Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,II.
(1) In the days of Herod the king.—The death of Herod took place in the year of Rome A.U.C. 750, just before the Passover. This year coincided with what in our common chronology would be B.C. 4—so that we have to recognise the fact that our common reckoning is erroneous, and to fix B.C. 5 or 4 as the date of the Nativity.
No facts recorded either in St. Matthew or St. Luke throw much light on the season of the birth of Christ. The flocks and shepherds in the open field indicate spring rather than winter. The received day, December 25th, was not kept as a festival in the East till the time of Chrysostom, and was then received as resting on the tradition of the Roman Church. It has been conjectured, with some probability, that the time was chosen in order to substitute the purified joy of a Christian festival for the license of the Saturnalia which were kept at that season.
The time of the arrival of the wise men was probably (we cannot say more) after the Presentation in the Temple of Luke 2:22. The appearance of the star coincided with the birth. The journey from any part of the region vaguely called the East would occupy at least several weeks.
Wise men from the east.—The Greek word is Magi. That name appears in Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13, in the name Rab-Mag, “The chief of the Magi.” Herodotus speaks of them as a priestly caste of the Medes, known as interpreters of dreams (I. 101, 120). Among the Greeks the word was commonly applied with a tone of scorn to the impostors who claimed supernatural knowledge, and magic was in fact the art of the Magi, and so the word was commonly used throughout the Roman world when the New Testament was written, Simon Magus is Simon the sorcerer. There was however, as side by side with this, a recognition of the higher ideas of which the word was capable, and we can hardly think that the writer of the Gospel would have used it in its lower sense. With him, as with Plato, the Magi were thought of as observers of the heavens, students of the secrets of Nature. Where they came from we cannot tell. The name was too widely spread at this time to lead us to look with certainty to its original home in Persia, and that country was to the North rather than the East of Palestine. The watching of the heavens implied in the narrative belonged to Chaldea rather than Persia. The popular legends that they were three in number, and that they were kings, that they represented the three great races of the sons of Noah, and were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, are simply apocryphal additions, originating probably in dramatic representations, and perpetuated by Christian art.
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.(2) Where is he . . .?—The Magi express here the feeling which the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, tell us sixty or seventy years later had been for a long time very widely diffused. Everywhere throughout the East men were looking for the advent of a great king who was to rise from among the Jews. The expectation partly rested on such Messianic prophecies of Isaiah as Isaiah 9, 11, partly on the later predictions of Daniel 7. It had fermented in the minds of men, heathens as well as Jews, and would have led them to welcome Jesus as the Christ had He come in accordance with their expectations. As it was, He came precisely as they did not expect Him, shattering their earthly hopes to pieces, and so they did not receive Him.
We have seen his star in the east.—Here again we enter on questions which we cannot answer. Was the star (as Kepler conjectured) natural—the conjuncture of the planets Jupiter and Saturn appearing as a single star of special brightness—or supernatural; visible to all beholders, or to the Magi only? Astronomy is against the first view, by showing that the planets at their nearest were divided by the apparent diameter of the moon. The last hypothesis introduces a fresh miracle without a shadow of authority from Scripture. We must be content to remain in ignorance. We know too little of the astrology of that period to determine what star might or might not seem to those who watched the heavens as the precursor of a great king. Any star (as e.g., that which was connected with the birth of Cæsar) might, under given rules of art, acquire a new significance. Stories, not necessarily legends, of the appearances of such stars gathered round the births of Alexander the Great and Mithridates as well as Cæsar. The language of Balaam as to “the Star that was to rise out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) implied the existence of such an association of thoughts then, and tended to perpetuate it. As late as the reign of Hadrian, the rebel chief who headed the insurrection of the Jews took the name of Bar-cochab, the “Son of a Star.” Without building too much on uncertain data, we may, however, at least believe that the “wise men” were Gentiles. They do not ask for “our king,” but for the king of the Jews; and yet, though Gentiles, they were sharers in the Messianic hopes of the Jews. They came to worship, i.e., to do homage, as subjects of the new-born King. They were watchers of the signs of the heavens, and when they saw what they interpreted as the sign that the King had come, they undertook a four months’ journey (if they came from Babylon, Ezra 7:9; more, if they came from Persia), partly, perhaps, led by the position of the star (though this is not stated), partly naturally making their way to Jerusalem, as certain to hear there some tidings of the Jewish King.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.(3) Herod the king.—When the Magi reached Jerusalem, the air was thick with fears and rumours, The old king (the title had been given by the Roman Senate in B.C. 40) was drawing to the close of his long and blood-stained reign. Two years before he had put to death, on a charge of treason, his two sons by Mariamne, his best-loved wife, through sheer jealousy of the favour with which the people looked on them. At the time when this history opens, his eldest son, Antipater, was under condemnation. The knowledge that priests and people were alike looking for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:38), the whispers that told that such a consolation had come, the uneasiness excited in the people by the “taxing” in which he had been forced to acquiesce, all these were elements of disquietude prior to the arrival of the Magi, and turned the last days of the Idumæan prince (his subjects never forgot his origin) into a time of frenzied and cruel suspicion. The excitement naturally spread throughout the city.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.(4) The chief priests and scribes.—The chief priests were probably the heads of the twenty-four courses into which the sons of Aaron were divided (2Chronicles 23:8; Luke 1:5), but the term may have included those who had, though only for a time, held the office of high priest. The “scribes” were the interpreters of the Law, casuists and collectors of the traditions of the Elders, for the most part Pharisees. The meeting thus convened was not necessarily a formal meeting of the Sanhedrim or Great Council, and may have been only as a Committee of Notables called together for a special purpose. With a characteristic subtlety, as if trying to gauge the strength of their Messianic hopes, Herod acts as if he himself shared them, and asks where the Christ, the expected Messiah, the “anointed” of the Lord (Psalm 2:2; Psalm 45:7; Psalm 89:20) was to be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,(5) In Bethlehem of Judæa.—The words of the people in John 7:42 show the same belief thirty years later. The Targum, or Jewish paraphrase, of Micah 5:2, inserts the very words, “Out of thee the Messiah shall come.”
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.(6) And thou Bethlehem. . . .—The Evangelist is not quoting the prophecy of Micah himself, but recording it as it was quoted by the scribes. This in part explains the fact that he does not give either the version of the LXX., or a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew, but a free paraphrase. As the Targum, just referred to, belongs to this period, it is perfectly possible that the writer of it may have been one of the Council. At any rate, his Messianic reference of the passage was likely to be dominant. The chief difference for the English reader to note is, that the Hebrew gives “thou art little among the thousands (i.e., as in Judges 6:15, the families or clans) of Judah;” the version given by St. Matthew, “thou art not the least among the princes.” The prophet contrasts the outward insignificance with the spiritual greatness. The paraphrast sees the outward transfigured by the glory of the spiritual. So again the simpler “out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” is paraphrased into “out of thee shall come a Governor that shall rule (e.g., feed, as a shepherd) my people Israel.” The fact that the scribes stopped, and did not go on to the words that told of the Ruler as one “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” may have arisen either from an unwillingness to bring that aspect of the expected Christ before the mind of Herod, or, possibly, from an equal unwillingness to face it themselves.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.(7) When he had privily called.—True to his nature to the last—himself probably a believer in astrology, and haunted by fears of what the star portended—the king’s next measure is to ascertain the limits of his danger. The English “what time the star appeared” is not quite accurate. Literally, the time of the star that was appearing—i.e., at what time the star, which was still visible (Matthew 2:9), had first appeared.
Enquired of them diligently.—Better, ascertained exactly.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.(8) Bethlehem was but a short six miles from Jerusalem. “Diligently,” better, as before, exactly. So far as the mission became known, it would impress the people with the belief that he too shared their hopes, and was ready to pay his homage to the new-born King.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.(9) Which they saw. . . .—The words would seem to imply that they started in the evening, and, as they started, saw the star in the direction of Bethlehem. In popular language it served to guide them, and so led them on. We need not suppose that they found the child whom they sought in the “manger” described by St. Luke. There had been time for the crowds that had been gathered by the census to disperse, and Joseph and Mary may have found a house in which they could lodge. The expectations that connected Bethlehem with the coming of the Christ might naturally lead them to remain there at least for a season,
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.(11) Opened their treasures.—The word points to caskets, or chests, which they had brought with them.
Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.—These were natural enough as the traditional gifts of homage to a ruler. Compare the gifts sent by Jacob to Joseph (Genesis 43:11), and Psalm 45:8, for the myrrh and spices; Psalm 72:15, for the gold; Isaiah 60:6, for gold and incense. The patristic interpretation of the gifts as significant—the gold, of kingly power; the incense, of Divinity; the myrrh, of death and embalmment—interesting as it is, cannot be assumed to have been definitely present to the mind of the Evangelist. It is noticeable that there is here no mention of Joseph. Looking to his prominence in St. Matthew’s narrative, we must assume that his absence on the night of their arrival was accidental.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.(12) Being warned of God.—Following the order of events in our minds, it seems probable that after their homage on the evening of their arrival, they retired, possibly to the “inn” of Bethlehem, and were then, in their sleep, warned not to return to Jerusalem the following day, but to make their way to the fords of Jordan, and so to escape from the tyrant’s jealous pursuit. So ends all that we know of the visit of the Magi. St. Matthew, writing for Hebrews, recorded it apparently as testifying to the kingly character of Jesus. Christendom, however, has rightly seen in it a yet deeper significance, and the “wise men” have been regarded as the first-fruits of the outlying heathen world, the earnest of the future ingathering. Among all the festivals that enter into the Christmas cycle, none has made so deep an impression on Christian feeling, poetry, and art as the Epiphany, or “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The arrangement which places that festival at an interval of twelve days only from the Nativity is purely arbitrary.
We need not ignore the fact that the narrative has been treated by many critics as purely mythical. Those who so regard it, however, with hardly an exception, extend their theory to every supernatural element in the Gospel history; and so this is but a fragmentary issue, part of a far wider question, with which this is not the place to deal. The very least that can be said is that there are no special notes of a legendary character in this narrative which could warrant our regarding it as less trustworthy than the rest of the Gospel. Why St. Matthew only records this fact, and St. Luke only the visit of the shepherds, is a question which we may ask, but cannot answer. The two narratives are, at any rate, in no way whatever irreconcilable.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.(13) The angel.—Better, an angel. The interval of time between the departure of the Magi and Joseph’s dream is not specified. Probably it was very short. As with the Magi, the dream may have come as an echo of his waking thoughts, an answer to the perplexities with which their visit and the other wonders of the time had filled his spirit.
Flee into Egypt.—The nearness of Egypt had always made it a natural asylum for refugees from Palestine. So Jeroboam had found shelter there (1Kings 11:40), and at a later date, Johanan the son of Kareah and his companions had fled thither from the face of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43:7). The number of Jews who were settled in Alexandria and other cities of Egypt had probably made the step still more common during the tyranny of Herod’s later years.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:(14) He took the young child and his mother.—The form adopted here, as in the preceding verse, is significantly reverential. In a narrative of common life the natural expression would have been “his wife and the young child.”
And departed into Egypt.—The brevity with which this is told is, to a certain extent, an argument for the non-mythical character of the narrative of which it forms a part. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels, embodied in many forms of poetry and art, show how easily, in later times, the fabulous element crystallised round the Gospel nucleus of fact. The idols of Egypt bowed or fell down before the divine child; a well sprung up under the palm-tree that gave the traveller shelter. They were attacked by robbers, and owed their preservation to the pity of Dismas, one of the band, who was afterwards the penitent thief of the crucifixion. How far the journey extended we cannot tell. It would have been enough for Joseph’s object to pass the so-called River of Egypt, which separated that country from the region under Herod’s sovereignty.
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.(15) Until the death of Herod.—The uncertainty which hangs over the exact date of the Nativity hinders us from arriving at any precise statement as to the interval thus described. As the death of Herod took place a little before the Passover, B.C. 4 (according to the common but erroneous reckoning), it could not have been more than a few months, even if we fix the Nativity in the previous year.
Out of Egypt have I called my son.—As the words stand in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt,” they refer, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to the history of Israel, as being in a special sense, among all the nations of the world, the chosen son of Jehovah (Exodus 4:22-23). It is hard to imagine any reader of the prophecy not seeing that this was what we should call the meaning. But the train of thought which leads the Evangelist to apply it to the Christ has a distinct method of its own. A coincidence in what seems an accessory, a mere circumstance of the story, carries his mind on to some deeper analogies. In the days of the Exodus, Israel was the one representative instance of the Fatherhood of God manifested in protecting and delivering His people. Now there was a higher representative in the person of the only begotten Son. As the words “Out of Egypt did I call my Son” (he translated from the Hebrew instead of reproducing the Greek version of the LXX.) rose to his memory, what more natural than that mere context and historical meaning should be left unnoticed, and that he should note with wonder what a fulfilment they had found in the circumstances he had just narrated. Here, as before, the very seeming strain put upon the literal meaning of the words is presumptive evidence that the writer had before him the fact to which it had been adapted, rather than that the narrative was constructed, as some have thought, to support the strained interpretation of the prophecy.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.(16) The fact of the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem is not mentioned by Josephus, or by any other writer, and has on that ground been called in question. It is admitted, however, on all hands, that it was an act every way in harmony with Herod’s character. Tormented with incurable disease, and yet more incurable suspicion; so fiendish in his cruelty, that he gave orders for the execution of many of the leading men of Judæa immediately upon his own death, that there might at least be some genuine mourning at his funeral; making fresh wills, according to the passing passion of the moment; adding, as his last act, the death of yet another son, Antipater, to those of the two sons of Mariamne (so that Augustus was reported to have said that it was better to be “Herod’s swine than son”),—it might well be that he gave such a command as this among the cruel and reckless acts of the last months of his life. Nor need we wonder that the act was not recorded elsewhere. The population of Bethlehem could hardly have been more than 2,000, and the number of children under two years of age in that number would be between twenty and thirty. The cruelty of such an act would naturally impress itself on the local memory, from which, directly or indirectly, the Gospel record was derived, and yet escape the notice of an historian writing eighty or ninety years afterwards of the wars and court history of the period. The secrecy which marked the earlier part of Herod’s scheme (Matthew 2:7) would extend naturally, as far as Jerusalem was concerned, to its execution.
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.(18) In Rama was there a voice heard.—Here again we have an example of St. Matthew’s application of a passage that had a direct bearing upon the events of the time when it was delivered to those which his narrative had brought before him. The tomb of Rachel, “in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem” (Genesis 35:19), had been, probably from the day when the “pillar” which marked it was first set up, one of the sacred places of the land. It was so in the days of Samuel (1Samuel 10:2). The language of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:15, shows that it was so in his time. In his picture of the sufferings and slaughter of the captives of Judah, the image which best embodied his feelings of sorrow for his people was that of Rachel, as the great “mother in Israel,” seeing, as from the “high place” of her sepulchre (this is the meaning of the name Ramah), the shame and death of her children at the other Ramah, a few miles further to the north, and weeping for her bereavement. Historically, as we find from Jeremiah 40:1, this was the place to which the prisoners were dragged, that Nebuzaradan might assign “such as were for death” to death, others to exile, and others again to remain as bondsmen in the land. That picture, St. Matthew felt, had been reproduced once again. The tomb of Rachel was as familiar to the people of Bethlehem (it stands but one mile to the north of the town) as it had been in the time of Jeremiah, and the imagery was therefore as natural in the one case as the other. The Ramah of Jeremiah 40:1. was about seven or eight miles further north, on the borders of Benjamin, but it has been thought by some geographers that the name was given to some locality nearer the tomb of Rachel.
Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.(20) They are dead.—The use of the plural is noticeable, as Herod alone had been named. Possibly, however, others may have been implicated in the scheme; or the turn of the phrase may have been suggested to the reporter of the dream by the parallel language of Exodus 4:19, in reference to Moses.
But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:(22) Archelaus.—Strictly speaking, this prince, who, under his father’s will (made just before his death), governed Judæa, Samaria, and Idumæa, was never recognised as a king by the Roman Emperor, but received the inferior title of Ethnarch. Antipas had Galilee and Peræa, Philip the region of Trachonitis. Popularly, however, the higher title was still used of him as we find it in 14:9 of the Tetrarch Antipas. The character of Archelaus was as cruel and treacherous as that of his father, and within a few months after his accession, he sent in his horsemen to disperse a multitude, and slew not less than 3,000 men. The temper of Antipas on the other hand was as yet looked on as milder. This, and possibly his absence from Galilee on a visit to Rome, may well have led Joseph to turn to that region as offering a prospect of greater safety (Jos. Ant. xvii. 2, 5, 6, 8, 9). Nine years later the oppression of Archelaus became so intolerable that both Jews and Samaritans complained of him to the Emperor, and he was deposed and banished to Gaul.
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.(23) He shall be called a Nazarene.—For an account of Nazareth, see Note on Luke 1:26. Here it will be enough to deal with St. Matthew’s reference to the name as in itself the fulfilment of a prophetic thought. He does not, as before, cite the words of any one prophet by name, but says generally that what he quotes had been spoken by or through the prophets. No such words are to be found in the Old Testament. It is not likely that the Evangelist would have quoted from any apocryphal prophecy, nor is there any trace of the existence of such a prophecy. The true explanation is to be found in the impression made on his mind by the verbal coincidence of fact with prediction. He had heard men speak with scorn of “the Nazarene,” and yet the very syllables of that word had also fallen on his ears in one of the most glorious of the prophecies admitted to be Messianic—“There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Netzer (Branch) shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). So he found in the word of scorn the nomen et omen of glory. The town of Nazareth probably took its name from this meaning of the word, as pointing, like our -hurst and -holt, to the trees and shrubs for which it was conspicuous. The general reference to the prophets is explained by the fact that the same thought is expressed in Jeremiah 23:5; Jeremiah 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12, though there the Hebrew word is Zemach, and not Netzer. A like train of thought is found in the language of Tertullian and other early Christian writers to their heathen opponents—“You call us Christians,” they say,” worshippers of Christos, but you pronounce the words Chrestiani and Chrestos, i.e., you give us a name which in your own language (Greek) means ‘good,’ and so you unconsciously bear testimony to the life we really lead.” This seems the only tenable explanation of the passage. It is hardly likely that the Evangelist should have referred to the scorn with which Nazareth was regarded. Any reference to the Nazarite vow is out of the question, (1) because the two words are spelt differently, both in Greek and Hebrew, and (2) because our Lord’s life represented quite a different aspect of holiness from that of which the Nazarite vow was the expression. That vow, as seen pre-eminently in the Baptist, represented the consecration which consists in separation from the world. The life of Christ manifested the higher form of consecration which is found in being in the world but not of it, mingling with the men and women who compose it, in order to purify and save.