1. Historical Events
1. Who were the Magi?
2. Born King of the Jews
3. The Star
4. Led by God or sent by satan?
2. Out of Egypt
3. Rachel weeping
I have already dealt with those passages in chapter 2 which speak of Joseph in my notes on Mtw 1:18-25 and the reader is directed to these (here) to avoid duplication here. And, also previously, I have pointed towards the conclusion that this passage refers to a period around a year after the birth of Jesus (here).
In these notes, I have deliberately dealt with themes that have been of personal interest to me and have, perhaps, gone off at some very long tangents to prove maybe one, or at most two, points. But the limited scope of modern day commentaries means that much of the historical context is often glossed over, summarised or edited before publication, it seems, and the reader is often left having to do his own research into the background with only a few sentences to point them on their way and some vague reference to an ancient historian or other.
I have used sufficient quotes to prove my points where necessary, I hope, and given the reader something that should stand on its own without the need for further reference work which is not always easy to pursue (Strabo’s Geography is particularly hard to find - I managed to locate it in the basement of our city’s main library - and it was only a 1911 translation at that! I have since managed to purchase a different three volume version).
If nothing else, I trust that it might cure some of insomnia!
This section is incredibly long because I have needed to deal with the historical background in which Matthew chapter 2 is set. Part 1 is by far the longest as it provides two good reasons for Herod’s action of sending to Bethlehem to attempt to eradicate the proclaimed Heir to his throne.
I only decided on a part 2 because I wanted to shorten the body of the main article and it originally was attached to it. In this section, though, you’ll find a speculative time period in which Jesus birth is set.
1. Historical Events
We will here look at the context of the chapter in its historical setting and be referring to Josephus’ ‘Jewish War’ - the version being used is listed on the web page here and it will not be easy for the reader to work out exactly which part of the original works I’m referring to seeing as this version dispenses with the seven book division that the original was compiled in and relies rather on a more modern twenty-three chapter division.
The preface notes that this makes the information more readily accessible - which I don’t dispute - but even verse numbers seem to be missing except for vague references at the top of each page. If you have some other version which you will be referring to, you should find the main body of my quotes from book one, verse 431 to the end of that book. In the current format, it’s simply chapters 4 and 5 and I shall be citing the page numbers (86-119) as they occur.
As far as I know, the current Penguin Classic book is still printed in the twenty-three chapter format but it’s a long time since I’ve had the chance to look at the new editions. You’ll probably find the text for Josephus somewhere on the web, anyway, as many of the more ancient texts are appearing here for general distribution and use.
So, onto Josephus’ testimony of the situation which surrounded the incidents recorded for us in Matthew chapter 2.
Firstly, as we read the facts ‘as Josephus saw them’ of the situation in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth, we must remove ourselves from thinking that Matthew has researched the author to conform his writings to what has been committed to writing already.
It is quite true to say that a lot of what Josephus records for us will have been understood and been commonly known throughout the land, but the Jewish War was written after the events of 70AD (probably between 75-79AD in Rome) while Matthew’s Gospel is generally accepted to have been in existence before the destruction of the Temple - that is, a pre-70AD date should be assigned to it.
Josephus, by compiling a book of the most recent Jewish history, has unwittingly provided good background to the Gospel narrative which would have hung with little historical support had he not done so. No doubt the critics would have had a field day where contemporaneous records failed to give a good reason for the events of Matthew chapter 2!
Some of the details outlined below are disputed by some commentators (for instance, Mathen - but, generally, his overview of Herod’s life is very good - see pages 155-165) for they accept error in Josephus’ account of events. However, I shall stick to his narrative from the Jewish War, knowing that the main thrust of Herod’s situation is the same whether certain events are accepted, rejected or reinterpreted.
Pages 27-85 (Book one verses 1-85) of the book detail both the rise to prominence and power of king Herod over the Israelite land (more on this in a later article on this page) and a handful of descriptions concerning certain areas within his jurisdiction, ending with Herod settled confidently on the throne of Palestine and seemingly unassailable and undefeatable, secure and established throughout his entire realm and undertaking magnificent building projects which were to outlast his death even to the modern age.
It’s here, at the end of this section, that we learn that Herod began the expansion and beautification of the Temple in c.23BC (page 81). Josephus writes (my italics) that
‘In the fifteenth year of his reign he restored the existing Sanctuary and round it enclosed an area double the former size, keeping no account of the cost and achieving a magnificence beyond compare’
Not only this, but the man bore a reputation for his ‘bodily strength’ which (page 84)
‘...was as great as his power of mind’
Even in more important matters of state, Josephus makes it plain (page 85) that
‘...he enjoyed the best of luck; he met with very few military defeats, and for these he was not to blame - they were due either to his soldiers’ rashness or to someone’s treachery’
Not content just with the splendour of the works, he also enshrined the memory of both his friends and relatives in his projects and Josephus states quite significantly (page 83) that
‘If ever a man was full of family affection, that man was Herod’
This is all well and good and the reader would, no doubt, have formed a picture in his mind of a nepotic individual who took great pleasure in his human relationships and who was both well-loved and loved much in return - at least amongst those closest to him - someone who rested secure in those trusted individuals who surrounded him.
However, chapter 4 (page 86) begins ominously.
‘For his public successes, fortune made Herod pay a terrible price in his own house’
and this statement sets the scene for the next two chapters (4 and 5 - and which concludes the end of Josephus’ first book). It is to these two chapters that we must now turn our attention.
Zondervan notes that Herod had ten wives but I can find names for only eight. We need to acquaint ourselves with just a few of these to give us a better framework for understanding the familial interrelationships and problems that raise their head in Josephus’ text.
Herod’s first wife was a commoner called Doris whom he’d married before his rise to prominence and kingship who bore him Antipater and, following after, was Mariamne I (married 37BC) who gave birth to both Aristobulus, Alexander and a child who died while at school in Rome. Following Mariamne I’s death, Herod took another wife by the same name, Mariamne II (married 24BC), who bore Philip and, subsequently, took Malthace who produced Antipas. Cleopatra is also known to have been one of his wives along with Pallas, Phaedra and Elpsis but, for the scope of this article, we needn’t concern ourselves with these.
When Herod first came to the throne in 37BC after having been governor of Judea for the preceding ten years, he divorced his first wife, Doris, and exiled both her and her child, Antipater, away from his presence in Jerusalem save for permission to return into the city for the compulsory Jewish festivals (page 86) for the sake of both his new wife and her offspring. This paved the way for the king to marry Mariamne who, Josephus notes, ‘he loved passionately’ but who also, he reports,
‘was the cause of the divisions in his house, which began early and grew worse after his return from Rome’
Shortly after this statement, the author records that
‘...Mariamne hated [Herod] as passionately as he loved her’
so that all his investment in her male offspring seems to have played directly into her hands. This hatred was manifest in the tale-telling which she spread throughout her contacts, pulling Herod down through her criticisms of his dealings with both Hyrcanus, her grandfather, and Jonathan, her brother.
Conspiracy theories seem to have overrun Herod’s mind even before the escalation of the troubles and the first account we have of the king’s tortuous belief is in the statement that his wife’s grandfather, Hyrcanus, was executed after the king had accused him of conspiracy against him. Herod is seen here not as one who was fighting to protect his throne and line from usurpers - for Josephus is careful to note that Hyrcanus never claimed that - but that ‘the throne was really his’ and Herod, to secure himself, was not willing to risk anyone remaining alive if they had a better or more justified claim to the sovereignty over the land which he now ruled.
Perhaps even before this event, Jonathan’s death had come about when Herod had appointed the seventeen year old youth to the office of High Priest. After having put the priest’s garments on and having approached the altar during one of the annual feasts in Jerusalem, the entire congregation had burst into tears showing their high regard for him.
Herod, it seems, could not tolerate this respect bestowed on Jonathan and had him removed from the city during the night and taken to Jericho where the king’s command was implemented and he was drowned by certain Gauls in a swimming pool - they obviously didn’t have lifeguards in those days.
This seems to have been the cause of most of Herod’s troubles - neither the accusations both true and false which were brought to him, nor the actions of those relatives around him which may have been seeking to secure for themselves a share of the kingdom once Herod died, but his own suspicious mind which could not rest while there were people around him who had even the tiniest right to the throne.
These two murders of men within Mariamne’s family were probably not isolated incidents and are possibly only included by Josephus because they provide a fitting backdrop to the escalation of trouble within his own household.
Not content to limit her criticism to the actions of her husband against her family, she next turned her attentions to both Herod’s mother and sister, Salome, Josephus recording that they became ‘furious’ but that Herod was ‘muzzled by his infatuation’.
The two women’s actions were first to accuse Mariamne of adultery and to provide ample false evidence which was brought before Herod. This inflamed Herod - not only because he became jealous of his wife’s alleged advances but because the adulterer in the case was alleged to be Antony who he was travelling shortly to visit in Syria, it appears.
When he left, Herod put Mariamne in the charge of Joseph, Salome’s husband, with the express instructions that, should Antony have him murdered, Joseph should do the same to the queen. To try and show Mariamne how much Herod loved her, Joseph revealed the plot to her while he was away but this played into the queen’s hands for, when the king returned, she confronted him with the details and is quoted as accusing Herod with the words
‘...a nice way...to show your love for me - giving Joseph instructions to kill me!’
This enraged Herod and he immediately grew suspicious that the only reason Joseph had revealed the information to her was because he had had sexual relations with her (the same manner in which Mariamne had revealed her knowledge of the events to Herod). Salome, Joseph’s wife, grasped the opportunity to slander Mariamne with great delight and admitted the charge that this had indeed taken place - it would seem as if Salome’s hatred of Mariamne exceeded her love of her husband, Joseph.
In a fit of uncontrollable rage, Herod ordered them both to be executed - which they were in 34BC - but, almost as quickly, felt remorse and guilt. Too late, he came to terms with the foolishness of his actions and
‘his heart [was filled] with grief as passionate as his love had been while she lived’
I have spent a disproportionate amount of time detailing this incident (it covers just two pages in Josephus - pages 86-87) because it is fundamentally important to understand it as being the ground from which Herod’s increasingly irrational behaviour sprang. From this incident onwards, Herod never recovered and seems to have begun to display both emotional and psychological disorders that caused his dealings with those around him to become increasingly violent and cruel, his suspicions of anyone who looked remotely as if they were becoming more popular than himself being counteracted by swift executions.
It is unsurprising that Herod’s dealings with Mariamne filled her sons’ hearts with hatred against the king but both Aristobulus and Alexander are reported not to have viewed him as their enemy until they attended school in Rome (c.22BC) and returned home with their father who visited Rome to meet Augustus in 17 or 16BC. Josephus makes mention of the mother’s bitterness being ‘bequeathed’ to her sons but it is probably not the case that they had too much perception of what had transpired until they attended Rome and so began to turn their faces against the one who they knew had removed their mother through execution.
Upon their return into Judea, both sons were married and this date marks the point at which fresh in-fighting, jealousy and slander gripped Herod’s mind, forcing him to act against just about anyone who seemed to him to be a threat to the security of his throne. The two sons no longer felt compelled to hide their hatred of their father which provoked others to accuse them of plotting against the king and, even worse, implicating other rulers in conspiracies against him, thus strengthening the alleged treasonable plans of the two sons.
Responding to these allegations, Herod called back Antipater, the son of his first wife, Doris, to Jerusalem and began to show him unprecedented favour over and above both Aristobulus and Alexander much to their great dismay and anger. Antipater, unsurprisingly, also didn’t help matters by inventing numerous charges against them, achieving increasing favour with his father by flattering him whenever in his presence.
In everything, Herod proclaimed him as his sole heir and sent him to Rome with all the trappings of the king except the crown.
Eventually, Alexander was committed to Rome for trial following accusations of poisoning but, through clever speeches, he not only achieved his acquittal but effected some form of reconciliation between both himself and his brother and Herod (c.12BC). For a short time, the in-fighting died down, but trouble was never far from the surface even after Herod’s speech in Jerusalem in which he acknowledged that each of the three sons was regarded by him, according to Josephus, as being kings in their own right (page 89).
Through a series of clever manipulative speeches and reports, Antipater managed to turn Herod’s heart against Alexander and (page 91)
‘...every day cared less for the youths and proportionately more for Antipater’
More and more court officials and relatives opposed the two brothers of Mariamne I until Herod seems to have almost disowned them as sons. I shall not go in to the details here for they are rather long and complicated, but they eventually found themselves imprisoned and accused before the Emperor of being involved in treasonable actions against their father, Herod imagining because of Antipater’s accusations (page 94) that
‘Alexander stood over him sword in hand’
Josephus outlines the details and notes concerning this period and shortly before it (page 94 - my italics) that
‘Complete anarchy reigned in the Palace; to suit his personal animosity or hatred, everyone invented slanders, and many availed themselves of the royal lust for blood to get rid of their rivals. Any lie found immediate acceptance, and the punishment came more swiftly than the slander. The man who had just accused another was himself accused; and he and his victim were led off to execution together; for the king’s enquiries were cut short by the danger to his life. He became so embittered that he never smiled even at those not accused and was ready to bite the heads off his friends; many of these he debarred from the court, and those who were safe from his hand felt the lash of his tongue’
When the messengers reached Rome concerning the accusations against Alexander, the Emperor acceded to Herod’s requests and gave him absolute power over the fate of his two sons through a trial which was to take place outside the land of Israel in modern day Beirut at which Roman officials would be present. But Herod acted shrewdly and refused to allow either son to be present at the trial, knowing that they would be able to successfully refute all the allegations (as Josephus says - page 100) and turn the court to giving an advantageous decision on their behalf.
Josephus is extremely sceptical of the decision of the court to pass the death sentence on both sons (page 101) but notes that it probably had more to do with their hatred of Herod and the chance to kill part of his line than it was of their belief in the guilt of either Alexander or Aristobulus.
The death sentence, almost inevitably, was pronounced and their execution carried out c.7BC by strangling in the city of Sebaste. An old soldier named Tiro publicly denounced the trial and proclaimed it unjust in that the true circumstances had been suppressed in order for Herod to have his will done. But he made a sincere lack of judgment here for the king was in no mood to tolerate anyone who could be possibly shown to be allied with his two sons in the alleged conspiracy against him and both he and around three hundred other citizens were executed.
Tiro’s speech as recorded for us by Josephus is interesting here because he notes before Herod that the king was willing to believe anyone’s testimony - even enemies - in order that he might get his will done and try to satisfy his fear of losing his kingdom.
After both Alexander and Aristobulus’ death, Antipater, the son of Doris by his first marriage, became the sole heir to the throne. But Herod was not over with his witch hunt of possible conspirators against the security of his throne and Antipater eventually inflamed them with his actions.
But, for the time being, Antipater had managed to turn the heart of the nation - and of those outside the land - against himself. Nearly everybody, it seems, knew that the unsubstantiated allegations against the two sons had originated with him.
He sent gifts to all he could to try and court favour but (page 103)
‘the result was that while the recipients liked him no better than before, those to whom he gave nothing became more bitter enemies’
As soon as Herod had his sons executed, he felt remorse - just as he had done upon Mariamne I’s death - and set about showing ‘tenderness towards their offspring’ (page 103) even going so far as to proclaim the offspring of those murdered as being in a special relationship with himself and bidding God to watch over them with greater concern than He had ever done over their fathers. Antipater knew that such a speech could only be a precursor to him being removed as heir to the throne and so approached his father to withdraw the king’s intention of having the grandchildren married into positions where they would naturally have a claim to the throne upon Herod’s death.
Herod, Josephus reports, immediately became suspicious that Antipater may have had a hand in his two sons’ deaths but eventually altered the marriage arrangements as requested.
When Antipater sailed for Rome armed with the will of his father to make him king upon his death and arrayed in all the trappings of a future king, all manner of plots and counter-plots erupted in Israel, Josephus (page 108) noting that Herod
‘...was in constant terror and blazed up on the tiniest suspicion, dragging many guiltless persons off to torture for fear of missing any of the guilty’
There is a long and complicated series of events outlined in Josephus which I shall not detail here but the bottom line is that the king arrived at the conclusion that Antipater had commanded a close friend, Pheroras, to receive poison from Egypt and to kill the king while he himself was in Rome and far away from accusation. Doris, the mother of Antipater, was immediately banished away from Jerusalem while the matter was investigated.
Whether these allegations were true or not isn’t easy to fathom but, seeing as torture extracted most of the testimonies, the facts are extremely dubious. Josephus seems to believe the plot when he concludes that Antipater’s grief in Rome over news of Pheroras’ death was more a result of his realisation that the plot had failed than that he had lost a close friend (page 110). But this is hardly the point here - Herod was insecure and, as soon as the merest accusation was levelled against someone through slander that they were contriving circumstances to kill him, Herod felt compelled to believe them and take strong preventative action against the individuals concerned.
Far be it from Herod to remember that Antipater was, even now, being received as his rightful heir in Rome by Caesar - he sent messengers to trick his son into returning, assuring him that he would say nothing of his mother, Doris’s, misdemeanours for which Herod had reportedly put her away and, upon his arrival, was committed to prison within the king’s palace and tried the next day before Varus, governor of Syria, though the trial seems to have been somewhat of a formality.
In a speech delivered by Herod even before the evidence was given, Herod reportedly says (page 112) that
‘...you, Varus, and every upright judge will condemn Antipater as a hopeless scoundrel I am quite certain’
and went on to use his murdered son, Alexander’s, testimony against him (page 113). Even here, Herod is showing himself to be prepared to use anyone or anything to secure his throne against any that he perceives is a threat.
Antipater made no defence to the accusations levelled at him even though his response to Herod’s original speech before the trial began seems to have been that there was no point in him trying to usurp the throne when he was already established as king. The son was subsequently incarcerated in chains, a report being sent to the Emperor in Rome, even though Josephus’ testimony here seems to say both that Antipater was thrown into prison and that he was forced to drink poison upon the sentence being pronounced (page 115) - the former is to be favoured here, though.
This all took place in 5BC.
While awaiting formal execution, there appears to have been another conspiracy that was proven against Antipater in which Herod at last realised that the execution of his two previous sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, had been contrived by the son now under sentence of death. But Herod was still willing to believe certain testimonies of Antipater and, upon redrafting his will, removed Archelaus and Philip from being heirs, nominating Antipas in their place.
The longer Antipater remained alive, the worse Herod’s sickness became, as if it was brought on by his bitterness of heart. Josephus describes his symptoms (page 117) as
‘...a slight fever, an unbearable itching all over his body, constant pains in the lower bowel, swellings on the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and mortification of the genitals producing worms, as well as difficulty in breathing especially when lying down and spasms in his limbs’
These symptoms do not appear to have been present in the life of Herod when the Magi visited him in Matthew chapter 2 and it is for this reason that an earlier date than his final months seems attributable to the events - more on that in a moment.
Having tried to secure a cure across the Jordan in the hot baths at Callirrhoe, he returned to Jericho and was, by this time, ‘melancholy mad’ according to Josephus. It is difficult to trace the exact whereabouts of Herod during his last days but it seems not too much supposition to assert that Herod is unlikely to have resided in Jerusalem for any of 4BC seeing as he was receiving treatment at the baths across the Jordan, returning to Jericho when this no longer gave him relief from his symptoms.
News eventually arrived from Rome which acceded to Herod’s will to execute his son, Antipater, but his life may well have been spared had not he reacted happily to cries from the palace which he understood to mean that his father was now dead. Herod, upon learning of this, had Antipater immediately executed in March of 4BC.
King Herod, however, only survived his son’s execution by five days (page 118) and died at Jericho, being buried some twenty-four miles away in one of his great architectural achievements, Herodium.
The earliest date that can be ascribed to the circumstances of Matthew chapter 2, therefore, is somewhere before March 4BC when Herod died. As the reader has, no doubt, worked his way through the above brief account of the troubles within Herod’s family, they will have seen that the situation which confronted Herod and which plagued him as to the security of his kingdom is one that gives a most perfect backdrop to the events in the Gospels.
As Mathen notes
‘That a man with the inner nature and disposition of Herod would become alarmed at the mere mention of a king of the Jews other than himself is not surprising’
No wonder, then, that when the Gospel speaks of Herod being troubled at the arrival of the Magi (Mtw 2:3), it goes on to note that all Jerusalem were worried along with him though, in their case, the reason was not that they feared the child but that they feared what witch hunt might take place in their midst and who, even now, was starting to be implicated in the plot that Herod would instigate to rid himself of another claimant to his throne.
Mattask asserts accurately that
‘...even if the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not share [Herod’s] fear of the new-born child, they would certainly be alarmed at the prospect of a fresh exhibition of Herod’s anger’
But there is one other reason why Herod may have been fearful of the Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem that is also rooted in an incident that took place towards the end of the time when Herod was governor of Galilee (47-37BC) and into the first years of his reign as King of the Jews (37-4BC).
There is much background to this but I will be as brief as I can...
In 40BC, the Parthian satrap (a satrap was the governor of a territorial allotment within the kingdom), Barzapharnes, strengthened by one of the king’s sons, Pacorus, seized Syria and advanced on the land of Israel. With them was one Antigonus who had been denied any position of authority before Caesar some time previously when Hyrcanus was appointed as high priest (a title which Josephus equates with him being king of the land) and Antipater, Herod’s father, was appointed the procurator of the land (Josephus page 60).
Antipater had commissioned both his sons, Herod and Phasael, to oversee large areas and are considered to have been governors in much the same way as Pilate became many years later (page 54).
During the course of 40BC, Parthia took control of Israel (Herod’s brother Phasael appears to have committed suicide while Hyrcanus, the high priest, was imprisoned in Parthia) and exiled Herod away from the land as he fled eastwards, leaving his family and friends at Masada to hold out while he attempted to get help first from the Arabic nations and then from Rome itself by an appeal to Caesar when he landed in Italy in the same year and was proclaimed the king of the Jews (page 64).
Then began the long fight with the aid of Roman aid to recapture the land from the Parthians and to bring it back under the authority and jurisdiction of the Roman Empire. In late 40BC - or at the beginning of 39BC - Herod returned to the land to march from Ptolemais (where he put together a large army of both Jews and Gentiles - page 66) through Galilee where his army gained both in numbers and in fighting strength, finally arriving at Masada where his family, friends and choice soldiers were laid up, relieving the siege and liberating the fortress.
Herod, with the aid of the Roman forces, encamped on the west side of Jerusalem and promised to forget the previous events if the city surrendered, announcing himself as the true king by proclamation of Caesar. Antigonus had, by this time, been proclaimed king in Israel and was being supported by the Parthian armies and he, too, made counter claims.
For the next two years, Herod seems to have left and revisited the city, gaining more military strength and securing more of Israel until, eventually, only Jerusalem lay shut up from him. But even this eventually fell before his army, Antigonus was conveniently murdered with an axe rather than be imprisoned (page 75) and Herod became the reigning king in 37BC, three years after Caesar had proclaimed him in Rome to be the king of the Jews (page 73-4).
But what has this to do with Herod’s distrust of the Magi?
As will be seen below, the Magi who arrived are likely to have originated in the Parthian Kingdom. Therefore, with the memory of his brother’s death caused by the invasion of the Parthians and with the knowledge that the same kingdom may, even now, be trying to usurp his sovereignty and enthrone their own choice (as they did in Antigonus), Herod could not have treated their announcement with anything other than suspicion and anger.
When Herod moves to remove the Parthian candidate for the throne, he seems to be also moving against a very real perceived threat based upon past experience and is countering any claim that that kingdom may feel they have, having identified their own choice and acknowledged him through the channels that were employed within their own kingdom (the Magi were king-makers - see below).
The date of 4BC is too late for the incident of Matthew chapter 2 to have taken place but we should, perhaps, place it not earlier than 12BC when some sort of reconciliation took place between Herod and his two sons Aristobulus and Alexander. Their execution in 7BC may be a good context but Herod was already settling himself into a course of action that gave him some measure of security and it may not be the best time at which to see the account in Matthew’s Gospel as taking place.
The time immediately preceding this event which, Josephus notes, was a time when just about anyone and everyone was under suspicion for no better reason than someone had invented an accusation against them is better for there is every indication that, should such a claim have been reported to Herod, he would have taken swift action.
Having said that, any time from 12-5BC is possible and fits the context of the historical backdrop well. The only other passage we have which may date the birth of Christ accurately is a statement in Luke 2:1-2 that ties in the birth with a decree that went out from
‘...Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’
but, unfortunately, this doesn’t tie in the date with any great accuracy, Caesar having reigned from 30BC to 14AD and Quirinius is only known as having ruled as Governor during 6-9AD, even though many have sought to tie in a time prior to this during the first decade BC when he was operating in the Syrian area but not directly as Governor.
Neither is there any external mention of a census commanded in Roman or other records which would narrow the year down that have made it down to the present day, but we do know that Caesar commanded a number of censuses in places while he was Emperor.
There are, however, two other opinions on the date which need noting here, even though they’re far from conclusive. The first comes from Tertullian’s work ‘Against Marcion’ in volume 4 chapter 19. Tertullian was resident in Carthage, modern day Tunisia, during the writing of the work, normally dated to around 200AD. In the excerpt which is particularly relevant, he writes
‘Have all sons brothers born for them? May a man rather not have fathers and sisters (living), or even no relatives at all? But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ’
That the author cites a census seems fairly good reason to suppose that such a fact wouldn’t have been in dispute amongst his contemporaries. The date of this Governor seems to have been 9-3BC (according to Luknol) which fits in very well with our previous considerations. The important point to note here is that Tertullian seems to disagree with Luke and does so from, it appears, evidence he has to hand.
But his rebuttal of Luke may be no more than an apparent one. Luknol observes that the Greek of Luke 2:2 may better be read, as he translates (my italics)
‘This registration happened before Quirinius was governor of Syria’
citing two manuscripts where this arrangement of the Greek text makes the translation all the more likely to be original. A date which is rather unspecific might seem strange but, as Luknol points out, the importance of this census in the first decade AD might have been a good point from which to locate when Jesus was born.
Tertullian, then, wouldn’t be disagreeing with the NT but, rather, giving substance to what he understood the Lukan text to mean. As far as I can make out, the earliest Church writers make no mention either for or against this possibility.
The other possibility - but which requires a great deal of work still to be done on it - is that which comes from Irenaeus in Against Heresies 2.22.1ff written in Lyons, France, somewhere towards the end of the second century AD. In the entire chapter (chapter 22), Irenaeus is combatting a misunderstanding that was prevalent in the heretical movements about him that stated that Jesus ministered only the single year and that He was crucified in the twelfth month of it.
With an air of certainty, he writes that
‘...from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?’
Again, there can’t be much doubt that, in the local church, the belief that Jesus was about fifty when crucified was well held - or else Irenaeus is laying himself wide open for a justified attack from common belief. The problem, however, is that he still maintains that Luke 3:23 means that Jesus was about thirty years of age when He was baptized for he writes that
‘...when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed His thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it)...’
making His ministry to Israel to be around twenty years in length. With the chronological historical framework as it is, and the details which are mentioned in the NT, this span of time has to be rejected but the statement about Jesus’ age at the crucifixion needs to be carefully considered.
There’s still a way to go - as far as I can see - for proponents of this theory for they have yet to show why Luke 3:23 should be taken to mean anything other than Jesus was thirty years of age when He began ministering to Israel (the words ‘His ministry’ are actually lacking from the Greek text and are added simply to make sense) and by recourse to sound contemporary historical sources. And there’s still a great way to go to adequately fix Jesus into a historical framework of being born c.18BC which such a theory would need.
Although the theory seems rather radical, it should, nevertheless, be given consideration should it raise its head in the local church - but it should only be discussed by recourse to sound historical documents and clear and straightforward interpretations of Scripture. After all, the date of Jesus’ birth doesn’t save anyone - it’s only an incidental to the Gospels.
At the moment, the easiest theory to accept is that which sees Luke 2:2 to speak of Jesus’ birth as being before Quirinius’ Governorship of Syria and accepts Tertullian’s statements regarding the Governor in who’s rule He was born.
Concluding, that Matthew is describing events which took place around one year after the birth of Jesus has already been discussed and, therefore, whichever date we would opt for as being the backdrop to Matthew chapter 2 (between 12-5BC) we need to subtract one full year to determine the date of the Christ’s birth - but not later than 6BC.
Such a date may seem extremely early to some, but it is, nevertheless, the latest not the earliest date that is possible with the known facts of history and a date of around 9-7BC would be more in keeping with the known scenario in Jerusalem concerning the accusations which were legion and which accompanied both Aristobulus and Alexander’s trial and subsequent execution.
The only other possible dating of Jesus’ birth is a comparison with the above historical dates with Luke 3:1 and 3:23. When the author notes that John the Baptist began his ministry
‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...’
we know that the date must be between 27-29AD (due to the dispute over which date this year is to be reckoned from). If Jesus was ‘about thirty years of age’ (Luke 3:23) when He began to minister, then years nearer to the death of Herod in 4BC become more probable but, certainly, if Jesus was, at the outside, 35 years old and began in 27AD, the earliest date for the visit of the Magi would have to be put at 8BC and, therefore, his birth could be no earlier than 9BC.
We have so many traditions surrounding the conception, birth and incidents in the early life of Jesus that we desperately need to put them all aside and come to the text of Gospel afresh and allow it to speak to us without conforming the Scripture to what we already believe.
Even in our Christmas carols, we seem to take great delight in old, well-worn lyrics that we have long forgotten to make sure are correct and so confess the right details. For instance, in just the first line of the hymn ‘We three kings of orient are’ we see three such errors (I think the full version of the first verse that we used to sing at school went something like
‘We three kings of orient are
One in a taxi, one in a car
One on a scooter bibbing his hooter
Smoking a fat cigar’
The chorus got even worse but, in keeping with the first line, it was all pretty unscriptural - I don’t know why the teachers ever got so mad with us!).
Firstly, we have no way of knowing that there were three people who arrived to pay Jesus homage. This probably comes from the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which they brought (Mtw 2:11) and which are interpreted as each belonging to one individual. Second, they weren’t kings - as the title to this section shows, they were ‘Magi’ - a type of religious sect who had their own belief structure and rites which they performed. They may have been ‘king-makers’ but they were certainly no kings. Finally, we don’t know they came from the orient - we know only that they ‘came from the East’ (Mtw 2:1). As the Magi were normally in and around the Persian and Median area of modern day Iran and Iraq, the supposition that they came from as far away as China is fanciful.
Carols like this certainly don’t help us discover what type of people these Magi really were but, in this section, we shall attempt to look at the ancient writings and consider who they may have been. I shall deal with the subject very briefly but the background is important for us to understand other points further on.
1. Who were the Magi?
Herodotus seems to be the only ancient writer who refers to the Magi by name at their inception into human history and who details not only certain of their beliefs but also of their actions within the framework of their own society. There are numerous other scholars who add information concerning these people but any original sources seem to have not been included and I am unable to ascertain the truth which lies behind them (such as their conversion, in some manner, over to Zoroastrianism and numerous other belief structures that seem to be misinterpretations of passages which speak about the nation in which they lived). I shall, however, go on to outline a testimony of an ancient historian once I have dealt with Herodotus’ testimony which sits as a fitting conclusion to the general flow of what we will discuss.
In 1.101, Herodotus first mentions the Magi in the context of the Medes. He notes that, around the 7th century BC
‘...Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone. Now these are the tribes of which they consist: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, and the Magi’
This is the last we hear of the Magi - or Magians - being a tribe until under king Darius in the sixth and fifth centuries (Book 3 of Herodotus) when a number of them seem to have set themselves up as an alternative authority to that king who managed to overthrow them and re-establish his own kingdom. This seems to be the only other place where the tribe is actually mentioned for, in all the other references cited below, it would appear that the Magi had their own priestly class who operated firstly within their own tribal unit and then outside as advisors to the kings who ruled over Persia and Media.
In time, ‘Magi’ came to be regarded usually as a designation of an interpreter of dreams rather than as a member of a tribe called the Magian. But there seems to have been a distinction in their early appearance on the scene of history’s stage.
Early in the 6th century, Astyges (585-550) ruled over the Median Kingdom following the reign of his father, Cyaxares (625-585BC). During this period, Herodotus notes (1.107) that the king had a dream about his daughter. What that dream was is not important to our investigations but it is recorded that
‘This vision he laid before such of the Magi as had the gift of interpreting dreams, who expounded its meaning to him in full, whereat he was greatly terrified’
Again, the king dreamt and (1.120)
‘...sent for the Magi, who formerly interpreted his dream in the way which alarmed him so much...’
It is plainly seen that some of these Magi seem to have been skilled in the interpretation of dreams and were trusted to give guidance to the king.
Herodotus breaks from the main story line of his narrative in 1.131-132 and outlines the belief structure and rites of the Persians of whom the Magi became a part, giving us many various pieces of information which may or may not have been equally applicable to the Magi. Certainly, some commentators seem to have taken these as being primarily Magian but all the passage actually says is that, when all is ready for a sacrifice to be made (1.132)
‘...one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please’
All this shows us is that the Magi had become a priestly ‘tribe’ or group of people within the Persian nation. Later, Herodotus notes a burial tradition found amongst the Persians though he seems to not be sure as to the genuineness of what he’s writing. He is sure, however, that the Magi practice it. He notes (1.140)
‘There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead. It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey. That the Magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practise it without any concealment. The dead bodies are covered with wax, and then buried in the ground’
Their sacrificial rites are also noted in the same verse
‘The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things. However, since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it’
The next we hear of the Magi (apart from the uprising under king Darius) is in the early part of the fifth century BC under Xerxes, king of Persia who ruled 486-464BC as they ventured to twice interpret the king’s dreams to him (7.19 and 7.37) but, perhaps more importantly, seem to have travelled with the king on his military campaigns to perform certain religious sacrifices (and, most definitely, dream interpretations though unmentioned in this context).
These verses are important to read for they show us that they had not just a speculative function in interpretation but had actions to perform which were seen as vitally important for the success of the nation. 7.43 tells us that
‘When [Xerxes] had seen everything, and inquired into all particulars, he made an offering of a thousand oxen to the Trojan Minerva, while the Magians poured libations to the heroes who were slain at Troy’
This we would expect from a previous verse which tells us that Magi had to be present for sacrifices to take place but in both 7.113
‘Xerxes then marched through the country of the Paeonian tribes...and on the south to the Strymon itself, where at this time the Magi were sacrificing white horses to make the stream favourable’
‘The storm lasted three days. At length the Magians, by offering victims to the Winds, and charming them with the help of conjurers, while at the same time they sacrificed to Thetis and the Nereids, succeeded in laying the storm four days after it first began; or perhaps it ceased of itself’
it would appear that the Magi took it upon themselves to alleviate the conditions that the army found themselves in, offering sacrifice on behalf of the people rather than waiting for the nation to bring them their sacrifice to offer.
Interestingly, in connection with the Babylonian army, Magi are mentioned in both Jer 39:3 and 39:13 in the incident of the wall of Jerusalem being breached in 586BC, only a hundred or so years before Xerxes is recorded as having the Magi present with the army to help it gain divine favour. The reference is all too easily missed but the word ‘Rabmag’ employed is a transliteration rather than a translation of a word (Strongs Heb number 7248) meaning ‘chief of the Magi’.
It appears, then, that even at this early time, the Magi head was a respected member of the ruling class, one who took decisions on behalf of the king when it came to military occupation. At the same time (from c.602BC onwards) we read in the book of Daniel of the ‘magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans’ in a few references (the first being Dan 2:2) where it would appear the grouping is somewhat similar to what would have been labelled as the ‘Magians’ or Magi in Babylon. Although the translation ‘magician’ is a little misleading (it is derived from the English transliteration of ‘magi’ rather than from a transliteration of the Hebrew word employed here), the function of this group of people is very similar to what we have already seen the Magi to have been called upon to do.
Perhaps more surprisingly to us, Daniel is referred to in Dan 5:11 as having been made
‘chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers’
in the days of king Nebuchadnezzar. The word for ‘chief’ here (Strongs Heb number 7229) is the same as the first syllable of the word ‘Rabmag’ that we saw above in Jer 39:3 and we would probably not be doing the text an injustice if we accept that, in summation, Daniel would have borne the title ‘Rabmag’ in the kingdom of his day for a time, even though the prophet was absolutely confident in the existence and operation of YHWH rather than of the beliefs of the original Magian believers (Dan 2:28, for instance).
The word is also used in Dan 2:48 where the incident actually takes place, but it’s used in conjunction with another word which gives the meaning ‘chief prefect’ according to the RSV. Even so, that Daniel has been placed as the head over those who had authority over all the wise man is stated clearly. Perhaps significantly, the LXX uses the Gk word magos in Dan 2:2 which is shown to be the people whom Daniel is placed over.
Why Daniel chose not to record the official title may be that he was unwilling to give himself the title which would have been abhorrent to religious Jews who would be reading the text, but, even if the official title was never taken by him, his position as being ‘chief’ over the summation of all the spiritual counsellors is certain.
However, the reader may be objecting to most of my discussion here as the nearest reference to the time of the birth of Christ is nearly 500 years separated from it! Had there been many changes to the function of the Magi throughout those centuries?
Strabo, the Greek historian (c.64BC-23AD), made reference to the Magi in his ‘Geography’, the only complete work of his which now survives (translations of which seem to only survive in the dark recesses of local libraries, take note!).
Volume 11 chapter 9 almost exclusively deals with the Parthian Kingdom then in existence which stretched, very roughly, to encompass nearly all of the main Babylonian, Persian and Median Kingdoms that had long since been conquered and absorbed by differing nations.
Though, for a time previous to his writing, Strabo noted that the country was ‘poverty-stricken’ so that armies hastily travelled through the land for fear of hunger, he also noted that, in recent times, its prosperity had somewhat revived (11.9.1).
His final words concerning the Parthians, however, are worthy of note (11.9.3) for he writes
‘...since I have said much about the Parthian usages in the sixth book of my “Historical Sketches” and in the second book of my “History” of events after Polybius, I shall omit discussion of that subject here, lest I seem to be repeating what I have already said [what a shame he didn’t repeat his previous words for these two works are now sadly only in fragments available to us], though I shall mention this alone, that the Council of the Parthians, according to Posidonius, consists of two groups, one that of kinsmen, and the other that of wise men and Magi, from both of which groups the kings were appointed’
This quote relies on a certain ‘Posidonius’ whose dates are given by Encyclopaedias as c.135-51BC and well within reasonable time for the custom to have continued until the birth of Christ prior to 4BC.
The way that this passage is normally understood is that the ‘kinsmen’ are, in fact, ‘of the king’ (as the footnote) meaning, presumably, either that they are family or men appointed to their position by the king - the Magi and wise men were the ones who made the choice of the next king from those members of the ‘kinsmen’ who were present.
In this way, the Magi, at this time in their history, were neither astrologers (for which I can find no ancient justification even though they mention in Mtw 2:2 that they had seen the star), kings nor wise men (Strabo’s quote makes a division between wise men and Magi) but king-makers.
That they continued to practice dream interpretation is quite certain (note their trust in the dream that they receive in Mtw 2:12) but their main role in the nation of their day seems to have been in the appointment and crowning of the next king of the Parthian kingdom. That these Magi were rich can be seen from the gold that they bring to present before the child they have anticipated and, because Strabo notes that, generally, the land of Parthia was poor, it is more than likely that, should they have come from this area, they would have had to have been from the ruling Magian class who had the final decision for the throne.
It is quite impossible to be able to say for certain that these Magi were from Parthia (Magi seem to have travelled as far as India at this juncture in their history), but the context does fit in well with the role that they are now claiming for themselves over the land of Israel.
Therefore, we should see the Magi who visited Israel in Matthew chapter 2 as attempting to function in the same role as they had been so doing in their own homeland - to recognise and appoint the next king.
(There is one other use of Gk words which are derived from the word magos as above and that’s in Acts 8:9,11 where the man Simon is said to have amazed the nation of Samaria with his magical powers. He’s also referred to as a ‘magos’ which is the same word used for Magi in Acts 8:6,8 though the RSV translates it as ‘sorcerer’ which seems to be somewhat of an interpretation. It seems unlikely that Simon is being referred to as a ‘Magi’ but the possibility does remain that the word may need to convey the same sort of concept here in Mtw 2 as it does in the Acts passage)
2. Born King of the Jews
When the Magi approach Herod, their statement that they have come to see ‘He who has been born King of the Jews’ (Mtw 2:2) is a striking contrast to both himself and his heir who both discovered their sovereignty in later life rather than be born as king.
As has been seen above, Herod’s appointment as Governor of Galilee had occurred because his father, Antipater, had taken over as procurator of Judea and had divided his authority between himself and his two sons, Phasael, the eldest, and Herod.
It is hard to read much of Herod’s exploits in Josephus even before the invasion without thinking that, perhaps, he was setting himself up to be noticed by the Roman authorities at this time and, though the invasion of the Parthians had lost him his brother, it had, nevertheless, also removed Hyrcanus, Rome’s appointed high priest and, therefore, king from the land.
Neither had he been innocent in his betrothal of Mariamne, Hyrcanus’ daughter. It has already been noted that Herod came to be besotted with her and regretted the rest of his life the rumours he listened to once that caused him to execute her, but the joining in marriage made perfect political sense for it made Herod son-in-law to the king and, therefore, a suitable heir to the throne of Judea once Hyrcanus was out of the way.
Being exiled from the land caused by the Parthian army, Herod sailed for Rome and was appointed king of the Jews by Caesar and, indeed, by the entire Senate. What Herod needed to do from that moment inwards, therefore, was to act as the king they expected and use Roman aid to establish his throne.
With himself eventually appointed king in Judea and beginning to reign, the return of Hyrcanus for Herod and Mariamne’s wedding who, up until that point had been imprisoned by the Parthians away from the land, seems to have made Herod realise that he needed to remove the rightful previous king and did so by accusing him of conspiracy, even though Hyrcanus made no attempt to retake the throne.
This, all in stark contrast to the child Jesus who the Magi pronounce as being born King of the Jews, Herod’s title. Not even his sons could be said to have hold of even the honour that they were recognised from birth that they would be the rightful heir once they grew into adults. The recognition of the Magi goes one step further than this, even. Matmor points out
‘The words they use mean “born king” not “born to be king”...’
As we saw earlier, the actual heirs were appointed and lost their lives on numerous occasions through scheming and slander but here, in Jesus, the Magi are proclaiming that they’ve found one who, even from His birth, has been recognised as being heir to Herod’s throne (by their own words - what that effectively meant when it was worked out into reality was something quite different for nearly all Jews at that time saw a king as being a physical deliverer who would throw off Roman rule and conquer the nations).
What Herod had achieved by his scheming, this child had achieved by no work of His own - and that must have given Herod cause for great anger and jealousy. Just as Herod had moved to remove Hyrcanus from any possible claim he might have to the throne, so too must he move as soon as he can to remove this baby from any possible assault which may come from those who acknowledge Him as sovereign over himself.
3. The Star
I have already noted under point 1 that I can find no record of the Magi in ancient documents which would tie in their beliefs into astrology or, perhaps better, astronomy with some spiritual application of what they were observing. Though I would not doubt that it is fair to conjecture that they may have been ‘star-watchers’ because they say that they have ‘seen his star at its rising’ (as opposed to the translation ‘in the East’), it is equally possible that they were attracted to the night sky to observe a phenomena which they later came to discern was a sign that a great King had been born in Israel.
When God first created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:14-16), he set the stars in the heaven along with the sun and moon that they would be ‘for signs’ amongst other things. It should not surprise us, therefore, to learn of this phenomenon and that it had been understood as indicating some great event.
How or why the Magi decided that it must have indicated that a king had been born in Israel is difficult to understand (anymore than it would for you and I to be understood if we said we’d seen a comet and knew that it was a sign that the Coop were selling cheap chickens) but, if the Magi were Parthian in origin, they may have been acquainted with the Jews and their Scriptures (there was a large population and learning centre of the Jews resident in Babylon) and, having seen a significant astronomical phenomenon, scoured all the writings at their disposal to determine whether there was any mention of such an event.
In Balaam’s prophecy, they may have found this verse (Num 24:17-19)
‘a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed, Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed, while Israel does valiantly. By Jacob shall dominion be exercised, and the survivors of cities be destroyed!’
which infers rather than state plainly that a sovereign would arise out of the kingdom of Jacob, symbolised by the star’s rising and spoken of as a sceptre. This seems to be about the most reasonable way that the Magi could have understood the astronomical phenomenon to have been indicative of a sovereign being born in Israel and their minds may have felt a confirmation by conversations and discussions that they had had with the Jews who lived round them - even so, if this latter had been the case, it is surprising that they had to travel to Herod to ask him where the king was when it was known that Bethlehem was the village in which He would appear and which should have already been known even by the Jews in Parthia.
Matfran notes that there have been three reasonable propositions as to what that astronomical star was (Mathen mentions many more implausible ones as well). Either a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC (which would be just about right for the date we considered above and would have the Magi arriving no earlier than 6BC), Halley’s comet which is projected to have been visible between 12-11BC (a date which seems just a bit too early for they would have been in the land 11-10BC) or an exploding nova which is recorded as having appeared to observers in the Far East between 5-4BC (a date which is far too late for them to have been able to get to Herod before he died in March of 4BC).
Of course, the phenomenon which they saw may be none of these - the point is that they saw something which they felt was supernatural and which was indicative of a great King who was to be born. What we consider to have been a great astronomical event may not have been what they considered to have represented it - besides, they plainly say that they saw the star (a term for any heavenly body other than the moon or sun) ‘at its rising’ (Mtw 2:2) and neither of the three above suggestions could strictly be seen to infer this. If the phrase is to be taken literally, they seem to have been saying that the star elevated itself above the horizon in much the same way as the sun does each day (as noted by Mathen) - a phenomenon more like Venus then either a comet, a conjunction or a nova.
The reappearance of the star in Mtw 2:9-10, however, should guard us against seeing the phenomenon as being a universal observation for it says, firstly, that this celestial body was the same one as they had seen when it first rose and that it now moved to lead them to the place where the child was. Some commentators have interpreted all references to the star as indicating that it was only observed and, while their observations in their homeland say nothing about a moving star which led them to Israel, here there seems very little way of avoiding the issue.
The star in their homeland had simply announced the birth to them and they had set out on their journey to follow not the star but what they were certain it had shown them. Here, though, the star reappears and does go before them until they arrive in Bethlehem. The text infers that this reappearance is the first time they have seen it since it first appeared to them in their homeland.
As Matfran says
‘”went before” could mean that it “led them on” without itself moving, but the words “came to rest” mean literally “came and stood”, and can only mean that the star itself moved to guide the Magi’
Our attempts at trying to tie in the astronomical observation to a known occurrence may, therefore, be unwarranted. If the star actually moved and guided the Magi to the general vicinity in which the Child lay (a fact which has them arriving at night on most Xmas cards), then the phenomenon which they were observing may have been one which only they discerned and, perhaps, saw. If such a phenomenon was actually visible in the sky, the ‘star’ must have been approximately at a bearing SSE for this is the direction which leads to the village of Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Though it would be good to be able to tie in their observation with a phenomenon which is demonstrable to ascertain a date for their arrival in Israel, it is far from certain that we should do just that.
The Magi, seeing in the reappearance of the star a confirmation of their purpose, ‘rejoiced exceedingly with great joy’.
4. Led by God or sent by satan?
Mattask on Mtw 2:1 notes (my italics) that
‘”Wise men” translates magoi which was used both in a good sense of learned astrologers, and in a bad sense of those who practised magical arts. It is curious that some of the early Fathers understood it here in the latter sense, and regarded the story as symbolic of the triumph of Christianity over magic and sorcery’
We have believed for so long that the visit of the Magi were prompted by God Himself that it may seem anathema to us that they may not have been sent by Him at all. Certainly, I have an open mind on the matter but for most people the solution is cut and dried - God inspired certain king-makers to receive a revelation of the child’s birth and to travel to bear honour to him.
However, there are certain problems immediately apparent which have yet to be satisfactorily answered. For instance, why isn’t God ever recorded as speaking to them directly? Indeed, when we compare the two dreams that are recorded here almost simultaneously (Mtw 2:12-13), it’s striking that an angel of the Lord approaches Joseph while the Magi are simply ‘warned in a dream’ by a hand that is not identified.
Neither is it altogether certain what prompted them to go about Jerusalem asking about this new-born child and so endanger its life when Herod heard word of their enquiries. If God had revealed to them the birth of a baby who already was considered to be the King of the Jews, why didn’t He also direct them to the correct village and so protect Jesus’ life? And would God choose men who practised occult rites to reveal this great birth to or would they rather have been receptive to a voice of a demonic spirit who was contriving a situation to remove the child Jesus from God’s plan?
The reason for the Magi’s appearance seems to be that God is making sure that both Jew (Luke 2:8-20) and Gentile (Mtw 2:1-12) take part in the celebrations of the birth for, in Jesus, both Jew and Gentile will receive the rewards of His future work on the cross.
As Simeon says, the child (Luke 2:32) will be
‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel’
But that is far from saying that the Magi are sent by God in much the same way as it was foreknown that Judas would betray Jesus but that it was not God who pushed his hand to make him betray Him.
Therefore, it is because of their actions that the Scripture concerning Rachel weeping finds a second fulfilment (Mtw 2:18) and that Jesus can be said to be the Son whom God calls out from Egypt (Mtw 2:15) but it does not follow that God has inspired these men to come to Israel and worship the child, so putting Him in grave danger.
Therefore, the passage seems to be open to a dual interpretation of cause but the teaching of the worship of the Magi is plain - that the Gentile nations (of whom they are considered to be representatives) will recognise this child as their King also.
Gold, Frankincense (labelled ‘incense’ throughout this section) and Myrrh were the three gifts which the Magi brought to the child and which apparently gave rise to the assumption that there were three men who had travelled from afar to see Him. As we saw above, this is pure speculation and the more ancient artists were not confident of their number in their paintings though they never once represent them as having less than two present (one preacher is known to have made the statement that the numbers varied from two to eight though the origin of his assertion is unknown).
Why these three gifts should have been brought by Magi is intriguing for I can find nowhere in ancient documents (though I have not search very diligently) where these three substances are used in connection with them in the writings of the ancient historians but, understood in a Jewish setting, they do make good sense. It is in this context then, that they can be seen to represent aspects of the throne which bore prophetic insights into who Jesus would be and what He would achieve.
However, we should be on our guard against saying that, when the Gospel was first written, Matthew perceived their significance in these. As Matmor notes
‘Christians have often seen symbolical meanings in them...but Matthew says nothing about this’
and, stronger, Mathag writes that
‘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’
Certainly, Matthew, who cites four prophetic fulfilments of OT Scripture in this chapter (2:6,15,18,23 - see next section) says nothing about the possibility that the arrival of the Magi and their bestowal of gifts upon the new child are a fulfilment of prophetic Scripture.
Both Is 60:6 in the context of the first five verses of the same chapter which says that Gentiles
‘...shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord’
and Ps 72:10,15 - again in context - prays
‘May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts...may gold of Sheba be given to him’
could have been cited by Matthew to show that Scripture was being fulfilled to prove the point that Jesus was the one promised, but he neglects to do this. Interestingly, many commentators have often levelled accusations at Matthew (especially in this chapter) that he took OT Scripture, twisted it, applied it wrongly to situations and then claimed a prophetic fulfilment for his own ends when there was no fulfilment justifiable in honesty.
But here, Matthew has a splendid opportunity to do just that and he fails to do it. The question sits firmly back on the shoulders of Matthew’s accusers, therefore, as to why, when he had opportunity to use a Scripture that was, of itself, accepted as being Messianic, he failed to avail himself of it.
Moving back to the gifts, it would appear that the significance of the three gifts only came about in the later Church, Origen (184-254AD) being a good example in his work ‘Against Celsus’ where he says (1:60) that the Magi came
‘...having pro-determined that he was superior in power to all demons, and to all common appearances and powers, they resolved to offer him homage. They came, accordingly, to Judea, persuaded that some king had been born; but not knowing over what kingdom he was to reign [sic - see Mtw 2:2] and being ignorant also of the place of his birth, bringing gifts, which they offered to him as one whose nature partook, if I may so speak, both of God and of a mortal man - gold as to a king; myrrh as to one who was mortal; and incense as to a God; and they brought these offerings after they had learned the place of His birth’
What the gifts certainly tell us about the Magi is that they appear to have been wealthy if they had provided the gifts out of their own resources - but they would also have been necessary provision for the family in the early years after Jesus’ birth when they were uprooted from Bethlehem, fled to Egypt and then returned into Nazareth, when obtaining employment may not have been as easy as it might.
Justification for meaning in the gifts should rely largely on OT context and the following is offered simply to give the reader some pointers for his own private study and Church leaders probably enough grounds to justify at least 3 months of sermons!!
Gold was a commodity of kings simply because it was a precious metal which didn’t decay, was regarded as having intrinsic value and therefore not affordable by the common people. Therefore, to say that it is a symbol of Jesus’ Sovereignty is, to me, to overstate the point. It could equally be said to be indicative of great wealth simply because it was what made great wealth!
But, if the allusion here is to the kingship of Christ, I Kings 10:14-18,21-22 are probably the best examples of gold being associated with the throne but they also tie in with Origen and other Early Church fathers who saw it as such.
However, in the early years of Israel’s existence as a nation when they first came out from Egypt into the wilderness, gold seems to have been representative of divinity for, having no king, the Israelites followed the commands of the Lord in overlaying the ark of the covenant - which represented God’s presence - with gold (Ex 25:10-11).
The most precious material thus became indicative of the resplendence of God and then, only secondarily, did it go on to be considered as indicative of a king who was regarded as ‘God’s man’ (even though most of them were anything but that).
Therefore, the best interpretation of gold would appear to me to be as representing Jesus’ divinity and, as such, His right to be sovereign over all.
Like gold, incense was used in the Tabernacle service and the command was specific that the composition was not to be formulated for anyone amongst the nation but to be solely reserved for the use before God (Ex 30:34-38). In this way, it may have reference, again, to the divinity of Christ but we should not stop here.
Incense was offered to God on the altar of incense and appears to have been indicative of both prayer (Ps 141:2) and worship (in the context of ‘service’), the smoke rising to God as the Israelites’ prayers were envisaged as doing.
If this is so, the Magi’s worship of the child (Mtw 2:11) is being paralleled in their offering but is also symbolic of passages such as Psalm 2 )where the rulers of the earth are commanded to come before the Lord and serve Him rather than seek to rebel against His authority) and Zech 14:17 (where all the nations - not just the rulers - are commanded to worship the Lord in Jerusalem).
There are, of course, NT passages which show this (for instance, Phil 2:9-11) but the reason for the Magi’s offering of incense needs to be rooted in the OT.
Myrrh is immediately more difficult because it is associated with Jesus’ death and therefore has been taken quite naturally to be symbolic of the sufferings of Christ (Mark 15:23, John 19:39-40). But, if we are to think of these gifts as being representations of OT usage, we should only hold on to this interpretation as a secondary meaning.
Firstly, what does the OT think of myrrh as representing? Again, the question is not easy to answer but it appears to be commonly used simply as a perfume for the beautification of both men and women (Prov 7:17, Esther 2:12, SofS 3:6-7, 5:5) and, as such, would probably best be taken as symbolising primarily the humanity of Christ, though an allusion to Him being the fragrance of God is not beyond possibility (II Cor 2:14).
Myrrh was also used as one of the elements of the anointing oil in the Tabernacle structure (Ex 30:22-33) and was commanded to be used in the anointing of the High Priest and his sons. Therefore, if we were to take the references to Tabernacle service in each of the three gifts offered (John 1:14 does say that Jesus ‘became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’), then the offered myrrh would speak of His High Priesthood in mediating between God and man (Heb 6:13ff).
Perhaps we should think of all three aspects? That is, that Jesus the man, having received the ultimate High Priesthood was to both suffer and die to reconcile God to man. Certainly, this is possible from the use of myrrh in both Old and New Testaments and neither one of the three aspects should be disregarded.
I noted in the previous section that it has often been levelled at Matthew that he looked into the Old Testament and took Scriptures both out of context and Scriptures which he altered and then applied to situations which he related to his readers in order to somehow prove that Jesus was the One who was promised.
I also suggested that Matthew had ample opportunity to do just this with many other events that occurred in Jesus’ early days but that he didn’t even though the Scriptures he could have cited and which were accepted by the Jews as being Messianic were more logically being fulfilled that the others.
There are similar words that could be said about at least three of these prophetic fulfilments in this chapter and I shall deal briefly with them individually. Perhaps the problem lies not with Matthew but with our own Western mindset which insists that prophetic Scripture can have only one application and fulfilment that makes us think that Matthew’s assertions are somewhat contrived?
Mtw 2:6, Micah 5:2
Matthew has the first prophetic fulfilment in the chapter on the lips of the chief priests and scribes when Herod asks them the question as to where the Messiah is to be born.
Amazingly, the Magi don’t refer to the child born as the Messiah, only as the ‘king of the Jews’ - a title of Herod himself (see above). It’s Herod who makes the connection and who presumes that such a sign must be indicative of the Messiah. Therefore he sends for the chief priests and scribes to ask them what the Jewish Scriptures have to say about the One who will be the end of all rule and authority who, quite naturally, will put an end to Herod’s kingdom if genuine.
Their reply (Mattask suggests that the Scripture quoted is not actually a record of the religious leaders’ utterance but an interjection from Matthew to show the reader why they said ‘Bethlehem of Judea’. Though this is possible - for one would expect the leaders to have quoted the verse almost perfectly from the manuscripts rather than rather loosely as Matthew here does - I still follow the assertion that Matthew is using what was actually said by them) shows that this passage of Scripture, Micah 5:2, was considered to be Messianic even at that time (and, as Edersheim points out, is recorded in several places in Jewish writings as being such) but they stop short of quoting the entire verse by omitting the last clause which reads
‘[The Messiah’s] origin is from of old, from ancient days’
a line which immediately hints at the solution being that the Messiah is One who has been in existence long before Bethlehem will ever bring the son into the world. This, perhaps, should be taken as referring to the fact that the succession of kings who had descended and ruled from David in a line of succession until the exile to Babylon were to be by-passed and that (Is 11:1)
‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots’
This did take place even though Matthew’s genealogical list makes it appear as if it didn’t (see my notes on the Genealogy of the Messiah here) but, even further than this, it has relevance for the assertions by other writers (John 1:1-5):
‘In the beginning was the Word...He was in the beginning with God...and the Word was God’
A possible reason for their omission of that second phrase could be that they valued their own life for, to proclaim to king Herod that the Messiah would spring from the line of David was to undermine and call into question the legitimacy before God of his kingship for he was the son of an Idumean (or Edomite - see Josephus either in ‘The Jewish War’ 1.6.2 or ‘The Antiquities of the Jews’ 14.1.3 where Herod’s father, Antipater, is referred to as an Idumean).
The original prophecy (Micah 5:2) comes out of a series of prophecies concerning the overrunning of the land by the Babylonian army (4:10) and the exile into captivity of the Israelite nation but, even in this, hope is given to the land in that the exiles shall return after a time to their land (4:10, 5:3) but the word of the Lord is plain that (5:3)
‘[God] shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth...’
(that is, that Israel shall continue to be in bondage until the mother of the new king has been delivered of her child) and that the nation shall be restored in Messiah’s day presumably if the nation returns to the Lord God (5:3-9). If the prophecy is to be taken as a whole, the promise goes far beyond the birth of one baby who will rule over the nation Israel - as I’m sure the chief priests and scribes understood - and speaks of the overthrow of the oppressor who lay within the land (and who would naturally have been taken to mean Herod and his government then in existence, even though Herod is probably oblivious to this fact) and of the restoration of the nation Israel through the kingship of the Messiah (as Micah 4:8 says ‘the former dominion shall come’ referring to David’s old kingdom).
Though the nation in existence at the time of writing is beset by an army, will fall and go into exile, the ruler from Bethlehem shall restore all that Israel lost through God’s judgment.
Bethlehem, then, one of the smallest of the areas in the tribal allotment of Judah shall once again be the source from which a King after God’s own heart will come just like David did. Both the father and the son (the Son of David) have the same natural origins (I Sam 16:1, Mtw 2:1) but the latter has origins that, as the NT writers perceived, went back even further than the start of the Davidic line.
Although the religious leaders came up with the right Scripture to satisfy both Herod’s curiosity and the Magi’s question, did they actually believe it themselves? That may sound a strange question but there is no record to suggest that, so delighted were they that Messiah had been born or so intrigued were they that he might have been born, that they followed the Magi to see what might be seen and to learn which child was meant.
Unfortunately, then, it seems as if the religious leaders were more concerned with their own kingdom than they were with the fulfilment of the promises of God which would overturn everything they had founded their lives and prosperity on - a trait which is remarkably similar to the attitude they displayed when Jesus began to minister (Mtw 21:33-41).
2. Out of Egypt
Mtw 2:15, Hosea 11:1
Of the four quotations, this is the one which is least identifiable as a prophetic passage, seeing as Hosea 11:1 appears to read just like a normal recapping of events by the Lord to remind the nation of their past situation and of His dealings with them. The original word stretches over the first two verses of the chapter and reads
‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from Me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and burning incense to idols’
How is it possible, therefore, that Matthew can point to this passage and claim that Jesus fulfils the first part of it? The solution lies not in the passage of the Scripture but in the situation in which Israel found itself in the early years of its existence when God called them to be a special nation devoted solely to Himself and His ways. The Messiah was to be a type of the Israelite nation in their early years:
a. The birth of the nation had been in Abraham in Canaan - their birth had come from one man. In Jesus is the birth of the new nation (I Peter 2:9).
b. The exile of the nation had been in Jacob into Egypt - the foundation of the nation had been built upon the twelve sons of one man. In Jesus, through the twelve apostles, is the foundation of the new nation (I Peter 2:6, I Cor 3:10-11, Rev 21:14).
c. The return of the nation had been under Moses/Joshua into Canaan - the deliverance from bondage had come through just one man and the possession of their inheritance had, similarly, come through just one man even though it had originally been God’s intention for Moses to perform both works. In Jesus is the deliverance of the new nation (Col 1:13, Gal 5:1).
Jesus, then, is Israel fulfilled. What the emerging nation of God’s people had experienced at its inception foreshadows the One who was to come who would be the true representation of all that God had intended for Israel to achieve.
Similarly, just as from the Israelite nation all its citizens sprang, so too from Christ all the new nation’s citizens spring. Jesus becomes the foundational source of the new nation created through His work on the cross, resurrection of the dead and ascension into heaven.
Stuart notes that
‘A second special exodus from Egypt, that of the child Jesus after the death of Herod...comports precisely with the wording Hosea was inspired to use, and which therefore does double-duty...Events in Jesus’ life thus fulfil (ie complete the potential meanings of) the wording of [Hosea 11:1] while not constituting its sole referent’
The Scripture citation of Hosea 11:1, then, says much more than just that God had called Jesus out of Egypt after exiling Him there for safety - it is demonstrative of the birth of a new nation in Him and His replanting into the Promised Land is indicative that, in Jesus, everything that Israel should have been - and more besides - will find its fulfilment.
Therefore, when we come to larger OT passages such as Is 52:13-53:12 which speak of the suffering servant in terms which the Jews consider to be directed solely at the nation of Israel and, therefore, of themselves, we should remember that, when the prophetic passage was originally given, it may well have been referring to the nation but that the nation never fulfilled the requirements of that passage.
Jesus, who comes to His own people as the fulfilment of everything which has been promised to them - both individually and corporately - is at the same time the individual of whom the prophetic passages speak and the true son of Israel upon whom the new nation will be built. Jesus, then, is the true Israel of God and his people are also called by this title (Gal 6:16) seeing as they have sprung from the true source of all that the nation was promised.
3. Rachel weeping
Mtw 2:18, Jer 31:15
The context of the original prophecy in Jer 31:15 is one of exile, Rachel here being named as indicative of the mothers of Judah, even though it was Jacob’s wife Leah who actually gave birth to that tribe (Gen 29:35). Jeremiah, under inspiration from God, notes that Rachel’s voice is ‘heard’ in Ramah, the place where the exiles were to be gathered together to be led into captivity into Babylon (Jer 40:1).
The similarities with the exile are obvious here - Jesus being exiled away from the land for a time - but the only record of Rachel weeping when she was alive was in giving birth to Benjamin, dying through much pain and anguish of heart near Bethlehem (Gen 35:16-20) though the exact whereabouts could have been over a wide distance for the record simply notes that it was as they journeyed away from Bethel and when they were at still some distance from the village (35:16).
Kidner comments on this verse that
‘Bethlehem is some twelve miles south of Rachel’s burying-place, which I Sam 10:2 locates at the Benjaminite border’
and which places the family’s position some miles north of Jerusalem rather than south and, therefore, actually nearer Bethel where they had been journeying from rather than Bethlehem where they were bound for. Nevertheless, Bethlehem is predominant in the original passage of Rachel’s weeping and is pre-figured by being the place where it is being finally fulfilled in the sorrow of the mothers who lose their children through the action of king Herod.
The site of Rachel’s tomb today is located about one mile north of Bethlehem but, if the Bethlehem of Genesis 35:16 is the same one as was in existence in the NT, then this site is most definitely incorrect. The point is, however, for our purposes, not that the incident had to take place close to Bethlehem but that the village is mentioned as relating to the incident and, therefore, by association, is prefigured in the events of the NT.
Jeremiah doesn’t mention Bethlehem but the statement that Rachel is weeping naturally projects the reader back into another OT passage where that village is mentioned. Ramah, which is the place, as noted above, where the Israelites gathered before being exiled into Babylon, is in the right general area for it to have been the region where Rachel’s death took place for it lies equidistant between Bethel and Jerusalem.
Having shown the similarities in the two passages with regard to the village, we should also note the element of hope introduced into both passages. In Genesis 35:18, Rachel names her son ‘son of my sorrow’ (Benoni) because of what she’s just been through but Jacob, because he wished to confer special honour on the son of his favoured wife, Rachel, renamed him ‘son of my right hand’ (Benjamin), the right hand being the position of pre-eminence and power above all others.
In Jer 31:15, the same note of hope is here if we go on to read the next two verses which stand as the conclusion of the message. It reads
‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded...and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future...and your children shall come back to their own country’
Though the exile was seen as a consequence of Israel’s sin and as a direct judgment of God upon the nation, even in it there’s hope for the future from God for He obligates Himself to return the Israelites from exile into the land promised through Abraham.
The original context of both related incidents, then, is that in sorrow, God promises both hope and restoration. As Matfran writes
‘...bereavement [is] a prelude to blessing’
There is not unceasing agony and anguish here but trouble ‘for a time’ whereupon a return into the land is envisaged (as in Jeremiah) and a position of unequalled authority and position is bestowed (as in Genesis).
When we come to Matthew, we find similar themes lying behind the author’s use of the Scripture. The point appears to be not that the incident has no purpose and will not be turned to God’s advantage but that, even in sorrow, good shall come.
William Holman Hunt’s painting entitled ‘The Triumph of the Innocents’ (which hangs currently in the Tate Gallery in London) is good to look at carefully at this point. The scene is Joseph pulling an ass on which Mary is seated, holding the child Jesus (though Hunt seems to have decided that the incident took place almost immediately after Jesus’ birth!), while he turns anxiously to look back down the track they’ve journeyed on to make sure that they aren’t being tracked by the soldiers of king Herod.
Bathed in moonlight, the family are surrounded by infants, shining brightly, examining their fatal scars and journeying alongside the three of them, ensuring that their passage goes unhindered. I don’t, for a moment, accept that this was the actual scene or that the children murdered by Herod went with the family into Egypt (!) but the purpose of the painter is to show that, far from being an event which proclaims unending anguish and sadness, even in death there springs hope for the future.
This, indeed, is how the incident in Matthew should be seen. Though the babies give their lives to make Herod think he has eradicated the problem Child who would one day realise all that he was unwilling to give to any other, the One who is protected and shielded is the One who gives hope to every man’s future.
Just as the babies give their lives for the child Jesus now, so that child will give His life for theirs in a time yet to come.
We come to the hardest of the four prophetic citations and one that has been given various interpretations through the years. Although there are various ideas concerning why Matthew would choose a verse which doesn’t exist in the OT and say that it is ‘fulfilled’ has often worried believers that, perhaps, the author wasn’t in his right mind when he put this passage together!
Even in the project to translate the Aramaic NT into English (available on line here), there appears to be an apologetic footnote inserted at the end of chapter 2 which notes that the word ‘Nazareth’ is
‘In Aramaic, pronounced “Nuss-rat” meaning “The victorious” or “of the town of Nazareth”’
giving justification for the translation (my italics)
‘And he came and lived in the town called Nazareth so that what the prophets had said came to be fulfilled that Victorious he shall be called’
The main idea of the web site is that the NT was originally written in Aramaic - something that I sincerely doubt but which is certainly interesting in its proposition - and so our second translation from Greek to English is not a direct translation of the originals. How true this is, I have no way of telling at the present time, but I quote the above translation simply to show that the problem of the text is even present here - the idea being, though, that Matthew is using a play on the meaning of the town’s name and paralleling it in the prophetic passages of the OT which speak of the Messiah as being victorious.
However, even though I shall go on to look at the possibilities of this, all the articles on ‘Nazareth’ that I’ve been able to refer to make no mention that the village was ever derived from an Aramaic word with such a meaning.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary (contained within the Sword Project’s Bible software here) notes that
‘Some...think that the name of the city [sic] must be connected with the name of the hill behind it, from which one of the finest prospects in Palestine is obtained, and accordingly they derive it from the Hebrew ‘notserah’ (ie ‘one guarding or watching’), thus designating the hill which overlooks and thus guards an extensive region’
Although this may sound plausible, the following possibility appears to be the most likely.
Isaiah 11:1 reads
‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’
where the word for ‘branch’ is the Hebrew ‘netzer’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5342) being similar (so the commentators assure me!) to the Aramaic form of the town’s name. It would be wrong to think of the village as being directly named from this word for this does not appear to be Matthew’s intention, but that he is pointing towards, firstly, that Jesus was to be called the Branch (though the main places where this title is used in the OT do not use any derivative of the Hebrew netzer of Is 11:1) but, more than this, the allusion is even further expanded by Is 53:2 (where netzer does not occur) where the prophet writes
‘For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or comeliness that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him’
Here, again, the thought is of a branch springing out of a dead situation - just as, previously, hope is said to spring out from the bereavement of the mothers of Bethlehem - but that the person so elected by God would be both ‘despised and rejected’ as the following verse goes on to say.
Nazareth, as we know, seems to have been a village synonymous with failure and hopelessness, therefore Nathanael says of Jesus (John 1:46)
‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
though Nathaniel’s response could well be just a comment on Nazareth’s insignificance in the eyes of an inhabitant of Cana as he was.
What Matthew appears to be doing here, then, is using the prophets as a whole and not choosing to refer to any one particular verse. To be a ‘Nazarene’ (ie ‘from Nazareth’) was to be a reject of society. Matthew is therefore saying that, by being brought up in Nazareth, Jesus took upon Himself the name of being both despised and rejected but also in fulfilment of Is 11:1 and 53:2 which speaks of a shoot coming out from a tree that has been felled, and out of ground which is barren through lack of water.
His quotation is perfect, therefore, and needs no further explanation seeing as it fits the situation of Jesus’ upbringing very well.
In Mtw 2:22, we’re told that
‘when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee’
and it is easy for us to surmise that Joseph’s reasoning lay in the fact that he perceived that Archelaus would remember the incidents which had transpired just a few years previously and so take active steps to remove the family from his sight - but this hardly seems to be warranted by recourse to history and, besides, Joseph is plainly told (Mtw 2:20) that
‘...those who sought the child’s life are dead’
Although the Scripture doesn’t say it plainly, Joseph’s intentions are often assumed to be to return to Bethlehem where Jesus had been born and so settle there - perhaps prompted by the prophecy in Micah 5:2 which he was probably aware of and which the Magi may have passed on for their reason of arriving in that village - but the Scripture simply says that they were thinking of returning to Judea, not Bethlehem, a rather large area in which they could have lost themselves had they so wished.
But the reason for Joseph’s fear lay not in the recurrence of the persecution against the child of promise (an event which probably died with Herod) but in the character and nature of Archelaus who had risen to the throne and who had already tyrannically put down certain uprisings within the land.
For events surrounding his reign, we need to turn once more to Josephus - chapter 6 in the edition of the book that I use but the opening verses of Book 2 if you’re following the normal divisions...
Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod through his Samaritan wife Malthrace, acted with cunning upon the death of his father in 4BC (when he would have been not more than about 18 years of age, being born c.22BC) and at once assumed the role of king, mourning his father and entering the Temple to assure all those present that, should he be crowned king by Caesar (for Herod’s will specified that Caesar had the last word in who would be made king over the land), he would treat the people kinder and with more understanding than his father had. This, of course, pleased the crowd and had the desired effect of at once pulling many to his cause who looked upon him as a good alternative to the previous reign of terror that Herod had instigated.
But such popularity was short-lived. That same day (or so it reads - a day which was very close to the commencement of Passover - page 121), Archelaus sat down to eat with the heads of the Jews and heard an uprising within the city whereupon he attempted to peacefully put it down. But the complaint of the Jews was that, under Herod’s reign, certain rabbis had been executed for inciting their pupils to ascend the Temple walls and cut down a golden eagle which was a symbol of the power of Rome and taken to be idolatrous by the more religious populace and that, now, the instigators of the executions should be punished and executed themselves as a goodwill gesture to the nation.
Quite obviously, Archelaus was going to have none of it and, seeing that the crowds would not calm themselves down, sent a cohort of soldiers into the Temple to silence them, only the tribune over them escaping with his life and prompting Archelaus to call upon his army who slaughtered around 3,000 men, most of whom fell in the Temple courts.
Of course, this hardly endeared himself to the populace and gave his opponents when in Rome fuel for accusing him before Caesar where they sailed almost immediately following the incident and arrived in 4BC.
All those who hated Archelaus who had travelled with him, changed their allegiance to his full brother Antipas when they arrived in Rome who had already been suggesting that Herod’s earlier will which named himself as king should take preference rather than the later one with Archelaus named as head. However, though Antipas was their choice of king, Josephus notes (page 122) that
‘Their first preference was for autonomy under the protection of a Roman official; failing that they were prepared to accept Antipas as king’
There were, of course, claims and counter-claims made against all interested parties but the cruelty of Archelaus in the Temple incident came to prominence and was probably hugely exaggerated by his opponents who also accused him of assuming the throne when he had not yet been appointed by Caesar and of Herod’s insanity which had made his final will, which named Archelaus as king, meaningless - I think today we’d call it ‘diminished responsibility’.
While this had been taking place, Israel had risen up against the Roman forces left to secure the land and numerous claimants to the throne had arisen throughout the region. Josephus goes on about these at some length but they serve him as a fitting backdrop to the arrival in Rome of a Jewish delegation who implored Caesar (page 129)
‘...to unite their country with Syria and administer it through their own officials. This would show that men now falsely accused of sedition and aggression knew how to submit to reasonable authority’
A few days later, Caesar gave his decision and awarded half the kingdom to Archelaus with the title ‘ethnarch’ which contained Judea and Jerusalem, and divided the other half into two areas placing Antipas over Peraea and Galilee while Philip, a half-brother of both, over what remained with the title ‘tetrarch’ - but with the promise to Archelaus that he would be the supreme king ‘if he showed that he deserved it’.
Archelaus probably arrived back in Judea in 3BC and reigned only to 6AD when Caesar deposed him. That final eight years of his reign is only summarised by Josephus who records for us (page 131) that
‘Once established as ethnarch, Archelaus was unable to forget old quarrels but treated not only Jews but even Samaritans so brutally that both peoples sent embassies to accuse him before Caesar with the result that in the ninth year of his rule he was banished to Vienne in Gaul (modern day Vienna) and his property transferred to Caesar’s treasury’
From then on, a Roman procurator (the NT calls them ‘governors’) ruled over the land administering Roman law to the region, the most famous of which to christians being Pontius Pilate.
But when Joseph returns with his family from Egypt, he has no doubt heard the reports of Archelaus and of his deeds and already knows that he rules over Judea by command of Caesar. This places their arrival back into the land no earlier than 3BC and no later than 6AD when the king was exiled away to Vienna.
Joseph seems to be wary of trusting both himself and his family into the hands of an authority who had a poor track record and so moved north to Galilee where he perceived there was more likely to be leniency by the present ruler.
Concerning this area, Matfran notes that
‘...it was soon to gain a reputation as a fertile source of “Messianic” liberation movements’
and Mathag that
‘...[Herod Antipas] was a more tolerant ruler and Galilee in his day became known for revolutionary sentiments that would never had been tolerated by his father’
This should not surprise us. Jesus needed a region in which he could grow and develop unhindered and Galilee was the ideal spot to do so. Away from the horrors of the Archelaen throne, the family would have been able to prosper to an extent that prevented them from always worrying about reprisals from Antipas’ soldiers and to be able to get on with their business of carpentry in the town of Sepphoris to the north-west of their village (see on the Chronology here).
Jesus, quite obviously, never took upon Himself the name of ‘revolutionary leader’ and, when confronted by a crowd who were threatening to proclaim Him as King, withdrew so that they would be unable to have their way (John 6:15).
Jesus doesn’t look like any of the leaders we know from subsequent history but both the security and freedom of the area was necessary for the upbringing of the Child and the obscurity of the village Nazareth a good place to hide away from the public eye until the time of His calling was to come.
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