Does Matthew 2:6 misquote Micah 5:2-4?

by Luke Wayne
10/10/2019

Critics often charge the New Testament authors with misquoting or even outright changing the Old Testament passages they cite. One example often used is the citation of Micah 5:2-4 found in Matthew 2:5-6. When one reads the two back to back, there certainly is a clear difference between Micah's words and the quote in Matthew. Yet, considered in context, there is no mistake or deception going on here at all. Matthew does not intend to give a word-for-word citation. Rather, he is summarizing the gist of the passage as it was paraphrased in the conversation he is describing.

The Verses

The original passage in Micah reads:

"'But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.' Therefore He will give them up until the time When she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren Will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the Lord, In the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the ends of the earth," (Micah 5:2-4).

When Matthew references this passage, he says:

"And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel," (Matthew 2:6).

For the most part, Matthew basically gives us a paraphrase specifically of Micah 5:2, though a few details like the claim that the Messiah would "shepherd" Israel come from Micah 5:4, which is why I have chosen here to quote Micah more fully. Nothing in Matthew's citation is alien to Micah, but it is certainly compressed and worded a little differently. Thus, this could hardly be called an attempt at "deception." But why doesn't Matthew quote Micah more fully and accurately here?

The Reason for the Difference

The important thing to note here is that, in this instance, Matthew is not quoting Micah himself as the narrator. Instead, he is recounting the Jewish leaders' answer to Herod's inquiry about where the Messiah was to be born. Just before citing the verse, Matthew writes:

"They said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet,'" (Matthew 2:5).

Thus, Matthew is not giving a word for word quote from Scripture to make his own point. Instead, he is telling us about a conversation that took place. In this conversation, the Jews were not pulling out their scrolls to read every word of the text to Herod. They were summarizing portion relevant to the king's question. For this reason, there was no need to quote the entirety of the passage, but only to explain enough of the context to show that it was talking about the coming Messiah and that he would be born in Bethlehem (and, since there was more than one town by that name, specifically the Bethlehem in Judah). Far from trying to alter the text of the Old Testament, Matthew was accurately reporting the contents of the conversation.

Indeed, if anything, Matthew's summary here should reinforce our confidence in his honesty and accuracy. Quoting the passage fully would have actually strengthened Matthew's case! Phrases like "When she who is in labor has borne a child" would only have increased the connection between Matthew's narrative of Jesus' birth and the passage in Micah. Yet Matthew did not exploit such connections. The best explanation for this is that the Jewish leaders did not quote that portion of the passage to Herod and Matthew desired to report the conversation accurately.

Conclusion

While Matthew does not offer us a full, word-for-word transcription of Micah 5:2-4, he does give us a fair summary of the relevant points. Nothing in his paraphrase alters Micah's sense, and nothing that he leaves out would have harmed his point. Indeed, a more complete quotation would have only helped his case. In the context, however, it makes perfect sense that the Jewish leaders would have only summarized the relevant portions. Matthew's faithful reporting of that summery, even if it meant leaving off parts of Micah's words that would have helped him, is exactly the opposite of a deceptive alteration of the facts. This example does not give us any reason to doubt the gospels. If anything, it gives us a little more reason to trust them.