Nephi Was Correct: Jesus Was Born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.” (1 Nephi 11:13)

The Birth of Jesus is the most well-known birth story in all of human history. Every Christmas Christians around the world celebrate His birth. “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of my favorite Christmas songs, running a tight heat there Low’s rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Tradition holds that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ birthplace, so our first reference is Matthew. Matthew Gospel is the most “Jewish” of the Synoptics. In Matthew 2 we read,

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

“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.”

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” (Matthew 2, KJV)

The passage cited in the Gospel is Micah 5:2,

“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands (clans) 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.”  (KJV) 

Here’s where the work of studying the scriptures come into play. And it’ll serve as a good example of just how messy the business of scripture is. Our first step is to determine the historical context of Micah. In chapter 1 we read, “The word of the LORD that came to Micah the Morashite in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” This gives our time frame: 759-698 BC.

Samaria was the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Secondly, we need to remember that “the LORD” (YHWH) is the pre-mortal Jesus. Thirdly, we see that Matthew changed Bethlehem from a family clan to a city. And lastly, “from everlasting” isn’t a great translation. The ESV renders “from ancient days.”

Let’s look at the first half of chapter five,

Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops:
he hath laid siege against us:
they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek.

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands (clans) 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.

Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth:
then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD (YHWH),
in the majesty of the name of the LORD (YHWH) his God;
and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.
And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land:
and when he shall tread in our palaces,
then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men.

And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword,
and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof:
thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian,
when he cometh into our land,
and when he treadeth within our borders.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and during this time Judah was dealing with the Assyrian crisis. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and resettled its occupants in other areas of the Assyrian Kingdom. Micah hailed from Moresheth, a fortified city Assyria captured prior to its 701 siege of Jerusalem. Despite the siege, Assyria failed to capture Jerusalem.

According to Isaiah 37:36, the Angel of YHWH struck dead 185,000 Assyrian troops during the night. When the remaining troops awoke, they fled before the scene of carnage. The wiki entry for the Assyrian siege reads,

The account of the blockade erected around Jerusalem is different from the sieges described in Sennacherib’s annals and the massive reliefs in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, which depict the successful siege of Lachish rather than events at Jerusalem. Though the blockade of Jerusalem was not a proper siege, it is clear from all available sources that a massive Assyrian army was encamped in the city’s vicinity, probably on its northern side. Though it is clear that the blockade of Jerusalem ended without significant fighting, how it was resolved and what stopped Sennacherib’s massive army from overwhelming the city is uncertain. The Biblical account of the end of Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem holds that though Hezekiah’s soldiers manned the walls of the city, ready to defend it against the Assyrians, an entity referred to as the destroying angel, sent by Yahweh, annihilated Sennacherib’s army, killing 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in front of Jerusalem’s gates. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus describes the operation as an Assyrian failure due to a “multitude of field-mice” descending upon the Assyrian camp, devouring crucial material such as quivers and bowstrings, leaving the Assyrians unarmed and causing them to flee. It is possible that the story of the mice infestation is an allusion to some kind of disease striking the Assyrian camp, possibly the septicemic plague. An alternative hypothesis, first advanced by journalist Henry T. Aubin in 2001, is that the blockade of Jerusalem might have been lifted through the intervention of a Kushite army from Egypt. The battle is considered unlikely to have been an outright Assyrian defeat, especially because contemporary Babylonian chronicles, otherwise eager to mention Assyrian failures, are silent on the matter.”

Whatever the case, Jerusalem was spared. In 605 BC, Babylon conquered the Assyrian empire and was no more.

So we are left with some questions. Was there a messiah? Was Micah’s “prophecy” simply designed to lift the spirits of and inspire those in Jerusalem? Whatever the case, Micah 5 deals with contemporary events, not events 700 years into the future. One commentator points out the,

“…misuse and misunderstanding of Christian exegets who confused the translation in 5:1 of a clan with a city. Ephrath was the clan to which the Bethlehemites belonged to, so this also gives us a pretty clear reference to David (who came from this clan), his descendants and the promise of another Davidic King to act as a ruler or shepherd (after “she who is to bear has borne” him) to protect and deliver the people from the threat of Assyria. Further prophecies detail this ruler’s smashing of Assyria, and all other foes of Israel until the Utopian future has arrived. Well, it seems pretty clear that contextually, this passage has absolutely nothing to do with the later birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who did not destroy the Assyrians and Nimrod, by the way. The Assyrians were destroyed eventually, but by Neo-Babylonian hands; not by a Davidic King. The further language of the oracles point to a fiercely military leader, one who destroys and crushes Israel’s foes – hardly in line with later Christian teaching of a “spiritual” victory (since any chance of an earthly military victory over Israel’s enemies was halted by his untimely crucifixion) through death for the sake of all mankind.

The best evidence that the messiah/deliverer of Micah 5 isn’t Jesus is that we read YHWH/Jehovah would be “his God.” Is Jesus is own God? It seems unlikely.

To further complicate issues, there is some debate over the authenticity of Micah 4 and 5. Two verses of chapter 4 mirror Isaiah 2. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes,

“Ewald (1867) and especially Stade (1881; 1883;1884; 1903) distinguished genuine from inauthentic and late elements in the book, using arguments that have seemed persuasive to most, and have remained decisive for much subsuquent study. Only chaps. 1-3 are the genuine words of Micah, and from these 2:12-13 must be subtracted as intrusive in its context. The hopeful material of the rest of the book contradicts chaps. 1-3 and must be discounted, especially in the view of Jeremiah 26:18, which knows Micah only as a prophet of doom…. Micah 4:1-4 is the same as Isaiah 2:2-4, the only substantial difference being the addition in Micah of the line beginning: “But they shall sit every man under his vine.” (Vol. 4, pp. 808-809, Doubleday, 1992)

And to complicate it even further, Jesus quotes of Micah 5: at Bo7-13 at Bountiful, but appears to attribute it to Isaiah. (See 3 Nephi 21). Is it possible that the second half Micah 5, not considered to be original to that book, was originally an oracle given to Isaiah but not included in his book? Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries, after all.. I don’t know the answer to these question

WHY DID MATTHEW ADAPT MICAH 5?

“Matthew, proclaiming the message of Jesus the Messiah c. 80 AD, found himself in competition primarily  with those Pharisaic teachers and rabbis, who were successfully  establishing themselves throughout the Jewish world as authoritative interpreters of the Torah.  The Pharisees wanted to place the Torah at the center of Jewish  life as a replacement for the ruined temple.  Their aim was to teach a practical interpretation of Jewish law that would preserve Jewish groups throughout the world as a separate and holy people.   Matthew saw the Pharisees as the chief rivals to his own teachings of Jesus and decided to present Jesus and his message in terms comprehensible to the Pharisees and their large following—not only as God’s Messiah, but also as the one whose teaching embodies and fulfills the true righteousness  previously taught  in “the law and the prophets”…In writing his gospel, Matthew was concerned to refute damaging rumors about Jesus—for example, that his birth was illegitimate, which would disqualify him as a suitable candidate for Israel’s Messiah.  Furthermore, Jesus was known to come from Nazareth in Galilee, and from a common family—not the royal, Davidic dynasty established in Bethlehem, as would befit a King of Israel.”  (Elaine Pagels, “The Origins of Satan,” pp.  76-77)

Matthew, writing for a group of Jewish Christians, portrays Jesus as fully a man of Israel. The first chapters of his Gospel sees a retelling of the Moses story, only with Jesus in the place of Moses: a flight to Egypt, a massacre of children, etc. It’s not history as we think of it. Matthew isn’t lying, he’s creating a narrative by proof-texting ancient Hebrew scriptures to show that Jesus is the Messiah in terms his audience would understand. Jesus is the new Moses, a copy or model of their national hero.

Pagel continues,

“To prove that Jesus, despite his humble birth, possessed messianic credentials, Matthew works out a royal genealogy for Jesus, tracing his history back to Abraham by way of King David.  Luke’s genealogy differs from Matthew’s. (Compare Matthew 1:1-17 with Luke 3:22-28).

Matthew tells an elaborate story to explain why Jesus, the descendent of kings, was thought to belong to an obscure family in the town of Nazareth in Galilee and not to a royal dynasty based in Bethlehem…According to scholars, Matthew is less concerned to give biographical information than to show a connection between Jesus, Moses, and Israel’s exodus from Egypt.  Like Moses, who, as a newborn escaped the furious wrath of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who ordered a mass slaughter of Hebrew male infants, so Jesus, Matthew says, escaped the wrath of King Herod.  And as God once delivered Israel from Egypt, so now, Matthew claims, he has delivered Jesus.  Matthew does here what he does throughout his gospel—he takes words from the prophetic writings generally understood to apply to the nation of Israel and applies them to Jesus of Nazareth, whom he sees as the culmination of Israel’s history.”  (pp.  78-79)

CONCLUSION

Matthew’s Gospel take an ancient Hebrew prophecy that deal with contemporary events and it applies it Jesus. It was important that Jesus be born in Bethlehem to fulfill this prophecy. However, people of Jesus’ day knew he was from Nazareth,

“Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1, KJV)

We have taken Matthew’s Gospel as journalistic history when, in fact, it’s probably an example of the ancient genre of “Lives.” In his book Scripting Jesus, L. Michael White writes,

Although some scholars have questioned whether the Gospels properly belong to the ancient genre of “Lives,” it is now widely accepted that they do…Those who have argued that they should be understood rather as extensions of the oral kerygma (or proclamation) about Jesus or primarily liturgical expositions do not account for the dramatic, rhetorical, and thematic elements that drive the Gospels as stories. As we have seen, both suggestions have a legitimate part in shaping the Gospels as performance narratives…Likewise, the Gospels were forged out of the storytelling cultures, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, in which they were born. Consequently, one who steps into the ancient fictive world of the Gospels knowing little of their notions of history and fiction risks much…In content, form and function, the Gospels are ancient “Lives” and written with all the same literary and historiographical conventions.” (p. 420)

None of this means Jesus isn’t the Messiah. He is. What it means is that we in West need to readjust our view of the Gospels as literature rather than history. It also shows that Nephi’s vision was correct. He saw Mary in Nazareth, exactly where Jesus was born.

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