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)
“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:-
- the explicitly Davidic quotation in v6
- the story of the Queen of Sheba and her visit to Solomon, 1 Kings 10:1-10
- 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.’)
- Balaam himself, a non-Israelite, visionary from the east, Num 22:5; 23:7.
- 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.
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)
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.’
‘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.
- They came – having traveled far and long
- They saw –
- They bowed down and worshiped –
- 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)
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).’
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.
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:
- Egypt = freedom
- Bethlehem = hope
- 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.
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.
‘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)
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.’
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 enraged – Cf. 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.
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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)