Born in Bethlehem = Proof of Messiah?

Every so often on Twitter, I come into contact with a Christian claiming Jesus is the Messiah. Recently, I had an exchange with a couple of Christians who challenged me by saying that I could not be the Messiah because I have no fulfilled prophecies, but Jesus clearly is because he did. For instance, this is the exchange I received this reply:

To which I replied:

Hopefully anyone who is familiar with what the Messiah will be can instantly dismiss most of these claimed “prophecies.” But this might shock a lot of people (and not just Christians) when I say that there is no prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. I have touched upon this theme before, if you want to read about this, see my post: Q. How Did Herod the Great Know the Timing of the Messiah’s Birth? A. HE DIDN’T which was specifically about (contrary to the beliefs of a certain pop-apologist) how the Gospel of Matthew does not provide a prophecy about when the Messiah would be born but only provides an indication of where he would be born. However, I not only made it clear that the story makes no sense because the Jewish advisers did not know the Messiah had been born and so seemed completely unaware of any prophecies concerning when the Messiah would be born. Instead, all they seem to know is that when the Messiah had been born, they would merely know that he would have been born in Bethlehem. However, as I said last time; there is no a prophecy which says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, which is what I’ll be going through now.

The Messiah Born in Bethlehem?

To provide a bit of context, if you go on virtually any Christian website trying to prove Jesus was the Messiah, being born in Bethlehem will no doubt appear. Despite this, there is no prophecy in the Bible that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Now you might be tearing out your hair and screaming: “Dave you’re a moron. Have you not read Micah 5:2? This is clearly a prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.” So let’s look at each passage, beginning with Matthew 2:6

“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (KJV)

While Micah 5:2 (5:1 in a Jewish Bible) says:

And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah – you should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah-from you [he] shall emerge for Me, to be a ruler over Israel; and his origin is from of old, from days of yore

So, let’s look at these passages a little closer. Before I do that, there are few things I need to stress to begin with. Firstly, as you can see this is not an exact quote of Micah 5:2, but the author of Matthew paraphrases when he says: you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah while Micah reports: you are too small to be among the thousands of Judah and of course you are too small ≠ by no means least. Not only this, but Matthew 2:6 also ignores the final part of this which reports: “his origin is from of old, from days of yore.” Despite this, many Christians insist this is talking about Jesus being eternal by citing John 8:58 (which I will go through below). So aside from these issues, this leaves the question: is this a prophecy which says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem?

To answer this, I will direct you to an excellent blog post which goes though this in more detail, including an analysis of each Hebrew word. But to summarise, a good translation of Micah 5:2 is:

“And you of Bethlehem by Efrat, insignificant as you are among the thousands (or leaders) of Judea, one will go forth from you to Me to become the ruler over Israel – and his/its origins are from earlier times, from days of old.”

You might now be thinking, “one will go forth from you to Me to become the ruler over Israel” does this not that mean the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem? While this is the common Christian reading of this text, let us not forget that throughout the Bible, there is a clear and consistent theme that the Messiah must be a descendant of King David (for instance, see 1 Samuel 17:12, 1 Chronicles 22:9-10, 1 Kings 8:15-20, 1 Chronicles 17:11-15, 22:9-10, and 28:3-7). Hence why the Messiah is often referred to “Mashiach ben David” or the Messiah, son of David. And where was David born? Well he came from בֵּ֥ית לֶ֙חֶם֙ יְהוּדָ֔ה in other words as it says:

And David was the son of this Ephrathite man from Bethlehem of Y’hudah (Judah).” (1 Samuel 17:12)

This means that Micah is merely repeating what it says over and over again: that the Messiah will be a descendant of David, and it is David who was from Bethlehem, not that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. To make this clear, let us consider the portion of the passage that Matthew 2:6 does not quote. Remember that Micah 5:2 goes on to say:

“and his origin is from of old, from days of old.” (Micah 5:2b)

This means that the Messiah’s origins go back to ancient times. Again, this is perfectly consistent with what is reported in the Bible given that being the Messiah means that they belong to the tribe of Judah which was prophesied by Jacob in the first book of the Bible in Genesis 49:10 which says:

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until (it or he) comes to Shiloh, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.”

This means, this passage is speaking about the Messiah as a Bethlehemeite, from the tribe of Judah which have a long history. Thus, from the tribe of David will the Messiah come and it was David who was from Bethlehem.

From Days of Old or From Eternity?

As I mentioned above, although Matthew does not quote this part of this prophecy, many Christians when reading Micah 5:2 turn to John 1:1 or 8:58 which are both taken to mean that the Messiah is “from everlasting” and so believe that Micah is saying the Messiah will be in some sense timeless or eternal. For instance, in the King James Version of the Bible reports Micah 5:2 says:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

Many Christians claim the phrase יְמֵ֥י עֹולָֽם should be translated as “days of eternity” or some facsimile of this, but that simply is not the case. This line of reasoning is incredibly strange because when this phrase is used, it specifically refers to “as in days of old.” To break it down: יְמֵ֥י (y’mei) means day(s) while עֹולָֽם (olam) means long ago, ancient times. It is also important to note that the Holman Christian Standard Bible, New American Standard Bible, International Standard Version and others have “eternity” in Micah 5:2,  yet each translate the exact same phrase more accurately as “from old days” in other biblical passages. For example:

יְמֵ֥י עֹולָֽם the phrase is translated as “days of the past” in Isaiah 63:9 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

יְמֵ֥י עֹולָֽם the phrase is translated as “days of old” in Isaiah 63:9 (New American Standard Bible)

יְמֵ֥י עֹולָֽם the phrase is translated as “days of old” in Isaiah 63:9 (International Standard Version)

Furthermore, in Isaiah 63:11, Amos 9:11 and in Malachi 3:4 and Micah 7:14, each use this same phrase in the Jewish Bible and translated in the same way, meaning “the days of old” or “as in former years” or some variation thereof. But when it gets to Micah 5:2 it suddenly changes from this to “from everlasting.” This is the case with many Christian claims of Jesus fulfilling prophecy, that the same phrase is often mistranslated when it is a prophecy which is then taken to apply to Jesus. Yet as we can see, this reads perfectly to mean the Messiah’s origins go back to ancient times to the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10. Not only this, but on Biblehub it says:

“of past time: a. ancient time: ׳יְמֵי ע days of old Isaiah 63:9,11; Amos 9:11; Micah 5:1; Micah 7:14; Malachi 3:4;” (Remember, Micah 5:1 is 5:2 in Christian Bibles).

Beyond this, when this phrase talks about “everlasting” or “eternity” this refers to “indefinite futurity, with preposition for ever, always (sometimes = during the lifetime)” or “indefinite, unending future” which refer to forever in the future not expanding forever from the past. So here is the issue; if we have a phrase which is ambiguous (as all sentences can be depending on context) we have two choices. Just like the sentence “let’s eat Grandma”, should we take this to mean someone is saying to their grandmother that it is time to eat? Or conversely, are they saying to someone to eat their own grandmother? In the case here, do we take the approach that this applies to the Davidic king, which has a history from an ancient time (Genesis 49:10) is referred to several times earlier (see 1 Kings 8:15-20; 1 Chronicles 17:11-15, 22:9-10, and 28:3-7) that this should mean that a ruler of Israel will come forth from someone who was from Bethlehem, whose origins are from ancient days/days of old? Or should we take this to mean that the Messiah’s origin is eternal, despite never finding that in the Bible? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Given the above, this leaves the question; did Jesus fulfil this prophecy of being from the lineage of David?

Did Jesus Fulfil This Prophecy?

Given the above, it seems clear that this is not a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But one might still question whether Jesus could have possibly fulfilled this prophecy. While is it also often contended that Jesus was a biological descendent of David, for instance the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1 attempts to provide an account, Matthew’s also says that Jesus does not have a biological father. This is incredibly problematic because if Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, this means Jesus was not a member of the Bethlehemite clan and so was not from the tribe of Judah. When we also recall that after David was anointed by the prophecy Samuel, it reveals that the only rightful kings must be a legal descendant from the tribe of Judah. This means descended from King David and his son Solomon. As it says:

When your days (King David) will be completed and you will lie with your forefathers, then I shall raise up your seed after you, that which will issue from your loins, and I shall establish his kingdom. He shall build a Temple for My sake, and I shall make firm the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Samuel 7:12-13)

Equally it says:

Behold a son will be born to you; he will be a man of peace, and I shall give him peace from all his enemies around about, for Solomon will be his name, and I shall give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. (10) He shall build a House in My Name, and he shall be to Me as a son, and I to him as a Father, and I shall prepare the throne of his kingdom forever. (1 Chronicles 22:9-10 )

We therefore have a number of problems with the Christian account. Firstly, tribal lineage is only passed on by a Jewish biological father impregnating a Jewish woman. In the Jewish Bible, it clearly shows that only men transmit tribal status (for instance, see Numbers 1:17-18; 25:12-13 and Exodus 40:15). In contrast, who is Jewish is passed on maternally (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 or Ezra 10:2-3 if you want to read more, click here). This means Matthew’s genealogy is not only worthless, as Jesus is not biologically related to Joseph (as God is his father) but actually disqualifies Jesus from being the Messiah, as the Messiah must be of the tribe of Judah and descended through King David and Solomon which Jesus was not. Furthermore, Luke 3:31 disqualifies Jesus from fulfilling the requirements of being the Messiah as he says he is descended from David’s son Nathan, while the Messiah must be an ancestor or David and Solomon on their father’s side (see 1 Chronicles 22:9-10; 28:4-7) just as Priesthood can only be transmitted from a father to his biological sons (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 25:12-13).

What about John 7:40-43?

You might have read all of the above and still thought to yourself, there is still one thing left to consider. John 7:40-43 reports that:

On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.

The issue is, when Christians cite this passage, they quote the Gospel of John as if that is exactly what happened. Equally with Matthew 2 when the the author apparently knew what was going on with Herod when he apparently had the chief priests and teachers of the law with him in a private meeting. Not only this, but the author was apparently there to see what the Magi saw in their dream. Because there is nothing suspicious there! While with John it is harder to prove, you have to remember as with any historical source, you have to think “why did the author write that?” So why did the author of John put that in?

Obviously, one can base your view on the heuristic that “the author of John wrote this because this is exactly what happened.” However, you have to at least consider the reason why John put that, was because they were dealing with an objection that there is no prophecy that the Messiah will be born in בֵּֽית־לֶ֣חֶם Bethlehem so they wrote this, for the same reason Matthew did as well and had “chief priests and teachers of the law” confirm this. Equally, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a mythicist but let us consider 2 Peter which says that we “we are not following cleverly devised tales”. You have to question: why would the author write this? In the same way, why does Paul keep insisting he is telling the truth? So you have to question, is the reason why 2 Peter was written because there were a group (perhaps opposing Christian group) who were teaching that the story of Jesus was a “cleverly devised myth”? Equally with Paul, were people saying that Paul was lying so he needs to defend himself against this charge? Or due to Paul’s own reputation that he had to constantly respond to the challenge that Paul was not telling the truth? This is the problem, Christians seem to base their entire case on the notion that the Gospels report something because this is precisely what happened. Now it might well be that they did happen so let’s assume they did, you still have to ask, why were people having to respond to the charges or Jesus’ birth? Why did Matthew report that the “chief priests and teachers of the law” confirmed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? Why did 2 Peter report that they did not follow cleverly devised tales? Why did Paul have to insist he was telling the truth? These are the questions that one needs to wrestle with. While one may well answer that this is precisely what happened, it seems more plausible, as with Matthew 2, the author of John put these words into the mouth of the Jewish people to legitimise a controversial issue.

Conclusion

It seems clear from the above that the claimed prophecy that Jesus was the Messiah because he was born in Bethlehem is incredibly problematic. The bottom line is, while this verse clearly does not say that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, this does not mean the Messiah will not be born in Bethlehem. Of course, it is possible that the the Messiah could be born in Bethlehem, that is not the intent of the verse in question. Finally (and I can’t stress this enough) even if  this was a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and even if Jesus had the correct lineage and even if Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, while these may be necessary for someone to be the Messiah, it is not necessary and sufficient. For instance, many people were (and still are) born in Bethlehem, many people were descended from Kings David and Solomon and in the tribe of Judah are clearly not the Messiah. So when a Christian claims that Jesus is the Messiah because he was born in Bethlehem, get them to explain how this renders someone as the Messiah, given that this claim could have been fulfilled by countless people over the centuries.

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