Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, (Luke 2:4 NASB)
So David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built all around from the Millo and inward. (2 Samuel 5:9 NASB)
One quirky thing I ran across here was the reference to the City of David. I stumbled on it because I have just finished studying 2 Samuel, and there the ‘City of David’ is Jerusalem. I checked, and the reference is in the Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures which Luke would have used as well. I have a few commentaries for Luke, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ink used on this issue. But it’s definitely odd to me, and I believe it would have been somewhat odd for Luke’s audience as well.
Luke’s point is very clear, David is from Bethlehem, and Joseph is in the line of David, therefore Jesus is a descendant of David. To modern readers, we’d like to know Mary is also a descendant of David, but we don’t find that here. Even so, Luke’s point is clear enough. But why use a reference that usually belongs to another city? I have a few theories (you had to know that was coming).
Destruction of the ‘Old’ City of David?
It’s possible that Luke’s audience also knew that Jerusalem was about to be or had already been destroyed. The writing of Luke is possibly late, after Paul’s death. But also possibly before, in partial defense of his appeal to Caesar. Either way, the Jewish people have this persistent tendency to revolt every so often, usually centered on Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is in peril or already gone, then ‘The City of David’ may need a new reference point rather than be lost. Bethlehem isn’t as likely to be treated the same by the Roman Legions. This option is possible, but unlikely, even with a better explanation.
Can’t Call It That Then?
The use of the term ‘City of David’ may have fallen out of favor, or been restricted by the Romans since it could fuel revolutionary mindsets. I’m not sure that the Romans would have all that much influence on the wording of Luke’s gospel, nor on the understanding of the term in the ‘Diaspora’ regions of Christianity and Judaism. But maybe it was an agreed upon usage by the time Luke wrote. Again, this one is pretty thin as an explanation.
Literary Trip Wire?
I wonder if Luke intentionally misused the term to draw his reader’s attention to the origins of Jesus. Such a literary device could accomplish this additional emphasis rather easily. To substantiate such an idea, I would need another example of a writer of that era or earlier using the same technique. As you may imagine, I don’t have one. And it might make more sense if Luke knew his readers would trip over the term, but I wonder how familiar his Gentile readers would have been with the references; but that’s hard to know as well.
Okay, so I don’t know. I see that some translations try to obscure the issue by using ‘town of David’ instead of ‘city of David’ but the word used is the same Greek word regardless. We can surmise one possibility over another, yet without even some obscure example of a literary device, or legal declaration about referring to Jerusalem, or more clarity on the timing of writing, we’re left with very few plausible explanations.
I vote for option three though, and I suspect the familiarity of most Gentile readers with the term was substantial enough to get their attention. Not everyone will read a ‘genealogy’, and Luke’s ancestor list blows right past David, so maybe this made good literary sense. Even if it didn’t or doesn’t, I still think it’s a better explanation than simply that Luke didn’t know any better. He seems a bit too precise for such glaring ignorance. Instead, I suspect we too should trip over the term as we read, and take that moment to reflect again on the Messianic progression of God’s salvation through His people to His creation.
What’s your view through the knothole?