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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