The single Old Testament prophecy that specifies the birthplace of Jesus appears in a Messianic vision of Micah, a prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C.
But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands 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.
Here, Micah clearly states that the future ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem. By associating the Messiah with the birthplace and ancestral home of King David, the prophet recalls and reaffirms the earlier prophecies that the Messiah would come from David's line.
Yet the prophet cautions the nation not to expect a mere man, for the Messiah would be the One "whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." No mere man could be described as eternally preexistent. Thus, the ruler who would "come forth unto me" must unquestionably be God Himself.
Micah's prophecy was completely foreign to the thinking of his countrymen both in his own day and in the day of Jesus. They believed that God is a single person existing outside the universe which He created. How then could He limit Himself and become a being of flesh and blood within the confines of the universe? If He were to forsake His role as transcendent sustainer, would not the universe fall apart?
Invalidity of Modern Translations
Critics recoil from admitting that Micah foresees a divine Messiah. They therefore change the words "whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting" to "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (1). Micah, they say, is only prophesying that the future ruler of Israel would come from a line rooted in antiquity. Yet their translation does not stand examination, for two reasons.
1. "Goings forth" is the exact translation of a single word, the feminine plural of motsa' (2). This word can, by extension, refer to a source of going forth, such as a spring of water (2 Kings 2:21; Psa. 107:33, 35; Isa. 41:18; 58:11), an exit (Ezek. 42:11 NASB), or the east (Psa. 75:6); or to something that goes forth, such as a word (Deut. 8:3) or an export (rendered "import" in 1 Kings 10:28 NASB) (3). Whether motsa' can also signify the more abstract concept "origin" is debatable. That concept is remote from every use of the word outside Micah 5:2 (4). The word seems to always retain the idea of actual motion.
In any case, the translation "origin" or "origins" in Micah 5:2 is not supported by the context (5). The word clearly describes past activity of the same kind that would occur again when the future ruler emerged from Bethlehem (6). He would then "come forth unto me" with acceptable love and obedience, just as He has done in past "goings [or, 'comings'] forth," even "from of old, from everlasting."
2. The Hebrew word rendered "everlasting" in the KJV is olam, which the Old Testament often uses with reference to the eternal state of God. A few specimens will suffice.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting [olam] to everlasting [olam], thou art God.
22 The LORD possessed me [wisdom] in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
23 I was set up from everlasting [olam], from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting [olam].
1 The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.
2 Thy throne is established of old: thou art from everlasting [olam].
Evidence from Two Birth Narratives
The independent but not discrepant birth narratives in Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
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.
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke explains how Jesus came to be born in a place far from His parents' home in Nazareth of Galilee. A census then underway compelled Joseph to journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of his fathers. He took along his wife, Mary, although she was about ready to give birth to Jesus. While they were in Bethlehem, the child was born.
Jesus' Galilean Origins
In the view of many critics, the stories of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem were invented by the church to prove that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecy. In an effort to discredit these stories, they look for evidence in the Gospels that His actual birthplace was elsewhere. They imagine that they find such evidence in John 7, which tells about one of Jesus' last forays into the Temple. His enigmatic sayings set off a debate in the great crowd that flocked to hear Him.
40 Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet.
41 Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?
42 Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
43 So there was a division among the people because of him.
Some in the crowd decided that Jesus must be the Christ. Others contended that He could not be the Christ because He came from Galilee rather than Bethlehem. When news of the commotion in the Temple reached the religious leaders, they discussed Jesus among themselves and rejected Him on the same pretext. They said that His place of origin invalidated His claims.
45 Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?
46 The officers answered, Never man spake like this man.
47 Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived?
48 Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?
49 But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.
50 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,)
51 Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?
52 They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.
The critics, electing to believe the wild tossings of public opinion, infer that Galilee was the true place of Jesus' birth.
In his first look at this scene in John 7, a reader might find it somewhat puzzling that neither Jesus nor His disciples came forward with assurances that He was indeed born in Bethlehem, as prophecy required. He might think it was incumbent upon Jesus to answer any Biblical objection to His claims. Yet even a casual reader of the Gospels must notice that Jesus often refrained from defending Himself. How He dealt with people depended on whether they had faith. If they did, He nourished it with an act of gracious intervention in their lives. If they did not, He left them to sink further into unbelief. He knew perfectly well that those who balked at His Galilean origins were not sincere. They scorned Him not because they wished to honor the prophetic Scriptures, but because, in the hardness of their hearts, they wished to continue in their sins.
If His opponents had been governed by a genuine desire for the truth, they would have searched the Scriptures and discovered that the Messiah would be primarily active in Galilee.
1 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.
2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. . . .
6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:1-2, 6
In Galilee of the nations, long-abiding dimness and darkness would finally be dispelled by a great light. That light would shine at the coming of the child who would bear the name of God—that is, at the dawning of the Christ. Indeed, Galilee was where Jesus' ministry began and where it centered until the final months of His life. His Galilean background was another token that He was the Christ of prophecy. Yet even the leading scribes and Pharisees did not understand that although the Christ would arise in Bethlehem, He would appear in Galilee. The complaint of the religious leaders that "this people who knoweth not the law are cursed" (John 7:49) was an ironic indictment of themselves.
The same kind of evidence that attests to the Virgin Birth also confirms that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
1. Corroborating circumstances. Imagine how difficult it would be for a modern religious sect to claim that its founder, still living or recently dead, was born in a city other than his real birthplace. Enemies could check the claim by interviewing relatives and neighbors of the family or by consulting public records. Soon, the lie would be caught in a perpetual swirl of controversy, or be laughed into oblivion. Such a lie would have been almost as difficult to introduce and maintain in the first century. Yet, in the extant history of that century, there is no trace of any dispute concerning the birthplace of Jesus. There is, in fact, no evidence that enemies of the early church contested anything in the stories of His nativity. That these stories could have emerged and survived in a hostile environment tends in itself to verify them.
2. The credibility of the apostles. The chief apostles doubtless gave their blessing to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Thus, if these Gospels are prevaricating when they tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we must brand the chief apostles themselves as schemers and liars. Yet these men certified their testimony concerning Jesus by going to a martyr's death.
The stories of Jesus' nativity, showing that He was born in the place, manner, and lineage required by prophecy, are a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Anyone who denies that Jesus is the Christ must treat these stories as pious fictions—or, more bluntly, lies. But suppose for a minute that the early church actually did embellish the gospel with dishonest stories of how He fulfilled prophecy. The risk in any lie, of course, is that it might be exposed by the truth, and the truth bearing on the claims of the early church was still fresh and easily discovered. Thus, if more and more lies had been added to the gospel, they would eventually have broken down the credibility of the church. Yet, the church did not hesitate to preach that Jesus fulfilled a long list of prophecies concerning the Messiah. The apostles evidently did not fear contradiction and embarrassment by facts, and indeed no enemy of the church ever unearthed facts injurious to its growth and prosperity.