By Ed Vasicek
Although the Christmas tree has pagan origins, Christians have embraced its beauty for centuries as an important centerpiece of Christmas décor. I suggest that the Christmas tree branch should stir us most. Why is that?
Although we associate Christmas with Bethlehem, our Lord was conceived and reared in the small village of Nazareth in Israel’s northern province, Galilee. This is where Mary and Joseph grew up and lived. This is where an angel appeared to Mary and announced that she would mother the Messiah. This is where Joseph received a vision in a dream, assuring him that Mary truly had conceived while yet a virgin. The espoused couple travelled to the original city of David, Bethlehem, leaving what might be called the new village of David’s heirs, Nazareth.
A number of authorities have postulated that the name “Nazareth” was derived from the Hebrew word for “branch,” netzer. Paul Wallace (John’s Rabbi) writes,
When the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23), they [are referring to]…the family line of David. Isaiah 11:1 predicts the coming of the Messiah. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch (netzer) will bear fruit.”
John Gill (commenting on Matthew 2:23) adds,
“a branch shall grow out of his roots”; a prophecy owned by the Jews themselves to belong to the Messiah, and which was now fulfilled in Jesus; who as he was descended from Jesse’s family, so by dwelling at Nazareth, he would appear to be, and would be “called a Nazarene, or Netzer, the branch”; being an inhabitant of…Netzer, so called from the multitude of plants and trees that grew there.
Although Gill’s explanation for the name of this village is viable, another (and I believe better) explanation is advanced by Wallace. He quotes Abrgil Pixner (With Jesus Through Galilee, p. 16) , who suggests, “One can justly assume that…Nazareth (Little-Netzer) acquired its name from a Davidic clan, that presumably came from Babylon around the year 100 BC.” Thus netzer refers to David’s direct descendants.
It is also possible that some of the descendants of David first moved to Bethlehem — David’s original home town — and then later migrated to Nazareth, perhaps joining other family members who had come from Babylon. Or perhaps they had all come, more recently, from Bethlehem.
When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a census (Luke 2:1), it is unlikely that they returned to Bethlehem simply because David had been born there a full thousand years earlier. Luke’s brief summary for the reason of their journey to Bethlehem is just that: a brief summary of what might otherwise be an involved (and tedious) explanation.
For centuries after David, his descendants lived in Jerusalem (called the “city of David” in the Old Testament, see 2 Samuel 5:7 for an example), not Bethlehem (call the “city of David” by the Christmas angel, Luke 2:11). Keener comments:
Pottery samples suggest a recent migration of the people from Bethlehem area to Nazareth around this time; Joseph’s legal residence is apparently still Bethlehem, where he had been raised (Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, p. 183).
A later census schedule, beginning in 6 AD, required land owners to return to their home towns (where they owned land) every 15 years for purposes of taxation and accounting. In light of this, we can postulate that Joseph owned land — probably inherited — from when his forefathers (well after the return from Babylon) lived in Bethlehem [see Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, and also G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 266).
Although this may come as a surprise, most of us reading this article have descended from David—although we probably have none of his genetic material. We are neither ruling descendants nor direct descendants. Why would I say such a thing?
Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines, thus producing a vast set of heirs. Solomon’s daughters would have married into the royalty of neighboring nations. This was a common practice at the time, and helped form political alliances. Some of these granddaughters (born outside of Israel) would have been sent even further away from center.
Considering this, all longstanding Europeans (except for more recent immigrants) are descended from the 8th century AD Emperor Charlemagne (see here(link is external)), it is just as likely that Europeans, Middle Easterners, many Africans and many Asians have descended from Solomon, since Solomon descended from David, and David descended from Abraham. Abraham truly is the father of many nations. When you read about the patriarchs in your Bible, you are likely reading about your forefathers!
Lest you misunderstand me, I am not saying most of us are Jews or Hebrews. I am saying that some of our ancestors were. Without getting into the complexities of genetics, the only way to keep a line traceable is through the male Y chromosome.
The fact that perhaps all or most Jews were descended from David does not mean they were all royalty. The royal line is passed down from firstborn son to firstborn son. Thus it becomes important to note that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7).
Jesus descended genetically from David through the non-ruling Davidic line of Mary, but the virgin-conceived boy was legally Joseph’s son. Joseph—also a descendant of David, but through the ruling line—must have been the oldest son in the line of David. Since the line of David had not been recognized (politically) for centuries, Joseph supported himself in the construction trade, working with stone and wood. (The word “carpenter” only captures some of the meaning of the Greek term.)
Still, there may have been some special respect given to the essentially powerless ruling line of David. The following quotation from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) notes that Jesus was somehow legally privileged (probably because of His royal family). Also worth noting is the information about “the 40 day warning.” This may be the reason for the tone of gloom we see in John 7:1 and John 11:16.
[I]t was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!—Ulla retorted: “Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him? With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential].”
Jesus had four brothers and several sisters (Matt. 13: 55-56). Evidence and logic suggests to me that Jesus’ four brothers and sisters were younger than he; he was Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7), not her only born. Joseph kept her a virgin only until Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25).
Since Roman Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, they have pictured Joseph as an older man and sometimes account for Jesus’ brothers as actually Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage (he was postulated to be a widower). The argument that Joseph was dead before Jesus began His ministry is sometimes used to support this theory.
Modern Catholics are more prone to suggest that the term “brothers and sisters” is to be taken in a looser sense as “relatives.” We choose the more straightforward understanding, that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the natural offspring of Joseph and Mary and were younger than Jesus.
If Nazareth was a haven for the royal line, then it is probable that several false claimants to the messianic throne may have surfaced in that community, explaining the skeptical nature of the town’s inhabitants toward Jesus.
Nevertheless we find this phrase from the future disciple Nathaniel, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Excavations show that Nazareth was only a village of about 150 people at the time. It may be that the inhabitants had some arrogance attached to their Davidic lineage that was despised by other Galileans. Perhaps Nathaniel was saying, “Oh no! Not another one!”
Since the prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 9: 25) established the time when the Messiah could be expected, and since the Messiah was a ruling descendant of David, perhaps several rabbis from Nazareth sincerely wondered if they were the Messiah? Jesus, on the other hand, seemed an unlikely candidate to His fellow Nazarenes. They even tried to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30).
Although most residents of Nazareth thought Jesus an unlikely Messiah, we who have believed in Him are willing to accept the scandal and rejection associated with His name. We dare to believe that God became a man and entered our world two thousand plus years ago. We believe that He was born to die that we might live. We believe He arose from the dead after atoning for our sins upon the cross.
This Christmas season, while you are appreciating your beautifully decorated Christmas tree, think of the Branch (netzer) of David who came to earth for you! What a gift!