What sort of influence would the prophecy of Micah 5 have had on Christian claims about where Jesus was born? Raymond Brown wrote:
"It is probably true that many Jews of Jesus' time expected the Messiah to be born at Bethlehem, but we must be aware that our chief evidence for this is Christian, not Jewish....Without reference to Micah 5:1, Bethlehem appears as the birthplace of the Messiah in passages like TalJer Berakoth 5a, and Midrash Rabbah 51 on Lam 1:16. As for Micah 5:1 (RSV 5:2), L. Ginzberg, Legends, V, 130, traces the messianic interpretation of the passage back to relatively old rabbinic traditions....I mentioned in the previous Appendix (footnote 6) the expectation of a hidden Messiah who would appear suddenly, without people knowing where he came from. (This expectation is described in John 7:27, in contrast to 7:42 which involves the expectation of the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem.) If Jesus had not been born at Bethlehem, why could Christians not have been content to present him as the hidden Messiah, who made his appearance at the Jordan to be baptized?" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 513, n. 2 on p. 513, p. 514)
The early Christians did have other options available to them, as John 7:27 reflects. However, the Bethlehem view seems to have been more popular in ancient times, and it makes the most sense of the Old Testament data.
As I mentioned yesterday, much of what’s recorded in the gospels concerning the Bethlehem birthplace is of a significantly public nature. If the gospel authors or their sources were fabricating their material, and they were trying to portray the events as occurring outside of the public view, so as to explain the lack of evidence for them, they surely wouldn’t have constructed the accounts as they are in Matthew and Luke. A Bethlehem birth could have been claimed without involving Herod the Great or a census. If there was dishonesty among the early Christians on this subject, it was dishonesty to an unnecessary and counterproductive degree and had to have involved many people in either dishonesty or a high degree of carelessness.
We don’t have any reason to conclude that the early Christians were dishonest about Jesus’ birthplace. Those who want us to believe that they were need to present evidence to that effect. The early Christians had high moral standards, and the earliest extant references to Jesus’ birthplace are in documents written in a historical genre, which would invite historical scrutiny.
The early opponents of Christianity wouldn’t have knowingly gone along with Christian dishonesty. They, like Christians, had the human faculty of memory and had access to sources with relevant information. They would have had access to Jesus and His initially unbelieving relatives (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 3:20-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 7:5), and they would have had access to other relevant sources, such as the people of Bethlehem and historical records and memories pertaining to the census mentioned by Luke. They would have known what the earliest Christians were claiming and would have been able to compare it to later claims.
Jesus’ public ministry didn’t begin until He was about thirty. What did people believe about His birthplace prior to that time? Any argument for later widespread dishonesty or carelessness among the early Christians would have to address what was believed about Jesus’ birthplace prior to that time and how the prior belief was replaced by the later claim.
Given factors such as the other options available to the early Christians (as reflected in John 7:27), the public nature of the accounts involving the Bethlehem birthplace, the motives the early Christians had for being honest, the presence of many hostile sources (including some unbelieving relatives of Jesus), and how late in His life Jesus began His public ministry, we would expect the Bethlehem claim to be widely disputed if it was false. The more widespread belief in a Bethlehem birthplace is, the more difficult it is to maintain that Jesus was born somewhere else. Over the next few days, I’ll be addressing what the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources believed about the subject.