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Now when Jesus was born (του δε Ιησου γεννηθεντος). The fact of the birth of Jesus is stated by the genitive absolute construction (first aorist passive participle of the same verb γενναω used twice already of the birth of Jesus, Matthew 1:16; Matthew 1:20, and used in the genealogy, Matthew 1:2-16). Matthew does not propose to give biographic details of the supernatural birth of Jesus, wonderful as it was and disbelieved as it is by some today who actually deny that Jesus was born at all or ever lived, men who talk of the Jesus Myth, the Christ Myth, etc. "The main purpose is to show the reception given by the world to the new-born Messianic King. Homage from afar, hostility at home; foreshadowing the fortunes of the new faith: reception by the Gentiles, rejection by the Jews" (Bruce).
In Bethlehem of Judea (εν Βηθλεεμ της Ιουδαιας). There was a Bethlehem in Galilee seven miles northwest of Nazareth (Josephus, Antiquities XIX. 15). This Bethlehem (house of bread, the name means) of Judah was the scene of Ruth's life with Boaz (Ruth 1:1; Ruth 1:5) and the home of David, descendant of Ruth and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). David was born here and anointed king by Samuel (1 Samuel 17:12). The town came to be called the city of David (Luke 2:11). Jesus, who was born in this House of Bread called himself the Bread of Life (John 6:35), the true Manna from heaven. Matthew assumes the knowledge of the details of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem which are given in Luke 2:1-7 or did not consider them germane to his purpose. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem from Nazareth because it was the original family home for both of them. The first enrolment by the Emperor Augustus as the papyri show was by families (κατ' οικιαν). Possibly Joseph had delayed the journey for some reason till now it approached the time for the birth of the child.
In the days of Herod the King (εν ημεραις Hηρωιδου του Βασιλεως). This is the only date for the birth of Christ given by Matthew. Luke gives a more precise date in his Gospel (Luke 2:1-3), the time of the first enrolment by Augustus and while Cyrenius was ruler of Syria. More will be said of Luke's date when we come to his Gospel. We know from Matthew that Jesus was born while Herod was king, the Herod sometimes called Herod the Great. Josephus makes it plain that Herod died B.C. 4. He was first Governor of Galilee, but had been king of Judaea since B.C. 40 (by Antony and Octavius). I call him "Herod the Great Pervert" in Some Minor Characters in the New Testament. He was great in sin and in cruelty and had won the favour of the Emperor. The story in Josephus is a tragedy. It is not made plain by Matthew how long before the death of Herod Jesus was born. Our traditional date A.D. 1, is certainly wrong as Matthew shows. It seems plain that the birth of Jesus cannot be put later than B.C. 5. The data supplied by Luke probably call for B.C. 6 or 7.
Wise men from the east (μαγο απο ανατολων). The etymology of Μαγ is quite uncertain. It may come from the same Indo-European root as (megas) magnus, though some find it of Babylonian origin. Herodotus speaks of a tribe of Magi among the Medians. Among the Persians there was a priestly caste of Magi like the Chaldeans in Babylon (Daniel 1:4). Daniel was head of such an order (Daniel 2:48). It is the same word as our "magician" and it sometimes carried that idea as in the case of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9; Acts 8:11) and of Elymas Barjesus (Acts 13:6; Acts 13:8). But here in Matthew the idea seems to be rather that of astrologers. Babylon was the home of astrology, but we only know that the men were from the east whether Arabia, Babylon, Persia, or elsewhere. The notion that they were kings arose from an interpretation of Isaiah 60:3; Revelation 21:24. The idea that they were three in number is due to the mention of three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh), but that is no proof at all. Legend has added to the story that the names were Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior as in Ben Hur and also that they represent Shem, Ham, and Japhet. A casket in the Cologne Cathedral actually is supposed to contain the skulls of these three Magi. The word for east (απο ανατολων) means "from the risings" of the sun.
For we saw his star in the east (ειδομεν γαρ αυτου τον αστερα εν τη ανατολη). This does not mean that they saw the star which was in the east. That would make them go east to follow it instead of west from the east. The words "in the east" are probably to be taken with "we saw" i.e. we were in the east when we saw it, or still more probably "we saw his star at its rising" or "when it rose" as Moffatt puts it. The singular form here (τη ανατολη) does sometimes mean "east" (Revelation 21:13), though the plural is more common as in Matthew 2:1. In Luke 1:78 the singular means dawn as the verb (ανετειλεν) does in Matthew 4:16 (Septuagint). The Magi ask where is the one born king of the Jews. They claim that they had seen his star, either a miracle or a combination of bright stars or a comet. These men may have been Jewish proselytes and may have known of the Messianic hope, for even Vergil had caught a vision of it. The whole world was on tiptoe of expectancy for something. Moulton (Journal of Theological Studies, 1902, p. 524) "refers to the Magian belief that a star could be the fravashi, the counterpart or angel (cf. Matthew 18:10) of a great man" (McNeile). They came to worship the newly born king of the Jews. Seneca (Epistle 58) tells of Magians who came to Athens with sacrifices to Plato after his death. They had their own way of concluding that the star which they had seen pointed to the birth of this Messianic king. Cicero (De Divin. i. 47) "refers to the constellation from which, on the birthnight of Alexander, Magians foretold that the destroyer of Asia was born" (McNeile). Alford is positive that no miracle is intended by the report of the Magi or by Matthew in his narrative. But one must be allowed to say that the birth of Jesus, if really God's only Son who has become Incarnate, is the greatest of all miracles. Even the methods of astrologers need not disturb those who are sure of this fact.
He was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (εταραχθη κα πασα Ιεροσολυμα μετ' αυτου). Those familiar with the story of Herod the Great in Josephus can well understand the meaning of these words. Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus. He had made will after will and was now in a fatal illness and fury over the question of the Magi. He showed his excitement and the whole city was upset because the people knew only too well what he could do when in a rage over the disturbance of his plans. "The foreigner and usurper feared a rival, and the tyrant feared the rival would be welcome" (Bruce). Herod was a hated Idumaean.
He inquired of them where the Christ should be born (επυνθανετο παρ' αυτων που ο Χριστος γεννατα). The prophetic present (γεννατα) is given, the very words of Herod retained by Matthew's report. The imperfect tense (epunthaneto) suggests that Herod inquired repeatedly, probably of one and another of the leaders gathered together, both Sadducees (chief priests) and Pharisees (scribes). McNeile doubts, like Holtzmann, if Herod actually called together all the Sanhedrin and probably "he could easily ask the question of a single scribe," because he had begun his reign with a massacre of the Sanhedrin (Josephus, Ant. XIV. ix. 4). But that was thirty years ago and Herod was desperately in earnest to learn what the Jews really expected about the coming of "the Messiah." Still Herod probably got together not the Sanhedrin since "elders" are not mentioned, but leaders among the chief priests and scribes, not a formal meeting but a free assembly for conference. He had evidently heard of this expected king and he would swallow plenty of pride to be able to compass the defeat of these hopes.
And they said unto him (ο δε ειπαν αυτω). Whether the ecclesiastics had to search their scriptures or not, they give the answer that is in accord with the common Jewish opinion that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem and of the seed of David (John 7:42). So they quote Micah 5:2, "a free paraphrase" Alford calls it, for it is not precisely like the Hebrew text or like the Septuagint. It may have come from a collection of testimonia with which J. Rendel Harris has made the world familiar. He had consulted the experts and now he has their answer. Bethlehem of Judah is the place. The use of the perfect passive indicative (γεγραπτα) is the common form in quoting scripture. It stands written.
Shall be shepherd (ποιμανε). The Authorized Version had "shall rule," but "shepherd" is correct. "Homer calls kings 'the shepherds of the people'" (Vincent). In Hebrews 13:20 Jesus is called "the great shepherd of the sheep." Jesus calls himself "the good shepherd" (John 10:11). Peter calls Christ "the chief shepherd" (1 Peter 2:25). "The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd" (Revelation 7:17). Jesus told Peter to "shepherd" the lambs (John 21:16). Our word pastor means shepherd.
Then Herod privily called the wise men (τοτε Hηρωιδης λαθρα καλεσας τους μαγους). He had manifestly not told members of the Sanhedrin why he was concerned about the Messiah. So he conceals his motives to the Magi. And yet he "learned of them carefully" (εκριβωσεν), "learned exactly" or "accurately." He was anxious to see if the Jewish prophecy of the birthplace of the Messiah agreed with the indications of the star to the Magi. He kept to himself his purpose. The time of the appearing star (τον χρονον του φαινομενου αστερος) is not "the time when the star appeared," but the age of the star's appearance.
Sent them to Bethlehem and said (πεμψας αυτους εις Βηθλεεμ ειπεν). Simultaneous aorist participle, "sending said." They were to "search out accurately" (εξετασατε ακριβως) concerning the child. Then "bring me word, that I also may come and worship him." The deceit of Herod seemed plausible enough and might have succeeded but for God's intervention to protect His Son from the jealous rage of Herod.
Went before them (προηγεν αυτους). Imperfect tense, kept on in front of them, not as a guide to the town since they now knew that, but to the place where the child was, the inn according to Luke 2:7. Justin Martyr says that it was in a cave. The stall where the cattle and donkeys stayed may have been beneath the inn in the side of the hill.
They rejoiced with exceeding great joy (εχαρησαν χαραν μεγαλην σφοδρα). Second aorist passive indicative with cognate accusative. Their joy was due to the success of the search.
Opening their treasures (ανοιξαντες τους θησαυρους αυτων). Here "treasures" means "caskets" from the verb (τιθημ), receptacle for valuables. In the ancient writers it meant "treasury" as in 1Macc. 3:29. So a "storehouse" as in Matthew 13:52. Then it means the things laid up in store, treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:20), in Christ (Colossians 2:3). In their "caskets" the Magi had gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all found at that time in Arabia, though gold was found in Babylon and elsewhere.
Warned in a dream (χρηματισθεντες κατ' οναρ). The verb means to transact business (χρηματιζω from χρημα, and that from χραομα, to use. Then to consult, to deliberate, to make answer as of magistrates or an oracle, to instruct, to admonish. In the Septuagint and the New Testament it occurs with the idea of being warned by God and also in the papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 122). Wycliff puts it here: "An answer taken in sleep."
Until the death of Herod (εως της τελευτης Hηρωιδου). The Magi had been warned in a dream not to report to Herod and now Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and the child along (μελλε ζητειν του απολεσα gives a vivid picture of the purpose of Herod in these three verbs). In Egypt Joseph was to keep Mary and Jesus till the death of Herod the monster. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 to show that this was in fulfilment of God's purpose to call his Son out of Egypt. He may have quoted again from a collection of testimonia rather than from the Septuagint. There is a Jewish tradition in the Talmud that Jesus "brought with him magic arts out of Egypt in an incision on his body" (Shabb. 104b). "This attempt to ascribe the Lord's miracles to Satanic agency seems to be independent of Matthew, and may have been known to him, so that one object of his account may have been to combat it" (McNeile).
Slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem (ανειλεν παντας τους παιδας τους εν Βηθλεεμ). The flight of Joseph was justified, for Herod was violently enraged (εθυμωθη λιαν) that he had been mocked by the Magi, deluded in fact (ενεπαιχθη). Vulgate illusus esset. Herod did not know, of course, how old the child was, but he took no chances and included all the little boys (τους παιδας, masculine article) in Bethlehem two years old and under, perhaps fifteen or twenty. It is no surprise that Josephus makes no note of this small item in Herod's chamber of horrors. It was another fulfilment of the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15. The quotation (Matthew 2:18) seems to be from the Septuagint. It was originally written of the Babylonian captivity but it has a striking illustration in this case also. Macrobius (Sat. II. iv. II) notes that Augustus said that it was better to be Herod's sow (υς) than his son (υιος), for the sow had a better chance of life.
For they are dead (τεθνηκασιν). Only Herod had sought to kill the young child, but it is a general statement of a particular fact as is common with people who say: "They say." The idiom may be suggested by Exodus 4:19: "For all are dead that sought thy life."
Warned in a dream (χρηματισθεις κατ' οναρ). He was already afraid to go to Judea because Archelaus was reigning (ruling, not technically king, βασιλευε). In a fret at last before his death Herod had changed his will again and put Archelaus, the worst of his living sons, in the place of Antipas. So Joseph went to Galilee. Matthew has had nothing about the previous dwelling of Joseph and Mary in Nazareth. We learn that from Luke who tells nothing of the flight into Egypt. The two narratives supplement one another and are in no sense contradictory.
Should be called a Nazarene (Ναζωραιος κληθησετα). Matthew says "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets" (δια των προφητων). It is the plural and no single prophecy exists which says that the Messiah was to be called a Nazarene. It may be that this term of contempt (John 1:46; John 7:52) is what is meant, and that several prophecies are to be combined like Matthew 22:6; Matthew 22:8; Matthew 69:11; Matthew 69:19; Isaiah 53:2; Isaiah 53:3; Isaiah 53:4. The name Nazareth means a shoot or branch, but it is by no means certain that Matthew has this in mind. It is best to confess that we do not know. See Broadus on Matthew for the various theories. But, despised as Nazareth was at that time, Jesus has exalted its fame. The lowly Nazarene he was at first, but it is our glory to be the followers of the Nazarene. Bruce says that "in this case, therefore, we certainly know that the historic fact suggested the prophetic reference, instead of the prophecy creating the history." The parallels drawn by Matthew between the history of Israel and the birth and infancy of Jesus are not mere fancy. History repeats itself and writers of history find frequent parallels. Surely Matthew is not beyond the bounds of reason or of fact in illustrating in his own way the birth and infancy of Jesus by the Providence of God in the history of Israel.
The Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament. Copyright © Broadman Press 1932,33, Renewal 1960. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman Press (Southern Baptist Sunday School Board)
Robertson, A.T. "Commentary on Matthew 2". "Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17