,” not “Nazarites.”]
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Would you care to speculate on what is the significance of all this diversity?
My background is in English, so I’ll start there. Before standardization of spelling, there were many variants. For instance, in north England & Scotland the word for “church” was “kirk” while in the south it was “church.” This doesn’t tell it all, since there were nine variant spellings of “kirk” and eleven of “church.” Dialect of a specific area had a lot to do with how a word was pronounced, controlling how a word was spelled. Insignificant names would not necessarily “stick” in one’s lexicon. Nazara, Nazaret, Nazareth and the two other (Nazarat, Nazarath) are similar sounds, but they aren’t used much in Matt, Mark or John.
I tend to see these spellings as having to do with primarily with similarities of sound and the unfamiliarity of the word (and place). I see them as place names for a village that was so small there probably wasn’t much print literacy, if any. No road signs! This could have to do with variant spellings, even by the same author, or copyists who weren’t sure. . One problem in medieval days in learning to read Latin was the variant spellings in classics. “... the same word could appear under several different guises” (Manguel, A History of Reading, p. 77).
I think earlier, (and more tentatively), Nazarene and Nazorean used the concept of the “Nazirite” as a description of Jesus, one who was set apart, consecrated, and these were variants that assumed their spelling from the speaker’s pronunciation, like above, “Hellenizing” the word the way it was heard. This tied Jesus to the biblical Nazirites, as well as contemporaries in Judea, which were mentioned by Josephus. (During the reign of Claudius, according to Josephus, AJ 19.294, Agrippa had the heads of Nazirites shorn when he returned to Judea.) My quote of Tertullian in the post above lends limited support for this.
The significance to me is that the author of Luke 1-2, which I see as a late addition, probably standardized the spelling “Nazareth” as the village, but that all four gospel writers saw the title of Nazarene or Nazorean as descriptive of Jesus. I’d tend to blame the rareness of the word for multiple spellings, even in one manuscript.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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