Friday, March 9, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 3

From Chapter 3 of Science Speaks by Peter Stoner:

1. "But thou, Bethlehem 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" (Micah 5:2).

This prophecy predicts that the Christ is to be born in Bethlehem. Since this is the first prophecy to be considered there are no previously set restrictions, so our question is: One man in how many, the world over, has been born in Bethlehem?

This very first example of Messianic prophecy provides us not with a good reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but with a good reason to believe that Jesus was NOT the Messiah. Someone can be the Messiah only if he (or she) fulfills ALL of the predictions of the Old Testament about the Messiah (or has fulfilled most of them so far, and it is reasonable to believe that he or she will eventually fulfill all of them).

Assuming that Stoner is correct that this is a prediction by an OT prophet about the Messiah, and assuming that Stoner's interpretation of the prediction is correct, then the following is true:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

I, for example, cannot be the Messiah, because I was not born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then Jesus satisfies this necessary condition for being the Messiah, and that would make him at least a candidate for being the Messiah. Since many people have been born in Behtlehem over the centuries, and since there is supposed to be only one Messiah, being born in Bethlehem is not a sufficient condition of being the Messiah, just a necessary condition.

On the other hand, if Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, then, just like me, he could not be the Messiah, for he would fail to satisfy this necessary condition of being the Messiah.

According to Stoner, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But Stoner is not an historian, nor is he a New Testament scholar. He is not an expert on the historical Jesus, so his assertion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn't carry much weight.

If you read what leading NT scholars and Jesus scholars have to say about the birth-of-Jesus stories in Matthew and Luke, you will find out that most scholars conclude that it is unlikely that the historical Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. If these scholars are correct, then we have good reason to believe that Jesus was NOT the Messiah:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
(2) Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
(3) Jesus was not the Messiah.

This argument does not prove that Jesus is not the Messiah, because we don't know for sure where Jesus was born. It is possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but the currently available evidence goes against that claim, making it probable that premise (2) is true, which, other things being equal, makes it probable that (3) is also true. Thus, contrary to his own intentions, Stoner has provided us with a good reason to believe that Jesus was not the Messiah.

E.P. Sanders is a leading NT and Jesus scholar. In his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, he has an extended discussion of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke (see p. 80-91). His conclusion is that...

It is not possible for both these stories to be accurate. It is improbable that either is. They agree on only two sets of 'facts': in real history, Jesus was from Nazareth; in salvation history, he must have been born in Bethlehem. They disagree on which town was originally the family's home, and they also have completely different devices for moving it from one place to another. (HFOJ, p.86)

In any case, Luke's real source for the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was almost certainly the conviction that Jesus fulfilled a hope that someday a descendant of David would arise to save Israel. Zechariah had predicted that God would 'raise up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David' (quoted in Luke 1:69); Jesus was this 'horn of salvation' ; therefore Jesus was born in David's city. (HFOJ, p.87)

The birth narratives constitute an extreme case. Matthew and Luke used them to place Jesus in salvation history. It seems that they had very little historical information about Jesus' birth (historical in our sense), and so they went to one of their other sources, Jewish scripture. There is no other substantial part of the gospels that depends so heavily on the theory that information about David and Moses may simply be transferred to the story of Jesus. (HFOJ, p.88)

Since it is improbable that either Luke's birth story or Matthew's birth story is historically accurate, and since they apparently had 'very little historical information about Jesus' birth', and since the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was probably derived from theological beliefs about Jesus and inferences from Old Testament passages, and since the historical Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, it is probably not the case that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Premise (2) is probably correct.

James Dunn is another leading NT and Jesus scholar, and in his book Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, he also discusses the birth stories, and comes to a skeptical conclusion:

Are there, then, no historical facts concerning Jesus' birth to be gleaned from the birth narratives? The prospects are not good. (CITM, Vol. 1, p.343)

Most disturbing for Christian pilgrim piety is the outcome that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem has to be left in question. Was the story to that effect contrived simply because of the Micah prophecy: 'And you Bethlehem, ...from you shall come forth a ruler, who will shepherd my people Israel' (Mic. 5:2, cited by Matt. 2.5-6)? It is presumably significant that nothing more is made of Bethlehem outside the birth narratives. Elsewhere it is simply assumed that Jesus is 'from Nazareth', that he is 'the Nazarene'. (CITM, vol. 1, p.344-345).

To be continued...