At DePauw University, a religion professor of mine said that Matthew and Luke have different goals in their stories about Jesus’ birth: Matthew wants to get Joseph and Mary from Bethlehem to Nazareth, whereas Luke wants to get them from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Both agree that Jesus was a Nazarene, for that was a well known fact. And both concur that Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, since Micah 5:2 says that the ruler of Israel shall come from that city. But, according to my professor, Matthew and Luke used different plot-lines to demonstrate how both could be true. Matthew presents Joseph and Mary moving to Nazareth from Bethlehem (with a stop in Egypt along the way), and, according to Matthew 2:23, that was how Jesus came to be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). Luke, on the other hand, maintains that Jesus’ family was always Nazarene, but Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem as part of a census (Luke 2).
Nowadays, a lot of Jews do not believe that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. When I was in Israel a few years ago, a friend and I encountered a member of the Chabad movement, who was handing out tefillin on a Friday afternoon. Many of the Chabads believe that the Messiah has already come a first time, but they maintain that he will one day return. For them, the Messiah was a Hasidic rabbi, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was born in the Ukraine. When I asked the Chabad how he reconciled that with the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, he responded that birth in Bethlehem is not a requirement for the Messiah, at least not according to Nachmanides (a thirteenth century Jewish thinker).
I didn’t argue with him, so I let myself stay puzzled, at least for a little while. Later that afternoon, as a group of us sat around a table and labeled pottery, I asked my professor how the Chabads could deny that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
“Birth in Bethlehem is not a requirement for the Messiah,” he replied.
“Then how do they explain Micah 5:2?” I asked.
“They can interpret that to mean that the Messiah will be descended from someone who was born in Bethlehem, namely, David.”
That doesn’t really convince me, since Micah 5:2 says that the ruler himself will go out of Bethlehem. But I guess that the Chabads and Nachmanides found another way to interpret that, for whatever reason.
In the time of Jesus, however, many of the Jewish leaders apparently held that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:4-6 presents the chief priests and scribes interpreting Micah 5:2 in such a manner. And in John 7:41-42, we read of a dispute among the Jews about Jesus’ messianic status:
“Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?'” (NRSV).
This is a strange passage. Most of the Jews of Jesus’ day did not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They probably knew something about Jesus’ unusual birth, for John presents the Jewish leaders telling him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself” (John 8:41). According to Matthew 1:18, Mary was pregnant before she married Joseph, and many of Jesus’ contemporaries most likely attributed that to fornication. I’m not sure if they had solid proof, since Mary didn’t get stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 22:13-24). But there were rumors floating around that Jesus was born before his parents were married. And the Jewish leaders in John were throwing them right in Jesus’ face.
But they weren’t aware of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. They just presumed that he was born in Galilee. And they obviously didn’t know about Jesus’ descent from David either, for they point out in their anti-Jesus argument that the Messiah must be a descendent of David, which they assume Jesus is not. And how did the early Christian community respond to that? Sure, there are plenty of New Testament passages that present Jesus as the seed of David (Matthew 1; 9:27; Romans 1:3). But consider Mark 12:35-37:
“While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?'”
Is Jesus denying in this passage that he is the son of David? Most Christian expositors hold that Jesus was saying he was not only the son of David, but was so much more in addition to that. Does this argument coincide with what the passage actually says? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. “How can he be his son?” looks like a denial to me. But Jesus wouldn’t contradict the idea that the Messiah would come from David, would he? That concept is all over the Hebrew Scriptures!
A lot of conservatives have attempted to harmonize the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, which many liberals deny is even possible. But, leaving this debate aside, I think that Luke’s birth story has a profound theological lesson. Micah 5:2 says that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, but Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. Mary seems to have been pregnant in Nazareth, so one could easily expect Jesus to be born there (see Luke 2:5), if events transpire according to their natural course. Will the prophecy fall to the ground? No, for a massive global event happens that will ensure its fulfillment: Caesar Augustus decrees that the world must be registered, and so Joseph has to return to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors (Luke 2:1-4). And that’s how Jesus got to be born in Bethlehem, in Luke’s account.
Why was it so important to God that Jesus be born in Bethlehem? As far as the Gospels are concerned, the answer is basically, “Because that was what the prophecy predicted.” The Gospels often depict Jesus as someone who is following a script–the plan described in Scripture. Matthew 26:55-56 is an intriguing example of this:
“At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.”
Jesus could have been arrested at any time. Maybe he could’ve even died at any time. When the people of Nazareth were about to throw him off the cliff (Luke 4:29), who’s to say that his death then and there would not have atoned for the sins of humanity? I mean, I’ve heard Christians say, “Jesus came specifically to die.” Why couldn’t he have died then? But all of the events of Jesus’ life–including his death–had to occur according to a script: the script of Scripture. In the eyes of the Gospel writers, how things were to transpire had been mapped out years before, in almost excruciating detail.
One can then ask, “Okay, so why did God write the script that way? Why did he predict that the ruler would come from Bethlehem?” In the Hebrew Bible, there is a lot of typology, or repetition of historical events. Second Isaiah likens the Jews’ restoration to Palestine in the sixth century B.C.E. to her exodus from Egypt (Isaiah 52:4), and First Isaiah likewise envisions a second exodus (Isaiah 11:16). Isaiah 9:4 compares Israel’s deliverance from the Assyrians to the defeat of the Midianites in Judges 6-8 (the Gideon story). And so Micah 5 may be positing a repeat of a historical event: God once raised up a ruler from Bethlehem, David, who went on to defeat Israel’s enemies, and God will do so a second time, with David’s descendant.
But, as far as the Gospel writers were concerned, I can see them saying, “You want to know why God wrote the script that way? Why ask why? The fact is that he wrote it the way that he did, and events had to occur accordingly.”
But why couldn’t God have picked someone who was already in Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus? Why’d he pick someone in a different city altogether, only to have her move to the city of the prophecy? Can’t God be more direct and efficient in the way he does things?
Liberal scholars can address this question in a few ways. Some might say, “Well, that’s exactly what happens in Matthew’s account. Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem as natives, and then they move to Nazareth.” Others can assert, “Everyone knew that Jesus was a Nazarene, yet Luke wants him to be born in Nazareth to fulfill Micah 5:2. And so he grasps at straws for some way to get Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem. He uses a census, which actually occurred in 6 C.E.” (but that’s another issue).
Such approaches treat the text as Christian propaganda, and that is one approach. But maybe there’s a theological reason that God does things in a round-about manner: God has a plan that he will fulfill, regardless of any apparent obstacles that arise in his path. And sometimes he may use a round-about approach that actually creates obstacles, as he did when he decided to put Jesus in the womb of a woman from Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, or when he hardened Pharaoh’s heart at the Exodus, or when he put David on a wild goose-chase rather than simply killing Saul in his sleep.
Through obstacles, God gives himself an opportunity to demonstrate his power and love. After all, in Luke’s account, God orchestrates world events just so his Messiah can be born in Bethlehem. Caesar was the one with the power? Think again! God could use him as a mere tool, anytime he wanted. And that should encourage us that God’s good plan will prevail, regardless of present circumstances, or the powers that be, or anything else in all creation.