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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Matthew 2

Verses 1-99

Ch. 2: 1 12 . The Visit of the Magi. Recorded by St Matthew only

1 . Jesus was born ] The year 3 before the Christian Era has been fixed almost beyond a doubt as the date of the Nativity. The present year 1877 is therefore correctly a. d. 1880. The data on which the computation is founded are (1) the first rule of Quirinus (Luke 2:2 ), (2) the accession of Tiberius a. d. 14, (3) the Paschal full moon at the time of the crucifixion probably a. d. 33, (4) the reign of Herod, which began in b. c. 36 and ended in b. c. 1. The last-named date has been accurately determined in a paper read before the Society of Biblical Archæology by Mr J. W. Bosanquet, which see for a learned discussion of the whole question.

in Bethlehem ] St Matthew omits the circumstances which brought Mary to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem ] (‘The House of Bread,’ cp. John 6:51 ), the city of David, situate on a limestone ridge a few miles S. of Jerusalem. The old name of Bethlehem was Ephrath or Ephratah; it is now called Beit-lahm. It is worthy of remark that no visit of Jesus or of His disciples to Bethlehem, His birthplace and the cradle of His race, is recorded.

Herod ] Called afterwards, but not in his lifetime, Herod the Great; he was an Idumæan (Edomite) who, chiefly through the friendship of M. Antony, became king of Judæa. For date of reign see above. The title of King distinguishes him from the other Herods named in the gospels. Antipas, who tried in vain to obtain the title, is called King by courtesy, Mark 6:14 .

Herod was not an absolute monarch, but subject to the Roman empire, much in the same way as some of the Indian princes are subject to the British government, or as Servia was till recently subject to the Porte.

behold ] The use of this word in the original is a mark of the Hebrew style influencing the Greek.

wise men ] Lit. Magi, originally the name of a Median tribe, who, according to Herodotus, possessed the power of interpreting dreams. Their religion consisted in the worship of the heavenly bodies and of the elements. At this date the name implied a religious caste the followers of Zoroaster, who were the astrologers of the East. Their tenets had spread widely; and as the East is a vague term, it is difficult to determine from what country these Magi came. A theory, stated below, connects them with Egypt, or at least with an Egyptian system of chronology. The common belief that the Magi were three in number is a mere tradition, which has been perpetuated by great painters. It was probably an inference from v. 11. An equally groundless tradition has designated the Magi as kings, and has assigned names to them. Every reader of the Classics knows how common a failing it is with ancient annotators to state deductions from the text as proved facts.

2 . King of the Jews ] A title unknown to the earlier history of Israel and applied to no one except the Messiah. It reappears in the inscription over the Cross (ch. 27:37).

his star in the east ] The simplest explanation of this is that a Star or Meteor appeared in the sky to guide the Magi on their way first to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem. It is, however, quite possible that the Magi were divinely led to connect some calculated phenomenon with the birth of the “King of the Jews.” Among many conjectures may be mentioned one recently propounded by Prof. Lauth of Munich. It appears to be proved that the dog-star Sirius rose heliacally, i. e. appeared at sunrise, on the first of the Egyptian month Mesori, for four years in succession, viz. 5, 4, 3, 2 before our era. The rising of this star of special brilliance on the first of this special month (Mesori=birth of the prince) would have a marked significance. By the Magi it might well be connected with the prophecy of “the star of Jacob,” and become the cause of their journey to Jerusalem. This theory explains Herod’s edict, v. 16, for the destruction of all male children “from two years old and under,” for, as according to the date assigned to the Nativity of Christ, the arrival of the Magi at Jerusalem would coincide with the year 3 before the Christian era, the star had appeared for two years.

The theory, supported by Alford, which identifies this “star” with a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forces the meaning of the word “star,” is inconsistent with the latest chronological results, and is shown to be scientifically impossible by Prof. Pritchard in Dict. of the Bible, sub voc . “Star of the Magi.”

The connection of the birth of the Messiah with the appearance of a Star is illustrated by the name Barchochab (“Son of a Star”), assumed by a false Messiah who appeared in the year 120 a. d. It has also been noticed that in the Cartouche or Egyptian royal symbol of Vespasian, the word “God” is for the first time expressed by a Star. (Dr Lauth, Trans. Bib. Arch. Soc. iv. 2.)

3 . all Jerusalem with him ] Fearing some fresh outbreak of cruelty.

4 . gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together ] i. e. summoned a meeting of the Sanhedrin, a body often indicated in this way. Others contend that this was an irregular meeting of all the chief priests and learned men.

The chief priests were those who had served the office of high priest, and also the heads of the courses into which the priests were divided. Scribes were those who transcribed or copied the law and who expounded it. They are called lawyers in St Luke’s gospel.

where Christ should be born ] Lit. where the Christ or Messiah is born . Where do your sacred writings represent him to be born? For a similar use of the indicative cp. John 7:52 .

5 . by the prophet ] Lit. by means of, through the prophet is regarded as the instrument. In v. 17 and 3:3, some MSS. have the preposition signifying personal agency ( ὑπό ), instead of the instrumental preposition ( διά ); but the usual formula is as in v. 15, “by the Lord through the prophet.”

Bethlehem of Judea ] To distinguish this Bethlehem from the Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15 ).

6 . And thou Bethlehem, &c. ] Micah 5:2 . The quotation nearly corresponds with the Hebrew text, the literal translation of which is: But thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little to be among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me he that is to be ruler in Israel .

The LXX. is singularly different both in words and construction a proof of the Hebrew original of this gospel; for the Greek translation of the prophecy is evidently independent of the LXX.

A reflection of this prophecy became prevalent in the East. Accordingly the Roman historians designate the Emperor Vespasian as the Eastern Prince who was destined to rule the world: “Percrebuerat Oriente toto vetus et constans opinio esse in fatis ut eo tempore Judæa profecti rerum potirentur. Id de Imperatore Romano quantum postea eventu paruit prædictum Judæi ad se trahentes rebellarunt.” Suet. Vesp. iv. Similarly Tac. Hist. v. 13. Comp. Joseph. B. J. vi. 5. 4. See above, v. 2.

7 . inquired of them diligently ] Rather, having accurately ascertained ; the word is used of scientific exactness. The reason of this inquiry appears in v. 16.

what time the star appeared ] Literally, the time of the star which was appearing , i. e. when it first appeared and how long it would continue.

8 . he sent them to Bethlehem ] Up to this point the Magi are not said to have been guided by the Star; they go to Bethlehem in accordance with Herod’s directions, which were based on the report of the Sanhedrin; as they went the star again appeared in the East.

11 . the house ] St Matthew gives no hint that “the house” was an inn, or that the babe was lying in a manger. Perhaps here as in other places we are misled by the ideas suggested by great pictures; and in truth the visit of the Magi should be placed at least some days after the events recorded in Luke 2:1-38 .

their treasures ] Properly caskets or chests in which treasures were placed. Such offerings to kings were quite in accordance with Eastern usage. Seneca says “No one may salute a Parthian king without bringing a gift;” cp. Psalms 68:29 , Psalms 72:10 .

frankincense and myrrh were products of Arabia, and, according to Herodotus, of that country only. They were both used for medicinal purposes and for embalming; cp. John 19:39 .

13 15 . The Flight into Egypt

13 . the young child ] Named first, as the most precious charge and the most exposed to danger.

Egypt ] at all times the readiest place of refuge for the Israelites, whether from famine or from political oppression. It had sheltered many thousands of Jews from the tyranny of the Syrian kings. Consequently large settlements of Jews were to be found in various cities of Egypt and Africa. In Alexandria the Jews numbered a fifth of the population. Wherever therefore the infant Saviour’s home was in Egypt, it would be in the midst of His brethren according to the flesh.

At this time Egypt was a Roman province. This incident of Christ’s stay in Egypt would be regarded as a precious memory by the African church the church of Cyprian, Origen and Augustine.

15 . until the death of Herod ] According to the chronology adopted above this would be for a space of less than two years.

that it might be fulfilled ] See note on ch. 1:22.

Out of Egypt have I called my son ] Better, I called my son . The history of Israel is regarded as typical of the Messiah’s life. He alone gives significance to that history. He is the true seed of Abraham. In Him the blessing promised to Abraham finds its highest fulfilment. (See Lightfoot on Galatians 3:16 .) Even particular incidents in the Gospel narrative have their counterpart in the O.T. history. Accordingly St Matthew, who naturally reverts to this thought more constantly than the other Evangelists, from the very nature of his gospel, recognises in this incident an analogy to the call of Israel from Egypt.

The quotation is again from the original Hebrew of Hosea 11:2 , and again the LXX. differs considerably. Cp. Exodus 4:22 , Exodus 4:23 : “Israel is my son, even my firstborn: and I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me.”

16 18 . The Slaying of the Children at Bethlehem

16 . and sent forth, and slew ] i. e. he sent assassins to slay.

all the children ] Lit. all the male children .

coasts ] i. e. borders or neighbourhood.

from two years old and under ] If we adopt the hypothesis regarding the star mentioned above, a satisfactory explanation is given for Herod’s directions, which otherwise it is difficult to explain. Even if the above theory is not the true one, the two years mentioned in the text are clearly connected with the astronomical appearances described by the Magi, in answer to Herod’s “diligent inquiries.”

Profane history passes over this atrocity in silence. But Josephus may well have found his pages unequal to contain a complete record of all the cruel deeds of a tyrant like Herod. Macaulay relates that the massacre of Glencoe is not even alluded to in the pages of Evelyn, a most diligent recorder of passing political events. Besides, the crime was executed with secrecy, the number of children slain was probably very inconsiderable, for Bethlehem was but a small town; and though it was possibly crowded at the time (Luke 2:7 ), the number of very young children would not have been considerably augmented by those strangers.

The whole scene must have been very different from that which is presented to us on the canvas of the great mediæval artists.

17 . Then was fulfilled ] This turn of expression may be regarded as identical with the more usual “that it might be fulfilled.”

by ] See note v. 5.

18 . Jeremiah 31:15 , in LXX. 38:15. In a singularly touching passage, Rachel, the mother of the tribe of Benjamin (whose tomb was close to Bethlehem: Genesis 35:19 ), is conceived of as weeping for her captive sons at Ramah some of whom were possibly doomed to die; cp. Jeremiah 40:1 .

The Evangelist pictures Rachel’s grief re-awakened by the slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem.

The Ramah alluded to by Jeremiah, generally identified with the modern Er-Rama, was about 5 miles N. of Jerusalem, and in the tribe of Benjamin. There is no proof of another Ramah near Bethlehem. The analogy therefore must not be pressed.

19 21 . The Return from Egypt

20 . they ] Plural by a euphemism, the reference being to Herod alone.

22 . Archelaus ] A son of Herod the Great. His mother was Malthaké, a Samaritan. After a cruel and disturbed reign (under the title of Ethnarch) of about eight years he was banished to Vienna in Gaul the modern Vienne. His dominions, including Samaria, Judæa, and Idumæa, then passed into the direct government of Rome. See note, ch. 14:1, and Introduction, p. 25.

22, 23 . The Dwelling at Nazareth

22 . notwithstanding ] Rather “but” or “so.”

he turned aside ] Rather, retired or withdrew . The English ‘anchorite’ is derived from the Greek word in the original. The same word is translated in vv. 12 and 13, “departed.”

Galilee ] Now under the government of Herod Antipas, full brother of Archelaus. For the extent of his dominions see Map .

23 . a city called Nazareth ] St Matthew gives no intimation of any previous residence of Mary and Joseph at Nazareth.

Nazareth ] Said to signify “the Protectress” (Hebr. natsar ), a small town of central Galilee, on the edge of the plain of Esdraelon, beautifully situated on the side of a steep hill within a sheltered valley.

He shall be called a Nazarene ] The meaning of this passage was probably as clear to the contemporaries of St Matthew, as the other references to prophecy vv. 15, 17; for us it is involved in doubt. First, it may be said Nazarene cannot = Nazarite: the word differs in form, and in no sense could Christ be called a Nazarite. Secondly, the quotation is probably not from a lost prophecy. One meaning of the word Nazoræus is an inhabitant of Nazareth, but the word either (1) recalls the Hebrew word netser a Branch, a title by which the Messiah is designated Isaiah 11:1 , or (2) connects itself in thought with the Hebr. natsar , to save or protect (see above), and so has reference to the name and work of Jesus, or (3) is a synonym for “contemptible” or “lowly,” from the despised position of Nazareth. Of these (3) is perhaps the least probable explanation. The play upon words which (1) and (2) involve is quite characteristic of Hebrew phraseology. The sound of the original would be either (1) He whom the prophet called the “Netser” dwells at “Netser” (for this form of Nazareth see Smith’s Bib. Dict. ), or (2) He who is called “Notsri” (my protector) dwells at “Natsaret” (the protectress).

In any case the passage gains fresh interest from the fact that the early Christians were called Nazarenes in scorn. Cp. Acts 24:5 . For them it would be a point of triumph that their enemies thus unconsciously connected them with a prophetic title of their Master.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 2". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.