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(1) There went out a decree.—The passage that follows has given rise to almost endless discussion. The main facts may be summed up as follows:—(1) The word “taxed” is used in its older English sense of simple “registration,” and in that sense is a true equivalent for the Greek word. The corresponding verb appears in Hebrews 12:23. It does not involve, as to modern ears it seems to do, the payment of taxes. The “world” (literally, the inhabited world, οἰκουμένη, œcumenè,—the word from which we form the word “œcumenical” as applied to councils) is taken, as throughout the New Testament, for the Roman empire. What Augustus is said to have decreed, was a general census. (2) It may be admitted that no Roman or Jewish historian speaks distinctly of such a general census as made at this time. On the other hand, the collection of statistical returns of this nature was an ever-recurring feature of the policy of Augustus. We read of such returns at intervals of about ten years during the whole period of his government. In B.C. 27, when he offered to resign, he laid before the Senate a rationarium, or survey of the whole empire. After his death, a like document, more epitomised—a breviarium—was produced as having been compiled by him. There are traces of one about this time made by the Emperor, not in his character as Censor, but by an imperial edict such as St. Luke here describes. (3) Just before the death of Herod, Josephus (Wars, i. 27, § 2; 29:2) reports that there was an agitation among the Jews, which led him to require them to take an oath of fidelity, not to himself only, but to the Emperor, and that 6,000 Pharisees refused to take it. He does not say what caused it, but the census which St. Luke records, holding out, as it did, the prospect of future taxation in the modern sense, sufficiently explains it. (4) It need hardly be said that the whole policy of Herod was one of subservience to the Emperor, and that though he retained a nominal independence, he was not likely to resist the wish of the Emperor for statistics of the population, or even of the property, of the province over which he ruled. (5) It may be noted that none of the early opponents of Christianity—such as Celsus and Porphyry—call the accuracy of the statement in question. St. Luke, we may add, lastly, as an inquirer, writing for men of education, would not have been likely to expose himself to the risk of detection by asserting that there had been such a census in the face of facts to the contrary.
(2) And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.—Here we come upon difficulties of another kind. Publicius Sulpicius Quirinus (“Cyrenius” is the Greek form of the last of the three names) was Consul B.C. 12, but he is not named as Governor of Syria till after the deposition of Archelaus, A.D. 6, and he was then conspicuous in carrying out a census which involved taxation in the modern sense; and this was the “taxing” referred to in Gamaliel’s speech (Acts 5:37) as having led to the revolt of Judas of Galilee. How are we to explain the statement of St. Luke so as to reconcile it with the facts of history? (1) The word translated “first” has been taken as if it meant “before,” as it is rendered in John 1:15; John 1:30. This cuts the knot of the difficulty, but it is hardly satisfactory. This construction is not found elsewhere in St. Luke, and his manner is to refer to contemporary events, not to subsequent ones. It is hardly natural to speak of one event simply as happening before another, with no hint as to the interval that separated them, when that interval included ten or twelve years. (2) Our knowledge of the governors of Syria at this period is imperfect. The dates of their appointments, so far as they go, are as follows:—
B.C. 9.—Sentius Saturninus.
B.C. 6.—T. Quintilius Varus.
A.D. 6.—P. Sulpicius Quirinus.
It was, however, part of the policy of Augustus that no governor of an imperial province should hold office for more than five or less than three years, and it is in the highest degree improbable that Varus (whom we find in A.D. 7 in command of the ill-fated expedition against the Germans) should have continued in office for the twelve years which the above dates suggest. One of the missing links is found in A. Volusius Saturninus, whose name appears on a coin of Antioch about A.D. 4 or 5. The fact that Quirinus appears as a rector, or special commissioner attached to Caius Cæsar, when he was sent to Armenia (Tac. Ann. iii. 48), at some period before A.D. 4, the year in which Caius died—probably between B.C. 4 and 1—shows that he was in the East at this time, and we may therefore fairly look on St. Luke as having supplied the missing link in the succession, or at least as confirming the statement that Quirinus was in some office of authority in the East, if not as præses, or proconsul then as quætor or Imperial Commissioner. Tacitus, however, records the fact that he triumphed over a Cilician tribe (the Homonadenses) after his consulship; and, as Cilicia was, at that time, attached to the province of Syria, it is probable that he was actually “governor” in the stricter sense of a term somewhat loosely used. St. Luke is, on this view, as accurate in his history here as he is proved to be in all other points where he comes in contact with the contemporary history of the empire, and the true meaning is found by emphasising the adjective, “This enrolment was the first under Quirinus’s government of Syria.” He expressly distinguishes it, i.e., from the more memorable “taxing” of which Gamaliel speaks (Acts 5:37). St. Luke, it may be noted, is the only New Testament writer who uses the word. Justin Martyr, it may be added, confidently appeals to Roman registers as confirming St. Luke’s statement that our Lord was born under Quirinus.
(3) All went to be taxed.—As a rule the practice in a Roman census was to register people in their place of residence; but this was probably modified in Palestine, in deference to the feelings of the people. After the death of Herod and the division of his kingdom, such a method as that implied hero could hardly have been feasible, as the subjects of one tetrarchy would not have been registered as belonging to another, so that here again we have not an error, but a special note of accuracy.
(4) Unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.—St. Luke’s way of speaking of the town agrees with that in John 7:42. It would appear to have been common. It had never ceased to glory in the fact that it had been David’s city.
Of the house and lineage of David.—Others also as, for example, Hillel, the great scribe—boasted of such a descent. What, on one hypothesis, was the special prerogative of Joseph was that the two lines of natural descent and inheritance—that through Nathan and that through Solomon—met in him. (See, however, Note on Luke 3:23.) It is possible that the two nearly synonymous words, “house” and “lineage,” may have been used as referring to this union.
(5) To be taxed.—Literally, to register himself.
With Mary his espoused wife.—Many of the best MSS. omit the substantive: “with Mary who was betrothed to him.” The choice of the participle seems intended to imply the fact on which St. Matthew lays stress (Matthew 1:25). She went up with him, not necessarily because she too had to be registered at Bethlehem, but because her state, as “being great with child,” made her, in a special sense, dependent on Joseph’s presence and protection.
(7) She brought forth her first-born son.—On the question whether anything may be inferred from the word “first-born,” as to the subsequent life of Mary and Joseph, see Note on Matthew 1:25.
Wrapped him in swaddling clothes.—After the manner of the East, then, as now, these were fastened tightly round the whole body of the child, confining both legs and arms.
Laid him in a manger.—A tradition found in the Apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy fixes a cave near Bethlehem as the scene of the Nativity, and Justin Martyr finds in this a fulfilment of the LXX. version of Isaiah 33:16, “His place of defence shall be in a lofty cave.” Caves in the limestone rocks of Judæa were so often used as stables, that there is nothing improbable in the tradition. The present Church of the Nativity has beneath it a natural crypt or cavern, in which St. Jerome is said to have passed many years, compiling his Latin translation (that known as the Vulgate) of the Sacred Scriptures. The traditional ox and ass, which appear in well-nigh every stage of Christian art in pictures of the Nativity, are probably traceable to a fanciful interpretation of Isaiah 1:3, which is, indeed, cited in the Apocryphal Gospel ascribed to St. Matthew, as being thus fulfilled.
There was no room for them in the inn.—The statement implies that the town was crowded with persons who had come up to be registered there—some, perhaps, exulting, like Joseph, in their descent from David. The inn of Bethlehem—what in modern Eastern travel is known as a khan or caravanserai, as distinct from a hostelry (the “inn” of Luke 10:34)—offered the shelter of its walls and roofs, and that only. It had a memorable history of its own, being named in Jeremiah 41:17, as the “inn of Chimham,” the place of rendezvous from which travellers started on their journey to Egypt. It was so called after the son of Barzillai, whom David seems to have treated as an adopted son (2 Samuel 19:37-38), and was probably built by him in his patron’s city as a testimony of his gratitude.
(8) Shepherds abiding in the field.—The fact has been thought, on the supposition that sheep were commonly folded during the winter months, to have a bearing adverse to the common traditional view which fixes December 25 as the day of the Nativity. At that season, it has been urged, the weather was commonly too inclement for shepherds and sheep to pass the night in the open air, and there was too little grass for pasturage. In summer, on the other hand, the grass on the hills is rapidly burnt up. The season at which the grass is greenest is that just before the Passover (Mark 6:39; John 6:10); and, on the whole, this appears the most probable date. The traditional season, which does not appear as such till the fourth century, may have been chosen for quite other reasons—possibly to displace the old Saturnalia, which coincided with the winter solstice. It is noticeable that the earliest Latin hymns connected with the festival of Christmas dwell on the birth as the rising of the Sun of Righteousness on the world’s wintry darkness.
Keeping watch.—Literally, keeping their night-watches, as in Matthew 14:25. Who the shepherds were, or why they were thus chosen as the first to hear the glad tidings, we cannot know. Analogy suggests the thought that it was an answer to their prayers, the fulfilment of their hopes, that they, too, were looking for “the consolation of Israel.” We may venture, perhaps, to think of the shepherds of Bethlehem as cherishing the traditions of David’s shepherd-life, and the expectations which, as we know from Matthew 2:5, John 7:42, were then current throughout Judæa—that the coming of the Christ was not far off, and that Bethlehem was to witness His appearing, as thus gaining a higher spiritual receptivity than others. The statement in the Mishna that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the Temple were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem, gives a special interest to the fact thus narrated, and may, perhaps, in part, explain the faith and devotion of the shepherds. They had been rejoicing, at the Paschal season, over the spring-tide birth of the lambs of their flocks. They now heard of the birth of “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
(9) Came upon them.—The Greek verb, like the English, implies a sudden appearance. The form of the angel was probably, as in Mark 16:5, that of a young man in white apparel. (See Note on Luke 1:12). The wings of angels are, without exception, an after-thought of Christian imagination, those of Isaiah 6:2, Ezekiel 1:6, Revelation 4:8, being connected with the mysterious figures of the cherubim, the “living creatures” seen in apocalyptic vision.
The glory of the Lord . . .—The word suggests the thought of the Shechinah, or cloud of intolerable brightness, which was the token of the divine presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-3). (See Note on John 1:14.) Never before had there been such a manifestation to such men as these. What had been the privilege of patriarchs and priests was now granted to shepherds, and the first proclamation of the glad tidings was to those who were poor in their outward life as well as in spirit.
(10) Fear not.—It is worth noting that this is almost the normal accompaniment of the angelic manifestations in the Gospel (Matthew 28:5-10; Luke 1:13; Luke 1:30). They were intended to lessen, not to increase the dread which men feel on being brought into contact with the supernatural world.
I bring you good tidings.—The verb is formed from the word for glad tidings, which we translate as “gospel”—i.e., good spell, good news.
Which shall be to all people.—Better, to all the people. The words point, in the first instance, to the joy which shall be for Israel as God’s “people,” and as such distinguished from the other “nations” of the world. (Comp. Luke 2:32.)
(12) This shall be a sign unto you.—The sign was not such in itself, but became so by its agreement with the prediction. It was something exceptional that a new-born infant should be found, not in a cradle, but in a manger; still stranger that that infant babe should be the heir of the House of David.
(13) A multitude of the heavenly host.—The phrase, or its equivalent, “the host of heaven,” is common in the later books of the Old Testament, but is there used as including the visible “hosts” of sun, moon, and stars, which were worshipped by Israel (Jeremiah 8:2; Jeremiah 19:13; 2 Chronicles 33:3). In this sense we find it in St. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:42). Here it is obviously used of the angels of God as forming the armies of the great King. The great name of the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Sabaoth, was probably intended to include both the seen and the unseen hosts, the stars in the firmament, and the angels in heaven. Its use in the New Testament is confined to these two passages. The Hebrew word is found, in Old Testament quotations, in Romans 9:29, James 5:4.
(14) Glory to God in the highest.—The words would seem to have formed one of the familiar doxologies of the Jews, and, as such, reappear among the shouts of the multitude on the occasion of our Lord’s kingly entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38). The idea implied in the words “in the highest” (the Greek is plural), is that the praise is heard in the very heaven of heavens, in the highest regions of the universe.
On earth peace, good will toward men.—The better MSS. give, “on earth peace among men of good will”—i.e., among men who are the objects of the good will, the approval and love of God. The other construction, “Peace to men of peace,” which the Christian Year has made familiar, is hardly consistent with the general usage of the New Testament as to the word rendered “good will.” The construction is the same as in “His dear Son,” literally, the Son of His Love, in Colossians 1:13. The word is one which both our Lord (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21) and St. Paul use of the divine will in its aspect of benevolence, and the corresponding verb appears, as uttered by the divine voice, at the Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). The words stand in the Greek, as in the English, without a verb, and may therefore be understood either as a proclamation or a prayer. The “peace on earth” has not unfrequently been connected, as in Milton’s Ode on the Nativity, with the fact that the Roman empire was then at peace, and the gates of the Temple of Janus closed because there was no need for the power of the god to go forth in defence of its armies. It is obvious, however, that the “peace” of the angels’ hymn is something far higher than any “such as the world giveth”—peace between man and God, and therefore peace within the souls of all who are thus reconciled. We may see a reference to the thought, possibly even to the words of the angelic song, in St. Paul’s way of speaking of Christ as being Himself “our peace (Ephesians 2:14).
(15) The shepherds.—Some, but not the best, MSS. give, as in the margin, “the men the shepherds,” as if to emphasise the contrast between the “angels” who departed and the “men” who remained.
This thing. . . . which the Lord hath made known.—Literally, this word, or spoken thing. The choice of the Greek word seems to indicate that St. Luke was translating from the Aramaic.
(16) They came with haste.—The scene has naturally been a favourite subject of Christian art, and the adoration of the shepherds is, perhaps, implied, though not stated, in the narrative. The conventional accessories, however, of the ox and the ass, and the bright light glowing forth from the cradle, belong only to the legends of the Apocryphal Gospels. (See Notes on Luke 2:7.)
(17) They made known abroad . . .—The fact must be borne in mind, as tending to the agitation which reached its height on the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem. (See Note on Matthew 2:3.)
(19) Mary kept all these things.—On the assumption that the whole narrative is traceable to the Virgin herself as its first author, these brief and simple touches as to her own feelings are of singular interest. She could not as yet understand all that had been said and done, but she received it in faith, and waited till it should be made clear. It was enough for her to know that her Child was, in some sense, the Son of God and the hope of Israel. The contrast between the simplicity and purity of St. Luke’s narrative, and the fantastic and often prurient details of the Apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy is every way suggestive.
(21) When eight days were accomplished . . .—Hence the Feast of the Circumcision in the Church Calendar comes on January 1st, and so, not without design, perhaps, came to coincide with the beginning of the civil year. The contrast between this and the narrative of John’s circumcision is striking. Here there are no friends and neighbours. Mary and Joseph were but poor strangers, in a city far from their own home. On the name of Jesus, see Note on Matthew 1:21. In St. Paul’s words, “made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians 4:4), we may, perhaps, see a reference to a narrative with which his friendship with St. Luke must almost of necessity have made him familiar.
(22) When the days of her purification . . .—The primary idea of the law of Leviticus 12:1-6, would seem to have been that of witnessing to the taint of imperfection and sin attaching to every child of man, just as that of circumcision (its merely physical aspects being put aside) was that of the repression or control of one chief element of that sinfulness. Here neither was necessary; but the whole mystery of the birth was not as yet revealed to Mary, and therefore her act was simply one of devout obedience to the law under which she lived. The period of purification lasted for forty days from the birth, bringing the Feast of the Purification in our Church Calendar to February 2nd.
To present him to the Lord.—This, as the next verse shows, was only done according to the law of Exodus 13:2, when the firstborn child was a son. It was obviously a witness of the idea of the priesthood of the firstborn—a survival of the idea in practice, even after the functions of that priesthood had been superseded by the priesthood of the sons of Aaron. The firstborn of every house had still a dedicated life, and was to think of himself as consecrated to special duties. Comp. Hebrews 12:23 as giving the expansion of the thought to the whole company of those who are the “firstborn,” as they are also the “firstfruits” of humanity (James 1:18). As a formal expression of the obligation thus devolving on them, they had to be redeemed by the payment of five shekels to the actual Aaronic priesthood (Numbers 18:15).
(24) A pair of turtle doves.—The law of Leviticus 12:8 allowed these to be substituted for the normal sacrifice of a lamb as a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or dove as a sin-offering, when the mother was “not able” to offer the former. We may see, therefore, in this fact, another indication of the poverty of Joseph and his espoused wife. The offering had, like all other sacrifices, to be made in the Temple. It seems all but certain that this visit to Jerusalem must have preceded the visit of the Magi. After that, it would have been perilous in the extreme, and the narrative of Matthew 2:0 implies an immediate departure for Egypt after they had left.
(25) Whose name was Simeon.—Some writers have identified the man thus described with a very memorable Simeon in the annals of the Jewish scribes, the son of Hillel, and the father of Gamaliel. He became president of the Sanhedrin, A.D. 13. Singularly enough, the Mishna, the great collection of expositions of the Law by the leading Rabbis, passes over his name altogether, and this suggests the thought that it may have done so because he was under a cloud, as believing in the prophet of Nazareth. On this assumption, his looking for the “consolation of Israel” may be connected on one side with the fact that he, too, was of the house of David, and on the other, with the cautious counsel of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39. Against this view there is the fact that St. Luke’s way of speaking leaves the impression that the Simeon of whom he speaks was of a very advanced age, waiting for his departure, and that he, who names Gamaliel’s position (Acts 5:34), would hardly have passed over Simeon’s. There was an aged Essene of this name living at the time of Herod’s death, who rebuked Archelaus for marrying his brother’s widow, and prophesied his downfall, and who more nearly fulfils the conditions; but the name was so common that all conjectures are very precarious.
Devout.—The Greek word expresses the cautious, scrupulous side of the religious life, and is therefore used always in the New Testament (Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2; Acts 22:12) of Jewish devoutness.
The consolation of Israel.—This is the first occurrence of this word. In its general use it included the idea of counsel as well as comfort. Here the latter is obviously the dominant thought. We cannot pass over the words without remembering that the Child of whom Simeon spoke called Himself the Comforter, and promised His disciples to send them another, who should bear the same name (John 14:16).
The Holy Ghost was upon him.—The words point to a special moment of inspiration, rather than a continuous guidance.
(26) It was revealed unto him.—The Greek word is the same as that rendered “warned” in Matthew 2:12. It implies a divine oracular communication, but rests on a different idea from the “unveiling,” which lies at the root of the word “reveal.” The message in this case came clearly as an answer to prayers and yearnings.
The Lord’s Christ.—The word retains all the fulness of its meaning—the Messiah, the Anointed of Jehovah.
(27) He came by the Spirit.—Better, as in Revelation 1:10, in the Spirit—i.e., in a spiritual state in which the power of the Divine Spirit was the pervading element.
The parents.—Here, as in Luke 2:33; Luke 2:48, St. Luke does not shrink from reproducing what was obviously the familiar phraseology of the household of Nazareth. In common life it is almost obvious that no other phraseology was possible.
To do for him after the custom of the law.—In common practice, the child would have been presented to the priest who offered the two turtle doves on behalf of the parents. In this instance Simeon, though not a priest (there is, at least, nothing but a legend in an Apocryphal Gospel to fix that character on him), takes on himself, standing by the priest, to receive the child as he was presented. This fits in, as far as it goes, with the idea of his having been an Essene, revered as possessing prophetic gifts. (See Notes on Luke 2:25.)
(29) Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.—It is not expedient to alter the translation, but we have to remember that the central idea is that of the manumission of a slave. The word for Lord is not the usual Kyrios, but Despotes—a word but seldom used of God, and then almost always of the relation of a master and the slave who is such by inheritance or purchase (Acts 4:24; 2 Peter 2:1; Jude Luke 2:4; Revelation 6:10, are the only other instances of its use). Simeon speaks as a slave who, through the night of long, weary years, has been standing on the watch-tower of expectation, and is at last set free by the rising of the Sun.
According to thy word.—The reference is to the oracle which had been uttered within his soul, and was now being fulfilled.
(30) Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.—The Greek word is not the usual feminine noun expressing the abstract idea of salvation, but the neuter of the adjective—that which brings or works out salvation. Its use here is probably determined by its appearance in the LXX. version of Isaiah 52:10, as quoted in Luke 3:6. He saw in that infant child the means of deliverance for the world.
(31) Before the face of all people.—Literally, of all peoples. The word expresses the universality of the salvation which the next verse contemplates in its application to the two great divisions of the human family.
(32) To lighten the Gentiles.—Literally, for a revelation to the Gentiles. The idea is strictly that of the withdrawal of the “veil spread over all nations” of Isaiah 25:7.
The glory of thy people Israel.—Here, again, the language is the natural utterance of the hope of the time, not the after-thought of later years. The Christ whom Israel had rejected was hardly “the glory of the people” when St. Luke wrote his Gospel.
(33) And Joseph and his mother.—The better MSS. give, His father and his mother. The present reading has apparently been substituted for this through feelings of reverence, but it has quite sufficient authority in Luke 2:27; Luke 2:48.
(34) This child is set for the fall and rising again.—The words start from the thought of Isaiah 8:14-15. The Christ is seen by Simeon as the stone on which some fall and are bruised (Luke 20:18), while others plant their feet upon it and rise to a higher life. Primarily the clause speaks of the contrast between the two classes; but there is nothing to exclude the thought that some may first fall, and then, though sorely “bruised,” may rise again. (Comp. Romans 11:11.)
For a sign which shall be spoken against.—Better, “a sign that is spoken against.” In the choice of the phrase, we have again an echo from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). The child Immanuel was to be Himself a sign, even as Isaiah and his children were (Isaiah 8:18), but the sign was not to win acceptance. He was to endure the “contradiction” of sinners (Hebrews 12:3). There is probably a reference also to the words of Jehovah (Isaiah 65:2) stretching forth his hands to a “gainsaying” people. The whole history of our Lord’s ministry—one might almost say, of His whole after-work in the history of Christendom—is more or less the record of the fulfilment of Simeon’s prediction.
(35) A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.—The word used for “sword” here, occurs also in the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:12, et. al.), but not elsewhere in the New Testament. It was the large barbaric sword used by the Thracians, as distinguished from the shorter weapon of Roman soldiers. The announcement of the special sorrow that was to be the Virgin Mother’s portion, comes as the sequel to “the sign that is spoken against,” the antagonism which her Son would meet with. We may find fulfilments of it when the men of Nazareth sought to throw Him from the brow of their hill (Luke 4:29); when she came, as in anxious fear, to check His teaching as the Pharisees charged Him with casting out devils through Beelzebub (Matthew 12:46); when she stood by the cross, and heard the blasphemies and revilings of the priests and people (John 19:26).
That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.—This was conspicuously the result of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It brought out latent good, as with publicans and harlots and robbers, rich and poor disciples, and the common people, who heard Him gladly; latent evil, as with Pharisees and scribes and rulers. And what was true of His work then, has been true in greater or less measure ever since. Wherever Christ is preached, there is a manifestation of the thoughts of men’s hearts, of their secret yearning after righteousness, their secret bitterness against it. It may be noted, however, that the Greek word for “thought” is almost always used in the Greek with a shade of evil implied in it.
(36) One Anna, a prophetess.—The fact is in many ways remarkable. We find a woman recognised as a prophetess at a time when no man is recognised as a prophet. She bears the name of the mother of the founder of the School of the Prophets, identical with that which the legends of Apocryphal Gospels assign to the mother of the Virgin. She is named, as if it were a well-known fact, as having been the wife of Phanuel, and she is not of the tribe of Judah, but of Aser. That tribe, then, though belonging to the Ten that had been carried into exile by Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:6), had not been altogether lost. Some, at least, of its members survived and cherished the genealogies of their descent, as one family of the neighbouring tribe of Naphthali are said to have done at Nineveh (Tob. 1:2). In that family also we find the name of Anna (Tob. 1:9).
Seven years from her virginity.—The words are emphasised (1) as expressing chastity prior to marriage, and (2) as excluding the thought of a second marriage.
(37) A widow of about fourscore and four years.—The better MSS. read, “up to the point of fourscore and four years,” pointing to the fact that this was the duration of her widowhood. Assuming her to have been married at fifteen, this places her actual age at 106. She had lived through the whole century that preceded the birth of Christ, from the death of John Hyrcanus, and had witnessed, therefore, the conquest of Judæa by Pompeius, and the rise of the Herodian house.
Which departed not from the temple.—Probably some chamber within the precincts was assigned to her, as a reputed prophetess, as seems to have been the case with Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22). Her form, bent and worn, we may believe, with age and fastings, had become familiar to all worshippers at the Temple. She, too, was one of the devout circle who cherished expectations of the coming of the Christ.
(38) Gave thanks.—The word so translated occurs here only in the New Testament, but it is found with this meaning in the LXX. version of Psalms 79:13.
That looked for redemption in Jerusalem.—The better MSS. give, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” the phrase being the counterpart of the “consolation of Israel” in Luke 2:25. Both the verbs “gave thanks” and “spake” imply continued, and not merely momentary action.
(39) They returned into Galilee.—Filling up the narrative from St. Matthew, we have to insert after the Presentation, the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the Infants, and the flight into Egypt. It seems probable that St. Luke was not acquainted with St. Matthew’s narrative, nor St. Matthew with St. Luke’s. Each wrote from what he heard, or found in previous existing narratives, more or less incomplete, and hence cannot readily be brought into harmony with the other. Here the parents return to Nazareth as their own city. In St. Matthew the return appears to be determined by their fears of Archelaus. It is possible that, though previously domiciled at Nazareth, they may have thought of settling at Bethlehem, and were deterred from doing so by the cruelty of Herod and his son.
(40) Waxed strong in spirit.—The better MSS. omit the last two words.
Filled with wisdom.—The Greek participle implies the continuous process of “being filled,” and so conveys the thought expressed in Luke 2:52, of an increase of wisdom. The soul of Jesus was human, i.e., subject to the conditions and limitations of human knowledge, and learnt as others learn. The heresy of Apollinarius, who constructed a theory of the Incarnation on the assumption that the Divine Word (the Logos of St. John’s Gospel) took, in our Lord’s humanity, the place of the human mind or intellect, is thus, as it were, anticipated and condemned.
The grace of God was upon him.—The words seem chosen to express a different thought from that used to describe the growth of the Baptist. Here there was more than guidance, more than strength, a manifest outflowing of the divine favour in the moral beauty of a perfectly holy childhood.
On the history of the period between this and the next verses, see Excursus in the Notes on Matthew 2:0.
(41) His parents went to Jerusalem.—The law of Moses required the attendance of all males at the three feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). The dispersion of the Jews had, of course, relaxed the obligation for those who lived at a distance; but it was still more or less generally recognised by those who dwelt in Palestine, and the school of Hillel held the Passover to be binding upon women as well as men. The yearly journey to Jerusalem may therefore be taken as an indication of devout obedience, not without its bearing on the thoughts of the child who, during those visits, remained behind in the home at Nazareth.
(42)When he was twelve years old.—The stages of Jewish childhood were marked as follows:—At three the boy was weaned, and wore for the first time the fringed or tasselled garment prescribed by Numbers 15:38-41, and Deuteronomy 22:12. His education began, at first under the mother’s care. At five he was to learn the Law, at first by extracts written on scrolls of the more important passages, the Shemk or Creed of Deuteronomy 2:4, the Hallel or Festival Psalms (Psalms 114-118, 136), and by catechetical teaching in school. At twelve he became more directly responsible for his obedience to the Law, and on the day when he attained the age of thirteen, put on for the first time the phylacteries which were worn at the recital of his daily prayer. (See Note on Matthew 23:5.) It was accordingly an epoch of transition analogous to that which obtains among us at Confirmation. It was, therefore in strict accordance with usage, with perhaps a slight anticipation of the actual day, that the “child Jesus” should, at the age of twelve, have gone up with His parents to Jerusalem. If the conjecture suggested in the Notes on Luke 2:8, that the birth of our Lord coincided with the Paschal Season, be accepted, He may actually have completed His thirteenth year during the Feast; and so have become, in the fullest sense, one of the “children of the Law,” bound to study it and know its meaning. This at least fits in with, and in fact explains, the narrative that follows. In the later Maxims of the Fathers (Pirke Aboth) two other stages of education were marked out. At ten, a boy was to enter on the study of the Mischna (= “comments”), or body of traditional interpretations of the Law; at eighteen, on that of the Gemara (= “completeness”), or wider collection of sayings or legends, which, with the Mischna, made up what is known as the Talmud (= “learning,” or “doctrine”).
(43) The child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem.—The words do not imply that He intentionally stayed behind. If we deal with the history on its human side, the probable course of things was this:—The Passover Feast lasted seven days; on each of those days, after the first, we may well believe the “child Jesus” was seeking wisdom to do His Father’s work at the hands of the appointed teachers who “sat in Moses’ chair.” This had become habitual. He went, as usual, when the Feast was over; but Joseph and Mary, instead of seeking Him there, took for granted that He had started with the other boys of the same age who had come from Nazareth. He was therefore left in the strange city by Himself, finding shelter for the night, probably, in the house where Joseph and Mary had lodged during the feast, and spending the day, as before, in drinking in the wondrous things of God’s Law, and asking questions which showed that He demanded more than traditional or conventional explanations. His question, “Wist ye not . . .?” implies that they ought to have known where He would be.
Joseph and his mother knew not of it.—The better MSS. read, his parents, the alteration having probably been made in the received text on the same ground as that in Luke 2:33.
(44) Supposing him to have been in the company.—The company was probably a large one, consisting of those who had come up to keep the Passover from Nazareth and the neighbouring villages. It is not certain, but in the nature of things it is sufficiently probable, that the boys of such a company congregated together, and travelled apart from the others.
(46) Sitting in the midst of the doctors.—A chamber of the Temple was set apart as a kind of open free school. The “doctors” or teachers—famous “doctors of the Law” (Acts 5:34)—sat “in Moses’ seat;” the older students on a low bench; the younger on the ground, literally “at the feet” of their instructor. The relation between master and scholar was often one of affectionate reverence and sympathy, and was expressed by one of the famous scribes in a saying worth remembering, “I have learnt much from the Rabbis, my teachers; I have learnt more from the Rabbis, my colleagues; but from my scholars I have learnt most of all.” It is interesting to think that among the doctors then present may have been the venerable Hillel, then verging upon his hundredth year; his son and successor, Simeon; his grandson, the then youthful Gamaliel; Jonathan, the writer of the Chaldee Targum or Paraphrase of the Sacred Books; and Shammai, the rival of Hillel, who “bound” where the latter “loosed.”
Both hearing them, and asking them questions.—The method of teaching was, we see, essentially and reciprocally catechetical. The kind of questions current in the schools would include such as, What is the great commandment of the Law? What may or may not be done on the Sabbath? How is such a precept to be paraphrased; what is its true meaning? As the Targum of Jonathan included the books of Joshua, Judges 1:0 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, the questions may probably have turned also on the meaning of prophecies, the expectations of the Christ, and the like. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels make the wisdom of the child Jesus take a wide range over astronomy and other sciences.
(47) At his understanding and answers.—The first word seems to point to the discernment which showed itself in the questions as well as the answers. The egotism of Josephus leads him to speak of himself as having, at the age of fourteen—when he too had become “a child of the Law”—caused a like astonishment by his intelligence; so that the chief priests and principal men of the city used to come and consult him upon difficult questions in the interpretation of the Law (Life, c. 1). The fact is so far interesting as showing that the class of teachers retained the same kind of interest in quick and promising scholars.
(48)Behold, thy father and I have sought.—The latter clause expresses a continuous act, We were seeking thee; and our Lord uses the same tense in His answer.
(49) Wist ye not . . .?—This is, as it were, the holy Child’s defence against the implied reproach in. His mother’s question. Had they reflected, there need have been no seeking; they would have known what He was doing and where He was.
About my Father’s business.—Literally, in the things that are My Father’s—i.e., in His work, the vague width of the words covering also, perhaps, the meaning “in My Father’s house,” the rendering adopted in the old Syriac version. The words are the first recorded utterance of the Son of Man, and they are a prophecy of that consciousness of direct Sonship, closer and more ineffable than that of any other of the sons of men, which is afterwards the dominant idea of which His whole life is a manifestation. We find in a Gospel in other respects very unlike St. John’s, the germ of what there comes out so fully in such words as, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I also work” (John 5:17), “I and My Father are One” (John 10:30). The words are obviously emphasised as an answer to Mary’s words, “Thy father.” Subject unto His parents as He had been before and was afterwards, there was a higher Fatherhood for Him than that of any earthly adoption.
(50) They understood not the saying.—We are apt to think that they should have understood, and sceptical criticism has seen in this a contradiction to the previous history of the Annunciation and the Birth. Twelve years, however, of the life of childhood after the outward pattern of that of other children, may have dulled the impressions that had then been made; and even if they, in part, understood the words as referring to the marvel of His birth, they were still in the dark as to what He meant by being “about His Father’s business.” As it was, though it was the first flash of a greatness more than human, it was but momentary. It faded into “the light of common day,” and life went on in its quiet and simple fashion as before. It is clear, at any rate, that the writer of the Gospel was not conscious of any inconsistency between the later and the earlier narratives of the childhood of the Christ.
(51) Was subject unto them.—There was, therefore, in the years that followed, no premature assumption of authority—nothing but the pattern of a life perfect in all its home-relationships. In such a household as that of the carpenter of Nazareth, this subjection must, in the nature of things, have involved much manual and menial work—a share in the toil alike of the workshop and the house.
His mother kept all these sayings.—The repetition of words like those of Luke 2:19 is significant. The twelve years that had passed had not changed the character of the Virgin Mother. It was still conspicuous, more even than that of Joseph, for the faith which accepted what it could not understand, and waited patiently for the solution of its perplexities.
(52) Jesus increased in wisdom and stature.—Here again we have nothing but a normal orderly development. With Him, as with others, wisdom widened with the years, and came into His human soul through the same channels and by the same processes as into the souls of others—instruction, e.g., in the school of Nazareth, and attendance at its synagogue—the difference being that He, in every stage, attained the perfection of moral and spiritual wisdom which belongs to that stage; there being in Him no sin or selfishness or pride, such as checks the growth of wisdom in all others. In striking contrast with the true record of the growth of the Son of Man, is that which grew out of the fantastic imaginations of the writers of the Apocryphal Gospels. There the child Jesus is ever working signs and wonders; fashions into shape Joseph’s clumsy work; moulds sparrows out of clay, and claps His hands and bids them fly; strikes a playmate who offends Him with dumbness, and so on ad nauseam.
In favour with God and man.—This, it will be noted, is an addition to what had been stated in Luke 2:40, and gives the effect while that gave the cause. The boy grew into youth, and the young man into manhood, and the purity and lowliness and unselfish sympathy drew even then the hearts of all men. In that highest instance, as in all lower analogies, men admired holiness till it became aggressive, and then it roused them to an antagonism bitter in proportion to their previous admiration. On the history of the eighteen years that followed, see Excursus on Matthew 2:0.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 2". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany