The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem
The birthplace of the Messiah seemed to be a lively topic of discussion among the Jewish people who we encounter in the New Testament.
Because Jesus’ formative years were spent in Nazareth, a city in the region of Galilee, it was assumed by some that he was born there as well. In John 1:46, Nathanael said about Jesus to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (See also commentary on “The Messiah would be called a Nazarene.”) The implied answer is “no” – and especially not the Messiah!
Similarly, in John 7:41-42, during the holiday of Sukkot, people were debating the identity of Jesus. As the conversation developed, “Others said, ‘This is the Christ [Messiah].’ But some said, ‘Is the Christ [Messiah] to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ [Messiah] comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?’”
Yet others, perhaps not as well steeped in traditional teaching, seemed to be agnostic about the Messiah’s birthplace: “When the Christ [Messiah] appears, no one will know where he comes from” (John 7:27).
In agreement with the thought that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, we find first that Jesus was actually born there, though he grew up in Nazareth. Second, the “chief priests and scribes” cited the prophet Micah in support of this idea:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ [Messiah] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
This is a rare instance where rather than the writer of a gospel citing a messianic passage, we find the Jewish teachers of that day making the citation. First, we find that “wise men,” also called Magi, arrived on the scene from “the east,” probably pagan astrologers from Babylonia, Persia, or Arabia (we do not know the exact location). Though forbidden in the Bible, astrology was quite popular in various countries and “everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East.”1 Apparently if you wanted top-notch astrologers, the East was the place to go!
Herod, who was not a very godly ruler, gave credence to their announcement that the “king of the Jews” was born (whatever was exactly the “star” that they saw).
In any event, Herod was upset at the news, and so was “all Jerusalem” – but why the whole city? Did the “wise men” make a major public announcement? It is suggested that they had a large entourage accompanying them, or that Herod’s unpopularity with the people made a low-key announcement go viral among those who couldn’t stand Herod’s rule, in the hope that a replacement king would soon be coming.2 For that matter, the people may well have been troubled just by knowing Herod’s reputation: what if he had an unpredictable and violent reaction to the news of a new king?
We don’t know exactly why the whole city was in an uproar, nor do we know exactly how the Magi ascertained that something was afoot in Judea. It could have been by biblically-forbidden astrology (the Bible warns against its practice but does not say it is incapable of producing truth). Or it could be that they knew something of Jewish tradition on the subject, for each possible area of their origin was home to a substantial Jewish population.
In any event, astrology was feared by Roman rulers as a herald of ominous portents, and Herod was no different as a puppet king of Rome. (Could God have brought forth truth from astrology on this occasion to strike fear into Herod’s heart?) Concerned that his rule would be threatened by this “king of the Jews,” Herod convened a committee of those “in the know” and asked them about the Messiah’s birthplace. They gave a unanimous answer: Bethlehem, in Judea, and in proof they cited the prophet Micah. This ultimately led to Herod’s unhinged act of having all the boys two years and younger massacred in the vicinity of Bethlehem. He would brook no rival to his throne! But by this time, Jesus’ family had fled to Egypt where they remained until Herod died (see Matthew 2:14-15).
What is interesting is that the citation of Micah by the priests and scribes differs in wording from the original. Compare them:
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.
Micah 5:2 (v. 1 in Hebrew)
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Some point to these differences as examples of alleged misquotings of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. But the Bible was often cited in the New Testament with alterations that do not affect the actual meaning but make a sermonic or a midrashic point. After all, anyone could consult a scroll of the Prophets, or at least consult those who had access to such a scroll, and ascertain the original for themselves.
And so Matthew alters “Bethlehem Ephrathah” to “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” – which is the same place, and specifies which of the two Bethlehems was meant – in order to underscore that it was Judah and not some other place, the very land of the tribe of Judah, from whom the Messiah was expected to come.
Then Matthew alters “too little to be among the clans of Judah” to “are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” In the original text, Micah emphasizes the insignificance of Bethlehem. Yet Micah’s point is that although it is a small town of no account, yet it will see greatness when it produces the Messiah, the “ruler in Israel.” Matthew shortcuts to making the point of Bethlehem’s ultimate greatness, which is Micah’s point as well.
Third, Matthew changes “clans” to “rulers.” This too is a sermonic type of change: from the clans come the rulers, so Matthew simply wants to emphasize the point that Bethlehem will produce a ruler, perhaps to contrast this messianic ruler with the oppressive Roman rulers currently in place.
Finally, Matthew’s last line is from 2 Samuel 5:2, a verse that indicates King David will be the true shepherd of Israel. In this way, by emphasizing “ruler” previously, and now citing a verse about a “shepherd,” Matthew may be contrasting the Messiah with both Roman rulers and the leaders of Israel who, Jesus was later to say, were false shepherds. The child to be born will ultimately tower over both Roman and Jewish leadership as the ultimate leader, the Messiah. Matthew substitutes the 2 Samuel verse for Micah’s final thought on the antiquity of this child, likely because he is looking to make a point about rulership and leadership, not the ancient origins of the Messiah.
So, we do not have not a “misquoting,” but a very typical way of handling the Scripture to emphasize its true meaning and make a variety of sermonic points. It is midrash, a Jewish method of interpretation that brings out the meaning and application of a text.
1. Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), on Matthew 2:1.