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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 2

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-23

II 1-12 The Magi— 1. Mt’s first indications of time and place are given incidentally as if already known to readers, but recalled with a view to the subsequent story. The child was born during the reign of Herod the Great, 37-4 b.c., at Bethlehem of Judaea (scene of David’s birth and anointing, 1 Kg 16:13; 17:23), 6 m. S. of the capital. The Magi (DV ’wise men) were originally a Median priestly tribe of clairvoyants who retained their functions under their Persian conquerors. The term later became general, Daniel 1:10; Acts 8:9; Acts 13:8, for astrologers, sorcerers, etc. of all nationalities. We may translate ’sages’, since Mt clearly does not intend a derogatory sense. Their homeland (’the East’) is most probably the district just beyond Jordan and the Dead Sea, i.e. Nabataean Arabia which at that time reached as far north as Damascus. (For this use of ’the East’ cf. the early Palestinian writers: Justin, Origen, Epiphanius.) Here Jews and Arabs speaking similar dialects formed a mixed population. The nature of their gifts confirms their Arabian origin: Arabia was renowned for its gold, 1 Kg 9:28, incense, Jeremiah 6:20, and myrrh, Pliny, Hist. Nat., 12, 30-5. The time of the Magi’s visit is to be put after the Purification, Luke 2:33-38, which took place forty days after our Lord’s birth, since Joseph plainly would not have taken his charges to the capital after the warning of 13 (see note). It was probably not more than a year after the nativity (16 note).

2. The appearance of a new and brilliant star in the eastern sky (??at???, in the sing. as in 9, not plur. as 1) sends the Magi in a westerly direction to the Jewish capital. Evidently they were aware of the high pitch of Messianic expectation among their Jewish neighbours (witness the many pseudo-Messiahs after Herod’s death). Possibly also (though Mt is silent) the Magi received a special revelation. The ’star’ (?st??) cannot mean a group or conjunction of planets (?st???); this excludes Kepler’s conjunction in 7 b.c. of Saturn, Jupiter, Man. Halley’s comet, 12 b.c., is apparently excluded by its date. the comet-hypothesis in general ( Origen, Contra Celsum, 1, 58, cf. Patrizi, De Evangeliis, 3, 309-54) is difficult to reconcile with the description of the star’s behaviour in 9 unless (with Lagrange) we grant that Mt intends no more than a popularized account of an extraordinary but natural phenomenon. For the majority of Catholic exegetes the star is a special creation as, indeed, the text most naturally suggests.

3. The common, general stir (DV ’trouble’) no doubt takes the form of anxiety in Herod, of excitement in the populace.

4. The Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish advisory body of 71 members, was composed of three groups in approximately equal force: the chief priests, i.e. the high-priest in office, the deposed high-priests and the heads of the twenty-four priestly classes; the ’scribes’ (’doctors of the Law’), Pharisee in persuasion, specialists in the Mosaic Code and instructors of the people; the ’ancients’ or prominent laymen. Since these last are not mentioned here, it is probably not a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin, rarely consulted by Herod and unnecessary to his present purpose. Herod’s question does not imply his faith in the prophets, but his appreciation of the dangers of the popular belief. Any pretender, especially with an appearance of prophetic backing, was seen as a peril by Herod, who did not over-estimate his own popularity.

5. The answer to the question may not have come as promptly as appears from the brief account of Mt. The birthplace of the Messias was the subject of diverse opinions (cf.John 7:27, John 7:42) among the people and presumably among their teachers. In Jewish written tradition there is no evidence of the Bethlehem birthplace before the 3rd cent. a.d. ( Lagrange, Le Mesianisme, 222). The prophecy (Micah 5:1, Micah 5:3; cf. § 535f-g) was doubtless quoted verbatim by the scribes. Mt is content with substantial fidelity; moreover he adapts the text to the circumstances. For him Bethlehem is no longer ’insignificant among the clans of Judah’ because the Messias has been born there; when Micheas wrote, the greatness was still to come.

7-8. Herod betrays a superstitious anxiety though he is careful to make his further inquiries in private—there is excitement enough already, 3. He attaches importance to the time of the star’s appearance, evidently presuming that it coincides (if it has any significance at all) with the time of the birth. His plans are already made, but his assumed appearance of leisure, 8, ultimately defeats its own end.

9-10. The star reappears (cf. ’and behold’)—it had evidently not led the Magi to Jerusalem. It stands now in the southern sky in the direction of Bethlehem. Mt’s text, literally interpreted, gives the impression of a light visibly advancing southwards (unless we translate, with Patrizi, ’had gone before them’). This impression is heightened by the apparent impliation that it was the star which showed the actual dwelling (though read ’over the place’ KNT, rather than ’over the spot’ WV). ’If this is correct, the ’star’ is a luminous body in the lower atmosphere.

11. The Magi enter the dwelling (???ía). This is either a new abode or possibly still the cave-stable (cf. the 2nd cent. tradition recorded by Justin, Contra Tryphonem, 78, 5), not an unusual home for Orientals. Joseph though he may have been present is not mentioned; with this delicate touch, Mt recalls the virginal conception and Mary’s incomparable closeness to the child. Note the similar indications of 2:13f. The verb ’adored’ (p??s?????), frequent in Mt, does not necessarily imply divine honours; yet the emphasis of the expression falling down they adored’ is suggestive, an the offering of incense, usually reserved to the divinity even among the pagans, strengthens the suggestion, Prat, I, 105f. The gifts are probably products of the Magi’s native land (cf. Genesis 43:11)—indispensable for visits to a king. The ’frankincense’ (i.e. ’precious’ incense) is, like the myrrh, a resin. Myrrh, a perfume, Cant 3:6, was used in powdered form as a deodorant at burials, John 19:39, and, mixed with wine, as a narcotic, Mark 15:23—hence its suggestion of mortality adopted in later symbolism: ’gold for the king; incense for the God; myrrh for the mortal’.

12. Being warned in sleep the Magi went home not by the way they had come (probably from the direction of Moab via Jericho) but either by making for the south of the Dead Sea by way of Hebron or by. effecting a crossing from its western shore at En-gedi.

II 13-15 Flight Into Egypt— 13. The circumstances (delay would have been fatal) and the terms (’ behold’ following the aorist participle and preceding the historic present: ’appeareth ’—cf. the same construction in 2:91) suggest that the flight took place very soon after the Magi’s departure, probably the same night. Five or six days’ travelling would take the holy family to the frontier of Egypt, now an Imperial Prefecture with a Jewish population of about one million concentrated especially in Alexandria and Heliopolis. As a refuge from oppression at "home Egypt was convenient and traditional, 3 Kg 11:40; 4 Kg 25:26.

14. Mt’s narrative, not being an edifying fable, preserves a sober silence (unlike the apocryphal gospels) on the details of the journey. There is no ancient, constant tradition relating to their new home.

15. Mt implicitly anticipates the return the better to space his OT quotations, 15, 18, 23. It might be noted here that, as in 18, rather than ’the incident being made to fit the quotation’ (* A. J. Grieve, Peake’s Commentary on the Bible) it would be less false to say that the quotation, Os 11:1, is made to fit the incident. The original text (not LXX which reads ’ his [Jacob’s] children’—unsuitable to Mt’s purpose) refers in the strictly literal sense to the end of the Egyptian exile for Israel (God’s ’son’, cf.Exodus 4:22f.). The text is not a formal prophecy since the tense of the verb, faithfully preserved by Mt, is past. Mt, therefore, introduces the original situation merely as a providential rehearsal of the present event, thus calling our attention to a fuller sense of’ son’ than Osee could have imagined.

II 16-18 Massacre of the Innocents— 16. The sacrifice of a few children to the safety of his throne meant nothing to Herod (for a summary of his appalling record, see Schürer, 2, 1, 401-16); his own sons had suffered in the same cause. Bethlehem and district (the term excludes neighbouring villages, cf. RB 8 [ 1899] 422; 9 [ 1900] 435) had a population of about 1,000 (now over 7,000) which, allowing for the high infant-mortality rate, would bring the number of children of two years and under to about

20. The age of the victims indicates that the star had appeared not more than two years before—probably about one year, Herod callously leaving a safety-margin on either side.

14-18. The text, Jeremiah 31:15, quoted here ad sensum, poetically presents Rachel (mother of Benjamin and of Joseph, the father ofb Ephraim) lamenting the fate ofher children on their way into exile. She mourns from her tomb near Rama in Benjamin, 1 Kg 10:2f, Rama lies 5 in. N. of Jerusalem and was the mustering place for the exiles on their way to Babylon, Jeremiah 40:1. For Mt the circumstances are similar—the maternal lament of Rachel is echoed now in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, he does not allege a literal fulfilment of prophecy, otherwise he would have omitted ’in Rama’. The quotation receives added point from another tradition represented by what is probably an ancient but incorrect gloss in Genesis 35:19) which places Rachel’s tomb near Bethlehem; cf. Abel, Géographie ide la Palestine ( Paris 1938) 425 f.

II 19-23 From Egypt to Nazareth— 19. Herod died shortly before the Pasch (April 12 in that year) of 4 b.c. For his last days cf. Schürer 1, 1, 462-7. Archelaus (the elder of his sons by Malthace) was assigned Judaea and Samaria and named king in Herod’s will, being saluted as’ such on his father’s death, Jos., Ant.17, 8, 2. He had to wait perhaps six months for the confirmation of Augustus ( U. Holzmeister, Chronologia Vitae Christi, Rome 1933, 49) who granted him the title or ethnarch only. The length of the Egyptian sojourn during the period between the Magi’s visit and the accession of Archelaus was probably at least six months because at the time of the Magi’s visit there is as yet no sign (cf. 2:8) of Herod’s faltal illness contracted probably in Sept. of 5 b.c. (Holzmeister, op. cit., 25). That the sojourn was not prolonged after Herod’s death seems clear from 19 (cf. 2:13) and perhaps accounts for the use of ’reigned’ (22 : ßas??e?e?) which possibly suggests that Archelaus’s title of ’king’ had not yet been formally reduced to that of ’ethnarch’.

20. The word ’they’ (though possibly a plural of generalization, Joüon) is perhaps best explained as a deliberate reference to the similar situation of Moses in Exodus 4:19f. 21-22. Joseph evidently intended to return to Bethlehem, if not to settle there at least to order his affairs. He was doubtless on the coast-road ( Egypt-GazaAzotus) when he heard of the accession of Archelaus who had a bad reputation, not undeserved (Schürer, I, 2, 40). Judaea was still no place for a Messianic claimant and Joseph proceeded to his old home in Galilee. This was Nazareth, Luke 2:4, lying in the hills on the northern fringe of the plain of Esdraelon, c. 20 m. W. of Tiberias. The insignificant village, mentioned neither in Josephus nor Talmud, is the Na?ra? (not Nazra?) of the Syriac versions. (For a similar Gk transcription of the sibilant cf. the Zogora of LXX with the Heb. So’ar in Genesis 13:10). The place was known to Julius Africanus (c a. d. 160-ca.d. 240). Nazareth was to be the scene of our Lord’s childhood and youth.

23. The term ’Nazarene,’ (Na???aî??) might be more exactly transcribed ’Nazoree’. Its termination thus suggests a member of a sect (cf. Pharisee, Sadducee) rather than an indication of origin; cf. Magdalene, i.e. of Magdala. It is probable that the term ’Nazoree’ was first applied to the disciples after our Lord’s death, Acts 24:25, with a measure of contempt for the provincial origin (cf.John 1:46) of the founder of the’ sect’. When the word became common its hostile sense would diminish (cf. ’Quaker’) and it might well have become synonymous with the strictly geographical term ’Nazarene’ originally used of Jesus himself (Prat, I, 119)—hence its use throughout Mt, Ac, Jn (Mk uses ’Nazarene’). Nevertheless, it was always possible to recall the original, contemptuous flavour of the expression, and it is probable that this is Mt’s intention here (Lagrange). If this is so, he wishes to say that the obscurity of his Master’s home, though now a subject of derision, should not be unexpected to those who knew the prophets. These, rightly read, had spoken of a Messias humanly inglorious, Is 53, Ps 21. It is perhaps less ’probable that the term ’Nazoree’ contains a verbal reference to the’ sapling (ne?er; DV ’flower’) from the Davidic root, Isaiah 11:1. This would make the ’prophecy’ little more than a punning coincidence and would scarcely justify Mt’s plural ’prophets’.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 2". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-2.html. 1951.
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