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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Matthew 2

Verses 1-23

The Wise Men

1-12. The star in the east and the visit of the Magi (peculiar to St. Matthew). The incident fits well into secular history. About the time when the star appeared (7 or 6 b.c.), Herod the Great, being alarmed by a prophecy that the royal power was about to pass away from him and his line, put the authors of it to death. It is evident, therefore, that the announcement by the wise men that Herod’s supplanter in the kingdom had actually been born, would drive him to violent measures. The slaughter of the infants by Herod seems confirmed by the independent account of the heathen historian Macrobius (400 a.d.), who says that when news was brought to Augustus that Herod had ordered children under two years old in Syria to be slain, and that among them was a son of Herod, the emperor remarked, that it was better to be Herod’s pig (hun) than Herod’s son (huion).

That the Magi should be familiar with and sympathise with Jewish expectations about the Messiah, is not a difficulty. Synagogues existed throughout the East, and exercised a wide influence. At Damascus nearly all the women were proselytes (Jos. ’Wars,’ ii. 20. 2: cp. also Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:9; Acts 13:43, etc.). Belief that the appearance of the Messiah was imminent— a belief widely cherished in Jewish circles, see Luke 2:25-26, Luke 2:38;—joined to belief in the appearance of signs in the heavens at the birth of great men, would sufficiently account for the journey of these astrologers, even if they were ignorant of the more definite expectation, which, according to Edersheim, was entertained at this time by the Jews, that two years before the birth of the Messiah His star would appear in the East. The existence of Messianic expectations throughout the East at a somewhat later period is expressly affirmed not only by Josephus, but also by the heathen historians Tacitus and Suetonius. As to the nature of the star, the most probable view is Kepler’s. He calculated that in 7 b.c. there occurred three times a most remarkable conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces, which was next year reinforced by Mars. This triple conjunction was followed by the appearance of a remarkably coloured evanescent star, which was the true star of the Magi. If this view be correct, our Lord’s birth occurred about 6 b.c. (i.e. six years before the vulgar era of the nativity), and the visit of the Magi followed soon afterwards.

The spiritual significance of the story lies on the surface. Whereas Herod and the Jews were ignorant of the birth of the Messiah among them, and, when informed of it, manifested the most malignant hatred against Him, strangers from afar knew of it before then, and hastened to pay Him reverence. The incident is thus a prophecy of the history of the succeeding centuries, in which the chosen people have persistently rejected the Messiah, and the Gentiles have accepted Him. The incident also illustrates the true relations between science and religion. In the persons of the Magi, science paid homage to religion. The Magi were the men of science of the period, and their science brought them to Christ. And so it is now. The science of yesterday was (according to not a few of its exponents) hostile to faith, proudly boasting that it could solve the mystery of the universe. The science of today is more humble, acknowledging that the deepest natural knowledge only touches the outer fringe of things, and that so-called scientific ’explanations’ of the universe are not explanations at all, but only descriptions. Religion and science move on different planes. There is and can be no real antagonism between them, and their natural relationship is one of mutual respect, and cordial cooperation.

1. Bethlehem] or Ephrathah, the city of David, is 5 m. S. of Jerusalem: see Genesis 35:16, Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7; 1 Samuel 16:4; 2 Samuel 2:32; 2 Samuel 23:14-16; 1 Chronicles 11:16, 1 Chronicles 11:26; Ezra 2:21; Nehemiah 7:26. The supposed site of the nativity is a rock-hewn cave, measuring 38 ft. by 11 ft., at one end of which is inscribed ’Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est.’ Above it stands perhaps the oldest Christian church in the world, the basilica built by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, about 330 a.d. Herod] i.e. Herod the Great, who reigned from 37 to 4 b.c. As Christ was born at least two years before Herod’s death (see Matthew 2:16), the date of the nativity cannot be later than 6 b.c. See art. ’The Dynasty of the Herods.’ Wise men] lit. ’Magi,’ a sacerdotal class among the Persians, Babylonians, and other Eastern nations, who occupied themselves with a knowledge of the secrets of nature, divination, astrology, and medicine. The Babylonian Magi are mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3. Daniel was made chief of them owing to his skill in interpreting dreams (Daniel 2:48). Here the word is used in its strict meaning, and in a good sense. Elsewhere in the NT. it means a juggler or cheat (Acts 13:6, Acts 13:8). Since astronomy was chiefly practised in Babylonia, and Jewish influence was particularly sirong there, it may be conjectured that these Magi were Babylonians. But they may have come from Arabia. There is no warrant for the tradition that they were kings. To Jerusalem] The Magi came because they expected to obtain full information at the capital.

2. In the east] better, ’at its rising.’ Worship] see on Jeremiah 39:11.

3. And all Jerusalem] They had good reason to be troubled. Only two years before, in a similar fit of jealous fear, Herod had slaughtered all the leading Pharisees (Jos. ’Antiq.’

17. 2).

4. Herod summons not the Sanhédrin, which he had reduced to a shadow, having slain its members wholesale, but a national assembly of theologians learned in the Law.

Chief priests] The name includes the high priest, the ex-high priests, and members of those families from which the high priest was generally chosen. Scribes] i.e. professional students, copiers, and expounders of the Law of Moses, who rose into prominence after the captivity (Nehemiah 8:1, etc.), and were enrolled as members of the Sanhédrin. Called also ’lawyers’ (Luke 10:25) and ’doctors of the law’ (Luke 5:17). Christ] RV ’the Christ,’ i.e. the Messiah.

5. In Bethlehem] cp. John 7:42.

6. See Micah 5:2. St. Matthew follows neither the Heb. nor the Gk., but gives a free paraphrase. He ’reproduces the prophetic utterance of Micah, exactly as such quotations were popularly made at that time. Hebrew being a dead language, the Holy Scriptures were always translated (in the synagogue) into the popular dialect (Aramaic) by a Methurgeman, or interpreter, and these interpretations, or Targums, were neither literal versions nor yet paraphrases, but something between them, a sort of interpreting translation. It is needless to remark that the NT. writers would “targum” as Christians’ (Edersheim abridged).

9. The star.. went before them, etc.] a poetical way of saying that the star guided the wise men to Jesus.

11. The house] There is no mention of the stable (Luke 2:7). As soon as the enrolling was at an end, there would bè no difficulty in obtaining accommodation. Fell down, and worshipped him] The customary method of doing homage to a monarch. But in their homage was mingled something also of religious worship, because they understood at least this, that the Child before whom they knelt was the Messiah, the religious head of the human race, standing in a unique relation to God, and destined to establish the kingdom of God on earth.

Gifts] It was, and is, the Eastern custom not to approach monarchs and princes without a gift: Genesis 43:11; 1 Samuel 10:27; 1 Kings 10:2. The Magi brought to Jesus the most costly products of the countries in which they lived, as if to show that nothing is too precious to be used in the service of God. It is a mistake to think that spiritual worship is necessarily a bare worship, or that religion is purest when it is most divorced from art. Art and the love of beauty are among God’s greatest gifts to man, and it is right that man in. worshipping should render of his best to God. The mystical interpretation of the gifts (gold, symbolising Christ’s Royalty; frankincense, or incense, His Divinity; myrrh, His Passion, cp. John 19:39) is questionable. The Magi would not know that He was actually divine, still less that He would suffer.

12. In a dream] As the Magi were interpreters of dreams, this method of divine revelation was especially appropriate. It is part of God’s loving condescension to mankind to make His revelations to different ages, races, and individuals by those channels through which they are accustomed to expect them.

13-15. Flight into Egypt (peculiar to St. Matthew). Egypt was the only place of refuge easily reached from Bethlehem. It was outside the dominions of Herod, under Roman government, and contained a population of at least a million Jews, who were more wealthy and enlightened than those of Palestine. It was notorious for its superstition and gross idolatry, and legend has represented the idols of Egypt as falling flat on their faces before the Holy Child.

15. Until the death of Herod] Herod died probably 4 b.c., possibly 3 b.c., so that the sojourn in Egypt was short, perhaps only a few months.

Out of Egypt] Hosea 11:1. It is impossible that the flight into Egypt was invented to fulfil this prophecy, which in Hosea is simply an historical allusion to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. My son] in the original passage is the nation, not the Messiah, and so the LXX understood it. St. Matthew, however, saw in the history of Israel a typical foreshadowing of the life of our Lord, and so, in accordance with rabbinical methods of interpretation, applied it to Jesus. Here St. Matthew quotes directly from the Heb. The LXX has ’Out of Egypt did I call his (Israel’s) children.’

16-18. Massacre of the Innocents (peculiar to St. Matthew). The incident is fully in accordance with what is known of Herod’s character, and could not have been suggested by the prophecy in Matthew 2:18, which really refers to the Babylonian captivity. It is a true instinct, born of the new significance which Christianity has given to child-life, which has led the Church to enroll the Innocents in ’the noble army of martyrs,’ and to commemorate them in the Christmas festival (DeMatthew 28). ’Not in speaking, but in dying,’ says the old collect, ’did they confess Christ.’

16. All the male (RV) children] ’Considering the population of Bethlehem, their number could only have been small—probably twenty at most.’ The massacre is not mentioned by Josephus, but ’the murder of a few infants in an insignificant village might appear scarcely worth notice in a reign stained by so much bloodshed. Besides, he had perhaps a special motive for this silence. Josephus always carefully suppresses, so far as possible, all that refers to the Christ’ (Edersheim).

18. Was.. a voice heard] Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was buried at Ramah (cp. Genesis 35:19; 1 Samuel 10:2), and when Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadnezzar, trains of Jewish captives were led by her tomb on their way to exile. Jeremiah poetically represents Rachel as coming out of her tomb, and weeping piteously over her dead and exiled descendants, and St. Matthew applies the prophecy to the circumstances of the slaughter of the Innocents.

19-23. Return to Palestine. Settlement at Nazareth. It is implied that Joseph had settled at Bethlehem and intended to remain there as the most suitable place for bringing up the future Messiah. But God judged that the despised Galilee was a better training school for the future Saviour of the world.

22. Archelaus] see art. ’The Dynasty of the Herods.’ Did reign] RV ’was reigning.’ Properly speaking Archelaus was only an ’éthnarch,’ but ethnarchs and tetrarchs were popularly called ’kings’. Augustus had promised Archelaus the title of king, if he should deserve it by ruling well. Joseph feared to go back to Judæa, because Archelaus was as suspicious and cruel as his father. The pleasure-loving Antipas who ruled in Galilee, was known to be more humane.

23. Nazareth] or Nazara, was a town of lower Galilee, in the tribe of Zebulon. It lay in a lofty valley among the limestone hills to the N. of the plain of Esdraelon, or Megiddo. It was quite unimportant (John 1:46), and is not mentioned in OT. or Josephus.

A Nazarene] A thoroughly Jewish play upon words. In the OT. and in Jewish writings the Messiah is often called Tsemach (Jeremiah 23:5), or Netser (Isaiah 11:1), i.e. the Branch, so that ’Jesus the Nazarene’ would sound very much like ’Jesus the Branch,’ i.e. the Messiah. Edersheim says, ’We admit that this is a Jewish view, but then this Gospel is the Jewish view of the Jewish Messiah.’

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Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 2". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". 1909.