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Bible Commentaries

International Critical Commentary NT

Matthew 2

Verses 1-99

2. Incidents of His Childhood


(P) 1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying.]—τῆς Ἰουδαίας] Ἰουδαία in this Gospel always signifies the southern division of Palestine. It is here specified to emphasise the fact that Jesus as the Messiah was born in the territory of the tribe of Judah; cf. Test. Judah 24; Hebrews 7:14; Revelation 5:5.—ἐν ἡμέραις] For the omission of the article, cf. Blass, p. 151.—ἰδού] See on 1:20. For the construction Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος … ἰδού, cf. 1:20, 2:13, 19, 9:18, 32, 12:46, 17:5, 26:47, 28:11.—μάγοι] For the presence of Magi in the west, cf. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxx. 16: “Magus ad eum (i.e. Nero) Tiridates advenerat … magos secum adduxerat.” The same account is told by Dio Cassius, lxiii. 1-7; Suetonius, Vit. Nero, xiii. That Messianic hopes were widespread at this period seems clear; cf. Virgil, Eclogue iv. Messianic language is used of Augustus in the inscriptions from Priene and Halicarnassus. He is σωτῆρα τοῦ κοινοῦ τῶν�i.e. Canaan. Cf. Jeremias, op. cit. 50 f.; von Oefele, Die Angaben der Berliner Planatentafel, P. 8279, p. 9; Campbell Thompson, Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, vol. ii. No. 234: “When a star stands at its (Virgo) left horn, there will be an eclipse of the ring of Aḫarrû” ( = Phœnicia and Palestine). 222: “When Leo is dark, the traffic of Aḫarrû will be hindered.” 211: “When Venus appears in Virgo, the crops of Aḫarrû will prosper.” 192: “When Jupiter enters the midst of the moon, there will be want in Aḫarrû.” 167: “When Saturn the star of Aḫarrû grows dim, it is evil for Aḫarrû; there will be a hostile attack on Aḫarrû.” Now that the whole world was expecting the Saviour King (cf. Bousset, Rel. Jud. p. 212), the attention of these heaven-searchers directed itself towards portents of the coming peacemaker.


παραγίνεσθαι occurs only here and in 3:1, 13 in Mt.; in Mk. once, 14:43. Ἰεροσόλυμα occurs 10 times in Mt. as a neuter plural; once, 2:3, as a feminine singular. It is used by Mar_10 times, by Luk_4, by Joh_12, frequently in the Acts, and by S. Paul 3 times in Galatians. Mt. once (23:37) has Ἰερουσαλήμ. This form is common in Lk., Acts, S. Paul, and occurs in Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 3:12, Revelation 3:21:2, Revelation 3:10. It is the form used in the LXX., except in 2, 3, 4 Mac. and Tobit.


(P) 2. Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? for we saw His star at (its) rising, and are come to worship Him.] The widespread expectation of the birth of a great monarch in the west led the Magi to connect some particular star, or conjunction of heavenly bodies, with His birth. Just so on the birth-night of Alexander, Magi prophesied from a brilliant constellation that the destroyer of Asia was born. Cf. Cicero, De Divinatione, i. 47.—αὐτοῦ τὸν�i.e. the star with which their astronomical calculations had led them to connect the birth of the expected monarch. ἐν τῇ�Numbers 3:38 B., Joshua 18:7 B., Jeremiah 31:40, Revelation 21:13; but it is unlikely that the Magi should say “in the east” instead of “in our native country”; and it is improbable that the editor should use plural and singular in two successive verses in the same sense. It is difficult not to suppose that�Mat_13 times, Mar_2, Luk_3. Mt. alone uses the dative with reference to Christ. The one exception is Mark 15:19 of mock homage. See Abbott, Johannine Vocabulary,1644.


(P) 3. And Herod the king having heard it, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.]—πᾶσα Ἰεροσόλυμα] see on v. 1. For the feminine, cf. To 14:4.


(P) 4. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he tried to learn from them where the Messiah is being born.] πυνθάνεσθαι only here in this Gospel.


(P) 5, 6. And they said, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for so it is written through the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, art in no wise least amongst the rulers of Judah: for from thee shall come forth a ruler, who shall shepherd My people Israel.]

τῆς Ἰουδίας] cf. on v. 1. For the official expectation of the Messiah from Bethlehem, cf. John 7:41 ff., and the Targ. on Micah 5:1. Also Jer. Berach. v. a, quoted by Lightfoot on Matthew 2:1. The quotation comes from Micah 5:1, Micah 5:3, with an assimilation of the last clause to 2 S 5:2. The LXX. text is not followed here, though it seems to have been in the mind of the editor; for ὄστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ, which reminds us of 2 S 5:2 σὺ ποιμανεῖς τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ, seems to have been suggested by Ἰσραήλ and ποιμανεῖ of Micah 5:1, Micah 5:3 LXX. The rest of the quotation appears to be an independent rendering of the Hebrew text. καὶ σὺ Βηθλεέμ corresponds to ואתח בית־לחם. γῆ Ἰούδα is substituted for אפרתה by assimilation to vv. 1, 5. οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη ειͅ (LXX. ὀλιγοστὸς ειͅ τοῦ ειͅναι) seems to represent a Hebrew original לא הּיית צעיר (M.T. צעיד להיות). ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα (LXX.: ἐν χιλιάσιν Ἰούδα) corresponds to באלפי יהודה, אַלְפֵי being read as אלופי; cf. Genesis 36:15, Exodus 15:15. ἐκ σοῦ = ממך. γάρ is inserted as a necessary connecting link. ἐξελεύσεται = יצא. So LXX. לי is omitted. ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μον τὸν Ἰσραήλ represents בישראל מושל, the Greek words being assimilated to 2 S 5:2. γέγραπται means “it stands written,” the inspired text runs. It corresponds to כתוב or כתיב of the Jewish literature. Cf. Basher, ii. 90.


(P) 7. Then Herod having secretly called the Magi, made accurate inquiry of them as to the time of the appearing star.] τότε is a favourite word in this Gospel. Mt. 90 times, Mar_6, Luk_15. τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου�i.e. the period since the star first appeared to them at (its) rising.


(P) 8. And having sent them to Bethlehem, said, Go, accurately inquire concerning the child. And when you find, report to me, that I may come and worship Him.]


(P) 9. And they, having heard the king, went; and, lo, the star, which they saw at (its) rising, went before them, until it came and stood still above (the place) where the child was.]—καὶ ἰδού] see on 1:20.


(P) 10. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.]—σφόδρα] Mat_7 times, Mar_1, Luk_1.


(P) 11. And when they had come into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and having fallen down, they worshipped Him: and having opened their treasures, they brought to Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.] For gold and frankincense as costly offerings, cf. Isaiah 60:6 ἥξουσιν φέροντες χρυσίον καὶ λὶβανον οἴσουσιν, Psalms 72:10, Psalms 72:11, Psalms 72:15. For frankincense and myrrh, cf. Song of Solomon 3:6.


(P) 12. And having been divinely warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.]—χρηματισθέντες] The verb in the passive means to be instructed, admonished; cf. Luke 2:26, Hebrews 8:5; Fayûm Towns (Grenfell and Hunt), 137. 2; Ditt. Syll. 738. 8, 807. 1, 7, 11, 15.—κατʼ ὄναρ] cf. on 1:20.—δἰ ἄλλης ὁδοῦ] The same feature occurs in the story of Tiridates’ visit to Nero, Dio Cassius, lxiii. 7.�Mat_10 times, Mar_1, Lk. 0.

The main outline of the story of the Magi is in many respects noteworthy for its historical probability. The expectation of a world’s Redeemer, or in Palestine of a Jewish Messiah; the interest of Eastern Magi in these questions; their presence in the west to do homage to the supposed Saviour; the inference from Micah 5:1 that Bethlehem was to be His birthplace: all this violates no canon of historical probability. The only detail that has a legendary atmosphere about it is the statement that the star moved before the Magi as they went to Bethlehem, until it stayed over the house where the child lay. This may be due to the Jewish narrator poetically accounting for the fact that the Magi were successful in their search for the child. It is extremely unlikely that he intended it to be taken as a bald statement of fact, literally describing how the star in some strange manner enabled the searchers without other aid to identify the particular house in Bethlehem in which the holy family were dwelling. In view of the editor’s interest in the fulfilment of prophecy, it is very strange that he does not cite Numbers 24:17 for the star, or Isaiah 60:6, Psalms 72:10, Psalms 72:11, Psalms 72:15, for the bringing of gifts. But it is difficult to think that the two last passages were not in his mind, and that they may account for the specification of two of the gifts as gold and frankincense. On the other hand, such gifts would be natural enough as the offerings of Magi who came to search for a world’s Redeemer. The modern theory, that the story is a literary fiction, based only upon legendary motives and folklore analogies, violates every probability. In view of the matter of fact character of the editor of this Gospel, it is almost certain that he believed that he was transmitting matters of actual fact. And it is in every respect probable that he was not altogether mistaken. If we suppose that astrologers in Babylon were acquainted with current expectation of the birth of a universal King, that they inferred from some unique astral phenomenon that He had been born in the west, i.e. in Palestine; that some of them came to Jerusalem in search of Him; that their errand came to the ears of Herod, and that the Jewish authorities suggested Bethlehem as the right place in which to expect the birth of the Messiah; that the Magi went there and found the newborn babe, whether by popular rumour that Mary, wife of Joseph ben David, had given birth to a child under strange circumstances, or by inference from the position of the heavenly bodies; that they did homage to the child, and, thinking it best not to trust Herod, left secretly on their journey homewards: we need not press every detail of the narrative. Descriptive detail may in some small measure have crept into it from the Old Testament or from analogous literary or folklore stories, just as they have certainly been used to embellish the story in its later history in the Church (cf. Zahn, in loc.). But these, if they exist at all in Mt.’s account, are mere literary embellishments of a story which in outline is intrinsically probable in view of the atmosphere of thought of the period described.

1. Ἰουδαίας] ff1 g2 S2 have Judah. S1 is ambiguous. The translator renders Ἰούδας and Ἰουδαία alike by ܝܗܘܕܐ in the early part of Mt. In 19:1 he began to render Ἰουδαία by ܝܗܘܕ and continues this throughout the Gospels, retaining ܝܗܘܕܐ for Ἰούδας. So Luke 3:25. S2 has ܝܗܘܕ for Ἰουδαία, and ܝܗܘܕܐ for Ἰούδας.

5. Ἰουδαίας] ff1 g1 K* S2 have Judah.

6. γῆ] Om. S1 S2.—Ἰούδα] D a c f g1 q have τῆς Ἰουδαίας.


(P) 13. And when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph, saying, Arise, take the child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and be there until I tell thee. For Herod is about to seek the child to destroy Him.]


ἀναχωρησάντων δὲ αὐτῶν—ἰδού] For the construction, see on v. 1. On ἰδού and κατʼ ὄναρ see note on 1:20. For the redundant ἐγερθείς, see on 1:24.—μέλλει—ζητεῖν] For the pres. inf., see Blass, p. 197.—τοῦ�P) 14. And he arose, and took the child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt.]


(P O) 15. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son.] Herod died shortly before Passover b.c. 4. See Schürer, i. 464 ff.—ἵνα πληρωθῇ] On the formula, see on 1:22. The quotation is from Hosea 11:1. The LXX. rendering here is ἐξ Αἰγύπτου μετεκάλεσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ, which is not suitable for the editor’s purpose. He therefore makes an independent translation of the Hebrew, or more probably cites from a current Greek translation. Cf. Introduction, p. lxii.


(P) 16. Then Herod, seeing that he was mocked by the Magi, was very wroth, and sent, and slew all the male children in Bethlehem, and in all its borders, from two years old and under, according to the period which he inquired from the Magi.]—ἀπὸ διετοῦς] If the star or constellation when first seen “at (its) rising” signified the conception of the child, it would have been sufficient to kill children in their first year. But Herod may have thought it best to reckon on the possibility that the phenomenon denoted the actual birth, in which case the child would now be in His second year. See Von Oefele, p. 14.


(PO) 17, 18. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, A voice was heard in Rama, weeping, and much lamentation, Rachel weeping, for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.]


τότε ἐπληρώθη] For the formula, see on 1:22. The quotation comes from Jer_31 (LXX. 38) 15. It appears to be a citation from memory of the LXX. text: φωνὴ ἐν Ῥαμὰ ἠκούσθη = LXX. κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς represents the LXX. θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ. Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα paraphrases the LXX. Ῥαχὴλ�a b mg A, but B. παύσασθαι). Here “for her children” of M.T. and LXX. B. is omitted, with LXX. A Q.—ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν] So LXX.


(P) 19. And when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egeypt, saying.] For the construction see on 2:1.—κατʼ ὄναρ] see on 1:20.


(P) 20. Arise, take the child and His mother, and Go into the land of Israel: for “they are dead who seek the life” of the child.] For the redundant ἐγερθείς, see on 1:24. τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχήν is a reminiscence of Exodus 4:19. Throughout this section. the editor seems to have had the story of Moses in mind, and to have borrowed phrases from it. Cf. v. 13 μέλλει—ζητεῖν—τοῦ�Exodus 2:15 ἐζήτει�Exodus 2:15


(P) 21. And he arose, and took the child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.]


(P) 22. And having heard that Archelaus is reigning over Judæa in the place of Heod his father, he feared to go there. But being divinely instructed in a dream, he departed into the regions of Galilce.] For χρηματισθείς, see on v. 12; for κατʼ ὄναρ, on 1:20.


(PO) 23. And came and settled in a city called Nasara: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that He shall be called a Nazarene.] This verse contains a still unexplained difficulty. It is clear that Jesus was popularly known as ὁ Ναζωραῖος, Matthew 2:23, Matthew 26:71, Luke 18:37, John 18:5, John 18:7, John 18:19:9, Act_7 times; or ὁ Ναζαρηνός, Mar_4 times, Lk twice; and it seems obvious to suppose that these adjectives are equivalent to ὁ�Matthew 21:11, John 1:45, John 1:46, Acts 10:38. The town is written Ναζαρά, Ναζαρέθ, or Ναζαρέτ, representing נָצְדָח, נָצְרַת (cf. Dalm. Gram. p. 152). Ναζωραῖος presupposes a form נצורי from נצורת = נצרת, (Dalm. Gram. p. 178). Others, however, would connect the two adjectives with Nesar in Gennesareth; cf. Wellhausen on Matthew 26:69; and it must remain doubtful whether Ναζωραῖος at least had any original connection with Ναζαρά. But in any case the editor clearly wished to find such a connection. Jesus was ὁ Ναζωραῖος because He had dwelt at Nazara. And this name of Nazorean had been foreshadowed by the prophets. The use of the plural τῶν προφητῶν suggests that the editor had no single passage in mind. But it is not easy to find any references in the Old Testament which could furnish a basis for the application of ὁ Ναζωραῖος to the Messiah. The attempt to connect the word with the Heb. נזיר = a Nazirite, has little in its favour. More plausible is the supposition that the writer is playing on the Hebrew words נצר and צמח. In Isaiah 11:1 the נצד = branch, from the roots of Jesse, is interpreted as the Messiah in the Targum. In Jeremiah 23:5, Jeremiah 33:15 a branch = צמח, is to be raised up to David. The editor may have seen in the prophecies of a נצר and צמח a sort of foreshadowing of the fact that Jesus was popularly known as the Nazorean or man of Nazara. The ὅτι introduces the clause which summarises the content of the prophecies. Cf. 4:6, where ὅτι introduces a direct quotation, and 26:54 where it introduces another summary of the contents of Scripture. Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται summarises the prophecies referred to. Isaiah 11:1 had called the Messiah (so Targ.) נצר = branch; Jeremiah 23:5, Jeremiah 33:15 had called Him צמח = branch, and Isaiah 4:2 had spoken of Him also as צמח (Targ. has Messiah). His parents settled at Nazara; and He was popularly known as the Nazorean, that these prophecies might be fulfilled. Zahn, who thinks this explanation too artificial, points out three peculiarities of the introductory formula1—(a) ὅπως instead of ἵνα; (b) τῶν προφητῶν instead of the singular; (c) the absence of λεγόντων. He thinks that the Evangelist saw in the settlement at Nazara, and in the fact that Christ’s early years were spent in this obscure village of ill fame, a fulfilment of the general tenor of Old Testament prophecy, that the Messiah should be rejected by His own people. ὅτι is therefore equivalent not to “that,” and does not introduce the contents of the prophecies referred to, but = “because,” and introduces an epexegetical remark of the Evangelist. Christ lived at Nazara, and so fulfilled the prophecies that He should be despised and rejected of men, because He was to be known as the Nazorean. But it is very questionable whether ὅτι—κληθήσεται can be so translated. Zahn himself remarks that we should expect ἔμελλε—κληθῆναι If the play on the words נצר = branch, and נצדה = Nazara, be thought too artificial for the Evangelist, his statement that the prophets had foretold that Christ should be called a Nazorean must remain unexplained. We might, of course, conjecture that ὅτι—κληθήσεται is a copyist’s gloss. In that case the clause will end with προφητῶν; cf. 26:56, and the reference in ὅπως πληρωθῇ may be to the settlement in Galilee as contrasted with Judæa. In this case the editor probably had in mind the passage of Isaiah which he reserves for insertion at 4:14-16. Or the reference in the mind of the compiler may be to the whole of vv. 19-22. Jesus came up from Egypt when Herod was dead, and settled in Galilee in order that He might begin there His Messianic work. The return from a strange country when a persecutor was dead had been foreshadowed in the history of Moses (Exodus 4:19); the settlement in Galilee had been foretold by Isaiah.

13.�1 S2 have “and after them.” B. adds είς τὴν χώραν αὐτῶν from v. 12.—φαίνεται] א C D al. B has ἐφάνη as in 1:20.

15. προφητοῦ] S1 prefixes “Isaiah.”

18. κλαυθμός] C D al S1 S2 prefix θρῆνος καί to assimilate to O.T.


Just as in ch. 1 there is an undercurrent of apology against Jewish polemic, so too in this chapter. The fact which underlies it is the sojourn of Jesus in Egypt. Celsus is already acquainted with Jewish tradition that Christ worked as a labourer in Egypt, learned magical arts there, and made use of them when He returned to Palestine in order to support His claim to divinity (Contra Celsum, i. 28, 38). For the later forms of this tradition, see Krauss, p. 256, who emphasises the fact that the Talmudic tradition is not dependent on the first Gospel; Laible, pp. 44-48; Zahn, p. 104, Anm. 4. To rebut such misrepresentations of the influence of His sojourn in Egypt on the character of Jesus, the editor states the simple facts. Jesus had, indeed, gone down into Egypt, but as an infant, to escape from the wrath of a king. In all the circumstances of the visit to Egypt there had been unmistakable evidence of divine guidance. Just as of old the Israelite nation, Jehovah’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22), had been called out of Egypt to be the chosen people; so Jesus the Son of God by supernatural conception was called out of Egypt to save His people. Just as Moses fled from Egypt to escape the wrath of Pharaoh, and returned there when his persecutor was dead (Exodus 4:19), to be the deliverer of his people; so Jesus was taken into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, and returned to Palestine when Herod was dead, to deliver His people from their sins. See the admirable commentary of Zahn; and cf. G. H. Box, Interpreter, January 1906, p. 201.

The Origin and Date of the Narratives in Chs. 1, 2.


1. The opinion of Usener (Encycl. Bib. iii. 3350), that in the narrative of the supernatural birth “we unquestionably enter the circle of pagan ideas,” and that “the idea is quite foreign to Judaism,” is to be decisively rejected if it be intended to carry with it the inference that this idea had not already been used in the interests of Jewish Messianic speculation before the Christian era. It is probably to be found in Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:3, and certainly in the Alexandrian Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 as represented in the LXX. Cf. also Enoch 62:5 “Son of the Woman,” all MSS. except G; 69:29 “Son of the Woman,” G, and Revelation 12:1, Revelation 12:5 See Gunkel, pp. 68-69; Jeremias, pp. 47-49; and for Isa_7, Gressmann, pp. 270 ff.


2. The accumulation of heathen parallels is therefore only valuable as proving that the conception of the supernatural origin of the world’s Saviour was very widespread. It is found in Assyria and in Egypt, in Parseism and in Buddhism, and had been used with reference to the birth of heroes in the Greek and Roman mythologies.

3. The stories of the supernatural birth might therefore very well have originated in Palestine1 in the first half of the first century a.d.; the idea of the authors being to explain the divine nature of the Messiah in terms of physical Sonship without any conscious borrowing from non-Jewish sources of speculation. The universal belief in the supernatural birth of gods and heroes, as represented in Judaism by, e.g., Isaiah 7:14 LXX., would have been quite sufficient to supply the central idea, without any recourse to non-Jewish forms of this speculation.


4. But, on the other hand, the fact that the conception of supernatural birth was widespread in the ancient world, and had already been used in pre-Christian speculation on the person of the Messiah, is not in itself an argument against the historical accuracy of the tradition that the Messiah was born in a supernatural manner. If that were so, we should be reduced to the unphilosophic position that the Jewish anticipation of a Messiah could never be fulfilled in any of its developments, because the supposed realisation of these anticipations would always be regarded with suspicion on the ground that anticipation and fulfilment were too closely in agreement. On these lines the only possible Messiah would be one who contradicted in every respect the ideas which previous generations had formed of Him.

The truth, no doubt, is that the idea of supernatural birth was one of the many grooves in the mould in which the conception of the Messianic King had been shaped, and that the fulfilment did not prove the anticipation to have been altogether false.

5. Assuming, then, that the tradition of the supernatural birth might have arisen on Palestinian soil in the first century a.d., is it possible to define more closely the period of their publication?

6. In favour of as early a date as possible, is the fact that the agreement of Mat_1 and Luk_1 as to the central fact of supernatural birth presupposes the existence of the tradition for some years prior to the publication of these Gospels. It is here assumed that Luke 1:34, Luke 1:35 form an integral part of Lk.’s narrative. See Gunkel, p. 67; Interpreter, February 1905, pp. 116 ff.


7. The silence of S. Paul seems adverse to an early date.1 Whether this Apostle was or was not acquainted with the tradition, it is clear that he did not make any extended use of it as a basis of Christological doctrine in his extant letters.

But, on the other hand, it is in every way probable that even if the Apostle had received this tradition, he would not have employed it as an argument for Christianity in his preaching to the Gentiles. To him the resurrection of Christ was the conclusive proof of His divinity (cf. Romans 1:2). The supernatural birth neither enhanced nor diminished that proof. And, on the other hand, there was every reason for keeping in the background a tradition which in the early stages of Church development would probably have proved a great stumbling-block to the progress of Christianity, and a continual source of wounded feeling for the reverence of Christians for the Person of their Master. On the one hand, the proclamation of the supernatural birth amongst the pagan peoples of Asia Minor and Greece and Italy would no doubt have seemed to lower Christianity in this respect to the level of the heathen mythologies. Nothing could be more disastrous, and S. Paul was no doubt far-sighted enough to see it, than quite unnecessarily to give pagan hearers facts which would encourage many of them to think of Christ as they thought of the deities and heroes of their mythologies. When the risen Christ had been revealed in them as in S. Paul, the tradition of His supernatural birth would come to them safeguarded by their belief in Him as the only-begotten Son of God. The silence of S. Paul is analogous to the silence of the author of the Fourth Gospel. This writer almost undeniably wrote at a period when the tradition of the supernatural birth was current. Yet he does not put it forward as a main argument for Christianity. On the other hand, he certainly does not wish to deny its historical character nor to depreciate its value. But he seems to assume it as a part of the Christian faith just as he does the tradition of the Ascension, and to use it as an analogy of the spiritual birth of the Christian believer, 1:14. See Interpreter, Oct. 1905, pp. 51 ff.

And again, if the proclamation of the supernatural birth would have lowered Christian doctrine in the eyes of the pagan world, so it would have led to debate which would have been distasteful and painful to Christian reverence. At a very early period Jewish caricatures of the story of the supernatural birth were current. They may already underlie Mark 6:3, and more probably are reflected in Matthew 1:18-25. And wherever Christianity spread, Jewish misrepresentation followed it. If the proclamation of the supernatural birth would have encouraged on the one hand semi-pagan conception of the Messiah, so on the other it would have provoked Jewish slander of a most offensive kind. The silence of S. Paul may well be due partly to his common sense, which enabled him to see that there are wise ways and unwise ways of presenting the facts of Christianity to the world (pearls were not to be cast before swine), and partly to that highly developed Christian reverence and modesty which also marks the narratives of the Gospels.


The alleged silence of S. Paul seems, therefore, to be no sufficient argument against the existence of the tradition of the supernatural birth in Palestine during his lifetime.

8. In favour of the early date of the narrative as it now stands in the Gospel, is the prosaic matter of fact style, and the absence of ornamental detail. There is nothing in the narrative itself which forbids our supposing that it formed one of a series of traditions preserved in the Christian Church in Palestine in the middle of the first century a.d., and there is nothing in the narrative, except a supposed impossibility of the central fact recorded, which prevents our supposing that this particular tradition originated with the family concerned in it.

9. As regards the incidents of ch. 2, the Palestinian atmosphere of literary style and religious belief is very strongly marked. See Box.1


The narratives certainly received their present form at the hands of Jewish Christians. If we allow for a certain element of poetic looseness, and do not examine every phrase by a rigid standard of photographic accuracy which is quite foreign to Oriental standards of historical narrative, there is nothing to prevent our supposing that these traditions were current in the Palestinian Church in the middle of the century, and that they represent in the main events of history. That Babylonian astrologers should have sought for the expected king in Jerusalem; that the Jewish authorities should have referred them to Bethlehem; that Herod should have killed the infants of that village; that Joseph and Mary should have sought refuge in Egypt, and have eventually settled in Galilee,—all this is entirely within the limits of probability, due account being taken of the circumstances of the age and the political condition of Palestine.

10. Something should be said in conclusion as to a recent attempt to show that the story of the Magi was added to the Gospel as late as 119 a.d.2 The alleged evidence is a Syrian documents3 which states that Balaam prophesied the destruction of the Assyrians by the Greeks, and the rise of the star in Israel. This was recorded in a letter written by Balak to the Assyrian monarch. It was laid up in the Assyrian archives, and handed down from king to king. At last, in the reign of Pir Shabour, the star appeared, and the Magi were sent. The colophon at the end states that “in the year 430 (= 118-119 a.d.), in the reign of Hadrianus Cæsar, in the consulship of Severus and Fulgus, and the episcopacy of Xystus, Bishop of Rome … this concern arose in the minds of men who were acquainted with the Holy Books, and through the pains of the great men in various places this history was sought for, and found, and written in the tongue of those who took this care.”

Mr. Conybeare argues that the “Holy Books” are the books of the Old Testament, and seems to imply that “this history” was Matthew 2:1-15. He further argues that the story of the Magi thus elaborated was “an echo of the story as told by Dio and Pliny of the visit of the Magi to Nero, and of their worshipping him in Rome.” But there seems to be no reason why we should not rather agree with Zahn (Einl. ii. 266 f.), who sees in the “Holy Books” the New Testament, including Mat_2, which was already, therefore, an integral part of the Gospel in 119 a.d.; and in the question with which men at that time busied themselves, the question as to the year in which the Magi came to Bethlehem, or the problem of the harmonisation of the infancy narratives of Mt. and Lk. The history which they wrote will therefore be not Mat_2, but the legend about the preservation of Balak’s letter, and the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem in the reign of Pir Shabour.

P Palestinian traditions.

LXX. The Septuagint Version.

B. Babylonian Talmud.

Targ. Targum.

Ditt. Dittenberger Sylloge.

S Syriac version: Curetonian.

S Syriac version: Sinaitic MS.

O quotations from the Old Testament borrowed from a collection of Messianic prophecies. See pp.61 f.

Dalm. Dalman.

1 As compared with the formula in 1:23, 2:15. Elsewhere ὅπως occurs 8:17, 13:25.

al i.e. with other uncial MSS.

1 Cf. Harnack, “die Legende von der Jungfrauen-geburt, die Matthäus zuerst für uns bezeugt, auf judenchristlichem, näher jerusalemischem Boden entstanden ist,” Lukas der Arzt, 118, Anm. 1.

1 Cf., however, Galatians 4:4, 1 Timothy 2:15.

1 Interpreter, January 1906, pp. 195 ff.

2 Conybeare, Guardian, April 29, 1903. Cf. also Nestle, Zeitsch. f. Wissensch. Litt. xxxvi. 435-438; Hilgenfeld, ib. xxxviii. 447-451.

3 Published by W. Wright in the Journal of Sacred Literature, New Series, vols. ix. x., April and October 1866.

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Bibliographical Information
Driver, S.A., Plummer, A.A., Briggs, C.A. "Commentary on Matthew 2". International Critical Commentary NT. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/icc/matthew-2.html. 1896-1924.