The Birth Myth – Part 3: The Role of Prophecy December 15, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Bethlehem, context, historical narrative, Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 31:15, Jesus, judaism, Marcus Borg, messianic prophecy, Micah 5:2, nativity, predictions
One of the major components of the birth narrative, and one that is regularly called upon by nativity apologists, is that of predictive prophecy and its role in foreshadowing the birth of Jesus. There are three major prophecies surrounding the birth and all of them come from the book of Matthew.
The first of these prognostications comes from an angel who is speaking to Joseph about the upcoming birth.
Matt 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14)
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.”
This is an interesting scripture to use, especially given the context of this lone sentence. This passage was probably not meant at that time to point ahead to some distant day, some 700 years later, when a savior would be born of a virgin. Rather, when placed in its context, scholars agree that Isaiah 10-17 was dealing with King Ahaz, the ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah, who was being threatened by two invading kings (those of Damascus and Samaria). To again quote Borg:
Within that historical context, Isaiah tells King Ahaz that God will give him a sign – namely, a young woman already pregnant will give her child the symbolic name Immanuel. Isaiah then tells Ahaz that before this child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the crisis will be over. In its eighth-century context, the passage promises deliverance to Ahaz and Judah: they will be safe.
The second is spoken by the chief priests to King Herod after he asks them where Christ was to be born.
Matt 2:6 (quoting Micah 5:2)
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you will come a ruler
Who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
Micah goes through the first four chapters telling of upcoming destruction and captivity and skewering the Jewish leaders for their oppression of the less fortunate. It is against this backdrop that chapter 5 arises, telling of this Davidic leader who will arise from Bethlehem and lead his people with violent force against those who hold them back. Given that David was born in Bethlehem, it makes sense that they would look to that town as the source for their next great leader. This is widely regarded as a messianic prophecy and it also makes it quite understandable why the Jews of Jesus’ time expected a mighty warrior messiah. Some scholars suggest that this may have been more of a plea from Micah to God for help in their situation at that time, rather than a prediction for what would come hundreds of years later.
The third and final prophecy that will be mentioned in this entry has to do with Herod’s slaughter of babies in order to get Jesus.
Matt 2:17-18 (quoting Jeremiah 31:15)
Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying,
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.
The problem with assuming that this single verse was related to an incident that possibly occurred hundreds of years later is that the context around this verse gives no indication of it referring to such an incident. This passage in Jeremiah is dealing with the horrors of the Babylonian captivity. In addition to that, the action of Herod slaughtering babies seems to be an obvious allusion to the situation that faced Moses as a baby in Egypt. Thus, this particular aspect of the story adds to the mystique surrounding Jesus and signifies him as an important person to the Jews, one that is even on the level of Moses.
So, if these are not truly predictive prophecies, why did Matthew see fit to include them in his account?
It helps to remember that the book of Matthew was written to Jews who knew the Hebrew Bible, so naturally it was written to fit their particular context. So, in talking of Jesus and his significance, the writer echoed language from the Hebrew scriptures and this allowed him to show the continuity from their history to Jesus. In doing this, Matthew created a historical narrative, one that bridges that gap.