The Visit of the Wise Men, 1-12

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

After Jesus was born – How long after, is not clear. Indications that it was not immediately after are (a) Jesus is referred to as a ‘child’, v11 etc; (b) Joseph and Mary are now described as settled in a ‘house’, v11 (although it not at all certain that he was born in a stable or cave in the first place); (c) Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of 2 years, in response to the information the Magi gave him about the appearance of the star, v16.

Bethlehem – The town is five miles (eight km) S of Jerusalem.

King Herod – This was Herod the Great, whose family, though nominally Jewish, was in reality Edomite. He was king, with Roman help, from 37 to 4 B.C. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.; Jesus was thus born before 4 B.C., rather than in A.D. 1; our calendars are off by several years due to an error of the sixth-century scholar Dionysius Exiguus, who was responsible for the calculations that moved the Western world away from dating according to the year after the foundation of Rome. Herod built the Temple in Jerusalem that Christ knew. Note the contrast between Herod (‘the king’) and Jesus (‘the king of the Jews’).

‘Herod the Great was a half-Jew, half-Idumean, who, through accommodation to the Romans, ascended to power as client-ruler of Israel in 37 B.C. He was known as a great builder of public works and a shrewd diplomat in his dealings with both Romans and Jews, but he laid oppressive taxes on and conscripted labor from the Israelites. As he grew older, he became increasingly paranoid about threats against his person and throne. He had numerous sons, wives, and others close to him put to death because he feared plots to overthrow him.’ (NAC)

What we read of Herod in this account ‘is what we would expect from a tyrant who shortly before he died ordered that a large group of prominent citizens be imprisoned and put to death at the moment of his own decease. In this way he guaranteed there would be sorrow and tears at the time of his death.’ (Mounce)

Mounce says that ‘Augustus, the Roman emperor, who for years had retained confidence in Herod, finally acknowledged that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (hys in Greek) than his son (hyios).’

Magi from the East – ‘Originally a religious class in Media and the Persian Empire, but the word magi came to describe any student of astrology and lore.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

Tradition says that the magi were three in number and that they were kings, but this is not indicated in the text.  The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior were not attached to the Magi until 700 years later.  Considering the length and hazardous nature of their journey, they probably travelled in a fairly sizeable convoy.  The preparation and undertaking of the journey would probably have taken several months.

The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary confidently asserts that ‘the story of the Wise Men is like a “haggadah,” i.e., a story made up from biblical materials to make a theological point.’  The writer cites Num. 24:17, Ps. 72:10–11, and Isa. 60:1–7 as having contributed to the composition.

But the various objections to the historicity of this account overlook ‘the well-documented intense interest by ancient astrologers in Persia and elsewhere in the connection between astral phenomena and political events and the fact that in A.D. 66 the eastern astrologer Tiridates and other Magi visited Rome (cf. Dio Cassius 63.7; Suetonius, Nero 13). It was also widely believed during this era that stars heralded the birth of human beings destined for greatness (Brown, 1977), and in fact both Suetonius and Tacitus tell us that at the turn of the era there was an expectation of a world-ruler who would come from Judea (Suetonius, Vesp. 4; Tacitus, Ann. 5.13). Further more, the gifts brought by the Magi are regularly mentioned in ancient sources as valuable products of Arabia and other eastern countries. There is nothing inherently improbable about the story itself, though doubtless the First Evangelist has shaped his source material to bring out the points he wishes to stress.’ (DJG)

‘Magi’ are mentioned in two other places – Acts 8:9-11; 13:6. In each of these cases they are presented as deceiving charlatans. Matthew’s magi are, however introduced favourably, in that they ‘worshiped’ the newborn Jesus, presented him with gifts, and responded to a (God-given) dream by outwitting Herod.

John Hudghton says that although the term ‘magi’ was sometimes used of individuals who used magic as a means of making a living, its primary reference was to

the “tribe” of priests who acted almost like a religious civil service to the various empires of the area, from the Babylonian through to the Medo-Persian era and then to the Parthians. Josephus tells us that no one could be King in Parthia unless they knew the ways of the Magi and were supported by the Magi who some understood to operate in a not dissimilar way to a US senate. They were indeed not the Kings but they were the power behind the throne – the King makers. You may remember in the book of Daniel that Daniel is appointed chief of the Magi. They had a reputation throughout the region for being educated, wise, learned, religious priests with knowledge of religion from previous empires to that of Zoroastrianism, the prevalent religion of the Parthian empire. Conventional learning was interlaced with astrology, alchemy and other esoteric knowledge.

Came from the east – Possibly from Babylon, where there was a large Jewish population from whom the could have learned about OT promises of a coming king.  If they came from Babylon, it would have been a journey of about 550 miles, and might have taken a month or so by camel train.

Wilcock rightly asks: ‘Is it not perfectly astonishing that men with so little to go on should venture so far, endure such hardships in travel, and face such uncertainties of finding the one the star betokened?’  Yes, it is astonishing, and it argues that the sign they saw, and the interpretation they felt drawn to, were similarly astonishing.

To Jerusalem – ‘They do not go to Herod but are only summoned to him (v 7) after he has heard of their purpose (v 3).’ (WBC)

‘It was a truly wonderful purpose of God, that he caused the entrance of his Son into the world to be attended by deep meanness, and yet bestowed upon him illustrious ornaments, both of commendation and of other outward signs, that our faith might be supplied with everything necessary to prove his Divine Majesty.’ (Calvin)

‘A beautiful instance of real harmony, amidst apparent contradiction, is here exhibited. A star from heaven announces that he is a king, to whom a manger, intended for cattle, serves for a throne, because he is refused admittance among the lowest of the people. His majesty shines in the East, while in Judea it is so far from being acknowledged, that it is visited by many marks of dishonor. Why is this? The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides, to lead directly to his Son: while he stripped him of all earthly splendor, for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star, for the confirmation of our faith; that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes.’ (Calvin)

‘Note: Many times those who are nearest to the means, are furthest from the end. See Mt 8:11-12. The respect paid to Christ by these Gentiles was a happy presage and specimen of what would follow when those who were afar off should be made nigh by Christ.’ (MHC)

Magi from the east?

Matthew 2:1f After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Did this happen?

For sceptical scholars such as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, The story of the visit of the Magi is a ‘parable’, constructed out of OT texts in order to convey the true significance of Jesus:-

‘In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes, Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes.’ (The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth)

Harper’s Bible Commentary confidently states: ‘The story of the Wise Men is like a “haggadah,” i.e., a story made up from biblical materials to make a theological point.’  The OT texts would have included Num 24:17, Ps 72:10–11, and Isa 60:1–7.  The same kind of process continued to elaborate the tradition beyond the NT period, adding details such the visitors being not merely wise men, but kings (and, we might add, giving them names).

Gundry, although claiming to be an evangelical who believes in inerrancy, thinks that Matthew has altered Luke’s story about the shepherds (which he thinks is historical) to this very different story about the Magi.  The Magi are then made to come to a ‘house’, not a ‘stable’ (as if Luke had specified that it was a stable!) because it would fit better with their distinguished status.  To have such insight into the Matthew’s fertile imagination is a truly wonderful thing.  See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p135, and this article in Christianity Today.

As Ian Paul remarks,

‘The approach presents problems of its own. For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have?’

Regarding the general plausibility of this account, Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet) remarks that

  1. the massacre of the innocents matches what we know about Herod’s suspicious and cruel nature
  2. the long journey of the Magi to greet a new king is in keeping with what other magi did, some 70 years later in the time of Nero
  3. most devout Jews and Christians despised astrology; it is most unlikely that they would have fabricated this story
  4. the fact that the star appeared about a year before the massacre of the innocents (Herod determining the age of those to be killed based on this information) is hard to account for otherwise

On the other hand, arguments against historicity (Herod would not have called the Sanhedrin together, he would have sent a spy along, the Magi already knew the way to Bethlehem, and didn’t need the star to show them the way, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned in other ancient sources) are weak.

France adds a further argument in favour of the historicity of this event, stating that ‘it is unlikely that a church which repudiated astrology and magic would have embarrassed itself by inventing such undesirable witnesses to the Messiah.’

So, where did they come from?

They could have come from Persia, Arabia, or Babylon.

Persia?  Among recent scholars, this is favoured by Blomberg.  It is in the east and was at some time a centre for astrology and astronomy.  The term ‘magi’ originated in this area, although by NT times it had expanded to cover a range of meanings and connotations.

Arabia?  Kenneth E. Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) says that to someone living in Rome ‘the east’ would suggest Persia, whereas from the perspective of the Holy Land, ‘the east’ would be the other side of the Jordan river.  The expression ‘would naturally refer to the Jordanian deserts that connect with the deserts of Arabia.’  The same writer adds that gold was mined in Arabia (cf. 1 Kings 9:28; 10:2; Job 28:16), and that frankincense and myrrh are harvested from trees ‘that only grow in southern Arabia.’  Early Christian writers, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Clement of Rome all attest to an Arabian origin from the Magi.  Bailey reports that ‘In the 1920s a British scholar, E. F. F. Bishop, visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. This Muslim tribe bore the Arabic name al-Kokabani. The word kokab means “planet” and al-Kaokabani means “Those who study/follow the planets.” Bishop asked the elders of the tribe why they called themselves by such a name. They replied that it was because their ancestors followed the planets and traveled west to Palestine to show honor to the great prophet Jesus when he was born.’  The reference to Arabia in Isa 60:6 might also support this suggestion.

Babylon?  Babylon is certainly to the east of Judea.  There was a sizeable Jewish diaspora in Babylon.  Dan 2:2,10 make it clear that magi had been associated with Babylon for a long time.  Josephus and Philo both attest to there being a sizeable Jewish population there.  The Babylonian Talmud has frequent references to the Jewish population being visited rabbis.  Babylon was a renowned of astronomy.  Putting these facts together, we might well expect magi from Babylon to be skilled in astronomical observation, and familiar with OT prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah.  Important figures in the early church, including Origen, Jerome and Augustine, associated the magi with Babylon.  Mounce: ‘The astrologers probably came from Babylonia, where they would have had contact with the Jewish exiles and the opportunity to develop an interest in the coming Messiah.’  This is the location favoured by Nicholl, France, and others.

Kerry Magruder (Dictionary of Christianity and Science, art. ‘Star of Bethlehem’) states:

Babylon at this time was the leading center for magi who were not only astrologers but also proficient astronomers. Babylonian magi were historical, not legendary, and their astronomical knowledge was sophisticated, not trivial. These magi, the “scribes of Enuma Anu Enlil,” pioneered quantitative methods in ancient astronomy and could predict planetary cycles hundreds of years into the future (Swerdlow 1998). Few discussions of the Bethlehem star appreciate the capability of mathematical astronomy in this cuneiform tradition or delve deeply into the historical question of the magi’s astrology, that is, how they interpreted celestial events.

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Note: ‘born king’ (not ‘born to be king’).  There is emphasis in the expression, ‘born king of the Jews’. Herod had no ancestral right to the throne: had been appointed as such by the Romans.  The title belonged to Christ from birth, and as his birth-right.

“King of the Jews” ‘is the Gentile way of saying what a Jew would mean by “Messiah” (the term which Herod, who could hardly refer to someone else as “king of the Jews,” substitutes in v. 5).’ (France, NICNT)

‘Matthew is saying, is the true king of the Jews, and old Herod is the false one, a usurper, an impostor…This Herod died soon after Jesus’ birth; but his sons ruled on, and one of them, Herod Antipas, plays a significant role in the developing story of Jesus himself. The house of Herod did not take kindly to the idea of anyone else claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’.’ (Wright)

‘This title will not reappear in Matthew’s narrative until chapter 27, when it will sum up the political charge against Jesus. There, as here, it will be used only by non-Jews; Jews themselves will use the more theologically loaded equivalents “king of Israel,” “Messiah,” and “Son of David.”’ (France, NICNT)

These words (the only words attributed by Matthew to the magi) suggest that the celestial phenomenon was distinctive, and that it indicated a royal birth.  Possibly, the Magi had been taught by exiled Jews that a star would herald the coming of the messianic king, Num 24:17; 1 Sam 7:12-16; Ezek 34:23-31.  There was an expectation at the time that a ruler would arise from Judea.  This expectation was held not only by the Jews themselves, but was in fact quite widespread.  Suetonius writes, “Throughout the whole of the East there had spread an old and persistent belief: destiny had decreed that at that time men coming forth from Judea would seize power [and rule the world]”.  Such an expectation was recorded by Josephus and Tacitus.  (See the discussion in Holman Apologetics Commentary)

As France (NICNT) notes, several strands of OT anticipation are woven into this account:-

  1. the explicitly Davidic quotation in v6
  2. the story of the Queen of Sheba and her visit to Solomon, 1 Kings 10:1-10
  3. Balaams’ prophecy of a star and a sceptre, Num 24:17-19.  (Blomberg: ‘The Magi appear as Balaam’s successors to witness the fulfillment of Num 24:17.’)
  4. Balaam himself, a non-Israelite, visionary from the east, Num 22:5; 23:7.
  5. Herod, whose massacre recalls that of Pharaoh, each leading to a period of exile (for Moses and Jesus).

‘Since the magi in Matthew’s narrative have some knowledge of Jewish messianic expectation, they must have had some contact with Jewish thinking. While this could have occurred in Persia or Arabia, Babylon had a settled Jewish community and seems the most likely candidate cf. Dan 2:48; 5:11. (WBC)

‘Doubtless these simple strangers expected all Jerusalem to be full of its new-born King, and the time, place, and circumstances of his birth to be familiar to every one. Little would they think that the first announcement of his birth would come from themselves, and still less could they anticipate the startling, instead of transporting, effect which it would produce-else they would probably have sought their information regarding his birthplace in some other quarter.’ (JFB)

“We saw his star when it rose” – or, ‘in the east’.  The word anatole can mean either.  In v1 it clearly means ‘east’ (as in Rev 21:13), whereas in v2 it may carry the alternative meaning (as in Lk 1:78).

If they saw the star ‘in the east’, then this raises the question of why they then headed off in the opposite direction, west, towards Jerusalem.  Some think that the meaning therefore is, “We, being from the east, saw his star.”

If the star was a purely supernatural phenomenon, then, of course, it could have ‘arisen’ anywhere in the sky, including in the west.

However, it is perfectly possible that the magi did see the star ‘in the east’, or, ‘rising in the east’.  There is nothing in the text at this point to suggest that the star was ‘pointing’ anywhere in particular, or that they ‘followed’ the star in the direction to which it was ‘pointing’.  That comes later in the narrative.  The star may have been in the eastern sky, but conveying a message that indicated that the royal birth was to take place in Judea, in the east.

This latter interpretation is favoured by Nicholl and others, and implies that the Magi are referring back to the appearance of the comet in the constellation of Virgo, low down in the eastern morning sky (see the notes on Rev 12:1-5).  Specifically, Nicholl thinks that this expression refers to the comet’s ‘heliacal rising’ – that is, its first appearance in the morning sky just before its light is overwhelmed by that of the Sun.  Such a heliacal rising was considered significant in ancient times.  A heliacal rising in on zodiacal constellation would add further significance to the event.  Such a rising is suggested by the prophecy of Balaam, Num 24:17; cf. Zech 6:12; Lk 1:78; 2 Pet 1:19; Rev 2:26-28; 22:16.

Elsewhere in the NT Jesus is himself referred to as the rising star, Lk 1:78; 2 Pet 1:19; Rev 22:16.

The star of Bethlehem

With regard to the identity of the ‘star of Bethlehem’ (Matthew 2), scholars have canvassed various options.

1. Some regard the entire story as fictional.  Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted) makes no attempt to make sense of the account.  He writes:

What does it mean that there is a star guiding the wise men, that this star stops over Jerusalem, and then starts up again, leads them to Bethlehem, and stops again over the very house where Jesus was born? What kind of star would this be, exactly? A star that moves slowly enough for the wise men to follow on foot or on camel, stops, starts again, and stops again? And how exactly does a star stop over a house? I tell my students to go outside on some starry night, pick one of the brightest stars in the sky, and figure out which house on their block it is standing over. Obviously what is being narrated here is a miraculous event, but it is very hard to understand what the author actually has in mind. It doesn’t appear to be a real star, a nova, a comet, or any astronomical phenomenon ever known.

We note, in passing, the self-contradiction here.  On the one hand, Ehrman recognises that ‘what is being narrated here is a miraculous event’.  But, on the other hand, ‘it doesn’t appear to be…any astronomical phenomenon ever known.’  But it wouldn’t have to be, would it, if it were ‘a miraculous event’?

For those who regard the star as fictitious, then the story is seen as a tale weaved out of various strands of Scripture from the Old Testament.  Jenkins speculates that the appearance of Halley’s comet in AD 66 may have suggested the story to the author of the First Gospel.

The strongest argument in favour of such scepticism is the movement of the ‘star’ as described in the biblical text.  Clearly, if we can give a plausible explanation for the behaviour of the star, we raise the index of confidence in the historicity of the event.

2. At the opposite end of the scale, some regard the star as a purely supernatural phenomenon.

This was the view of Calvin:

It may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.

France leans towards this view.  It has been suggested that the ‘star’ was actually an angel – a description by no means unknown in the Bible (Job 38:7; Dan. 8:10; Rev. 1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1).  Wilkins (NIVAC) suggests that this is

consistent with the prominent place of the angel of the Lord in the overall infancy narrative: announcing to Joseph the virginal conception of Jesus (Mt 1:20), warning the Magi not to return to Herod (Mt 2:12), warning Joseph to flee with the family to Egypt (Mt 2:13), telling them to go back to Israel (Mt 2:19), and guiding them in a dream to Nazareth (Mt 2:22).

Some appeal, in support of this interpretation, to Matthew’s description of the star as ‘going before’ the magi and ‘standing over’ the place where Jesus was born.  But Matthew himself does not mention any angel or angels in connection with the star itself.  And the magi appeared to rely on their own astrological calculations in determining the meaning of the star.

3. Others, seeking an explanation where the miracle is in the timing of the phenomenon, rather than in the event itself, suggest that the ‘star’ was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC.  Mounce, following Stauffer, suggests that this was unusual in that it took place in the constellation of Pisces (an event that occurred only once in 794 years).  Mounce quotes Stauffer as maintaining that

since Jupiter was regarded as the star of the universe, Saturn the planet of Palestine, and the constellation of the Fishes the sign of the last days, this rare conjunction “could only mean that the ruler of the last days would appear in Palestine”.

An alternative interpretation would see Jupiter (representing the new king) overtaking Saturn (the old king) in the sky.

Writing in New Scientist, David Hughes says that following his own investigation:

I plumped for the planetary conjunction, mainly because in Jewish astrology it suggested the overtaking of the old king (Saturn) by the new (Jupiter)-in Pisces, associated with Israel. It was also sufficiently insignificant to the non-stargazer to explain why Herod was surprised when the Magi turned up on his doorstep. This conjunction indicated that Christ was born near Tuesday 15 September, 7 BC.

4. Still others have made a case for a nova or supernova.  France says that ‘Chinese astronomers recorded a nova which was visible for 70 days in 5/4 B.C., which would fit a date shortly before the death of Herod.’

This theory is discussed by Mark Kidger in his 1999 book The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View.  Kidger suggests that the appearance of the nova was the culmination of a number of celestial portents.  Nicholl detects a number of flaws in Kidger’s argument, as does Pettem.

Note that it is difficult to reconcile the above two proposals with the movements of the star as described in Matthew 2.

It is not surprising, then, that a number of distinguished commentators, including Morris and France, express agnosticism on the matter.

5. For myself, I have long suspected that the ‘star of Bethlehem’ was, in fact, a comet.  A good case for this had been made by Sir Colin Humphreys in this article.

Biblical scholar Colin Nicholl has developed a yet more detailed and nuanced case in his 2015 book The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem (Crossway, 2015).

(The BBC’s ‘The Sky At Night’, in its ‘Christmas special’ broadcast on 30th December 2015 also plumped for the comet theory, but with no reference to Nicholl’s work, or indeed to Humphreys’).

Nicholl argues that

  1. the magi were Babylonian scholars, skilled in astronomy and astrology, and used to making astronomical observation
  2. there was a considerable Jewish population in Babylon, who would have been able to point the magi to Old Testament scriptures such as Numbers 24:17 (which may well refer specifically to a comet) and Isaiah 7:14 (the famous passage about the ‘virgin’ conceiving) that would have helped them to discern its meaning and significance
  3. the appearance and of movement of the ‘star’ in the sky was so remarkable that it convinced the magi that a royal birth had taken place in Judea and led them to make the 550-mile journey
  4. the word translated ‘star’ was used in ancient times for a variety of celestial phenomena, including comets
  5. the sudden appearance of this object, and its visibility for over a year, makes sense only if it was a supernova or a comet
  6. its ‘rising’ (first appearance in the evening or dawn twilight), which so impressed the Magi, points strongly to it being a comet
  7. the movement of the object, over a couple of months, from the eastern morning sky (as seen originally from Babylon) to the southern evening sky (as seen when journeying from Jerusalem to Bethlehem), is possible only for an object in the inner solar system, again pointing strongly to its identity as a comet
  8. the description of the object ‘standing over’ the place of Jesus’ birth, and pinpointing its location, again fits its identity as a comet, with a long and prominent tail
  9. Revelation 12:1-5 appears to be a vivid account of the comet’s appearance and progress.  It is ‘born’ in the constellation of Virgo.  Soon afterwards, a great meteor storm occurs in the neighbouring constellation of Hydra.  This account is consistent with that found in Matthew 2, and they are explicable in astronomical terms

According to Pettem, the strongest arguments against the comet identification are (a) that there are no extant Chinese records that would support this within the correct time frame, and (b) that a comet would normally be considered a bad omen, and not a good omen.  But the first of these objections wrongly assumes that the ancient records are complete, and the second is, at best, an over-simplification.

Regarding the oft-repeated objection that comets were generally considered to be bad omens in the ancient world, Nicholl replies:

  • What some consider to be a bad omen (e.g., the death of a ruler), others might well consider to be a good omen (the end of a tyrannical reign and the welcoming in of a new order.
  • Examples can be cited of comets that were regarded as good omens.
  • The Hebrew Scriptures (especially Num 24:17) would have led the Jews, and those acquainted with the scriptures, to regard comets positively.

Nicholl suggests that Old Testament passages such as Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 9:2 refer to comets, and may well have formed the basis of the belief of the Magi that their comet heralded the birth of a great king.  Nichols also links the comet to Revelation 12:1-5, suggesting that this passage paints a picture of what the Magi witnessed.

Incidentally, Eusebius (roughly AD 260-340) connected the Star of Bethlehem with Numbers 24:17.  Although he did not understand that verse to be referring specifically to a comet, he did emphasise that, for him, the Bethlehem Star was a ‘strange’ star, such as a comet, and, must have been unusual, and regards the appearance of at least some comets as good omens:

In the case of other remarkable and famous men we know that strange stars have appeared, what some call comets, or meteors, or tails of fire, or similar phenomena that are seen in connection with great unusual events. But what event could be greater or more important for the whole Universe than the spiritual light coming to all men through the Saviour’s Advent, bringing to human souls the gift of holiness and true knowledge of God? Wherefore the herald star gave the great sign, telling in symbol that the Christ of God would shine as a great new light on all the world. (Source)

A strength of the work is that Nicholl has done a great deal of astronomical homework.  Although I have an amateur interest astronomy, I have not been able (yet) to follow the details of his discussion about the movements of the comet.  For most of us, it will be sufficient to know that this work has been done, and that professional astronomers have both assisted with this work and have reviewed the work favourably from that point of work.

I thought that Nicholl was sometimes a little too confident in some of his conclusions (‘possibly’ tends to morph into ‘probably’).  Also, I found some details of the argument rather speculative (for example, he did not convince me that the references to ‘light’ in John’s Gospel convey a memory of the natal ‘star’).  Nevertheless, his case as a whole is very solid indeed.

I occurred to me as I read the book (as it will occur to many other readers) that if the comet put on such as spectacular display as Nicholl suggests, then why is there no record of it in, say, the Chinese records of the day?  Nicholl explains that this is not so surprising as at first seems, because the Chinese records were, in fact, very incomplete (he includes a substantial appendix documenting this).

Obviously, all future discussions of the magi and their ‘star’ will need to take Nicholl’s work into account.  (How unfortunate, then, that Michael Pettem’s The Star of Bethlehem: Science, History and Meaning, does not mention Nicholl at all.)  But his theory, if correct, sheds light (if you will pardon the expression) on much more besides.  It demonstrates the historicity of the biblical account at a point where it might have been thought most vulnerable, and it provides a vivid example of a particular kind of phenomenon: where the marvel is not so much in what happened, but in the timing of what happened.  It thus challenges those of a sceptical frame of mind to confront the possibility that the God of heaven and earth has intervened in this world, and not left himself without a witness to that fact.

With this last thought in mind, I have turned to one review in particular of Nicholl’s book.  Writing in the Spectator, astronomer Marek Kakula concedes that ‘since he is a Biblical scholar by training, Nicholl’s grasp of the essential astronomy and astrophysics is all the more impressive.’  Then, surprisingly, Kakula suggests that all of this careful and even-handed treatment of the astronomy ‘sits somewhat uneasily’ with the book’s assumption about the historicity of biblical account of the event itself.  But surely that is part of the point: it would have been near-impossible to fabricate a myth about a ‘star’ that behaved as the ‘star of Bethlehem’ did.  As Kakula himself acknowledges, it takes 21st-century knowledge and 21st-century technology to make astronomical sense of the record.  Far more rational, then, to assume that it actually happened and that we are now in a better position to understand more precisely what happened, and (in scientific terms) how.

Kakula continues in this rather irrational vein when he asks: ‘Does it really matter whether the Star of Bethlehem was a real astronomical object or not?’  He answers his own question by preaching a little sermon:

Read as a parable of hope and salvation, the Biblical account of the Nativity is a universal story: peace on earth and goodwill to all men is a message that even the most hardline atheist can get behind.

But just as you cannot make words mean anything you like (despite the protestations of Humpty Dumpty), so you cannot make stories mean whatever you want them to mean.  The question we should be asking of the story of the magi and their ‘star’ is: Did it really happen that way?  And if it did, it does not bear the kindly but vague meaning that Kakula would like it it have: it means, rather, that our planet may have been visited in a remarkable and very specific way.

But, then again, some people may refuse to be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Nicholl argues that Matthew’s account is consistent with the celestial picture drawn in Rev 12;1-5, and that both describe the appearance of a comet in the constellation of Virgo.

Astronomical phenomena came particularly to be associated with kings and rulers in 44 BC, when a nova appeared in the sky over the funeral pyre of Julius Caesar. During the 1st century AD there was a strong rumour, reported by Tacitus, Josephus and Seutonius, that a world leader would come out of Judea. It is therefore not surprising that the Magi inferred political upheavals in the star they saw. The Jewish messianic expectation included reference to a star, Num 24:17. Accordingly, it can be seen that both Gentile and Jewish worlds were predisposed to seeing significance in celestial occurrences.

Babylonian astrologers believed that a person’s fate was determined by the positions of stars and planets at the time of birth.  It would appear that, on this occasion, they saw something unique: unusually conspicuous, and disclosing information about a royal birth hundreds of miles away.

‘How did these wise men know that the star represented the Messiah, the one who was born King of the Jews? (1) They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the Exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. (2) They may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world. Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, a large Jewish population still existed there, and they would have had copies of the Old Testament. (3) They may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

‘The birth of Christ was notified to the Jewish shepherds by an angel, to the Gentile philosophers by a star: to both God spoke in their own language, and in the way they were best acquainted with.’ (MHC)

‘The idolaters worshipped the stars as the host of heaven, especially the eastern nations, whence the planets have the names of their idol gods; we read of a particular star they had in veneration, Am 5:26. Thus the stars that had been misused came to be put to the right use, to lead men to Christ; the gods of the heathen became his servants.’ (MHC).

“We…have come to worship him” – Although this expression could be used simply to refer to kneeling before a person of higher rank (see Mt 18:26), for Matthew it usually implies an act of worship directed towards a deity.  Whatever the Magi’s intentions, Matthew’s readers know the real meaning of what the magi have come to do better than the magi themselves knew, namely, “worship” in its full sense. That is, Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence, Mt 1:23, the son of God, Mt 2:15 in a unique sense, and thus one to be worshiped

‘The reason why the star had been exhibited was, to draw the Magi into Judea, that they might be witnesses and heralds of the new King. So far as respects themselves, they had not come to render to Christ such pious worship, as is due to the Son of God, but intended to salute him, according to the Persian custom, as a very eminent King. For their views, with regard to him, probably went no farther, than that his power and exalted rank would be so extraordinary as to impress all nations with just admiration and reverence. It is even possible, that they wished to gain his favor beforehand, that he might treat them favorably and kindly, if he should afterwards happen to possess dominion in the east.’ (Calvin)

‘Herodotus says that the Magi were priests of the race of the Medes. It is likely that they were astrologers. It may seem strange that these Medians should have known of the Jewish Messiah, but the Jews had spread through the former Persian empire and many would have spoken of the promise found throughout the OT. Daniel the Jew had also gained a reputation as a wise man under the Babylonian and Persian empires. Thus wise men of the East would have been aware of the belief that a great Ruler was to be born among the Jews.’ (ISBE)

‘Impressed by what they saw in the skies at night, they journeyed west to Judea to find out what it meant. Is it not perfectly astonishing that men with so little to go on should venture so far, endure such hardships in travel, and face such uncertainties of finding the one the star betokened? What is more, they wanted to give him costly gifts and the worship of their hearts…I find their faith, their insight, their wholehearted search and adoring worship, utterly amazing. It is one of the many surprises in the Gospel. But then God is the God of surprises. How sad that in many churches, this element of surprise is almost entirely absent, and boring predictability governs all that happens!’ (Green)

‘Matthew, of course, has an eye for his own day as he records this story. By the time he wrote, Gentiles were flooding into the church, whereas most of his Jewish compatriots did not want to know.’ (Green)

‘Observe here how Jews and Gentiles compare notes about Jesus Christ. The Gentiles know the time of his birth by a star; the Jews know the place of it by the scriptures; and so they are capable of informing one another.’ (MHC)

‘Matthew made a significant point in highlighting the worship of these wise men (who were pagan astrologers, wise in the ways of secular science, diviners, and magicians) in contrast to the Jewish religious leaders who knew the Holy Scriptures and did not need to travel far to find their Messiah. The Jewish leaders directed the wise men to Bethlehem but apparently did not go themselves. (Mt 2:4-6) Some scholars say these wise men were each from a different land, representing the entire world bowing before Jesus. These men from faraway lands recognized Jesus as the Messiah when most of God’s chosen people in Israel did not. Matthew pictures Jesus as King over the whole world, not just Judea.’ (Life Application)

2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him.

King Herod…was disturbed – This is too weak: ‘greatly disturbed’ would be better. And well he might be, for he had obtained his kingdom through fraud and violence, and would have been very fearful that the throne might be occupied by a more rightful heir.

‘Carnal wicked hearts dread nothing so much as the fulfilling of the scriptures.’ (MHC)

‘The news that the Magi were bringing sounded suspiciously like the emergence of a genuine descendant of the royal line of David as a claimant to the throne.’ (Morris)

‘Herod was suspicious of anyone whom he thought could try to take the throne away from him. One-time friends, servants, countless enemies, priests, nobles, and all who crossed him in some way were killed.’ (Alan Millard)

Michael Wilkins (Holman Apologetics Commentary) argues that since the Magi probably travelled in a sizeable company, this gave Herod the impression that forces were gathering that would oust him from his throne and usher in the rightful Messiah.

All Jerusalem with him – This may refer to the religious leaders – the chief priests and the scribes, mentioned in the next verse. This rejection of Jesus by Jerusalem foreshadows the pattern of his adult ministry (cf. Mt 27:15-26).  Carson remarks that their concern was not born out of any sympathy with or admiration for Herod, but rather an awareness that the very thought of a possible rival for the paranoid king would result in yet more cruelty (as indeed it did).  France adds that Matthew may have mentioned this as the beginning of ongoing antagonism of the Jerusalemites to Jesus (culminating in their willingness to take responsibility for his execution, Mt 27:24f).  Wilkins, however, thinks that ‘their reaction gives a clue to the spiritual health of Israel’s leadership. They have aligned themselves politically with Herod, and if his power base is threatened, so is theirs.’

John Hudghton notes:

The Herodian-appointed Priests who depended on his patronage would have been as disturbed as Herod himself at the news of a new King. Had these strangers been wandering Gypsylike fortune tellers they would neither have gained access to Herod’s court or been given any credibility. However as they were the respected Magi – the Parthian religious civil service they received a hearing.

We need not assume that the Jerusalemites had not seen the star.  Rather, what they had not perceived was its significance.

Neither Herod, the reigning king, nor the Jews of Jerusalem, make any attempt to seek out Jesus, let alone worship him. It is the pagan astrologers who do that. It is fitting that Matthew should record this, since he writes especially for the Jews, and moreover records their rejection of Christ as well as the outreach of the Gospel to the Gentiles.

‘The first who took notice of Christ after his birth were the shepherds, (Lk 2:15, etc.) who saw and heard glorious things concerning him, and made them known abroad, to the amazement of all that heard them, Mt 2:17,18. After that, Simeon and Anna spoke of him, by the Spirit, to all that were disposed to heed what they said, Lk 2:38. Now, one would think, these hints should have been taken by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and they should with both arms have embraced the long-looked-for Messiah; but, for aught that appears, he continued nearly two years after at Bethlehem, and no further notice was taken of him till these wise men came.’ (MHC)

Jesus the ‘troublemaker’

‘When Jesus was born into our world, people immediately began to react. His presence did not soothe and comfort people; instead, it startled and disturbed them. In some, he awakened spiritual longings; in others, fear and insecurity.’ (Life Application)

What a contrast!

‘Here, at the very start of his life, we see two camps forming: one full of praise and welcome; the other full of hatred and opposition. Herod and the Magi stand out in strong contrast, a contrast that will deepen as the story of Jesus’ life unfolds towards the cross.’ (Wilcock)

‘The sharp contrast between these well-motivated foreigners and the unscrupulous jealousy of Herod, the official King of the Jews (and all Jerusalem with him), foreshadows the response which official Judaism will make to Jesus, and the future welcome of Gentile believers into the true people of God.’ (NBC)

Bruner finds in Matthew’s first two chapters ‘a Gospel in miniature’:

Matthew 1 and 2’s teachings of revelation (Matt 1) and of response to revelation (Matt 2) make the Christmas stories a Gospel in miniature (Brown, Birth, 183).

The Magi’s faith dominates the first half of chap. 2, Herod’s unfaith, the second half (see the neat outline in Davies and Allison, 1:224 and Luz, 5th ed., 1:158).

The irony is that outsiders seek, find, and worship the Messiah of Israel, while insiders’ leadership seeks to eliminate its most sought-after king (Lohmeyer, 26; McKenzie, 67; Schweizer, 37; Davies, 327).

Thus the first are last and the last first, a frequent theme in Matthew (Mt 19:30; 20:16, 26–27; 23:12, etc.).

Indeed, the heathen preach Christ to Israel (2:2), and, even more, it is “star-crossed” Magi(cian) heathen who do the preaching, persons considered the antonym of Spirit-inspired prophets (Schlatter, Das Evangelium, 13; cf. McNeile, 22).

Thus the NT Magi parallel the OT Balaam, the pagan magician who, though a pagan, knew God (Num 24:4, 16 LXX), came from the mountains of the East (Num 23:7; 22:5), preached salvation to Israel, and spoke of a scepter star that will “rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17) (Lohmeyer, 25; Schweizer, 37; Luz, 5th ed., 1:161). (Re-paragraphed)

2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
2:6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Chief priests – Strictly speaking, there was only one, but the plural may be given to cover a range of officials.

He asked them where the Christ was to be born – That Herod had to ask this question at all shows that he had only a superficial knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.

“In Bethlehem in Judea” – The answer is supplied from Mic 5:2.  This would have seemed remarkably apt to the Magi, since ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘house of grain’ in Aramaic (spoken in Mesopotamia and Judea) and Hebrew, and Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, was strongly associated with an ear of corn.  Given that the zodiacal constellations were (and are) referred to as ‘houses’, both Virgo and Bethlehem were known as ‘house of grain’.

‘The context of the passage in Micah seems clearly messianic and was regularly so taken by pre-Christian Jews. The remainder of the verse which Matthew leaves unquoted (“whose origins are from of old, from ancient times”) suggests more than a mere mortal is in view. Perhaps Micah even had in mind the child of Isa 7:14 and Isa 9:6. Certainly such a prophecy excludes many potential messianic aspirants and refutes the argument that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah simply by setting out to fulfill all of the Scriptures relevant to the office. He scarcely could have chosen his place of birth.’ (NAC)

This verse appears to be in contradiction with Jn 7:42, where it is stated that ‘when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from.’

There may be knowledge without grace

‘There is more gross ignorance in the world, and in the church too, than we are aware of. Many that we think should direct us to Christ are themselves strangers to him.’ (MHC)

Ryle says that this passage teaches that ‘there may be knowledge of Scripture in the head, while there is no grace in the heart.’ The priests and elders could give a ready and accurate answer to Herod’s enquiry, but not one of them made their way to Bethlehem to seek the Saviour for themselves. They had head-knowledge, but no heart-response.

Herod’s ‘scripture experts’, who told the Wise Men where the Messiah was to be born, ‘do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result.’ Does this, asks Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), ‘furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?’ (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives)

‘They thus showed, as Ridderbos points out, that their failure to believe was not due to ignorance: “Israel knew precisely where the King of the Jews would be born, but it was the Gentiles who worshiped him first”.’ (Morris)

See also Jn 7:42.  This may be a continuation of the quote by the Jewish leaders, or alternatively it may be an annotation by Matthew.

The quotation is based on Mic 5:2, but with the latter part drawing on 2 Sam 5:2.

The quotation has been adapted to show that the fulfilment is yet more expansive then the prediction: ‘Bethlehem is no longer “of Ephratha” but “in the land of Judah”, and it is no longer “one of the little clans” but the opposite: “by no means least among the rulers.” Rather than simply “ruling” in Israel, the citation in Matthew speaks of the coming ruler “shepherding” Israel.’ (DJG, 2nd ed., art. ‘Birth of Jesus’).

The mention of ‘the land of Judah’ is, says France, in order to bring out Jesus’ Judean origins and therefore his entitlement to the throne of David.

“By no means the least” – Mic 5:2 has ‘though you are small’.  ‘Matthew makes a key addition to Micah’s wording, by inserting the word translated “by no means,” to show that the fulfillment of this prophecy has transformed Bethlehem from a relatively insignificant town into a city of great honor. What seems at first glance to create a formal contradiction in fact involves an addition designed to make the text accurately reflect the altered situation. This combination of translation and commentary closely resembles that of the Jewish targums. Discerning Jewish readers would have known the wording of the original text and would have recognized that Matthew’s addition was not a mistake in quoting the Scriptures but an interpretative explanation.’ (NAC; France explains similarly)

“The shepherd of my people Israel” – Mic 5:2 has ‘ruler over Israel’.  The present wording draws in the thought of 2 Sam 5:2 – ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler’ (the Lord’s words to David).

‘Matthew’s quotation not only answers Herod’s and the Magi’s question regarding the place of the Christ child’s birth while showing the city once despised as now honored, but it also adds another aspect to the work of the royal Messiah. He will not only rule but also “shepherd” the people of Israel. A shepherd as an image of a ruler of God’s people appeared commonly in the Old Testament (see Ezek 34). It implies guidance, pastoral care, and a sense of compassion. (see Mk 6:34) The final phrase of Matthew’s quotation comes from 2 Sam 5:2, in which godly shepherding formed part of the role assigned to Israelite kings. What they often failed to carry out, the Messiah will now perform properly.’ (NAC)

‘Though a small place so far as population is concerned, yet it shall not be small, or least, in honour; for the Messiah shall be born there. His birth gave the place an honour which could not be conferred on the larger cities by all their numbers, their splendour, and their wealth. The birth of a distinguished personage was always supposed to give honour and importance to a city or country. Thus seven cities contended for the honour of giving birth to Homer; Stratford-upon-Avon is distinguished as the birth-place of Shakespeare; and Corsica as the birth-place of Napoleon.’ (Barnes)

2:7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 2:8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.”

Herod called the Magi secretly – Secretly, so as not to endanger his evil plan to eliminate his ‘rival’.  No doubt Herod reasoned that if he knew the exact time the star appeared, he would know the age of the child.

‘He would not openly own his fears and jealousies; it would be his disgrace to let the wise men know them, and dangerous to let the people know them. Sinners are often tormented with secret fears, which they keep to themselves.’ (MHC)

The exact time the star had appeared – ‘If the initial appearance of the star was understood to mark the time of the Messiah’s birth (as Herod apparently thought, v. 7), the visit must be sufficiently long after that to allow the magi to reach Jerusalem from their unspecified country of origin; the contiguous arrival at the manger of Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s magi thus owes more to theatrical convenience than to historical probability!’ (France, NICNT)

He sent them to Bethlehem – Sceptics wonder why he entrusted the Magi with this task, rather than sending some of his own men.

The 19th-century rationalist critic David Friedrich Strauss questioned the plausibility of Herod’s action: With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?

Ian Paul remarks that ‘we know from Josephus that Herod had a fondness for using secret spies. And in terms of the story, the magi are unaware of Herod’s motives; we are deploying our prior knowledge of the outcome to decide what we think Herod ought to have done, which is hardly a good basis for questioning Matthew’s credibility.’

France explains: ‘Herod had a liking for the use of under-cover agents, and he had no reason to doubt their compliance, while an armed escort might well have jeopardized a successful search for the family concerned.’

France adds: ‘We may well suppose that the magi, even before their dream in v. 12, would have had their suspicions aroused by the desire of the reigning king to pay homage to a supposed “heir to the throne” whose whereabouts he did not know and of whose very existence he had hitherto been ignorant.’

2:9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 2:10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully.

They went on their way – ‘But where were ye, O Jewish ecclesiastics, ye chief priests and scribes of the people? Ye could tell Herod where Christ should be born, and could hear of these strangers from the far East that the Desire of all nations had actually come: but I do not see you trooping to Bethlehem-I find these devout strangers journeying there all alone. Yet God ordered this too, lest the news should be blabbed, and reach the tyrant’s ears, before the Babe could be placed beyond his reach. Thus, are the very errors and crimes and cold indifference of men all overruled.’ (JFB)

The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was – To some (both believers and sceptics), this apparent movement makes the explanation that the star was a natural phenomenon rather difficult.  According to the Sceptics’ Annotated Bible, ‘if the star “went before them,” leading them to Bethlehem, then it couldn’t have been a star or any other astronomical object or event.’  But such scepticism is found to be misplaced, given Nicholl’s recent work.

If the ‘star’ was, as many assume, a conjunction, then it can hardly be described as moving ‘ahead of them until it stopped.’  But, as Mounce suggests, this may be ‘no more than a way of saying that what they had seen in the heavens “led” them to find the newborn Messiah.’

Until it stopped – more literally, ‘until, having come, it stopped’, which Nicholl understands as referring to its descent towards the horizon.

Nicholl regards it as probable that the star became visible in the southern sky at sunset.  Its ‘stopping over the place where the child was’ suggests its dropping towards the western horizon in the now-dark sky.  Of course, they did not need celestial help in finding Bethlehem; we therefore infer that ‘the place’ in question is ‘the house’ of v11.

Nicholl remarks that the comet’s tail may have played different roles up to this point: it may have been the water being poured from Aquarius’ jug and the arrow of the bow of Sagittarius the archer.  It had also taken the role of a royal scepter.  Now it is a pointer to the precise place where the Messiah lay.

According to ISBE:

‘In the Bible at least three astronomical miracles are recorded: Joshua ordering the sun to “be still,” (Jos 10:13) the shadow going back on the dial of Ahaz, (2 King 20:8-11) and the star of Bethlehem. (Mt 2:1-11) There are three common ways of attempting to understand miracles in the biblical narratives. The first is to try to find a natural explanation for an apparently supernatural phenomenon. [The second] is to understand it as poetical hyperbole. The third way is to regard the biblical narrative as an essentially accurate account of a truly supernatural event. The Bible itself suggests that these miracles are the mighty work of God and not astronomical flukes. The God of the Bible is the creator of all celestial objects and they bear witness to him. He can certainly intervene and change their natural course’

The foregoing does not quite cover all the options, however: a number of such miracles may be miracles of timing, in that the events are natural, but their timing providential.

However, ‘the apparent disappearance and reappearance is what makes some scholars believe this to be a planetary conjunction in which the planets came together, then parted, then reconverged.’ (HSB)

More plausible still is the cometary theory.  According to Nicholl, the comet would have appeared first in the eastern sky in the morning, and then dropped below the horizon, reappearing a month or two later in the southern sky in the evening.  This reappearance is hinted at by the magi’s joyful surprise, noted in v10.  If the comet was in the southern sky, directly in front of them, then it would seem to go ‘ahead of them’.  Its tail would point to the very place ‘where the child was’.

Over the place where the child was – Over Bethlehem, or over the house itself?  If Bethlehem, then we may suppose that the presence of the star simply confirmed what the magi had already been told.  For, as Carson remarks, the shepherds, who had visited earlier, had publicised the birth throughout the neighbourhood (Lk 2:17f).  If the house itself, then we have to wonder how any astronomical phenomenon can pinpoint an earthly location with such position.

‘The Magi appear as Balaam’s successors to witness the fulfillment of Num 24:17.’ (NAC)

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed – This, together with the previous verse (‘…the star they had seen in the east…’) suggests that the star made a reappearance, having been unobservable for a while.  They had probably not been expecting it to reappear.  It had previously been in the east, but now it is in the south.

2:11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The absence of any mention of Joseph is a quiet confirmation of the truth of Mt 1:18-25, namely, that Jesus was born of a virgin in fulfilment of Isa 7:14.

On coming to the house – Of course, later Christian tradition has tended to amalgamate the visit of the shepherds and the Magi. But the visit of the Magi may have taken place some time – up to two years after the birth of Jesus. But it is by no means certain that Luke regards Jesus as having been born in a stable, Lk 2:7.  So it is quite possible that the shepherds and the magi visited the same dwelling.

They bowed down and worshiped him – They may not have fully realised it, but their actions suggest that the now-born baby is to be regarded as not only of a royal, but also of a divine, character.

  1. They came – having traveled far and long
  2. They saw
  3. They bowed down and worshiped
  4. They gave – of their best

‘For these foreign dignitaries to prostrate themselves in homage before a child in an ordinary house in Bethlehem is a remarkable illustration of the reversal of the world’s values which will become such a prominent feature of the Messiah’s proclamation of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:1–5; 20:25–28 etc.).’ (France)

‘These verses show us that it is not always those who have most religious privileges, who give Christ most honour. We might have thought that the scribes and Pharisees would have been the first to hasten to Bethlehem, on the slightest rumour that the Saviour was born. But it was not so. A few unknown strangers from a distant land were the first, except the shepherds mentioned by St. Luke, to rejoice at his birth. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (Jn 1:11) What a mournful picture this is of human nature! How often the same kind of thing may be seen among ourselves! How often the very persons who live nearest to the means of grace are those who neglect them most!…Familiarity with sacred things has an awful tendency to make men despise them. There are many, who from residence and convenience ought to be first and foremost in the worship of God, and yet are always last. There are many, who might well be expected to be last, who are always first.’ (Ryle)

‘We may well imagine their expectations were raised to find this royal babe, though slighted by the nation, yet honourably attended at home; and what a disappointment it was to them when they found a cottage was his palace, and his own poor mother all the retinue he had! Is this the Saviour of the world? Is this the King of the Jews, nay, and the Prince of the kings of the earth? Yes, this is he, who, though he was rich, yet, for our sakes, became thus poor.’ (MHC)

‘We do not read that they gave such honour to Herod, though he was in the height of his royal grandeur; but to this babe they gave this honour, not only as to a king (then they would have done the same to Herod), but as to a God.’ (MHC)

Faith triumphs over appearance

‘How glorious is that faith which triumphs over all visible appearances! To the expectations of these eastern visitors “the house” at Bethlehem would be not a little disappointing. Yet “when they saw the child” – differing in nothing to the outward eye from any other babe – “they fell down and worshipped Him.”‘ (JFB)

They opened their treasures – or, rather, their ‘treasure-boxes’ (WBC).  Carson remarks that ‘bringing gifts was particularly important in the ancient East when approaching a superior (cf. Gen 43:11; 1 Sam 9:7–8; 1 Kin 10:2).’

Gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh – Frankincense and myrrh are associated in Song 3:6 4:6.

The number of the gifts has led to the otherwise unfounded tradition that the Magi were three in number.

But why these particular gifts?  The deist Thomas Woolston mockingly said that if they had been truly wise they would have brought sugar, soap and candles.  These days, it is often quipped that three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, delivered the baby, cleaned the stable, cooked a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

The key, of course, is in the text, when it is said that the magi ‘worshiped’ him.  They were gifts fit for a king, as foreshadowed in Psa 72:8-11 and Isa 60:4-7.

Although some critics think that Matthew has ‘invented’ the Magi to suit his own theological purposes, this judgement violates the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.  As Ian Paul remarks:

Matthew’s inclusion of magi is theologically very problematic indeed. Simon Magus and Elymas (Acts 8.9, 13.8) hardly get a good press, not surprising in light of OT prohibitions on sorcery, magic and astrology. Western romanticism has embraced the Epiphany as a suggestive mystery, but earlier readings (like that of Irenaeus) saw the point as the humiliation of paganism; the giving of the gifts was an act of submission and capitulation to a greater power. For Matthew the Jew, they are an unlikely and risky feature to include, especially when Jesus is clear he has come to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10.6, 15.24).

Mounce agrees that ‘the giving of gifts in the ancient East was an act of submission and allegiance (cf. Ps. 72:10–11, 15; Isa. 60:6).’

Do the gifts have symbolic meaning?
Some of seen a symbolic significance in the individual gifts offered.  An anonymous writer from the Patristic period was one of the first to attach symbolic meaning to the gifts: ‘They displayed their offerings, gifts in themselves fit for nations to give. For, realizing that he was king, they offered him their elegant and costly first fruits, fit for the Holy One. They offered him gold they had stored up for themselves. Moreover, recognizing his divine and heavenly coming to them, they made an offering of frankincense, a beautiful gift like the soothing speech of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, understanding as they did that human life is but a sepulcher, they offered myrrh.’ (ACCS)

Matthew Henry simply notes that ‘some think there was a significancy in their gifts; they offered him gold, as a king, paying him tribute, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s; frankincense, as God, for they honoured God with the smoke of incense; and myrrh, as a Man that should die, for myrrh was used in embalming dead bodies.’  More important, for this commentator, is that ‘providence sent this for a seasonable relief to Joseph and Mary in their present poor condition.’

Green remarks that gold is especially associated with royalty; incense with priestly worship, and myrrh with burial. ‘In those three gifts we see who he is, what he came to do, and what it cost him.’

Hendriksen, who is sympathetic to the view that each gift carries symbolic significance, quotes Origen who said that the Magi brought ‘gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to God.’

Blomberg thinks that all of the gifts are associated with royalty, and therefore honour Jesus as King.

Osborne agrees that these are the kinds of gifts that would be given to a future king.  He adds that they reflect OT precedent: ‘in fact, there is a fulfillment sense in these passages (see Ps 72:10–11, 15, in which “all kings” fall down in homage and give gifts [gold] to the king; Isa 60:3–6, where the nations rejoice and bring their riches [gold and frankincense]; and 1 Kgs 10:2, 10, where the Gentile Queen of Sheba gave gold, spices, and precious stones to Solomon, the son of David). The message is that when the nations are blessed and brought to Zion by the Messiah, they will bring gifts to the true and final King (Isa 60:3, 5, “Nations will come to your light … the riches of the nations will come”).

France says, ‘The homage of these learned Gentiles is intended to indicate the fulfilment of such passages as Ps 72:10ff, Isa 60:1ff (these passages probably account for the later Christian tradition that these Magi were “kings”), and two of the gifts are specifically mentioned in Ps 72:15 (gold); Isa 60:6 (gold and frankincense). They are gifts fit for a king, as is also myrrh, Ps 45:8; Song 3:6; and they remind the reader of the homage of the Queen of Sheba to the son of David, with her gifts of spices and gold, 1 Kings 10:2. The use of myrrh in the crucifixion, Mk 15:23 and burial, Jn 19:39, of Jesus has led to the tradition that it symbolises his suffering, but in the Old Testament it is rather a symbol of joy and festivity (see references above, and Prov 7:17; Song 5:5.’

WBC concurs: ‘The offering of gold and precious spices is not extraordinary but does suggest that the magi who could give these gifts were of some wealth. The “decoding” of the three gifts-that gold reflects Christ’s kingship, frankincense his deity, and myrrh his suffering-is irrelevant to Matthew’s intention.’

JFB similarly express wise caution: ‘That the gold was presented to the infant King in token of his royalty; the frankincense in token of his divinity, and the myrrh, of his sufferings; or that they were designed to express his divine and human natures; or that the prophetical, priestly, and kingly offices of Christ are to be seen in these gifts; or that they were the offerings of three individuals respectively, each of them kings, the very names of whom tradition has handed down-all these are, at the best, precarious suppositions. But that the feelings of these devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay there-that much at least admits of no dispute.’

Wilkins agrees that symbolic interpretations read too much into the text.  ‘Rather, these three gifts indicate the esteem with which the Magi revere the child and represent giving him the honor due him as king of the Jews.’ Wilkins adds: ‘More than the Magi know or intend, these gifts are likely used to providentially support the family in their flight to and stay in Egypt.’

‘It is obvious that the magi symbolize the Gentiles who, unlike the Jews, prove receptive to the king and God’s purposes in him. The realization of eschatological salvation means blessing for all the nations and not simply Israel-this in accord with God’s promise to Abraham and the universalism of the prophets. The Church, in the West at least, did not miss the import of the magi, and before they began to celebrate Christmas, they already celebrated Epiphany (Jan. 6), the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.’ (WBC)

2:12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.

Warned in a dream – This may have entailed the agency of an angel, as in Lk 1:20; 2:13, 2:19.

Remarks

JFB remark that,

  1. ‘As in the first chapter of this Gospel Christ’s genealogy and His birth of the Virgin show that salvation is of the Jews, so the visit of these eastern Magi, in the second chapter, exhibits the interest of the Gentile world in Christ.’
  2. The coming of Jesus, welcomed by some – the Magi, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and others who looked for the consolation of Israel – only stirred up hatred in others – Herod, the priests and the scribes.  So it is in every age, that the secrets of many hearts are revealed (Lk 2:35).
  3. ‘What a commentary is furnished by this narrative on such sayings as these: “Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out;” “The last shall be first, and the first last;” “I am found of them that sought me not;” (Mt 8:11-12; 20:16).’
  4. ‘See here the importance of the written Word, and of an intelligent acquaintance and familiarity with it; but yet how compatible this is with a total absence of the spirit and life of it.’
Majesty and meekness

Wilkins observes: ‘The picture that Matthew paints of the arrival of Jesus is breathtaking in its potential but alarming in its vulnerability. Jesus is King of the Jews (Mt 2:1), Messiah (Mt 2:4), and Ruler (Mt 2:6), who will “shepherd” his people Israel (Mt 2:6). In him are localized the prophetic hopes of the people of Israel as they strain under the yoke of Rome. This is no ordinary child, but he is the ruler who will once again bring safety to the beleaguered people of God.’  Yet, adds Wilkins, ‘Jesus is just a little child. He has no royal courtiers to care for him, no military guard to defend him. He has no palace or army. In fact, an ominous note is sounded. This vulnerable, humble little claimant to Israel’s throne will be threatened by the conniving tyrant, Herod. Who will care for the little future king? Who will protect him? How can he possibly survive to bring about those roles prophesied for him?’

Sought by strangers; neglected by his own

Mounce observes: ‘By secular observation these gentile astrologers had discerned the coming of the Jewish Messiah, sought him out in order to worship him, and now in obedience to a divine visitation return home without making contact with the religious authorities. All this time the religious leaders of Jerusalem know from their own Scriptures where the Messiah is to be born. But not even the visit of foreign dignitaries piques their curiosity enough to travel six miles to Bethlehem to find out if there is any truth in the report.’

Matthew’s purpose

According to Carson, ‘Matthew’s main purpose in this story is to contrast the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.’

The first of many

‘They typify the nations in Isaiah’s “procession of the nations to Zion” theme (Isa 2:2–5; 11:10, 12; 14:1; 49:22; 56:3, 60:3, 6, 11) and reenact the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon with royal gifts (1 Kgs 10:1–10). They also show that indeed the whole world will worship the Messiah and declare him King (cf. Rev 21:24, 26).

For all the world

As the contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary says: ‘Chap. 1 had stressed Jesus’ origin in Israel. The Magi story opens the possibility of mission to the Gentiles, thereby reassuring the Jewish members of Matthew’s community that the recent development of a gentile mission, however suspect to some stricter Jewish Christians, was in fact foreshadowed in Jesus’ birth.’  Wright similarly stresses the Gentile theme: ‘The arrival of the ‘Magi’…introduces us to something which Matthew wants us to be clear about from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world (e.g. Psalm 72; Isaiah 11:1–10). Matthew will end his gospel with Jesus commissioning his followers to go out and make disciples from every nation; this, it seems, is the way that the prophecies of the Messiah’s worldwide rule are going to come true. There are hints of the same thing at various points in the gospel (e.g. Mt 8:11), though Jesus himself did not deliberately seek out Gentiles during his ministry (see Mt 10:5–6). But here, even when Jesus is an apparently unknown baby, there is a sign of what is to come.’

Pointing ahead

Wright notes how this story anticipates the climax of the gospel.  ‘Jesus will finally come face to face with the representative of the world’s greatest king—Pilate, Caesar’s subordinate. Pilate will have rather different gifts to give him, though he, too, is warned by a dream not to do anything to him (Mt 27:19). His soldiers are the first Gentiles since the Magi to call Jesus ‘king of the Jews’ (Mt 27:29), but the crown they give him is made of thorns, and his throne is a cross. At that moment, instead of a bright star, there will be an unearthly darkness (Mt 27:45), out of which we shall hear a single Gentile voice: yes, he really was God’s son (Mt 27:54).’

Seeker-challenging, as well as seeker-sensitive

Osborne remarks that the Magi typify ‘seekers’ today.  It’s important to note that they were obedient to everything that God sent them: the star, the prophecy, and the dream.  Without obedience, they would never have found the new-born King.  They found what they were seeking, and they worshiped.  ‘It is critical to realize that seekers, so long as they remain only seekers, continue to reject the Savior every service they attend. The task of the church is not just to be “seeker-sensitive” but far more to be “seeker-challenging,” for until they obey and worship the Lord, they stand with Herod rather than the Magi.’

The Escape to Egypt, 13-18

2:13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 2:14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 2:15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

Mt 2:13-23 consists of three short sections, each of which closes with a reference to Scripture.  The emphasis is on the fulfilment of Scripture, especially with regard to the geographical locations of Jesus’ early life:

  1. Egypt = freedom
  2. Bethlehem = hope
  3. Nazareth = lowliness

Each move is undertaken by Joseph as the result of a dream, and is linked by Matthew with OT Scripture.

Additionally, the whole section corresponds quite closely to the story of Moses and the exodus.  ‘The flight into Egypt recalls the protection of the infant Moses from the plot of a wicked tyrant; the massacre of the innocents recalls the slaying of the Hebrew children by Pharaoh; the return from Egypt is explicitly linked to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.’  (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘Herod’s order to exterminate the male infants of Bethlehem (Mt 2:16–18) is like Pharaoh’s order to do away with every male Hebrew child (Ex 1). The quotation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 evokes thought of the exodus, for in its original context “out of Egypt I called my son” (NIV) refers to Israel. Jesus, like Israel, is exiled to Egypt and then returns to the land of origin. Matthew 2:19–21 borrows the language of Exodus 4:19–20 so that just as Moses, after being told to go back to Egypt because all those seeking his life have died, takes his wife and children and returns to the land of his birth, so too with Jesus: Joseph, after being told to go back to Israel because all those seeking the life of his son have died, takes his wife and child and returns to the land of his son’s birth.’ (DBI, art. ‘Matthew, Gospel of’)

The references to Scripture, however, are not of the one-to-one prediction/fulfilment type (cf. Mt 2:5).

These repeated references to Scripture, together with guidance by dreams, underline the sense that everything that happened was under God’s providential care. An important sub-theme is the parallel between Jesus and Moses.

‘Josephus…records a tradition that a “sacred scribe” (= astrologer?) foretold to Pharaoh the birth of the deliverer of Israel; Pharaoh in alarm ordered the destruction of all young male children; Moses’ father, however, was told in a dream that it was his son who was destined to deliver Israel, and so rescued him from the massacre.  A Jewish reader, aware of this expansion of the Exodus tradition, would the more quickly see Jesus as a second Moses in the narratives of chapter 2′ (France).

Further allusions to Moses in Mt 2:13f (cf. Ex 2:15 and Mt 2:20f (cf. Ex 4:19f) along with the explicit mention of Egypt and of the slaughter of the children, would have alerted the reader.

After they had gone – How soon after?  That very night?

“Take the child and his mother” – Jesus is not called Joseph’s child: another allusion to the virginal conception.

“Flee to Egypt” – ‘Egypt afforded a natural haven for first-century Jews. A large Jewish community had lived there for several centuries, and even from Old Testament times Egypt had often provided a refuge when danger threatened Israel.’ (e.g., 1 Kings 11:40; 2 Kings 25:26; Zec 10:10) (NAC).  See also Jer 26:21.

Since the Ptolemaic period, Egypt had been hospitable towards Jews.  According to Philo, about a million Jews lived there.

‘For Matthew [Egypt] held extra meaning as the place where Israel’s history as the people of God began.’ (France)

The command was urgent, and Joseph’s response immediate.  It was about 70 miles to the Egyptian border.

While a direct route across the desert would have been faster, it is likely that Joseph travelled via the established trade routes that would have taken him through Ashkelon and Gaza. This would have been a less arduous trip.

‘Egypt was a natural place to which to flee. It was nearby, had a well-ordered Roman province outside Herod’s jurisdiction, and had a population of about a million Jews.’ (EBC)

‘Being warned of the angel to go into Egypt, Mt 2:13, she had scarce enough to bear her charges thither; but see how God provides for her beforehand. By his providence he sends wise men from the east, who bring costly gifts, gold, myrrh, and frankincense, and present them to Christ; and now she has enough to defray her charges into Egypt.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, 120)

‘It’s possible that the treasures provided by the wise men financed the holy family’s subsequent escape to Egypt. It’s doubtful that people who could only afford to offer pigeons at the 40-day purification (Luke 2:24; Lev 12:1–8) could afford such a journey otherwise.’ (Mark Ward)

He got up, took the child and his mother during the night – By setting out at night, they would be difficult to follow.  The implication is that they set out that same night.

Many commentators point out that placing ‘the child’ before ‘his mother’ would be unusual, and is consistent with Matthew’s high Christology.  But we should also note the prominence of Joseph here.  It is he to whom the angel appears, he who believes and obeys the warning without question or delay, and he who takes ‘the child and his mother’ to a place of safety.

He stayed there until Herod died – Herod died in 4BC.  We don’t know how long the family stayed in Egypt.  It was, perhaps, not more than a year.

Incidentally, the Jews living in Egypt spoke Greek, and not Hebrew.  Indeed, this was the reason the Septuagint was produced for them.  This raises the possibility that Jesus’ parents knew Greek, or learned some Greek during their sojourn in Egypt.

Jesus the refugee

‘If we read Mt 2:13–14 in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we realize that even in his childhood the Son of Man already lacked a place to lay his head (Mt 8:20). Disciples would face the same kind of test (Mt 10:23; 24:16).’ (Keener, IVP Commentary)

A combination of ordinary and extraordinary

‘The birth of Jesus Messiah is presented as a stunning combination of the extraordinary, even the miraculous, along with the humble and plain, even the cruel and macabre. On the one hand, the conception itself owes everything to the supernatural intervention of God; and at every stage God’s Son is protected by God’s special initiative and direction. After all, guidance by angels appearing in dreams is rather rare in the New Testament—but it occurs five times in these two chapters! This Child was special, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises, the Saviour of His people, brought here with a divine commission. But on the other hand, He was born into a humble home and forced to flee His native land. His birth precipitated the savage murder of other young boys; and His parents were finally forced to settle in despised Galilee.’

(Carson, God With Us: Themes From Matthew)

God ordinarily uses ordinary means

David Dickson: ‘The Lord will have ordinary means used when they may be had: he will save Christ by flight, and will do no miracle needlessly.’

‘In spite of the wonder of his birth, the human Infant must be rescued not by miracle but by flight.’ (McNeile, quoted by Bruner)

‘Joseph, when he had heard [these orders to flee], was not offended, neither did he say, ‘The thing is hard to understand: Didst thou not say just now, that He should “save His people”? and now He saves not even Himself, but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise.’ … [But] if from his earliest infancy [Jesus] had shown forth wonders, He would not have been accounted a Man.’ (Chrysostom, quoted by Bruner)

We might add, that miracles were generally given, not merely to give help in difficulty, but also as signs: and this may be one reason why God often uses ordinary means.

What was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled – The quotation is from Hos 11:1.

Keener (IVPBBCNT) observes that ‘Matthew builds almost every paragraph from the genealogy to the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text in the Old Testament, explaining some event of Jesus’ life from Scripture.’

“I called my Son out of Egypt” – ‘When Hosea wrote the line (speaking for God) “Out of Egypt I called my son,” Hosea meant Israel; when Matthew wrote that line he meant Jesus.’ (Bruner)

The flight to, and return from, Egypt is, for Matthew, more than a coincidence.  The prophet’s words are not in the form of a prediction of a future event at all, but rather they look back to the Exodus.  ‘My son’ in Hos 11 is clearly Israel, and Matthew clearly wishes us to understand that Jesus is the new Israel, and this his mission will be the ultimate Messianic rescue rescue from captivity.  Mt 4:1-11, with its use of wilderness-texts, also sees Jesus as the new Israel.

Historical scepticism
Robert M. Price cites the present passage to illustrate his thoroughly skeptical view of the historicity of the Gospel narratives, according to which it is ‘likely that virtually the whole Gospel narrative is the product of haggadic midrashon the Old Testament’.  He adds: ‘It has been customary to suppose that early Christians began with a set of remarkable facts, then sought after the fact for scriptural predictions for them. We have supposed that Hosea 11:1 provided a pedigree for Jesus’ childhood sojourn in Egypt, that it was the story of the flight into Egypt that made early Christians go searching for the Hosea text. Now it seems, by contrast, that the flight into Egypt is midrashic all the way down. The words in Hosea 11:1 “my son,” catching the early Christian eye, generated the whole story, since they assumed such a prophecy about the divine Son must have had its fulfillment.’ (The Historical Jesus: Five Views)

Wilkins (Holman Apologetics Commentary) notes that ‘some critics…claim that Matthew fabricated details or manipulated true facts of Jesus’ life in order to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies about the coming Messiah. For example, some suggest that Matthew, who wrote to a Jewish audience, made up a life story about Jesus that fulfilled prophecies such as being born of a virgin in Bethlehem, or going to Egypt, or being raised in Nazareth.’

Wilkins offers, by way of response:-

  1. ‘The creation of falsified historical accounts to substantiate a claim to prophetic fulfillment is not a staple of Jewish interpretive history. As a Jewish author, Matthew would not have had a precedent for such a blatant disregard for Jewish interpretation of OT prophecies. And he would have been subject to criticism from the Jewish interpretive community for falsifying predictive prophecy.
  2. The apostles, including Matthew, were so gripped by the reality of Jesus as the Messiah that they suffered persecution at the hands of the Jews, and most of them later experienced martyrdom. They would not have been willing to die for a lie they themselves helped to invent.
  3. When the Gospels were written and circulated, there were many people still living who had been alive when the events of Jesus’ life had occurred. They would have confronted Matthew with his fabrication. But no such record of this kind of accusation against Matthew surfaces from the ancient records.
  4. The Jewish people would have used these kinds of fabrications as a way of discrediting the claims that Jesus was the Messiah. If Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem, or if his claim to being Messiah were not in line with OT prophecies, they would have been readily denied by Jews who were familiar with the details. However, we do not hear of any such accusations, not even from the Talmud, which at points speaks derogatorily about Jesus but never accuses his followers of falsification of Jesus’ life to fit messianic prophecies.’ (Numbering added)

‘Israel’s exodus from Egypt was taken already by the Old Testament prophets as a prefiguring of the ultimate Messianic salvation, and Matthew’s quotation here thus reinforces his presentation of the childhood history of Jesus as the dawning of the Messianic age.’ (France)

Keener insists:

Matthew knows the verse (Hos 11:1) quite well: indeed, instead of depending on the standard Greek translation of Hosea here, he even makes his own more correct translation from the Hebrew. If we read Matthew’s context, we see that this is not the only place where he compares Jesus with Israel: as Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus was tested there forty days (Matt 4:1-2). Matthew also expects his target audience to know Hosea’s context: as God once called Israel from Egypt (Hosea 11:1), he would bring about a new exodus and salvation for his people (Hosea 11:10-11). Jesus is the harbinger, the pioneer, of this new era of salvation for his people.

Other OT texts represent the Messiah as God’s son: Ps 2:7; 89:26-27; 2 Sam 7:14; cf. Num 24:7-8, (LXX, in which God himself brings the Messiah out of Egypt).

Blomberg, however, thinks that attempts to find a messianic reference in Hosea’s use of ‘son’ seem ‘contrived and unconvincing’. ‘The original event need not have been intentionally viewed as forward-looking by the OT author; for believing Jews, merely to discern striking parallels between God’s actions in history, especially in decisive moments of revelation and redemption, could convince them of divinely intended “coincidence.”…That Israel had been delivered from Egypt, that Israel would again be exiled there but again restored, and that the child believed to be the Messiah also had to return to Israel from Egypt formed too striking a set of parallels for Matthew to attribute them to chance. God clearly was at work orchestrating the entire series of events.’ (Commentary on NT Use of OT)

‘Just as God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt to inaugurate his original covenant with them, so again God is bringing the Messiah, who fulfills the hopes of Israel, out of Egypt as he is about to inaugurate his new covenant.’ (Blomberg)

‘Jesus is often presented in the NT as the antitype of Israel, or better, the typological recapitulation of Israel. For example, Jesus’ temptation after forty days of fasting recapitulated the forty years’ trial of Israel. Pharaoh had to let Israel go because Israel was the Lord’s son (Ex 4:22–23). Thus it is only fitting that Jesus also come out of Egypt as God’s Son, for already by this time he has been presented as the messianic “son of David” and, by the virginal conception, the Son of God (see also Mt 3:17).’ (EBC)

Carson concludes that ‘for Matthew Jesus himself is the locus of true Israel. This does not necessarily mean that God has no further purpose for racial Israel; but it does mean that the position of God’s people in the Messianic Age is determined by reference to Jesus, not race.’

In God With Us: Themes From Matthew, Carson adds: ‘Jesus is often presented in the New Testament as the antitype of Israel; that is, the true and perfect Israel who does not fail. If Israel is likened to a vine that produces disgusting fruit (Isa. 5), Jesus is the true vine who brings forth good fruit (John 15). If Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years and was frequently disobedient in the course of many trials and temptations, Jesus was sorely tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, but was perfectly obedient (Matt. 4:1–11). Israel in the Old Testament is the Lord’s son (Exod. 4:22, 23; Jer. 31:9); but Jesus, Himself a son of Israel, indeed a son of David, was supremely the Son of God; and therefore He re-enacted or recapitulated something of the history of the “son” (the nation of Israel) whose very existence pointed forward to Him.’

Jesus ‘fulfills’ Scripture in various ways

Although this verse is often cited as notable example of the New Testaments ‘misuse’ of the Old Testament, it actually sheds helpful light on how we should understand the ways in which Jesus ‘fulfils’ Scripture.

‘If Jesus “fulfills” the OT only by doing what specific OT prophecies say the Messiah will do, then Matthew 2:15 is a problem because Hosea 11:1 simply states a fact (i.e., God called Israel out of Egypt) and does not prophesy that the Messiah will depart Egypt. But the meaning of “fulfill” (plēroō) is not so narrow. The NT authors use this word as a general way of describing the relationship of the OT to the NT. It describes how the new, climactic revelation of God in Christ “fills up,” brings to its intended completion, the OT as a whole (the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel).’ (Moo & Naselli, in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, p710)

According to the Holman Apologetics Commentary, this passage ‘allows us to see that Matthew has a multifaceted perspective on the different ways that Jesus “fulfills” the OT Scriptures.

First, “fulfill” in Matthew can indicate the way in which the events of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry fulfill predictive prophecy. This present case may be one particular prediction, as in Matthew 1:22-23, where Jesus fulfills the prediction of a virgin-born messianic deliverer, or it may be a collective predictive theme, as in Mt 3:15, where Jesus’ ministry brings to actualization the collective OT prophecy of salvation-historical righteousness.

Second, Matthew can use “fulfill” to indicate that Jesus brings to its intended full meaning the entire OT, as he declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Third, Matthew’s use of “fulfill” can indicate that Jesus’ earthly life and ministry corresponded analogically or typologically (recapitulated or repeated) to key aspects of Israel’s national history. This is apparently what Matthew has in view presently (Mt 2:15; cf. Mt 2:17-18). In the context of his prophecy, Hosea recounts how God faithfully brought Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus. Matthew’s point of comparison is the corporate solidarity between Israel as God’s son being rescued and delivered by God, and Jesus as the One who is revealed to be God’s “Son” par excellence.’

Progressive reduction…and expansion

Many scholars have commented on the ways in which, in this chapter (as throughout this Gospel) Jesus is shown to recapitulate Israel’s history and fulfil her mission.

Bruner: ‘Jesus fulfills the historic mission of Israel. This is the biblical principle of what Oscar Cullmann called “progressive reduction.” When all humanity failed (Gen 1–11), Israel was recruited to be the way of salvation for humanity (Gen 12ff.). When Israel failed, Jesus of Nazareth, the true Israelite, succeeded in the name and for the sake of Israel (Matt 1ff.). Then, after Jesus’ great work of world salvation, now in “progressive expansion,” Jesus forms his church out of Israel’s roots to be the new people of God, the salt, light, and discipler of all nations (Matt 5:13–16; 28:18–20) until his return for the consummation of universal history. Jesus recapitulates in his person and reinaugurates in his church Israel’s mission of salvation in and for the world.’

‘A baby threatens no one’

Tom Wright tells of a Christmas service, at which he was preaching, attended by a historian who was well-known as a sceptic towards the Christian faith.

“I’ve finally worked out why Christmas is to popular,” said the historian.

“Really?  Why?” responded the preacher.

“It’s because Christmas is all about a baby.  And a baby threatens no one.”

As Wright observes, this birth was seen as such a threat by Herod that he killed all the little boys in Bethlehem, in order to be sure that he had got rid of Jesus.

Within a generation the followers of Jesus would be seen as a threat by the Roman rulers, whose ‘Caesar is Lord’ would be challenged by the exclamation, ‘No, Jesus is Lord.’

2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men.

Critics such as Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted) cast doubt on the historicity of this cruel incident because it lacks clear independent support from contemporary historical accounts.  However, it would have been regarded by most people at the time as ‘a minor incident in a period full of atrocities.’ (France), and not worthy of a place in the history books of the time.  The killing of a few babies (given the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, the number may have been as few as 12) is perfectly consistent with his known character.  Constantly suspecting treachery, he killed his wife, three sons, and a number of other relatives.  Josephus records that when Herod near to death, he ordered that one member of every family should be killed, to ensure that the nation was really in mourning (mercifully, that order was not carried out).  (See the comments of David Hilborn, www.christiantoday.com).

Keener (The Gospel of Matthew) catalogues Herod’s known atrocities (I quote verbatim, but with added bulleting and without the references to ancient sources):

  • When Herod’s young brother-in-law was becoming too popular, he had a “drowning accident” in what archaeology shows was a rather shallow pool;
  • later, Herod had falsely suspected officials cudgeled to death.
  • Wrongly suspecting two of his sons of plotting against him, he had them strangled…
  • Likewise, five days before his own death Herod, on his own deathbed, had a more treacherous, Absalom-like son executed…
  • In a fit of jealous rage (which he later regretted) he had his favorite wife strangled; she turned out to be innocent of the crime of which he had accused her.
  • He had religious men who had tampered with his golden eagle burned alive…
  • Fearing lest his people would not mourn at his death, he reportedly ordered that nobles from throughout the land be executed when he died to ensure mourning on that day…(Instead they were freed, leading to rejoicing)…In an era of many, highly placed political murders, the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention.

Herod…became enragedCf. Psa 2:2.

Wright notes: ‘As his power had increased, so had his paranoia—a not unfamiliar progression, as dictators around the world have shown from that day to this.’

He sent men – quite possibly from Herodium, which was within sight of Bethlehem.

There is, of course, a grim reminder here of the slaughter of the Israelite boys, and the rescue of Moses (Ex 1:22-2:10.

Green:

‘To be sure, there is no independent record of this particular atrocity, but it is mild in comparison with some of Herod’s other massacres. He slaughtered the last remnants of the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish high-priestly kings who had ruled before him. He executed more than half the Sanhedrin. He killed 300 court officers out of hand. He executed his own Hasmonean wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and his sons Aristobulus, Alexander and Antipater. Finally, as he lay dying, he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed as soon as his own death was announced. A man of ruthless cruelty and with a fanatical neurosis about any competition, it is quite in character that he should order the execution of the male children in Bethlehem. It was not a big place; there would probably have been only thirty or so of them, and their deaths would not have made a ripple on the history of the day.’

Tidball (p119) refers to the account of ‘the slaughter of the innocents’ as

‘the starting-gun of hostility that would eventually lead Jesus to the cross. When Herod heard that wise men from the east were searching for “one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2), he immediately sensed a threat to his reign and took steps to remove it (Mt 2:16-18). In ordering the massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem, Herod was both acting in character and signalling a conflict between his way of doing things – typical of power-obsessed worldly rulers – and the way of King Jesus. This conflict grew in intensity until Jesus was arrested, tried and executed by those worldly rulers.’

Regarding the apparent lack of corroborating evidence for this cruel act, C.E.B. Cranfield wonders if it is recollected in the pseudepigraphal Assumption of Moses (AD 6-30): ‘And he [Herod] will cut off their chief men with the sword, and he will destroy [them] in secret places, so that no one may know where their bodies are.  He will slay the old and the young, and he shall not spare.  Then the fear of him shall be bitter unto them in the land.  And he shall execute judgments on them as the Egyptians executed upon them, during thirty and four years, and he shall punish them.’

Two years old and under – According to Blomberg, the phrase could be translated, ‘under two years’.  According to Carson, Jesus would have been between six and twenty months of age.

It feels callous to try to estimate how many little boys may have been killed.  But here are a few thoughts.  Only 123 men returned to Bethlehem after the Babylonian exile (Ezra 2:21).  It appears to have grown into a village of perhaps 1,000 people by the time of Jesus’ birth.  In this case, around a dozen or so boys were slaughtered.  This is tragedy enough for the village, but not headline news in the light of the other events in Herod’s turbulent career: ‘Herod murdered his own sons and his wife Mariamne and ordered that 2,000 Jewish leaders be executed after his death so that the nation would mourn him, although this order was not carried out.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

2:17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud wailing,
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.”

The quotation is from Jer 31:15.  In original context, it could refer either to the deportation of the northern tribes by Assyria in 722–721 B.C. or to the deportation of Judah and Benjamin in 587–586 B.C.  Carson thinks that the latter is more likely.

Ramah – situated about five miles north of Jerusalem, and one of the first cities the exiles passed through on their way to Babylon.  According to Jer 40:1f it was here that the captives were held prior to their deportation to Babylon.  Rachel’s tomb was also in that vicinity, 1 Sam 10:2.

Rachel – Although mother to only two of Jacob’s sons, she was regarded as the ‘mother’ of Israel.  Her grave was thought to be in the area of Ramah.  The picture in Jer 31:15 is of her ‘weeping in her grave’ because of the loss of all her ‘children’: all ten of the northern tribes (Judah) had already been taken off into exile and the two southern tribes (Israel) were about to suffer the same fate.  For Matthew, she personifies the the mothers who now weep over this new calamity that has come upon Israel’s children.

The fact that Matthew finds another scriptural allusion does not mean that God is made responsible for this atrocity.  Matthew does not, as he does elsewhere, say, ‘in order that’, but the more neutral, ‘then was fulfilled.’ The reference in Jer 31 to Rachel and her lost children is actually to the captives taken in exile.

Exile is coming to an end

The context of Jer 31:15 is one of hope: that passage goes on to promise the return of the captives.  The significance in both Jeremiah and Matthew is that bereavement is a prelude to blessing:

“Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16–17 NRSV).

‘Yet’, writes David Dickson, comparing Jer 31:16f with Jer 31:10,11,18 and 22, ‘this comfortless sorrow should be swallowed up by the consolations of Christ come into the world…in the last of which verses the incarnation of the Messiah is pointed at expressly.’

Carson points out that Matthew has already made the exile a turning-point in his thought, Mt 1:11f.  At that point, the Davidic line was dethroned.  But now, the tears of the exile are climaxed and fulfilled – ‘the heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant (Mt 26:28) that was promised by Jeremiah.’

In God With Us: Themes From Matthew, Carson writes: ‘Matthew, even by his presentation of the genealogy of Jesus, has shown that he understood the Exile to be coming to an end. True, some Jews straggled back to the Promised Land 70 years after the first transportations began, but the Davidic monarchy was never re-established.

‘With the birth of Jesus, that was to change. The shoot of David was coming to reign. The weeping of Bethlehem’s mothers was to be the final stage of grief that belonged to the period of exile, and thus fulfilled it. As bitter as it was, it pointed ahead to the relief of the new covenant about to be inaugurated. Note that Jeremiah 31:15—Rachel weeping—is quickly followed by Jeremiah 31:31–34—the promise of a new covenant.’

France: ‘The relevance is not in Ramah or in Rachel (Bethlehem was not in one of the ‘Rachel’ tribes), but in bereavement as a prelude to blessing.’

Wright:

‘The passage in Jeremiah (Jer 31:15) is all about God’s renewal of the covenant, bringing Israel back from exile at last. Though Israel must weep and mourn, rescue is on the way. Again, Matthew is hinting that Jesus is bringing deliverance even when everything seems bleak and hopeless.’

‘In the original context of Jeremiah 31, Rachel wept for the children of Israel who would die in exile. But as Matthew certainly knew, Jeremiah 31 is also full of hope. The prophet declares that God loves his people “with an everlasting love” and will make a “new covenant” with them (Jer. 31:3, 31–34). Since citations of the Old Testament draw on the wider context, Matthew would have us understand that God yet loves the people of Bethlehem and will restore them, and all who likewise suffer, even as he restored Israel after the exile.’ (The Incarnation in the Gospels)

Keener similarly:

‘Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15 (where Rachel weeps over Israel’s exile) to the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem (Matt 2:17-18), near which Rachel was buried (Gen 35:19). But Matthew knows Jeremiah’s context: after announcing Israel’s tragedy, God promises restoration (Jer 31:16-17) and a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). Matthew compares this tragedy in Jesus’ childhood to one in Israel’s history because he expects his first, biblically knowledgeable audience to recognize that such tragedy formed the prelude to messianic salvation.’

Born into a troubled world

‘The gospel of Jesus the Messiah was born, then, in a land and at a time of trouble, tension, violence and fear. Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head. At the same time, in this passage and several others Matthew insists that we see in Jesus, even when things are at their darkest, the fulfilment of scripture. This is how Israel’s redeemer was to appear; this is how God would set about liberating his people, and bringing justice to the whole world. No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is. That’s what this chapter is about.’ (Wright)

The Lord Jesus was “a man of sorrows” even from his infancy

‘Trouble awaits him as soon as he enters into the world. His life is in danger from Herod’s hatred. His mother and Joseph are obliged to take him away by night, and “flee into Egypt.” It was only a type and figure of all his experience upon earth. The waves of humiliation began to beat over him, even when he was a sucking child.

‘The Lord Jesus is just the Saviour that the suffering and sorrowful need. He knows well what we mean, when we tell him in prayer of our troubles. He can sympathize with us, when we cry to him under cruel persecution. Let us keep nothing back from him. Let us make him our bosom friend. Let us pour out our hearts before him. He has had great experience of affliction.’

(Ryle)

The Return to Nazareth, 19-23

2:19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 2:20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 2:21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee.
2:23 He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.

After Herod died – This was in 4 BC.  It is not possible for us to say how long Joseph, Mary and their son stayed in Egypt.  It might have been a few years.

Trials are temporary

‘Although Matthew mentions Herod’s murder of the children, he notes Herod’s own death three times—indicating that God alone holds the ultimate power of life and death (Patte 1987: 36). To oppressed disciples, whether persecuted for their faith (Mt 10:22; 1 Pet 4:13–14) or repressed for other unjust reasons (Mt 5:39–41; Jas 5:1–7), this reminder of the oppressors’ mortality is a reminder that all trials are temporary and that their loving Father is in control (Mt 10:28–31; cf. 1 Pet 5:10).’ (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew)

Those who were trying to take the child’s life – Principally, Herod, of course.

Cf. Ex 4:19 – ‘The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, because all the men who were seeking your life are dead.”’

Archelaus – Herod’s eldest son.  He was notorious cruel and, according to Josephus, ordered a massacre soon after his father’s death.  The Jews protested to Caesar, and in AD 6 Archelaus was deposed.

‘Archelaus, one of Herod’s surviving sons, not only exhibited his father’s worst flaws but also lacked his administrative skill. That his mother was a Samaritan surely also failed to commend him to his Jewish subjects. His rule was unstable, and the Romans ultimately deposed him and banished him to Gaul (France).’ (Keener, IVPBBCNT)

Grasping the reigns.  ‘In Matthew 2:22, Archelaus is reigning as king in Judea; in Matthew 27:2, Pilate is governor of Judea; in Acts 12:1, Herod is king of Judea; and in Acts 23:33, Felix is governor of Judea…Josephus attests to the accuracy of every one of these titles. Herod the Great was made King of Judea by Mark Anthony. Archelaus was deposed in the year 6 A.D., after only a ten-year reign, and a series of procurators ruled over Judea (of whom Pilate was fifth). The Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I. He was made king by Claudius Caesar. After his death, Judea was, once again, placed under the government of procurators (one of them being Felix).’  (Source)

He was afraid to go there – i.e., to Judea.  We assume that Joseph would have meant to settle in Bethlehem, but it is the region (which included Jerusalem) that is mentioned here.

Having returned to Bethlehem for the census (because he was ‘of the house and lineage of David’, and having lived there with Mary and Jesus for some months, he was evidently minded to return there to live with his little family.  It was the present threat of danger that sent him back to Nazareth.

Galilee – A safer place to be.  Josephus tells us that Herod the Great’s territory was divided among his sons, with Judea being governed by Archelaus, and Galilee by his half-brother, Herod Antipas.  Josephus also confirms that Archelaus had a bloody reputation, having (for example) slaughtered 3,000 Jews as Passover.

Some commentators think they have found a contradiction between Matthew and Luke, since the former does not mention Mary and Joseph’s prior residence in Nazareth.  But there is nothing implausible here.  Luke’s selection of material is shaped by the patterns and parallels that he finds in Scripture, and he says nothing that excludes a previous home in Galilee.  They had probably thought to raise their family in the ancestral homeland, but now find themselves having to return to Nazareth.

He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there – It is clear enough from Lk 1:26 that Mary was a native of Nazareth (cf. Lk 13:53-58).  Most scholars infer from Lk 2:4 that Joseph too came from Nazareth.  But it is possible that Bethlehem was Joseph’s actual home town (and not just his ancestral town).  See comment on Lk 2:39.2:39

Nazareth was a town of perhaps around five hundred people.  Keener (IVPBBCNT) says that there is archaeological evidence suggesting that a number of people moved there from Judea, including from around Bethlehem.  Nearby Sepphoris was being rebuilt during Jesus childhood, providing work for Joseph, the builder/stonemason/carpenter.

What had been spoken through the prophets – Notice the wording, which differs from that found in Mt 1:22; 2:15,17.  This suggests that Matthew is not referring to any particular saying in any specific prophet; rather, he identifying a prophetic theme, rather than a prediction (NBD).

Note also the reference to prophets (plural).  See longer note below.

“That Jesus would be called a Nazarene” – It is often supposed that Matthew’s and Luke’s account are incompatible.  But there is good reason why Matthew would highlight Jesus’ childhood in Nazareth.  If all we knew was his birth in Bethlehem (the city of David, after all), then a certain honourable status is inferred.  But Nazareth was a despised town, and to be brought up there was ignominious.  There was certainly no reason for Matthew to invent the story, for it meets what scholars call the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.

Joseph’s first thought would have been to make a home in Bethlehem, or even in Jerusalem.  Each was replete with biblical promise, fitting one who would ‘save his people from their sins’.  Matthew and is readers know that Jesus was ‘of Bethlehem’.  But, as fitting one who would be ‘despised and rejected by men’ he would be known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

‘Nazareth was a despised place (John 7:42, 52), even to other Galileans (cf. John 1:46). Here Jesus grew up, not as “Jesus the Bethlehemite,” with its Davidic overtones, but as “Jesus the Nazarene,” with all the opprobrium of the sneer. When Christians were referred to in Acts as the “Nazarene sect” (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew’s point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss 22:6–8, 13; 69:8, 20–21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2–3, 8; Dan 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., Mt 8:20; 11:16–19; 15:7–8). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation (so also Ezra 9:10–12).’ (Carson)

‘I like to think that the Nazorean promised through Matthew’s plural “prophets” was, in short, the lowly Messiah, the Suffering Servant of God whose roots were transplanted first from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then from Egypt into the parched ground of Nazareth. He came to take a low place in history with us and for us, just as he submitted to baptism with all the sinners (Mt 3:13–17). Even the town where he would grow up, the town that became half his name, indicates half the truth about him (his true humanity), the truth that is later nailed over his head on the wood, “Jesus of Nazareth [his lowliness], the King of the Jews [his majesty]” (John 19:19).’ (Bruner)

Bruner adds: ‘He who in chap. 1 was regally called “God Saves” and “The With-Us-God” but who now in chap. 2 is uniformly and more modestly called “The Child” and “Jesus of Nazareth” will, by chap. 27, be mocked on the cross and in the next-to-last chapter be called “that impostor” (27:63). We descend in the first two chapters of this Gospel from Jesus’ deity in Mt 1:23 (= Isa 7:14) to his humanity in Mt 2:23 (= Isa 11:1). Given the character of God, it is likely that if God did visit earth the visit would be like this—in great modesty. Luke underlined this modesty by speaking of a manger, Matthew by speaking of a barrio [obscure settlement].’  [N.B. Bruner is favouring here a link, via word-play, between Isa 11:1 and the present saying.

The other Evangelists 'known nothing' of Jesus' birth in Bethelehem?
Scholars such as Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III like to attempt to drive a wedge between Matthew and Luke (who both say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem) and Mark and John, who ‘know nothing’ of this.

In Mk 1:9 Jesus is described both as from ‘Nazareth of Galilee’ and this is repeated several times in Mark’s Gospel.  Bethlehem is never mentioned.  In Mk 10:47 a blind beggar describes Jesus as both from Nazareth and as Son of David.

The Gospel of John also describes Jesus as coming from Nazareth in Galilee, and does not associate him with Bethlehem.  John does, however, mention a debate during which the Messiah would be a descendant of David and would come from Bethlehem.

(Estada adds that both Paul and the author of Revelation refer to Jesus as descended from David, but do not link this with a birth in Bethlehem.)

Estrada concludes: ‘The Gospels of Mark and John reveal that they either had trouble linking Bethlehem with Jesus, did not know his birthplace, or were not concerned with this city.’  It evidently has not occurred to this scholar that it is not so much Mark and John who ‘had trouble linking Bethlehem with Jesus’ but rather Jesus’ contemporaries, whose opinions they faithfully recorded.  And this is entirely in accord with what Matthew says here.  In both Mark and John (but especially the latter) we must take account of his well-recognised use of irony.

Did this all really happen?
Ian Paul quotes Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan (The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth):

In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes. Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes.

But, as Ian Paul points out, there are several problems with this approach:

For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.

Where does it say that?

[Joseph] came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.

Where does it say in the prophets ‘that Jesus would be called a Nazarene’?

This wording is not to be found in any of the prophets.  In fact, Nazareth is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament.  Bethlehem, on the other hand, had a higher status as the ‘city of David’.

Some have thought that Matthew is using word-play.  Back in the 5th century AD Jerome connected Mt 2:23 with the messianic prophecy found in Isa 11:1, where the word for ‘branch’ is ‘Neser‘.  Now, this same word is the Hebrew form of the name ‘Nazareth’.  Matthew’s sense would be that the lowly off-shoot will come from the lowly ‘off-shoot’ town of Nazareth.  This interpretation is supported by Wright.  However, it seems rather stretched, although it is supported by a number of modern commentators.

One clue is that Matthew says that it was written in the ‘prophets’ (plural).  Therefore, we might suppose that Matthew is giving the overall sense of the prophets, rather than any specific prophecy.

Another possible clue is that, rather than using the participle ‘saying’ Matthew uses the conjunction hoti, suggesting that this is an indirect quotation.

France (TNTC) thinks that this is not intended to be a specific quotation, but rather a summary of prophetic expectation.  Accordingly, it is possible that Matthew ‘saw in the obscurity of Nazareth the fulfilment of Old Testament indications of a humble and rejected Messiah; for Jesus to be known by the derogatory epithet Nazōraios (cf. John 1:46) was not compatible with the expected royal dignity of the Messiah, and thus fulfilled such passages as Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; Zechariah 11:4–14.

‘First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew’s point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss. 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., Mt 8:20; 11:16-19; 15:7-8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation.’ (Carson, EBC, 2nd ed.)

‘For Jesus to be known by the derogatory epithet Nazoraios (cf Jn 1:46) was not compatible with the expected royal dignity of the Messiah.’ (France)

Morris: ‘It appears that Matthew is drawing attention to the thrust of Old Testament prophecy about the Christ rather than to any one passage. Jesus went to Galilee so that what was written about him in the prophets would be fulfilled, and we see this in his being called a Nazarene, a citizen of an obscure and unimportant town. Had he been known as “Jesus of Bethlehem” he would have had the aura of one who came from the royal city; there would have been overtones of messianic majesty. But “Jesus the Nazarene” carried with it overtones of contempt.71 We are to understand the prophets as pointing to one who would be despised and rejected, and Jesus as fulfilling this by his connection with obscure Nazareth.’

The sense is that, just as someone who came from Nazareth would have been regarded as contemptible (see Jn 1:46; 7:52; Acts 24:5), so the prophets had said that the Messiah would be despised, Psa 22:6–8, 13; 69:8, 20–21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2–3, 8; Dan 9:26; Zec 11:4-14.

In conclusion, Matthew knows, and his readers know, that Jesus came from Bethlehem.  That was a place with a ring to it, for it was the birth-place of King David.  Matthew knows, and his readers know, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem precisely because Joseph (and therefore Jesus, by law) was a descendant of King David.

But the family settled, not in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth.  And there was no ring to that place-name.  There was no kudos in being a Nazarene.  In fact, to same that someone came from Nazareth was to say that they were of no importance.

No prophet so much as mentions Nazareth.  But what they do say is that the Messiah would be ‘despised’ and of no account.  He would be ‘called a Nazarene’.

And this is borne out by the rest of the New Testament.  The Saviour is known, not as ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’, but, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

Peter Mead helpfully sets out the New Testament witness to this appellation, beginning with Matthew:

Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in Mt 4:13-16, then comes Mt 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who he was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!

Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!

What about the rest of the New Testament?

Jesus was a very common name at that time, so he needed an identifier. Who was his Dad? That was complicated. What was his job? Again, not easy. So where was he from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to his name.

We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as he called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).

His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that he is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once his heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in his death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

After his resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.

But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)

Even after his ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).

The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).

Then we discover that Jesus used the label of himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).

Peter Mead concludes:

God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in his willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in his arrest, his crucifixion, his resurrection and even in his ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’

Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that he could be for us. And he is forever with us, for he still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.

God’s sleepless watch over his Son

Looking back over this passage, JFB note: ‘In the sleepless watch which the providence of God kept over His Son when a helpless Babe…we see a lively picture of what over-canopies and secures and directs that Church which is His body.’

‘In Herod’s attempt to kill the infant King, we encounter evil for the first time in the narrative. In Matthew’s perspective, evil continually stands in opposition to the purposes of God, who in Christ brings the kingdom. The resistance to the Christ comes to a climax in the crucifixion narrative of which, to some extent, our passage is an anticipation. At the same time, abundantly evident in our passage is the protection of the holy child by divine guidance. The gracious purposes of God cannot be thwarted; neither the bondage of Egypt nor the tragedy of the exile could thwart them. In the history of Israel, God repeatedly brought salvation to his people, and he has now brought them to the time of fulfillment—eschatological fulfillment in one who relives, sums up, and brings to fruition all the history and experience of his people. Thus the events that surround this child are related to all that preceded, as fulfillments of earlier anticipations. The messianic Branch, the promised descendant of David, toward whom all pointed, is now in the world. He comes, as did his people, out of Egypt to the promised land, through the trauma of the exile, to Galilee, breaking forth light to those sitting in darkness, as the prophet had foretold, to dwell in the unlikely town of Nazareth and so to be known as the Nazarene. Thus, according to Matthew, the plan of God unfolds. Nothing has happened by accident—all is in its proper place as it must be when the sovereign God brings salvation.’ (WBC)

Human need and divine provision

‘The Magi and Herod represent humanity’s need; the Child, humanity’s provision. There are two themes in the NT, and they combine to make one gospel: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and humanity’s deep need for that grace; sin and grace, need and salvation, the human problem and the divine solution. When either of these is insufficiently emphasized, respect for the other diminishes. One reason for the Reformation stress on the deep depravity and fearful lostness of persons apart from Christ, beyond the fact that it is the pervasive witness of Scripture, was the desire to magnify the wonder of God’s grace in Christ. “We cannot know his blessings unless we recognize our evil” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession). We need to appreciate the Magi and Herod in us if we are to appreciate the Christ for us.’ (Bruner)

The Man for Us

‘the last word in the church’s doctrine of human nature is not the Magi and their miraculous conversion, nor Herod and his perverse resistance to conversion; the last word is God’s prophetic naming of Jesus: “He shall be called a Nazorean.” What does this mean for human nature? It means that we should not only emphasize that humans are lost by nature (like the Magi) or sinners by choice (like Herod); we should also say that humans have been represented in lowliness (by Jesus). Jesus is The Man for Us. Jesus is as essential to the full doctrine of human nature as he is to the full doctrine of God.’ (Bruner)

Lessons from Jesus' early childhood

Looking back over the first two chapters of Matthew, Michael Green outlines the following lessons:

  1. Matthew makes it plain that God works through both surprise and continuity to bring about his purposes. The story of Jesus is utterly continuous with Abraham, with David and with the whole history of the chosen people. But it also bristles with surprises. Perhaps this is to encourage us to expect God to be working in our lives steadily and continuously, making sense of our past history; but also to be on the lookout for God’s surprises in our lives, ready to grasp them and follow through their implications when they come.
  2. Matthew has a clear message for the readers of his day. By then the Gentile mission was in full flood, and the tensions with Judaism had reached snapping-point. The temptation to give up on the Jews would have been very great. But Matthew says, ‘Don’t give up on the Jewish people. God has not given them up. He has a special purpose for them. It stretches back to the dawn of time. It is from Jewish stock that Jesus was born. Do not forget it.’
  3. Matthew has a word of encouragement about opposition. Opposition is inevitable, but it will never, in the providence of God, be allowed to quench God’s mission. There was every possibility of quenching the Messiah: his mother Mary might have been stoned as an adulteress; he might have been killed by Herod; he might have been lost in Egypt. But no. God’s hand was upon him. Opposition could not extinguish God’s light. What an encouragement that would have been to Matthew’s readers! The church, so frail, so exposed, would not be allowed to sink, however threatening the storms and waves that broke over it.

(Emphasis added)

Saturated with Scripture

It has been observed that Matthews writes scarcely a paragraph in chapters 1-4 without pointing out that what he is describing occured in fulfilment of Scripture.  In chapters 1-2:

Mt 1:22 – Mary’s child will be the virgin-born Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14, ‘God with us’ (Mt 1:22)

Mt 2:6 – Bethlehem is identified as the birthplace of the king of the Jews, from Mic 5:1.

Mt 2:15 – The flight into Egypt is the fulfilment of Hosea 11:1, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’.

Mt 2:18 – The massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem fulfils Jeremiah 31:15, which pictures Rachel weeping in Ramah for her dead children.

Mt 2:23 – The return to Nazareth is seen as fulfilling the OT expectation that Messiah would be despised.  In other words, “He will be called a Nazarene.”’