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Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

By all accounts, the tradition that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem stems from an interpretation of Micah 5:2ff, just as we see in the Matthean Infancy narrative. In the text, Herod brings together the leading religious officials (priests) and scribes (those learned in the Scriptures) and inquires of them “Where (is) the Anointed (One) [i.e. Messiah] to be born?” (Matt 2:4). Their answer (“in Bethlehem of Judea”), as presented in the narrative, is followed by a modified citation of Micah 5:2 [Heb v. 1]:

“And you, Bethlehem, (in) the land of Yehudah {Judah},
are not (in) one thing least among the leaders of Yehudah;
for (one) who leads [i.e. a leader] shall come out of you
who will shepherd my people Yisrael {Israel}.” (v. 6)

The portions in italics indicate points where the citation in Matthew differs from both the Hebrew (Masoretic) text and the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The last line is the result of joining 2 Sam 5:2 to the quotation from Micah. The differences otherwise are relatively slight, except for the first half of line 2, which alters entirely the sense of the original. It is hard to know whether this reflects a variant reading or an intentional change by the author; certainly, an early Christian such as the Gospel writer would be inclined here to emphasize the importance of Bethlehem.

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (cf. the previous day’s note). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

  • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah”—this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
  • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among”—as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
  • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah”—the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
  • “who will shepherd by people Israel”—this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

  • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry. It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
  • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
  • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
  • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
  • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

That Joseph was a descendant of David should be considered completely reliable on objective grounds. If early Christians had been inclined to accept or “invent” a fictitious (Davidic) origin for Jesus, for doctrinal reasons, they likely would have made Mary a descendant of David. And, indeed, this is precisely what happened subsequently in Christian tradition (cf. already in Ignatius Trallians 9:1; also Smyrneans 1:1; Ephesians 18:2; 20:2). The distinction of a genealogy based on legal, rather than biological, paternity was soon lost for Christians, especially as the faith spread out into the wider Greco-Roman world. Quite contrary to later developments, there is no indication in the Gospels whatever that Mary was herself a descendant of David. If the information in Lk 1:5, 36 is regarded as historically accurate, then it is more likely that Mary came from the line of Levi, rather than Judah. The only New Testament reference which might suggest otherwise is Romans 1:3, especially when compared with Gal 4:4. It has been popular in traditional-conservative circles, as a way to harmonize the apparent discrepancies between the two lists, to treat the genealogies in Matthew and Luke as being that of Joseph and Mary, respectively. However, such a solution is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).

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