Was Bethlehem
Birth Prophesied?

                  Joseph Francis Alward
                   January 8, 1998

Old Testament verses were assumed to be the
of God and contain prophecies of the coming
messiah. First century evangelists who
believed that Jesus was the savior son of God,
but who had no direct knowledge of his
biography, used scripture as a blueprint to fill
in Jesus' biographical details. One passage in
particular, Micah 5:2, created an expectation
that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
The gospel-writers, believing that Jesus was
the son of God and that he must have fulfilled
the messianic events "foretold" in scripture,
wove the Bethelehem birth story into their
narrative of the life of Jesus [1]. However, it is
shown below that the evangelists probably
misunderstood the Bethlehem "prophecy"
verses. We will look first at Matthew's story [2],
then take a close look at the verses in the
book of Micah which led to the

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Matthew's Bethlehem Story

Matthew said that "the prophet" predicted the birthplace of the savior would be the town of Bethlehem. Here are Matthew's words:

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea....Herod the king gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel."
(Matthew 2:1-6)

The Prophet Micah

Verses written by Micah apparently caused Matthew to believe that Jesus' birth was predicted to occur in the town of Bethlehem. However, we will show evidence that Micah may not have been referring to a town, but a person, the head of a clan from whom would come a great leader who would save his people from the Assyrians.  Here are the Micah verses:

"Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. 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....And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land....and they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword..." (Micah 5:1-6)

Bethlehem Was a Person

The evidence below suggests that "Bethlehem" here actually referred to a person, not a place, and his ancestor's name was Ephratah: "These [are] the sons of Israel; Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, ......[snip many names]...These were the sons of Caleb the son of Hur, the firstborn of Ephratah; Shobal the father of Kirjathjearim, Salma the father of Bethlehem, Hareph the father of Bethgader." (1 Chronicles 2:1-51)

Thus, the "Bethelehem" spoken of in Micah 5:2 may have been the "Bethlehem [of the house of] Ephratah" spoken of in Chronicles above.  Further evidence that Micah was referring to a person, not a town, comes from the editors of the NIV, RSV, and NAB. Here is how the NIV translates that Micah verse:   "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans (or, rulers) of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel..." (Micah 5:2) This verse strongly suggests that Micah did not mean that the savior would be born a town called Bethlehem, but that he would come from the either the clan of Ephratah, or from the man called Bethlehem Ephratah.

Micah refers to the "thousands of Judah" (in the Kings James Version), which Matthew may have thought meant "thousands of towns in Judah". Is it possible there were thousands of towns in Judah in 800 BC? In order to justify the use of the word "thousands" to describe anything, how many would there have to be? Three thousand, or more? There are only about 50-100 towns or villages in that area today. Is it believable that there were thirty times as many towns and villages in Judah 2800 years ago, when the population of that region was vastly less than it is today? Or is it more likely that Micah was referring to clans and not towns?

Micah Doesn't Refer to a Distant Future Savior

The evidence disputing Matthew's claim that Micah was referring to the town of Bethlehem is vey weak.  Micah is talking about a person who will save them from the Assyrians. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was destroyed and Assyrian power ceased to exist 606 years before Jesus was born. Thus, if the savior prophesied by Micah really did come, he would have to have done so six centuries before the birth of Jesus. Also, the adversaries of the Hebrews at the time of Jesus were not the Assyrians. It was the Romans, not the Assyrians, who ruled the land of Judah during the lifetime of Jesus. Even if Micah's prophecy had referred to a saviour freeing Israel from the Romans, it could not have applied to Jesus, who never lifted a finger against them.


It should be evident to all but the most devoted Christian apologists that Micah was not prophesying that the messiah would be born in a town called Bethlehem, and furthermore, the savior Micah spoke of could not have been Jesus. Micah was referring to events which were to occur six centuries before the birth of Jesus, involving a savior-hero who would vanquish Assyrians--not the Romans against whom Jesus' people struggled. Furthermore, the "Bethlehem" spoken of in Micah seems not to be the town in which Jesus was to be born, but the person, Bethlehem Ephratah.

[1] Other essays by the author deal with false messianic prophecy-fulfillment: Potter's Field Prophecy, Virgin-Birth Prophecy, and Herod's Slaughter.

Jesus's alleged birth in Bethlehem is dealt with in Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

[2] Apologists will be quick to complain that Matthew the apostle was an eye-witness to many of the events in the life of Jesus, but a substantial body of scholarly work strongly indicates that the book of Matthew was not authored by that person. Space does not permit debate on this point, but perhaps it will suffice for some to recognize that almost all of the work of Mark, who did not know Jesus, is included in the book of Matthew. It would make no sense for Matthew--an eyewitness--if he had indeed been the author of Matthew, to have based so much of his gospel--sometimes almost word for word--on the writings of a non-eyewitness.