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.
Here’s a link to a web page of mine about the historical issues in the infancy narratives. I also have one that focuses more on the theological content.
Thanks, Dr. McGrath.:) It’s actually been a while since I read Raymond Brown’s big book, so I can brush up on the critical issues.
P.S. Soon, maybe tomorrow, I’m going to look at some of the arguments against Luke 2’s historicity. There’s actually a conservative scholar who says Judea could have been taxed before 6 C.E., even though Rome wasn’t ruling it directly. But I’ll have to dig through my computer to find it.
Great post, James. And I agree with you about Micah 5:2.
Couple of points. You said:
<< 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! >>
It seems to me that Jesus was using this passage in Psalms 110 to prove that He was more than just merely a man. He was not using the passage to deny that He was also the son of David, but because they thought that the prophecy was just another man and thought it blasphemy that Jesus suggests that “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58) — that He is the Son of God, Jesus challenges them on their faulty understanding.
<< Most of the Jews of Jesus’ day did not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. … But they weren’t aware of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. They just presumed that he was born in Galilee. >>
Perhaps you are right that most of the Jews did not know this, but they were rebuked for not recognizing the time of His coming (Luke 19:44). Also, how would you understand your comment in light of Matt 2:4-8 which states that Herod asked “all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law”?
One other thing I wanted to comment on… You wrote:
<< 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). >>
In John 12:38, Jesus quotes from Isa 53:1. Then in v40 He quotes from Isa 6:1. The interesting part is v39 which says “because that Isaiah said again” (KJV), “as Isaiah says elsewhere” (NIV), “for Isaiah also said” (ISV), “for Isaiah said again” (NASB)… It would seem that Jesus treats both parts as being from the same prophet.
Hi Ryan. Thanks for your comments!
1. Matthew 2:4-8 seems to say that all of the Jewish leaders knew the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But that doesn’t mean they knew Jesus was born there.
But I can see what you’re saying. It’s kind of like what you’re saying in your comments on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: there are many passages that suggest that the Pharisees knew Jesus was of God, but they rejected him anyway.
2. Bullinger’s Companion Bible has a good list of where Jesus calls Second and Third Isaiah “Isaiah.” And it’s the same sort of issue with the Pentateuch. Jesus calls all of it “Moses,” even though there are a lot of scholars today who don’t believe it was by a single author.
There are a few reasons that many scholars today split up Isaiah (and it’s getting to the point where many of them have divided it further!). I don’t know all of them, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Second Isaiah addresses issues that pertained to the Jews’ restoration from Babylonian exile, and so it makes sense to many scholars that it was written then. Third Isaiah (56-66) appears to speak to the post-exilic community, which is trying to get on its feet.
But I can udnerstand why some would believe Isaiah wrote all of it. Throughout Second Isaiah, it is said that it’s talking about things predicted from old times. And so I can see why one could argue that Second Isaiah is an old prophecy.
As far as Jesus goes, people have advanced different explanations. Some say that Jesus was just wrong on that. Jesus said the mustard seed was the smallest seed, which we know is not true. Perhaps Jesus assumed the science of his day, or pretended that he did because his aim was not to give a science lesson.
Another explanation is that, in those days, the books were called “Moses” and “Isaiah,” to Jesus was referring to them as books, not as authors. I don’t know.
Thanks for your interaction, James.
<< Jesus calls all of it “Moses,” even though there are a lot of scholars today who don’t believe it was by a single author. >>
Well, many scholars do try, and there is some evidence of later redaction, but does this mean that Moses didn’t write all 5 books? Was Jesus just playing along with the folklore when He said things like “before Abraham, I AM”? Personally, I think I’m going to trust Jesus on this one…
<< There are a few reasons that many scholars today split up Isaiah (and it’s getting to the point where many of them have divided it further!). I don’t know all of them, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Second Isaiah addresses issues that pertained to the Jews’ restoration from Babylonian exile, and so it makes sense to many scholars that it was written then. Third Isaiah (56-66) appears to speak to the post-exilic community, which is trying to get on its feet. >>
But don’t most of these scholars also believe that detailed prophecy predicted in advance is not possible? Yeah, I can see how that would make it difficult to believe that Isaiah wrote about all this. Yet we don’t think there was an Isaiah at the time of Jesus who wrote after the fact that John the Baptist came and that Jesus suffered and died, so why do we break him up like this in a period we know less about?
But scholarship that doesn’t take into account that detailed predictions of the future are made all over the bible many still yet future is not good scholarship.
<< Jesus said the mustard seed was the smallest seed, which we know is not true. Perhaps Jesus assumed the science of his day, or pretended that he did because his aim was not to give a science lesson. >>
Perhaps the NIV got it right when they translated Mark 4:31 as “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.” Though there are smaller seeds, in Jesus’ time, nothing that they sowed was smaller.
Ryan, what you posted is problematic, both because it simply doesn’t fit the evidence, and because it presents a common caricature of scholarly viewpoints rather than what scholars actually think and how we nuance our views and approaches.
First, by treating the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as though they can be straightforwardly considered Jesus’ actual words, you ignore the humongous difference of style and vocabulary (the same sort of evidence that contributes to scholars speaking of ‘Deutero-Isaiah’).
The NIV is marketed at individuals who believe that they are supposed to take the Bible literally, and so it smooths over many difficulties – the mustard seed as the smallest seed, the dome in Genesis 1, the different order of creation between Genesis 1-2. In some instances the translations are legitimate, in some they are a stretch, but in every instance they are an interpretation based on the prior conviction that the Bible must always be right, rather than things that are the only obvious meaning of the text.
In German, the Pentateuch is called “the books of Moses”, and so if one discusses the authorship of Genesis, one is forced to say “Moses didn’t write 1 Moses”. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. But to argue that Moses was the author of these books, and not just material that was included in them, ignores the references to ‘back then the Canaanites were in the land”, kings who reigned over Israel, and other details that indicate the author’s later perspective. In short, arguing for Moses as author is giving church tradition priority over the evidence of the Bible itself.
As for prediction, not all scholars deny that Jesus spoke of the temple’s destruction before it happened. But in some cases, as in the case of Daniel where the accuracy gets better and better as the events of Antiochus Epiphanes’ time approach and then it goes wrong, it is once again the evidence of the text itself, and not philosophical presuppositions, that lead to the conclusion that this is not genuine prediction we’re dealing with in that case.
In short, I think you give so much authority to your presupposed doctrine of Scripture that nothing, not even evidence from the Bible itself, can persuade you to rethink it. And that can in no sense be called “Biblical Christianity”!
Mark 4:31 says, “which, whenever it is sown on the ground, [is] smaller of all the seeds on the earth.” I wonder what that means. Was it bigger before it touched the ground? I’m not making fun of the Bible, here, since I don’t think any text–divinely inspired or not–says obvious absurdities. So I’m sure there’s some sort of explanation.
Dear Dr. McGrath,
<< In short, I think you give so much authority to your presupposed doctrine of Scripture that nothing, not even evidence from the Bible itself, can persuade you to rethink it. And that can in no sense be called “Biblical Christianity”! >>
Well you certainly have come out with all barrels loaded. However, I don’t think I am the first to challenge the views you seem to be holding.
While I am open to hearing and considering any argument, I admit that I take a more presuppositional approach to scripture, though for a very good reason. If I am to think that Jesus can’t get basic facts about His creation straight when He claims to be the creator God, then how am I to believe that a) He created all of life, even the DNA that forms the blueprint for life, and b) that He has control over it and can resurrect me from the dead and fulfill His promises concerning the future? What kind of faith is it that says, “I fully believe and bet my life on the words of Jesus when He said, ‘It is finished!’, but I honestly don’t think He understood basic natural facts”? Such a faith is non-sensical.
Dr. McGrath, with all due respect, while we certainly have human agency involved, we are not dealing here with a thing of human origin. God has sovereignly superintended the scriptures to contain the precise meaning that He intended to convey. How He did this is not our business, but we can’t go on to presume a human origin to the words in the way we do our textual criticism. The fact that God superintends His Word in a way that leaves room for people to doubt and reject Him is fully consistent with His character. Jesus didn’t blind Peter while he was walking on the water to guarantee his success…yet his eyes caused him to stumble. And why did he stumble if not for the fact that he was doing the impossible and while looking at the waves around him, he couldn’t see how Jesus could sustain him through it. You see what look to you like 10 ft waves, and to some degree it may be your imagination getting away on you, though as you seek Him and His wisdom and instruction, most of the waves will become calm. When you see the waves, you need to trust Him nonetheless. When you look at a forest and despite the trees claim that it is not a forest because of some “evidence” on the ground in one spot or another, you miss the forest for the trees. If only we could see this, we might recognize the tragedy of our paths.
Make no doubt, if God cannot superintend scripture, then all we have is another human book regardless of how moving or inspiring it might be. I don’t place my faith in the words of humans who are not trustworthy; my faith is in a God who is both capable and who has given me His trustworthy Word which I can depend and lean upon in the day of my troubles and persecutions.
So instead of concluding that Jesus doesn’t know His creation, or that He wasn’t educated enough, or can make factual mistakes because He wasn’t writing a modern-day science textbook, I presuppose that Jesus truly is God (and all which that entails) — for without that fact my faith is futile. You seem to be suggesting that being Biblical means taking the Bible as guilty until proven innocent, whereas based on what I already know in the things it so clearly says and the events that have occurred, it is innocent until proven guilty in the things that look awkward. Your framework seems to be in the shifting sands of distrust, whereas I take it that the God who created and holds together the entire universe (whose power I cannot even fathom), is no less sovereign in holding together and preserving the meaning in His Word.
So, does this mean that I cannot be persuaded by Biblical evidence which seems to be saying that I cannot trust the Bible’s meaning? I don’t think so, for it is by the same reasoning that brought me to my conclusions concerning the Bible that brings me to reject all other Holy books.
Consequently, I have seen enough times how Jesus treated the scriptures (pinning His argument on a single word or the tense of a verb) to know that He did not treat it loosely but as a document that I can firmly trust as God’s revealed Word. When an expert with more years of study under his belt than I have been alive on this earth then comes along and says, “you can’t trust the words written as containing the actual meaning Jesus intended because there is a ‘humongous difference of style and vocabulary'” (since they were written down by different witnesses), am I to conclude, “Well, Dr. McGrath is an expert and I am not… surely he must know the truth, so I guess I can’t really depend upon the things Jesus said if I want to be truly Biblical”??
Ryan, I don’t see how I can possibly break into your circular argument. You trust Jesus based on the Biblical information about him, and you trust the Bible because Jesus tells you to. But Jesus tells you to in the Bible…but of course, the Bible is trustworthy because Jesus said it was…
Once again, I ask, how could God ever convince you that he did not share his attributes of perfection with a book?
<< Once again, I ask, how could God ever convince you that he did not share his attributes of perfection with a book? >>
Well, on first blush it would seem like you (and not God) are trying to convince me. At any rate, if I said that God could convince me by simply telling me in His Word either directly or indirectly, I’d have a problem because I wouldn’t know if I could trust His statement or not.
If I said that He should give me a vision, dream or some others means of private revelation, it would have to be able to be confirmed as consistent with His word. Otherwise, I would have to accept a new revelation that contradicts the old. Also, the very nature of the revelation–that His word doesn’t accurately convey His intended meaning–means that I cannot really trust the scriptures to be able to test this new revelation!
I think we can both agree that the pages containing the scriptures are themselves inanimate and not God and are therefore not to be worshipped as such. A book or any other object of creation could not share His attributes of perfection. However, if what He reveals is accurate and what He breathes is from His own nature, the meaning it contains can be just as perfect as He is because it is from Him. If it is not from Him, and is a creation of humans, then such perfection would not be possible.
Let me ask you this. How do you interpret the following verse:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV)
‘Divinely-breathed’ is the literal translation of the Greek, and so it seems the NIV is accurate here. If it wasn’t accurate, how then would scripture be useful for correction? In other words, you don’t seem to accept the correction I gave you because it came from the words documented as Jesus’ in the Bible, and so I must ask you, what good is it then?
<< Ryan, I don’t see how I can possibly break into your circular argument. You trust Jesus based on the Biblical information about him, and you trust the Bible because Jesus tells you to. But Jesus tells you to in the Bible…but of course, the Bible is trustworthy because Jesus said it was… >>
Dr. McGrath, you seem to be overlooking the fact that the scriptures are not the testimony of one man. Interestingly, the Pharisees made an argument similar to yours and Jesus answered it in the following passage:
“The Pharisees challenged him, ‘Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.'” (John 8:13-18 NIV)
We have many witnesses testifying in the scriptures. However, I want to know from you how the Father testifies as a witness confirming the things Jesus said.
What say you?
My point was not to put myself in the place of God. My point was that it seems that (1) evidence from the Bible itself, (2) evidence from Biblical scholarship undertaken by Christians, and (3) evidence from reason would not have any impact on changing your mind. And so basically, your views are not open to being changed, and so I thought it worth asking how God might teach you something new when you apparently have all the answers.
The reference to Scriptures being “God-breathed” (found in a letter that the majority of scholars find it difficult to regard as authentically by Paul, which is perhaps somewhat ironic) leads the author to say that this makes these writings (the Jewish Scriptures, since there was no New Testament when the New Testament documents were stlll being written) useful. I have no doubt that this is indeed true. But how you get from that to inerrancy is where I have problems with your viewpoint.
The Qur’an makes more substantial claims about itself. Why do you not trust its claim to be a divine revelation? What leads you to trust the Bible but not other Scriptures? And, interestingly enough, the verse you quoted literally says “every writing/scripture” 🙂