Jesus’ Birth: The out of Egypt prophecy

This post is the third in a series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of the escape to Egypt.

What do we know?Jesus in Egypt

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:15

“2:13 After they had gone [the Magi], an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 2:14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 2:15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

The referenced passage is found in Hosea 11:1

” 11:1 When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. 11:2 But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. 11:3 Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. 11:4 I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them. 11:5 They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent!”

The escape to Egypt is not claimed anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is Jesus linked to the passage in Hosea. The obvious difficulty here is that the author of Matthew appears to have taken something completely out of context and linked it to Jesus. The passage in Hosea is most clearly read as a historical reference to the return of the Hebrew nation to the land of Israel after their enslavement in Egypt. The text also appears to have no prophetic content until 11:5, which suggests that Israel will be ruled by Assyria.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

The Christian view here is very simple: the passage is Hosea was in fact a foreshadowing of Jesus and this is revealed to us through the gospel of Matthew. This view fits within the larger idea that Jesus’ work on the cross is the culmination of everything we see in the Old Testament and, as such, we should not be surprised to find allusions to Jesus throughout the text. In this case, the allusion is to Jesus as the son of God and when Hosea says that God “summoned my son out of Egypt”, the author of Matthew is showing us that the exodus from Egypt was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ escape to, and return from, Egypt. Or, put another way, the major events in the history of Israel can be viewed as a symbolic parallel that holds a clue to recognizing the messiah.

In anticipation of the assertion that the story was invented to support the prophecy, the Christian points out that the difficulty with fitting this passage as a messianic prophecy makes it an unlikely choice for such behavior. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the story in Matthew is based on real events and that the link to Hosea was inspired by those events.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

From a naturalist perspective, this issue can be attributed to the personal motives of the author of Matthew and his desire to assert two ideas: that Jesus is the messiah and that Jesus is the son of God, and that these claims are supported by his fulfillment of the passage in Hosea. This is actually similar to the Christian view given above except that the naturalist claim is that the author is injecting fulfillment where there actually is none and that this is only done to support the author’s claims. Given the conflict with the birth account in Luke (see the Bethlehem post), it’s reasonable to believe that the “escape to Egypt” event may have been constructed solely for this purpose (and maybe to also help explain how Jesus ended up in Nazareth).

The historical events referenced by the passage in Hosea are important for understanding the author’s motives for introducing this event into Jesus’ birth story. Moses was considered a prototype of the messiah, an idea allegedly introduced by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18:15. By placing Jesus in Egypt after escaping an infanticide and then leaving Egypt to come to Israel the author has drawn a parallel between Moses and Jesus, which serves to reinforce the idea that Jesus is the messiah.

Regarding the claim of Jesus as God’s son, it is necessary to consider the fact that the text of Matthew is clearly directed to Jews and that there is good reason to believe that Matthew originated with Jewish Christians that still observed Jewish law (called Nazarenes in Acts and several early church sources). In addition to believing Jesus to be the messiah, the Nazarenes differed from traditional Jewish beliefs in several ways, one of which was a belief that the messiah was divine – the son of God. This is in contrast to another Jewish group which held that Jesus was the messiah but denied several central tenets that were common between Nazarenes and those that would eventually be known as Christians. In particular, the Ebionites generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and viewed the title “son of God” under an adoptionist view, which was to have occurred at Jesus’ baptism. The text in Matthew, however, supports the idea that Jesus was the son of God prior to his baptism.

In light of all of this, if this portion of Matthew has origins in some form of Nazarene tradition then it makes sense that the author would be compelled to find ways to argue for his messiahship and divinity by way of reference to the Tanakh text, upon which the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Jews agree. This is certainly motivation enough to cause one to inject meaning where there is none.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

There’s no denying that the passage in Hosea is speaking of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. It is difficult, however, to further contend that it can also be considered a prophecy of an event in Jesus’ infancy that has no record anywhere else. Even so, I agree with the assertion that this text would have been a poor choice to use as the basis for inventing the trip to Egypt. This makes it unlikely that the Hosea passage is the sole motivation behind the record and requires additional explanation if we are to believe that it was an invention. However, the cultural context of Matthew’s authorship provides a reasonable backdrop for understanding the additional motivations which explain why the story and claim of fulfilled prophecy would have been introduced. Ultimately, when all is considered, I find it difficult to see this as a legitimate prophecy. This leads me to assign the following probabilities:

Christianity
20%
Naturalism
80%

It’s worth noting that the Christian view has no problem with Matthew being written by a Nazarene source who was strongly arguing for Jesus as the messiah. The Christian simply agrees with the Nazarene interpretation of the Old Testament references in Matthew and doesn’t see this as something that was injected by the author.

Lastly, given that I made several references to Nazarenes and Ebionites and the origins of Matthew in this post, I need to point out that I will be discussing those topics in greater detail at some point in the future. The ideas raised here are based on much more information than was presented. I will try to cross-link and update when that time comes.

Updated Jan 8, 2014: In light of a post by Tim McGrew, I have incorporated the argument that the text in Hosea is a poor choice for the author to have used as the basis for constructing the events in Matthew. I did not adequately incorporate this into my original post. Though it is valid objection, I have offered other motivations and it does nothing to support the claim that the relevant text in Hosea is a prophecy in the first place. Even so, this addition shifted my assigned probabilities from 10 / 90 to 20 / 80.
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Jesus’ Birth: The Bethlehem prophecy

This post is the second in a series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of the messiah coming from Bethlehem.

What do we know?Bethlehem

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:5-6

 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

The referenced prophecy is found in Micah 5:2

” 5:1 But now slash yourself, daughter surrounded by soldiers! We are besieged! With a scepter they strike Israel’s ruler on the side of his face. 5:2 As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah – from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past. 5:3 So the Lord will hand the people of Israel over to their enemies until the time when the woman in labor gives birth. Then the rest of the king’s countrymen will return to be reunited with the people of Israel. 5:4 He will assume his post and shepherd the people by the Lord’s strength, by the sovereign authority of the Lord his God. They will live securely, for at that time he will be honored even in the distant regions of the earth. 5:5 He will give us peace. Should the Assyrians try to invade our land and attempt to set foot in our fortresses, we will send against them seven shepherd-rulers, make that eight commanders. 5:6 They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with a drawn sword. Our king will rescue us from the Assyrians should they attempt to invade our land and try to set foot in our territory.”

The birth in Bethlehem is also presented in Luke 2:4-7

“2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. 2:2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered. 2:4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

There are two primary difficulties with the fulfillment of this prophecy:

  1. Matthew and Luke seem to imply very different circumstances that place Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew seems to assume that Mary and Joseph were already living there and remained there until the flight to Egypt, whereas Luke indicates that he was only born there during a brief visit between residing in Nazareth.
  2. The prophecy suggests that the Messiah would have a political and military presence that was never realized by Jesus.

It’s worth noting that John 7:41-43 also points out that the Jews of the day recognized a problem that Jesus was known to be from Nazareth but the prophecy was that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
“7:41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 7:42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” 7:43 So there was a division in the crowd because of Jesus.”

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

In a Christian worldview the default position for every prophecy is to submit to the authority of scripture and contend that the prophecies are genuinely fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. The remaining discussion is then toward resolving the difficulties outlined above.

Mary and Joseph’s Residence

It’s not too difficult to mix the two accounts from Matthew and Luke to construct a cohesive timeline. It starts with Luke 2:1, where Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in accordance with the census. Shortly after their arrival, Jesus is born in a temporary shelter. They make their stay semi-permanent and stay long enough for the presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, which is not far from Bethlehem (Luke 2:22-23). The ceremony would have occurred when Jesus was 1 month old (per Numbers 18:15-16). Around that same time, while still in Bethlehem, the Magi arrive and Herod gets wind of the new king (Matthew 2:1-12). This takes the new family down to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18) and eventually back to Nazareth after Herod’s death (Matthew 2:19-23). It might help to review a “road” map to understand the geographic relationship between Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth. The journey from Nazareth to the Jerusalem area is about 70 miles.

The attributes of the Messiah

I’ve included the surrounding context of Micah 5:2 so that we can see the entirety of the prophecy. The prophetic elements can be dissected as follows:

  1. He comes from Bethlehem (5:2)
  2. His origins are in the distant past (5:2)
  3. All remaining exiles will return to Israel (5:3)
  4. He will lead the people in peaceful times (5:4-5)
  5. He will protect against the Assyrians (5:5-6)

In applying this to Jesus, the birth stories in Matthew and Luke place him in Bethlehem to fulfill #1. Jesus’ divinity fulfills #2. There’s no way to say that the rest of the Israelites ever returned from Babylon to Israel because so many willfully remained in Babylon after it’s fall, so #3 has no clear fulfillment unless it is viewed as a future event. Elements #4 and #5 are not always attributed to Jesus. There are, however, two primary ways that these verses are applied in some circles. Some see this simply as an allusion to the peaceful leadership of Jesus. Others push the fulfillment to the second coming and associate Assyria with some modern day region or as a non-specific reference to any outside presence that wars against Israel. It appears that the most common interpretation is to split this into two fulfillments, one at Jesus’ birth and the rest at his second coming.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

From a naturalist perspective, the difficulties outlined above are the natural byproduct of purely human authors recounting events from different sources. The remaining discussion from this perspective, then, is to show that these difficulties are not easily resolved and that this serves to reinforce the premise that the text is not divinely guided.

Mary and Joseph’s Residence

Despite the harmonization given in the Christian interpretation, the naturalist argues that a plain reading of the text gives rise to significant conflicts regarding the family’s time in Bethlehem:

  1. In Matthew, the story does not say where Joseph and Mary are living but states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nowhere does it indicate any travel for the birth. The assumption is that they were already there. After escaping to Egypt, they plan to return to the land of Israel but didn’t go into Judea for fear of the ruler (Matthew 2:21-22). This indicates that they were planning to return to their original home in Bethlehem. However, in Luke, Mary and Joseph are explicitly said to be living in Nazareth and only travel to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:4).
  2. In Luke, the family is said to return to Nazareth after they had “performed everything according to the law” (Luke 2:39). The redemption of the first born male was to occur at 1 month, so their return would have likely been between 1 to 2 months after Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, the family is in Bethlehem at least until the arrival of the Magi at a house (Matthew 2:9-12). Shortly after this the family flees Bethlehem for Egypt and stay there for some time until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-15). At this point, they travel back into Israel but end up in Galilee to avoid Herod’s son (Matthew 2:19-23). Presumably, the presentation at the temple would have also occurred within Matthew’s timeline. The additional collection of events in Matthew (Magi, escape to Egypt, Herod dies, return from Egypt) simply don’t match up with Luke’s account of returning home to Nazareth after performing their ceremonial duties.

The attributes of the Messiah

For this, we will build upon the 5 prophetic elements outlined in the Christian interpretation above.

  1. The ascent from Bethlehem can be applied to Jesus only if the Matthew and Luke accounts are correct, but the previous section shows how those conflict.
  2. The origins in the distant past is the author’s way of saying that this person is the long awaited messiah.
  3. The return to Israel cannot be applied to Jesus because a plain reading of the prophecy places this in concert with the arrival of the messiah, which did not happen. To the naturalist, the argument that this is a still future event is simply a convenient way to avoid the problem.
  4. The prophetic role of a ruler over the people was not fulfilled by Jesus because he never held any political leadership position. Regarding the possibility of future fulfillment, see #3.
  5. The prophetic protection against Assyria builds upon the fact that the Assyrian conquest ushered in the period of Israel’s constant dominion by outside empires that was still ongoing at the time of the writing. Clearly Jesus did not fulfill this role in any sense. Regarding the possibility of future fulfillment, see #3 again.

Ultimately, the entire prophecy disintegrates under the naturalist view because the Bethlehem birth story appears to have been injected into the gospels in order to support the prophecy and because the subsequent elements of the prophecy, which appear to be intended to be concurrent, simply don’t fit with the historical Jesus.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

There’s little contention that Micah 5:2 is anything but a messianic prophecy. This would explain why the authors of Matthew, Luke and John were compelled to address it (whereas only Matthew addresses other less obvious birth prophecies). Under the Christian interpretation, one is forced to provide work-arounds for the apparent conflicts and I find those work-arounds to be quite unsatisfactory. The harmonization of the birth accounts seems forced and there’s no justification for splitting the prophecy into a past and future fulfillment, especially when a plain reading of the text seems to imply that all the elements are concurrent. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
25%
Naturalism
75%
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Jesus’ Birth: The virgin birth prophecy

This post is the first in a series evaluating the birth story of Jesus and is specifically focused on the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of a virgin birth. For the record, I started this before Christmas but obviously didn’t finish in time.

What do we know?mary_statue

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 1:22-23 (all quotations use the NET translation)

“1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 1:20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”

and the prophecy comes from Isaiah 7:14

7:13 So Isaiah replied, “Pay attention, family of David. Do you consider it too insignificant to try the patience of men? Is that why you are also trying the patience of my God? 7:14 For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. 7:15 He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. 7:16 Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear will be desolate. 7:17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s family a time unlike any since Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria!””

Mary’s virginity is also presented in Luke 1:26-35

“1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

There are two primary difficulties associated with Jesus’ fulfillment of the virgin birth prophecy:

  1. The Hebrew word in the Isaiah passage in ‘almah’. In some translations, including the NET above, this word is translated to ‘young woman’ instead of virgin on the contention that this the more accurate translation.
  2. The context of the prophecy in Isaiah (as is provided above) seems to imply that the birth of the child is an impending event and that child’s life serves as a reference point for the timing of the predicted desolation of Syria and Israel.

These issues will be the focus of the evaluation from the Christian and naturalist viewpoints.

What is the Christian interpretation?

In a Christian worldview the default position for every prophecy is to submit to the authority of scripture and contend that the prophecies are genuinely fulfilled in Jesus’ birth, as asserted in Matthew. Even so, the difficulties noted above need to be addressed in order to support this view.

Almah translated as virgin

A quick search shows a lot of effort has been put into this word study and I’ve yet to encounter a definitive conclusion. It’s difficult to find an even handed discussion of the topic. Everything I’ve found is arguing to show that the Christian interpretation is either right or wrong. In the end, the strongest argument in favor of the ‘virgin’ translation is the fact that this is the translation in the Septuagint, which is the Old Testament translated to Greek by Jewish scholars before the birth of Jesus. That then is claimed to show that a scholarly, unbiased translation by those most familiar with the text and culture yielded a translation to ‘virgin’.

There is also a theory, which is affirmed by several early church fathers, that the original text of Matthew was in Hebrew and not Greek. In that scenario, the author would have simply used the same word as was used in Isaiah but, from the context, with the clear implication that it meant ‘virgin’. The theory that Matthew was originally in Hebrew is bolstered by the text’s obvious interest in demonstrating Jesus’ link to the Jewish tradition. Ultimately, this means that the author of Matthew understood the original passage to mean ‘virgin’ regardless of the translation.

The prophetical context

The most common explanation for the apparent “taking out of context” invokes a dual fulfillment, which relies on the subsequent chapters in Isaiah to show an intermingling of messianic and present day events. The present day fulfillment was said to be achieved in the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz in Isaiah 8. The messianic fulfillment was achieved in the birth of Jesus. Under this view the claim of fulfillment by Matthew is not in error but rather a revelation of the divine foreshadowing in Isaiah.

What is the naturalistic interpretation?

A naturalist contends that the difficulties arise because the Old Testament authors have no supernatural means to foretell future events and that the prophecy can only be fulfilled by as a matter of coincidence, misinterpretation or deceit.

Almah translated as virgin

The primary argument levied by those who contend that almah is best translated as ‘young woman’ instead of ‘virgin’ stands on the fact that the Hebrew word ‘bethulah’ is the better choice. This is supported by the fact that bethulah is used 50 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated as virgin. Almah is used only seven times and is usually translated as ‘maiden’ or ‘girl’, though the King James often uses ‘virgin’.

Ultimately, the most likely explanation under a naturalist view is that there was in place an oral tradition for Jesus’ virgin birth (perhaps inspired in part by other demi-god legends) and that the author (or more likely, a redactor) of Matthew was familiar with some form of the Septuagint and used that as the basis for establishing the link to the passage in Isaiah. This is bolstered when one considers the cultural aspects surrounding Matthew’s authorship. There is good reason to suspect that some of the text in Matthew originated in Nazarene circles, where the contention of the messiah’s virgin birth would have been important as an argument against the non-virgin interpretation held by Jews and Ebionites. We are told that both the Nazarenes and the Ebionites held an early version of Matthew and that the Ebionite version did not include the nativity. We are also told the Ebionites held to an adoptionist Christology. The virgin birth serves as a critical link in the claim that Jesus’ was divine from the start. When these aspects are considered, the passage in Isaiah which at first appeared to be an unlikely candidate for claiming messianic fulfillment suddenly becomes important in arguing for the author’s (or redactor’s) view.

The prophetical context

Without assuming that Jesus needs to fulfill the role of the child in Isaiah 7:14 the text can be read plainly to imply an impending birth. This also fits with the traditional Jewish interpretation, which does not assign a messianic role to the child. Also, without the assumption of divine inspiration for the text in Matthew, the claim of fulfillment can be seen as a human attempt to fit Jesus into the role of the messiah by hijacking the prophecy as messianic. As noted above, it is likely that some existing oral tradition had claimed that Jesus was born of a virgin and the writer in Matthew was trying to fit that into a prophecy to reinforce Jesus’ position as both the messiah and son of God. Alternatively we might suppose that the oral tradition was initiated in order to fulfill prophecy. This, however, is unlikely because there is no reason to believe that the messiah was ever previously expected to be born of a virgin.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

I don’t think that the controversy around the translation of ‘almah’ is very persuasive one way or the other. Neither translation seems unreasonable and the quotations in Matthew are mixed in their agreement with the Septuagint, so it’s hard to say whether it had any influence. However, the text in Isaiah seems to me to be quite clearly addressing an impending event. The introduction of double fulfillment to apply this to Jesus simply isn’t satisfying. The more rationale explanation is that the author of this particular text in Matthew was trying hard to support his own view by linking Jesus to the messiah and establishing his divinity from birth, and so took the verse out of context to support this. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
30%
Naturalism
70%

Note that the authorship of Matthew will be reviewed in more detail at some point in the future. I think that information can have significant implications in understanding the potential motivations behind the text.

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