|Go to verse:|
|01 |02 |03 |04 |05 |06 |07 |08 |09 |10 |11 |12 |13 |14 |15 |16 |17 |18 |19 |20 |21 |22 |23 |
Go to Bible: Matthew 2
“Now after Jesus was born.” This phrase should have done away with any thought that the magi belong in any manger scene, or are associated with the night of the birth of Christ in any way. The magi did not even arrive in Jerusalem, much less Bethlehem, until after Jesus was born. They were not present with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. The verb “born” is gennaō (#1080 γεννάω) and it is an aorist participle in the Greek text, meaning, “having been born,” which is how Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible translates it. In English, we would usually not say, “Jesus, having been born,” but would more likely say, “after Jesus was born” as does the HCSB, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJ, and NRSV. We learn from history and Herod’s killing the children up to 2 years old that the amount of time “after” Jesus was born was likely close to a year and a half.
“behold.” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. Although the literal meaning of idou relates to visual perception (seeing), it was used idiomatically, and thus should be translated in ways appropriate to the context, such as “look,” “listen,” “pay attention,” “take notice,” “consider,” “remember,” etc. Many translations of the English Bible (cp. NIV, NRSV, HCSB) do not translate idou, but in doing so miss the meaning that it is bringing to the context. See commentary on Matthew 1:20.
“Magi.” The Greek word magoi, correctly translated as “Magi,” (Matt. 2:1, NIV) is a plural proper noun referring to people of a specific religious group that existed in the ancient Near East, most specifically the area of ancient Media and Persia. Although by the time of Christ there were groups of Magi in other countries, such as Egypt, these Magi came “from the east,” so it is almost certain they were from Parthia, which is north and east of Israel. Much has been written in encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries about their origin, history, and beliefs, so that need not be repeated here, however, it is important to know that at least some magi were looking for a Messiah who would conquer darkness and restore justice in the world.
The NASB and NIV are two modern versions that say “magi,” while other modern versions retain the designation “Wise Men” (KJV, ESV, NRSV). Magi, especially their leaders and priests, were considered to be wise and even to have occult powers, so the translation “Wise Men” might at first seem to be a fitting translation, but it is far too broad a term to communicate the meaning of the word “magoi.” After all, there were many wise men in the ancient world, just as there are today, whereas the magi were a specific group. A good comparison might be if Catholic Cardinals from Rome came to visit Jesus but we only knew them as, “Good Men from the West.” The designation might be true, but it would not give us important and accurate information about them. The title “Wise Men” does not tell us who the magi were, but their proper title does. Similarly, calling them “kings,” as in the song verse, “We three kings from orient are…,” only confuses the record. They were not kings.
Perhaps the most important reason to refer to these men by the name “magi” is so we can see their relation to the religious group that was at one time led and instructed by Daniel. In the late 500s BC (Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and Daniel was promoted shortly after that) Daniel was made ruler over the magi, although this is not as clear as it could be because the Book of Daniel says “Magicians,” and Daniel is referred to as “chief of the Magicians” (Dan. 4:9; 5:11; cp. Dan. 2:48; NIV). Although there is no proof for it outside the Bible, it seems certain that Daniel instructed the leaders of the magi about the Jewish origin of the true Messiah.
As the centuries passed after the birth of Christ, the true knowledge about the magi was replaced by superstition and tradition, and this has persisted in spite of the fact that it contradicts what is clearly written in Scripture. For example, the magi did not follow a star to Bethlehem. No super-bright, westward traveling celestial phenomena appeared in the sky and went from Parthia to Bethlehem. The “star” they saw was not an unusual celestial object, but a unique occurrence of planetary conjunctions and appearances that, viewed by themselves and considered individually, would not have grabbed anyone’s attention—which explains why only the magi, diligent astronomers, and observers of the heavens, showed up in Judea asking where the new king had been born. We have to keep in mind that in a culture in which a substantial part of the population lived in tents or spent a lot of time out of doors, any unusual event in the heavens got a lot of attention. The fact that there was no such attention at the time of Christ is good evidence that to an untrained observer, the heavenly events were normal.
These magi were astronomers, and it seems quite certain that the “star” they saw was a series of celestial events, including stars, planets, and conjunctions, especially involving the “king planet” Jupiter.a Before telescopes were invented, planets, stars, novas, and comets were all called “stars,” and before the invention of modern devices for measuring their movement, ancient astronomers tracked the timing and position of the stars by when they were first visible over the horizon. We know the magi used this technique because it was a usual procedure, and also by what they said when they reached Jerusalem: “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2 ESV). The ESV does a superb job of translating the phrase “when it rose.” The magi were watching the stars and noting their relation to points on the horizon, to each other, and to the constellations in which they appeared. Eventually, they saw patterns that convinced them the Messiah had been born (see, “in its rising” below).
The magi would have traveled to Jerusalem by joining a trading caravan that was heading in that direction. It was unsafe to travel in small groups, especially carrying valuables across the international border between the enemy countries of Rome and Parthia. We do not know how long the journey took, but it would have taken at least a month and maybe several or even more (Parthia itself is hundreds of miles across, and we do not know exactly where they started their journey). The trip from Persia (Parthia in New Testament times) to Jerusalem took Ezra four months (Ezra 7:9), and the magi could easily have taken about as much time.
Also, the Bible does not say how many magi came to see Jesus. Tradition says three, but that idea comes from the three kinds of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were all fitting for a king, and each could easily be sold or bartered, so they would greatly help Joseph and his new family. It is not likely that each magi individually brought “a gift,” like we would bring “a gift” to a birthday party. The three gifts would have been presented as a collective offering from the magi who made the journey and from the people they represented back in Parthia, who put together the gift. There were almost certainly many more than three magi who made the trip. For one thing, the purpose of the trip was to pay homage to the long-awaited Messiah, and many devout people would have wanted to be part of that event. Furthermore, the trip was long and dangerous, and it was standard procedure in those days to travel with a large number of people for protection.
Another good reason to believe there were more than three magi is that when they arrived in Jerusalem, King Herod and “all Jerusalem” were disturbed at their coming (Matt. 2:3). To fully appreciate this, we need to remember that Herod and Jerusalem were not disturbed when, about a year and a half earlier, shepherds announced that they had seen angels and that the Messiah had been born (the chronology of the year and a half is explained in the books by Martin and Wierwille mentioned earlier, and is why Herod killed all the babies two years old and under). When, however, a group of magi arrived from Parthia and wanted to know where the Messiah was born, that got the attention of Herod and Jerusalem, and upset them greatly.
When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, neither they nor King Herod knew where to find the young Messiah. Herod had to call the priests and experts in the Law to find out where the Old Testament said the Messiah would be born (Matt. 2:4). They told him that the book of Micah (Micah 5:2) foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so that is where King Herod sent the magi (Matt. 2:4-8). Bethlehem is seven miles (11.2 km) south of Jerusalem, and the magi did not travel there the day they got an audience with King Herod. Even at two miles per hour, the journey would have only taken three and a half hours, and we can conclude from the biblical record that they returned to where they were staying and prepared to make the journey the next day. It was usual for caravans to get started very early in the morning, while it is still dark, and that is what they did.
When the magi headed out for Bethlehem, the “star” they had observed back in Parthia “went before them” (Matt. 2:9; KJV, ESV). It is important to remember that these magi did not follow the star to Bethlehem, they were already going there. Thus the “star” did not lead them to Bethlehem. They rejoiced at seeing it because it seemed a confirmation of the godly purpose of their journey, to meet and pay homage to the new king. The evidence is that the star that seemed to go in front of them was the planet Jupiter, which at that time was in the southern sky.b As it rose in the sky, it became more and more directly south, the very direction they were heading, and thus appeared to be “going before them.” Finally, as it reached its zenith (high point) in the sky south of them, it “stood” directly over Bethlehem, which was also south of them (by the way, astronomers still use the same language today, saying stars “rise,” “stand” and “set”).
Seeing Jupiter going before them caused great joy among the group. Although they certainly would have known Jupiter was visible in the sky, they did not know where the Messiah was to be born, or where Bethlehem was, and thus would not have known the star would also seem to go before them. To the untrained eye, there was nothing in the sky that morning that would have been a cause for rejoicing, which accounts for the fact that there were not large crowds of people traveling south along with the magi.
Bethlehem was a small village, and houses in such villages of the ancient Near East were all crowded together, so nothing in the sky could point out an individual house. This is more evidence that the star did not lead the magi to the Messiah. Nevertheless, the Messiah would be easy to locate in Bethlehem, thanks to the shepherds, who had told the whole town about him. All the magi had to do was ask, and everyone would remember the baby who the shepherds had announced so joyfully was the promised Messiah and whose parents were both of the line of David.
Upon finding the “child” (Jesus was not a “baby” anymore; Matt. 2:11), the magi paid homage to him and presented their gifts. The magi were not stupid, and Herod had a reputation for killing potential rivals, so they asked God for guidance as to what to do after they found the Messiah. This fact is not clearly stated in most English Bibles, but the Greek word translated “warned” in most of them was usually used of a divine instruction or warning that came to people who asked for guidance from an oracle. The magi asked God what to do, and He warned them not to go back to Herod, so they went home by another route (Matt. 2:12).
Likely right after the magi left, Joseph was also warned by God to flee the area, which he did, going down to Egypt (Matt. 2:13, 14). This is another piece of evidence that shows the magi were not present at the birth of Jesus, but long after. Herod and the powers in Jerusalem had ignored the shepherds, and so after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. They completed the 40 days of cleaning and the sacrifice required by the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:1-8).
However, after the magi left Judea, Herod was furious and would have moved very quickly to do away with this new potential rival for his throne. There is no way that Joseph and Mary could have then stayed around for 40 days without Herod finding and killing both them and Jesus. This accounts for the urgency in the angel’s message to Joseph: “Get up…take the child and…escape to Egypt.” “Take” and “escape” are in the imperative mood; they are firm commands, and Joseph acted on them immediately (Matt. 2:13; NIV).
Another way we know the magi came to see Jesus long after his birth is that when Mary offered a sacrifice for her cleansing after giving birth, she offered two doves or pigeons (Luke 2:24), but this was only allowable if a person could not afford a lamb (Lev. 12:8). If the magi had come and given the family gold, they could have afforded a lamb. Thus it is clear that the magi did not arrive until at least 40 days after Jesus was born, and it was very likely closer to 18 months based on the time the magi gave to king Herod.
The truth about the magi teaches us a lot. We see the great patience and faithfulness they had, passing down the information about the Messiah generation after generation, waiting over 500 years for him. That should remind us to pass on our knowledge of God’s Word to the next generation. We see the great risk the magi were willing to take, carrying valuables hundreds of miles across an international border to pay homage to the Messiah, and the value of the gifts they brought indicates how thankful they were for him. They remind us that living a godly life often involves risk, and also that prayer, Bible study, worship, and financial support of the Church may not be easy or convenient, but the same Lord who was worthy of the sacrifice the magi made is worthy of our sacrifice of time, money, and energy.
[For more on the actual story of the birth of Jesus, see the commentary on Luke 2:7 about there being no space in the guestroom, and Luke 2:8-18 about the shepherds who came to see Jesus.]
“from the east.” The Greek word translated “east” is anatolōn (ἀνατολῶν), the plural of anatolē (#395 ἀνατολή), which is translated “in its rising” in the next verse, verse 3. Anatolē is one of the words that usually changes its meaning from singular to plural. In the singular, as in verse 3, it usually refers to the “rising,” but when plural it usually refers to the direction, “east.”
[For more information, see commentary on “in its rising,” Matthew 2:3.]
“arrived.” Using this particular word and employing it in the aorist tense emphasizes the arrival of the magi. If the text were going to emphasize the travel it would have used the word for “came” in the imperfect tense. But here we have the word paraginomai (#3854 παραγίνομαι) in the aorist, the word for an arrival or making a public appearance (BDAG). Holman captures the sense of the emphasis and translates it “arrived unexpectedly,” which makes the point, but perhaps too strongly; the translation “arrived” seems the best choice. The trip from Persia to Jerusalem took Ezra exactly four months (Ezra 7:9), and the magi would have taken about as much time.
The Magi would have arrived in Jerusalem as part of a caravan of camels, and there would likely have been hundreds or even thousands of camels. Caravans of hundreds and sometimes thousands of camels were common because they traveled with valuable goods and needed the large numbers for security. Britannica.com, the website of Encyclopedia Britannica (accessed Dec. 2019) says, “The size of the caravan was dependent upon the amount of traffic, the insecurity of the route, and the availability of camels. The largest recorded caravans were those for special purposes, such as the Muslim pilgrim caravans from Cairo and Damascus to Mecca, which might include over 10,000 camels, or the trans-Saharan salt caravans from Taoudenni to Timbuktu or Bilma or Aïr. Even in its decline in 1908, this latter caravan numbered 20,000 camels.”
Two things we don’t know about the Magi’s coming to Jerusalem are how many Magi traveled to Judea, and how long a time the trip took. According to the book of Ezra, the trip from Persia—Parthia in New Testament times—to Jerusalem took four months (Ezra 7:9), and it is likely that the trip of the Magi took at least that long. This was not a short trip for the Magi, but a trip of many months. We also do not know how many Magi traveled to Judea. The camel caravans were usually composed of a mixture of people, all traveling together for safety, and the Bible does not say how many Magi were in the caravan, so we just don’t know. However, considering that these Magi were going to see the one they considered to be the Savior of the world, we can expect that there was a large number of them. A large number would also contribute to why Herod and “all Jerusalem” were troubled by them and the question they asked the king.
“of Judea.” The ancient tribal territories of the twelve tribes had given way to the kingdom of Herod, and other kingdoms before that. Nevertheless, Bethlehem was in the tribal territory of Judea, and thus the prophecy that Christ would be from the tribe of Judah was important to emphasize.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” This is the first question in the New Testament and is appropriate guidance for all believers. The Messiah, the “King of the Jews” is the source of everlasting life, and so finding him and believing in him is the most important thing a person can do. This life is short and difficult, and to just live it and die is unsatisfying, to say the least. Everlasting life in a new, glorious body with wonderful people in a wonderful place is available, and wise people take advantage of the opportunity to live forever by confessing Christ as Lord (Rom. 10:9).
It shows God’s mercy and grace that the first people in the New Testament to seek the Messiah were Gentiles, not Jews. Salvation and everlasting life through Jesus Christ is available to anyone.
“when it rose.” Most Bible versions say the magi saw the star, “in the east,” instead of “when it rose.” However, studies have shown that when the Greek reads like it does in the Bible, en tē anatolē (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ ) in the singular, it has a special astronomical meaning, that is, “when it rose” or “at its rising,” referring to a heliacal rising, that is, when a star appears on the horizon in the early dawn before sunrise. The reason it was important to be able to see a star when it first rose was that the horizon line gave a point of demarcation that made it easier to see where it was in relation to other stars, as well as how far north or south it was when it rose in relation to other times it appeared. When the Greek reads en tē anatolai (in the plural), then it means “in the east,” but in the Bible the phrase is singular, referring to a heliacal rising.
Although “in the east” is not the most accurate translation of the Greek text, it does tell us that most English Bibles give enough information to dispel some of the traditional mythology that has arisen about the magi. In other words, if we would just read the Bible carefully, many traditions could be dispelled. For example, the magi did not see the star in the western or southwestern sky—the direction of Jerusalem from where they lived. If they did see the star “in the East” and followed it, they would have traveled to India. Also, there is no verse that says they “followed” the star to get anywhere. The idea that they “followed” the star comes from an old tradition that was popularized by Christmas music. The magi saw celestial events that led them to conclude that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Israel. Therefore, they made a decision based on logic and knowledge, and went to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and asked the king where to find this new Messiah. Matthew 2:1 makes it clear they came to “Jerusalem,” not to Bethlehem. There they got an audience with King Herod, who directed them to go to Bethlehem.
“pay homage to him.” This phrase is usually translated as “worship him,” and the reason for translating it “pay homage to him” is explained below.
Something that causes confusion to the modern English reader, and especially Trinitarians, is that it is a convention in many English Bibles that the same Hebrew and Greek words are translated “worship” when referring to God or Jesus Christ, but “bow down to” or something similar when the person is showing respect to another person. Translating the Hebrew and Greek words for worship and respect one way when humans are involved and another way when God is involved may be an acceptable translation practice, but it almost always gives the English reader the wrong impression, which is that only God or Jesus was “worshiped.” In fact, it is a common claim, especially by Trinitarians, that only “God” is worshiped and so because Jesus is worshiped he must be God too. But that is erroneous and in fact misses the point. In the biblical world it was the action that was referred to as “worship,” not the heart or intent of the person. The “worship” itself was worship in action by prostration. Any ancient person would understand that what went on in the mind of the person who was bowing down did not affect whether or not the person was said to be “worshiping.”
The Greek verb that is translated as “pay homage to” in the REV and as “worship” in many English versions is proskuneō (#4352 προσκυνέω). It is a compound word built from the preposition pros, “to, toward,” and the verb kuneō, κυνέω, ‘to kiss’). BDAG has this to say about the verb proskuneō:
The act of prostrating oneself—lying flat on the ground—or at least bowing low, is very ancient and goes all the way back to Genesis. In the Old Testament, the act of prostration or bowing low is often described by the word shachah (#07812 שָׁחָה), which is often translated by the Greek word proskuneō in the Septuagint. A study of shachah in the Hebrew Old Testament will reveal dozens of times that people fell prostrate before God, a pagan god, or other people.
Jesus understood the custom of falling prostrate before rulers, men of God, and other great people (cp. 1 Sam. 25:24; 2 Kings 4:37; Esther 8:3; Matt. 18:29; Mark 5:22; 7:25; Luke 5:12; 17:16; John 11:32; Acts 10:25; Rev. 1:17; 19:10; 22:8), and so he accepted that public display of homage and respect when people fell before him (cp. Mark 5:22; 7:25, Luke 5:12; etc.).
The problem with always translating proskuneō as “worship” is due to the fact that the act and meaning of “worship” has changed through the ages, and it is very important that the modern Bible reader understand that. In the ancient world, “worship” was a physical act of bowing, and the mindset of the one bowing did not matter. A person could “worship” their worst enemy by bowing down before them. In the Book of Esther, the evil man Haman wanted everyone to “worship” (bow down before) him, even though many of them hated or feared him. In contrast to that, in the modern Western world the word “worship” refers to a mindset, and the person with the wrong mindset is not said to be “worshiping” God no matter what they are physically doing. In the Eastern world in general, falling prostrate was an accepted and expected act of honor, respect, and worship. Among the Greeks, as noted above, prostration was much more limited, but was done before gods and things considered holy. Among the Romans, prostration was even more limited than that, but still could occur.
As we can see from the Bible, the Hebrew word shachah (#07812 שָׁחָה) and the Greek word proskuneō were both used to represent a physical act, the act of kneeling on the ground before someone and placing the forehead on the ground, or falling full length on the ground before someone, or at least bowing low before someone (the Latin and Latin Vulgate would use adoro (cp. “adore”) and veneror (cp. “venerate”) to represent that act. Prostration or kneeling then touching the forehead to the ground was an act of respect and honor, and was supposed to represent an attitude of the heart, but often it was just done so that the ruler would not be offended and become angry, just as Haman became angry when Mordecai would not bow before him (Esther 3:5).
In 1611, when the KJV was written, the English word “worship” was used of the worship of deity, but it was still also used of bowing down before men of higher rank, which was an expected act of respect and deference at that time. Kings and nobles expected people to bow before them. Thus, it was expected at the time of Jesus and in the 1600s as well, that someone would prostrate themselves or bow down before a superior, especially someone such as a king. It should be noted that kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground is still seen among Muslims when they pray, prostrating themselves before Allah.
The act of bowing before a king or dignitary then led to some rulers being designated as “Your Worship,” taking the act of worship they received and making it into a title. Because the act of bowing to rulers was still common in 1611, translating proskuneō as “worship” worked very well and was not confusing to the average reader, who still connected “worship” with a physical act of some kind (this also fits with the liturgy of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, which considers “worship” to be a form of prescribed action, not “just” a subjective act of the heart). However, in the four centuries since the King James Version, the meaning of “worship” has changed. For one thing, we stopped bowing and prostrating ourselves (worshiping) before those of higher rank. In fact, the idea of “worship” as deeply bowing or falling in prostration before a person of higher status has completely left modern English vocabulary.b
Thus, while it was appropriate to translate proskuneō as “worship” in 1611, if we today translate proskuneō as “worship,” it often makes the verse take on a meaning that is not in the biblical text at all. For example, the magi did not think of Jesus as God, and did not “worship” him as they would a deity. Rather, they paid homage to him as they would have to another king, understanding, of course, that they realized he was a very special king.
The meaning of “worship” has shifted from being represented by a physical act to being a mental act, but that does not mean that proskuneō should never be translated “worship.” For example, the Devil asked Jesus to fall down and “worship” him. The Devil wanted Jesus to prostrate himself before him with the same adoration Jesus would have had for God, and therefore it seems the best way to portray that is to translate proskuneō as “worship.” The Devil wanted Jesus’ full devotion, not just the act of falling prostrate.
The homage and “worship” that the magi paid to Jesus Christ is still appropriate for us today, although we would not tend to express our homage the same way. The honor we pay to Jesus also fits with Hebrews 1:6, which says that when the Son came into the world God said, “And let all the angels of God worship Him” (Heb. 1:6 NASB). Hebrews 1:4-7 is about angels, but God wants people to worship the Son too. We can see this because Philippians 2:10-11 tell of a time when “every” tongue will confess and every knee will bow (i.e., in worship or as an act of submission), willingly or unwillingly, but it seems clear that God would much prefer that everyone bow willingly, and sooner rather than later. The honor we pay to Christ fits the “worship” he accepted when he walked the earth.
We have seen that proskuneō properly means “kiss toward” and the ancient act of worship often involved actually kissing the ground, or feet of the one being honored, or the hem of his garment. Psalm 2:12 is to be understood as a part of the act of worship. It says:
The Psalmist is saying that the person who prostrates himself before the Son in respect and homage, including kissing the feet or robe, will be blessed, while those who refuse to honor the Son will be destroyed in their selfishness and rebellion.
[For more on “worship” being an action that can be separated from one’s thoughts and emotions, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20.]
“deeply troubled.” How deeply troubled Herod was, and how dangerous that made life for Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus, can be seen from history. Herod was a suspicious, jealous, and evil man, and the group of magi arriving in Jerusalem from Parthia and asking where the new king was born got his attention right away. Herod had a reputation for being ruthless in getting what he wanted and maintaining his authority. Early in his political career, before he was king of Judea, he was appointed by Antipater, under the rule of Cassius, to collect taxes, something at which he was so successful that Cassius appointed him ruler of Coele-Syria, a region of the Roman province of Syria, which was much larger than Syria today. Herod had to fight a number of wars and conflicts to come to the throne, as well as ingratiate himself to a number of leaders, some of whom he had even fought against. As it turned out, he was a brilliant tactician and could also read people very well, and thus he preserved and even increased his power when others would have likely been executed.
Herod was ruthless in getting rid of anyone he thought of as a rival of any kind. Over his life, he married ten women and so had many children and relatives that plotted against him and each other, which resulted in the death of a number of his relatives and children. For example, he had his brother-in-law, the High Priest, drowned in a swimming pool. He executed his wife, Mariamne, because of suspicions against her, and had her mother executed for plotting against him. Other sons were executed as well. Caesar Augustus is reported to have made the pun, “I would rather be Herod’s pig (Greek ‘hus’) than his son (Greek ‘huios’),” because Herod, acting Jewish, would not eat pork so his pigs got to live.
As it became certain that Herod was going to die very soon from the disease that ended his life, he summoned leaders of the Jews from all over his kingdom to come to Jerusalem. But when they arrived he imprisoned them in the hippodrome with orders that they all be killed the day he died so that day would be a day of mourning for the Jews instead of a day of rejoicing (as it turned out, when news of Herod’s death arrived in Jerusalem the guards let the men go free).
Herod’s reign was so ruthless and bloody that his having the children around Bethlehem killed to protect his throne from a potential rival did not even make it into the history books and is only mentioned in the Bible.(top)
“high priests.” In Old Testament times the High Priest served for life. However, that custom had been changed for political reasons, such that at the time of Herod (and at the time of Christ’s crucifixion) there was more than one High Priest. Furthermore, it seems that members of the High Priest’s family also could be called a high priest.a
“the People.” The Greek is ho laos, (ὁ λαός). The word “people” can mean different things in the Bible, depending on the context. It can refer to a specific group, and often refers to the Jews, the “people” of God.b When it is used of the people of Israel, it becomes a specific designation of the Jews and as such can be capitalized. Many Scriptures use “people” as a designation of the Jews. (cp. Matt. 2:4, 21:23, 26:3, 47; Mark 14:2; Luke 19:47, 22:66; John 11:50; Acts 3:23, 4:8, 25, 7:17, 26:17, 23; Rom. 15:11; 2 Pet. 2:1) In many cases the REV translation has capitalized “People” to make it clear to readers that the Jews as a specific group are being referred to. However, there are also many scriptures that use “the people” that do not clearly refer to Israel, and when the exact designation is in doubt, we have left “people” in lower case.
“he inquired of them where the Christ would be born.” Like many leaders, even supposedly religious ones, Herod did not know the Bible and did not know where it said the Christ would be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea.” The full name, Bethlehem of Judea, was necessary because there was another Bethlehem in Galilee in the tribal area of Zebulun (cp. Josh. 19:15).(top)
“And you, Bethlehem.” This verse is quoted from Micah 5:2, but with some significant alterations that make the application to New Testament times and the Messiah more vivid. This is common with quotations; often quotations are changed such that they are better understood as long as the original meaning is not lost. For example, Micah reads “Bethlehem Ephrathah,” whereas Matthew reads “Bethlehem in the land of Judah.” Also, Micah uses “clans” (literally, “thousands”) whereas Matthew uses “leaders” who represent the thousands. Also, Micah uses the word for “rule” whereas Matthew uses “shepherd,” which fits with both the Old Testament and New Testament use of “shepherd” for a ruler.
“in the land of Judah.” Some translations read “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” (e.g., ESV, NIV) and some read, “Bethlehem, land of Judah” (e.g., ASV, NASB). The Greek word for “land,” gē (#1093 γῆ), has the same form for the dative (“in the land”) and vocative (“O land” [direct address]) cases. The dative, “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,” is correct; for “Bethlehem, land of Judah” does not make sense. When Joshua divided up the Promised Land, the town of Bethlehem was in the tribal territory of Judah (Josh. 15:1-12).
“are by no means the least among the leaders of Judah.” Understanding this phrase involves understanding a custom that the leader of a city often represented the city (cp. Lenski; Hendricksen). The Author is expecting that the reader will see that the city of Bethlehem is important and eventually its leader will be the one who shepherds all of Israel, not just the people from Bethlehem. Although there is a temptation to make “leaders” into “ruling cities” (cp. NLT), that does not catch the fullness of the prophecy which combines the thought of the ruling city with the ruler himself.(top)
“the time when the star appeared.” Herod called this meeting secretly, to avoid arousing any more interest among the people about the birth of a new king, who many of the people would have suspected was their Messiah. Furthermore, Herod tried to hide his true intention—killing the child—from the magi by not asking, “How old would the child be,” but only seeming to be interested in the star and its various appearings. The magi were almost certainly not fooled; why call a secret meeting to ask about the appearances of a star?
It helps us to properly understand this verse when we remember that in biblical times, before the invention of the telescope, the word “star” was used for many things in the heavens, including stars, planets, novas, and asteroids. Herod wanted to know the timing of the “star,” in order to ascertain how old the child must be (cp. Matt. 2:16). In this verse we find evidence for the view that the “star” was a prolonged astronomical event(s), rather than a one-time past appearance seen in the east, then miraculously appearing again to lead the magi in Matt. 2:9. The text uses the word chronos (#5550 χρόνος) to describe the timing of the star. This word refers to “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time.”a Literally, the verse reads, Herod “determined from them the period of time of the appearing star.” Appearing is in the present tense, indicating a continual action; the star was “continuously shining” (phainō [#5316 φαίνω]) over an indefinite period of time. Hence, the way most translations go, “the time the star had appeared,” captures the sense of what Herod wanted to know (when the star first appeared), but unfortunately misses the fact that the star appeared over a period of time, and was still appearing when Herod spoke to the magi. At this point, we believe that the best candidate for the “star” was the planet Jupiter in its various positions.b
“sent them to Bethlehem.” Note that the magi did not go to Bethlehem because they were following a star, as tradition says. They were going to Bethlehem because the Word of God said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
“search diligently for the child.” Herod understood from the times given to him by the Magi that by this time Jesus was not a baby (brephos, #1025 βρέφος) but a “child,” (paidion, #3813 παιδίον). Sure enough, the Magi found the “child” in a house in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:11).
“as soon as.” The word epan (#1875 ἐπάν) can mean “when” or “as soon as,” (BDAG Greek-English Lexicon; see also NIV; Rotherham). Herod’s eagerness to get rid of the competition to his throne makes us favor “as soon as.”
“pay homage.” See commentary on Matthew 2:2.(top)
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. Although the literal meaning of idou relates to visual perception (seeing), it was used idiomatically, and thus should be translated in ways appropriate to the context, such as “look,” “listen,” “pay attention,” “take notice,” “consider,” “remember,” etc. Many translations of the English Bible (cp. NIV, NRSV, HCSB) do not translate idou, but in doing so miss the meaning that it is bringing to the context. See commentary on Matthew 1:20.
“was going ahead of them until it came and stood over where the child was.” As the magi headed south to Bethlehem (Bethlehem is 7 miles south of Jerusalem), the “star,” the planet Jupiter, was rising in the southern sky. So it appeared in the sky ahead of them, and in the hours that they traveled, likely about three hours, it rose in the sky, seeming to go ahead of them toward Bethlehem, and it was “before” them, always in the southern sky. As the magi were arriving, the “star,” Jupiter, reached its zenith in the southern sky and thus was directly over Bethlehem. The astronomical phraseology used in the Bible is still used by astronomers today.
The timing of the star in the sky shows us the magi would have gotten up in the early morning, before light, and traveled south. This was very common. Travelers got an early start and then stopped traveling and rested when the sun was hot. They would have arrived at Bethlehem right around dawn.
The fact that the “star” was the planet Jupiter, the “king planet,” would have been obvious to the magi, who were astronomers and who rejoiced greatly, but entirely unnoticed by the average person. If the “star” had been an unusual celestial event, thousands of people would have been watching and waking their neighbors, and Bethlehem would soon have been overrun by curiosity seekers. Tradition is silent on why only the magi seemed to notice the mysterious star that stood over Bethlehem, but the answer is logical and beautiful.(top)
“rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” This is the figure of speech polyptoton, the repetition of the same word, appearing in different parts of speech. Here it is “joy” in both verb and noun forms, emphasizing the great joy of the magi.a They were excited to see the star. When they had come to Jerusalem, they did not know where the Messiah was born, so they had no preconceived idea they would see the “star” in front of them as they traveled.
[See figure of speech “polyptoton.”]
“house.” The magi were not at the birth of Christ. They came over a year later. Joseph and Mary were in a “house,” but the Scripture does not tell us whether they were staying with someone else or had their own house by then. Bethlehem was a small town, and the magi would have had no trouble finding the right house. No one would have forgotten what the shepherds had said less than two years earlier when Jesus was born, how angels appeared to them and said the promised Messiah had been born.
“child.” The Greek is paidion (#3813 παιδίον), which means “young child.” Jesus was no longer a “baby,” which is the Greek brephos (#1025 βρέφος), as he was in Luke 2:12, 16. Now, at over one year old, he is a young boy.
“with Mary his mother.” The Magi no doubt saw Joseph too, but Matthew’s focus is on the Messiah himself, and the woman who was divinely impregnated by God. Thus the record mentions Jesus and Mary, but not Joseph.
“paid homage.” See commentary on Matthew 2:2.
“frankincense and myrrh.” Frankincense and myrrh were two of the more common types of incense used in the ancient world. The Magi brought incense, which made a wonderful gift because it was very portable, quite expensive, and easy to sell. Incense of various kinds was used in all kinds of things, for example in most temples, and places of worship, and also it was burned regularly in many homes.
Wendell Phillips writes, “Today we can scarcely appreciate the role of incense in the ancient world because, for one thing, it is difficult to imagine the odors of that world, requiring clouds of sweet-smelling smoke to cover them.”a
Basically, the whole ancient world smelled terrible, and there were lots of reasons for that: smelly people, smelly clothes, human and animal excrement all over, dead animals (and people) rotting in the open, and garbage and more garbage everywhere you looked.
Most of the people in the ancient world bathed seldom if ever, so we can imagine what they smelled like. While there were public baths in some of the Roman cities, a lot of people did not get to take much advantage of them and there was no truly effective deodorant soap. Furthermore, the vast majority of the people did not or could not wash their clothes. For the most part, the people and their clothes stank.
Also, very few places had an effective way of handling the bodies of dead people and animals, human and animal excrement, of which there was a lot, and normal garbage, which ended up being dumped everywhere. We must remember that there was no “public works department” of the government that took care of sewage, dead bodies, and garbage.
Gregory Aldrete writes about Rome and other larger cities which had very large problems but the same basic problems as other smaller cities and towns:
The fact that the ancient world stunk produced a great demand for incense. For example, the Beloved in Song of Solomon speaks of a sachet of myrrh between her breasts, which would have given off a pleasant odor. The golden incense altar in the Tabernacle/Temple was to be burned twice a day every day (Exod. 30:7-8). The fact is that cities stunk up until our modern age. As long as things and people moved by horse and carriage there was always some amount of dung in the streets, and truly modern toilets and sewers were not commonly used until the mid-1800s.
“instructed by God.” This is a fascinating word. The Greek is chrēmatizō (#5537 χρηματίζω). Its basic meaning is “to make known a divine revelation from God.”a The word is usually translated as “warn,” yet its full meaning is much richer than that. We have translated the term “divine instruction,” in accordance with the TDNT: “In the NT the verb denotes divine instruction by revelation.”b The translation of the NT done by Nelson Darby also has “divinely instructed.”
Outside the New Testament, chrēmatizō is used as a response of those seeking an oracle—it, therefore, designates the answer given to someone who is seeking a divine answer. Thayer defines the word: “to give a response to those consulting an oracle… to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven.”c Likewise, Bullinger writes in his lexicon, “spoken of a divine response, to give a response, to speak as an oracle, speak or warn from God.”d The only example of the noun form in the New Testament follows this definition. In Romans 11:2-4, Elijah makes intercession to God about Israel (Rom. 11:2) and God gives back a “divine answer” (Rom. 11:4); it is not meant as a warning, but an answer from God to Elijah’s appeal.
Chrēmatizō is used nine times in scripture: four times to indicate the divine instruction given in response to an implied seeking of God (Matt. 2:12; 2:22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22), three times to indicate the message from God with emphasis on warning (Heb. 8:5; 11:7; 12:25), and twice it is used in its second definition, “to be called, designated as” (Acts 11:26; Rom. 7:3).
When applied here in Matthew 2:12, chrematizō shows us that the magi asked God what to do, and God instructed them to leave for home by another route and not to go back to Jerusalem and speak with Herod. These men were godly and smart. They did not need to be “warned” that Herod was corrupt and evil—that was well known. The absurdity of Herod’s claim that he would come and worship the Christ would have been very apparent to them. Would Herod, who was so paranoid about losing his throne that he had close relatives executed, really prostrate himself before a would-be usurper of his throne? Never. The magi did not need a warning; what they needed was divine instruction as to what to do about their situation, and that prompted them to seek advice from God. Concerning this verse Meyer writes in his commentary, “the question that preceded [the dream] is presupposed.”e Similarly, Vincent writes, “The verb means to give a response to one who asks or consults… [it] therefore implies that the wise men had sought counsel of God.”f
This same reasoning can be applied in Matthew 2:22. Joseph already heard of Archelaus and was afraid to go to Judea, so to translate the verb “he was warned” does not fit the situation, but “divinely instructed” does. Joseph, along with the magi (Matt. 2:12), Simeon (Luke 2:26), and Cornelius (Acts 10:22), were spiritually discerning and seeking counsel from God, and thus were divinely instructed in what path to take.
“by a different road.” The magi came to see the Messiah at great personal risk and sacrifice. They likely never knew that at least the start of their trip home would likely be as dangerous as any other part of their journey. Herod was furious at them for not telling them who and where the new king was, and Herod was a very vengeful person. For example, near his death he ordered that a large group of distinguished men in his kingdom be killed on the day he died so that the day of his death would be a day of mourning, not rejoicing (when Herod died, however, the men were released). Herod had palace-fortresses in many places that covered the roads the magi would have normally taken home. The Bible does not tell us what route the magi took home, but whichever it was, they had to be very judicious about it. It likely took them a lot of extra time to get home by a road that would keep them and the new Messiah safe, but that was a sacrifice they were no doubt glad to make.
“behold.” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. Here in Matthew 2:13, “take note” or something similar catches the meaning. See commentary on Matthew 1:20.
“the Lord” “Yahweh” is the personal name of God, and a rabbinic abbreviation for it appears in the Hebrew manuscript of Matthew as well as in the verses of the Old Testament that Matthew quoted. There is evidence that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and used the name Yahweh (see commentary on Matthew 3:3).
“get up... take the child and his mother… stay.” These exact words are used to describe what Joseph did in response to the command from the angel of the Lord. The angel says “get up,” so Joseph “got up” (Matt. 2:14); the angel says, “take the child and his mother,” so Joseph “took the child and his mother” (Matt. 2:14); the angel says “stay there until,” so Joseph “stays there until” (Matt. 2:15). This parallelism highlights Joseph’s obedience to the word of the Lord, by describing what Joseph did with the same words the angel used in his command. The same parallelism occurs in Matt. 2:20-21.
“stay there until I tell you.” For the word stay, the angel uses the verb “to be,” eimi (#1510 εἰμί), with the sense of “remain” or “stay;” Joseph is told to “be there” in Egypt until the angel tells him differently. Then in Matthew 2:15 we are told that Joseph “was there”—using the same verb and word for “there.” Since we do not know when the magi arrived in Bethlehem, we do not know how long Joseph and Mary stayed in Egypt, but it seems like it would not have been too long, months, and not years.(top)
“the child.” Although some versions (cp. ASV; KJV, NKJV) have “young child,” the Greek is just “child.” In the traditional Christmas story, Jesus would have been a newborn baby, but when we correctly understand that the magi came one and a half to two years after Jesus was born, the word “child” is exactly accurate.
[For a much more accurate understanding of the Christmas Story than is told in orthodox Christianity, see commentary on these verses: Matt. 1:25; 2:1-14; and Luke 2:4-24.](top)
“stayed there.” See commentary on Matthew 2:13 for “stay.”.
“with the result that...” In English, there are several ways to communicate purpose or intention, just as there are several ways to indicate the results of an action. To communicate purpose we might say, “I read the Bible to grow closer to God,” using the word “to” to show our intention of growing closer to God by reading scripture. To communicate our emphasis on results we might use a participle, as the word “falling,” in the phrase, “he tripped, falling into the mud.”
There are also several ways Greek grammar communicates purpose and result clauses, and one such way is with the particle hina (#2443 ἵνα) occurring in conjunction with a verb in the subjunctive mood. When hina, usually translated, “that,” “so that,” or “in order that,” is used with a verb in the subjunctive mood, it can express either purpose, result, or purpose and result simultaneously. Furthermore, hina with a verb in the subjunctive mood can be used in command clauses (as well as substantival, epexegetical, and complementary clauses, which we will not cover here.a Since the Greek construction is the same for all these kinds of clauses, it is up to the translator or interpreter to discover the meaning of the phrase from the context and scope of Scripture. In what follows we will give examples showing how hina with a verb in the subjunctive mood can form a purpose clause, result clause, or purpose-result clause. After some discussion, we will also consider command clauses.
These first three clauses all consist of a main verb, the particle hina, and a verb in the subjunctive. The explanations have the main verb underlined, the hina translation in italics, and the subjunctive verb in bold.
(1) A purpose clause expresses the intention of the main verb, so in these cases hina should be translated in order that, with the purpose that.
(2) A result clause expresses the resulting consequences of the main verb when the result is not intended to be the consequence of the main verb. In other words, this expresses when a person does something, or an event occurs, resulting in consequences that were not intended. The hina should be translated so that; with the result that.
(3) A Purpose-result clause expresses that the subjunctive verb is both the intention and result of the main verb. The hina should be translated, so that.
In the REV we have attempted to remain as consistent as possible in the translation of the hina in these clauses. For purpose clauses we say, “in order that”; for result clauses, “with the result that”; and for purpose-result clauses, “so that.” The English translation “in order that” clearly indicates purpose; likewise, for result clauses, what could be more clear than, “with the result that?” “So that,” on the other hand is the best translation for a purpose-result clause precisely because it is ambiguous; it can be read to indicate either purpose or result. For example, the phrase, “he fell back into the snow so that an imprint was left,” could be read to mean he fell “so that” (purpose) he could make an imprint of himself, or it could be read to mean he just happened to fall “so that” (result) an imprint was left on the ground. The context would have to determine whether the “so that” speaks of purpose, result, or purpose-result. When we felt the biblical context demands a purpose-result clause we have rendered the hina “so that.”
That having been said, when reading the REV one must be careful not to assume every instance of “so that,” “in order that,” or “with the result that” is a hina with a verb in the subjunctive clause. For there are also uses of hina by itself that warrant the “so that” translation; likewise there are several other ways Greek can indicate purpose, hence, “in order that” could be due to another of these forms. The same can be said of the phrase, “with the result that,” which is often just a translation of eis (#1519 εἰς) or hoste (#5620 ὥστε).b The reader must consult the Greek text, or the commentary to ensure the translation represents the hina with a verb in the subjunctive construction.
Identifying these clauses correctly is of fundamental importance for properly understanding and translating the Bible. Thankfully, in a majority of instances, the type of clause is abundantly clear from the context or the scope of scripture. Nevertheless, the danger of misidentification is always present, because the Greek form of each construction is precisely the same. This means that in the hina with a verb in the subjunctive form, a purpose, result, and purpose-result clause looks exactly the same in the Greek. If one calls a “purpose” or “purpose-result clause” what is actually a result clause, he attributes intention when God only meant to speak of what resulted, not what was purposed to happen. On the other hand, if one categorizes a passage as a “result clause,” when it is really a purpose clause, then he has missed the intention that is underlying the action.
For example, the first part of Romans 5:20 is often translated as though it were a purpose clause: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (NASB). This translation ascribes the intention of increasing man’s transgression to the introduction of the law. But surely this is misguided. Can it really be that God introduced the law for the purpose of increasing sin? Why would God want sin to increase? This seems to go against Galatians 3:19-24 which indicates that the law came in precisely because there were already many transgressions (See also Rom. 3:19-20). Hence, this verse seems much better suited as a result clause: “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied” (NRSV). In other words, God gave the Law to help mankind, but people disobeyed with the result that sin increased.
1 John 2:19 is another example of how translating a result clause as though purpose were intended can cause confusion. Speaking of the exodus of false believers from the Church, versions such as the HCSB and NASB translate the verse, “They went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.” It seems clear that false believers did not leave the Christian fellowship “so that” it would be clear they were not true to the Faith. In contrast, seeing the hina clause as a result clause makes sense of the passage: “Their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (NIV).
Lastly, we must also consider how hina with the subjunctive can form a command clause. It is vital to properly distinguish purpose clauses from command clauses. A purpose clause indicates why something happened, it shows the intention behind the action: e.g., “Children were being brought to him in order that he might lay [Greek=hina with a verb in the subjunctive] his hands on them and pray” (Matt. 19:13). A command clause, on the other hand, issues an order or command: e.g., “Come and lay [Greek=hina with a verb in the subjunctive] your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” (Mark 5:23).
Because the same Greek form of hina with the subjunctive can be a purpose, result, or command clause, people sometimes disagree as to which is meant. This disagreement shows up in the varying translations of Mark 5:12 for instance, when the demons plead to go into the herd of swine. Some versions translate the second part of their plea as purpose, “Send us into the pigs so that we may enter them” (cp. NASB; HCSB; KJV; ASV), while most modern versions translate it as a command: “Send us into the pigs. Let us enter them” (cp. ESV; NIV; NRSV; NET; NAB; NJB). Interestingly, we see precisely the same split between the translations with regard to Titus 3:13, “see that they lack nothing” (command: ESV; NIV; NRSV; NET; NAB; NJB) as opposed to “so that they lack nothing (purpose-result: NASB; HCSB; KJV; ASV). (See also Revelation 14:13 for similar disagreement between translations).
Understanding how the hina construction can indicate a command becomes important for passages such as John 9:3, about the man born blind. Because this verse has hina with the subjunctive, we must ask whether it is meant to be a purpose or command clause. It is rendered as a purpose clause in most translations, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (NRSV); however, this translation has serious consequences to the meaning of the text because the way it is worded means that the man’s blindness was intentional, so that he could not see for the better part of his life, simply for the purpose of being healed this day—that “God’s works” may be manifest by his healing. Such an interpretation goes against the teaching of scripture, that God is love (1 John 4:16), has plans not to harm us (Jer. 29:11), and that it is Satan who is our enemy, the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4) who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8), his ministry was to heal those oppressed by Satan (Acts 10:38). The Gospels nowhere portray Jesus going around healing people oppressed by God.c
Accordingly, a number of scholars agree that John 9:3 should be read as a command clause, “But let the works of God be revealed in him.” [cp. Boyd, God at War, pp.231-34; Boyd also notes M. Zerwick, Biblical Greek, trans. J. Smith (Rome: Pontificio Instituto Biblico, 1963), pp. 141-42; C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, pp. 144-45; Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1965), p. 145ff.]
In this way, the Greek in Matthew 2:15 is understood just like Ephesians 5:33, which has the same construction: “let [Greek=hina with a verb in the subjunctive] the wife see that she respects her husband.”
[For more on hina with a verb in the subjunctive mood command clauses wrongly identified as purpose clauses, see commentary on John 9:3, 13:18.]
“tricked by.” From empaizō (#1702 ἐμπαίζω), “To trick someone so as to make a fool of the person.”a The Greek is actually deeper than just being “tricked” by the magi. Herod reigned by fear and control, so having someone disobey a direct command, from his perspective, was to make a mockery of his reign. He would have expected the magi back the next day, two at the most. He felt they made a fool of him by slipping away, and was furious.
“having sent orders.” The Greek text simply has that Herod “sent,” but the text does not supply an object. Some versions say “men,” but given the circumstances in Herod’s kingdom that we learn from history and archaeology, it seems much more likely that rather than send a lot of men from Jerusalem, Herod would have sent orders to fortresses such as the Herodian and perhaps even Masada and dispatched soldiers from those places to execute the children in Judah.
“he killed all the male children…in Bethlehem and all its surrounding region, from two years old and under.” Killing potential rivals was standard operating procedure for Herod. King Herod the Great was so afraid of anyone taking his throne that he even had one of his wives and three of his sons executed because he was suspicious of them. The Bible does not say how many children in Bethlehem were killed, and it is very likely that because the killing was in Bethlehem “and all its surrounding region” that no one kept count. However, the “surrounding region” could not have been very large—perhaps only a few miles—because Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judah and there is no evidence that John, who was only six months older than Jesus was in danger (although he could have been older than two by the time the magi arrived, likely 18 months to 2 years after Jesus was born). In any case, demographic studies of the city of Bethlehem and the surrounding region done by scholars have led to the conclusion that almost certainly less than two dozen children were murdered, and perhaps only half that many. Although this was certainly a tragedy, Herod’s reign was so filled with violent acts including murder and death that this particular killing is not even noticed in any secular writing of the time or in Josephus. The palace-fortress of Herodium was just east of Bethlehem and was clearly visible from there, and it is likely that soldiers were dispatched from the Herodium to kill the babies.
The fact that Herod’s murder of the children is not mentioned in secular writings of the time has caused some historians to say the record is a myth and that it never really happened. Many of them say it was just an invention by Matthew to build a parallel story of Pharaoh’s killing of the male babies in Egypt (Exod. 1:15-22) into the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. However, that argument is pure speculation; there is no good reason to reject what Matthew wrote.
Many things in the Bible are not recorded in secular history, and Herod’s known character fits with him killing anyone he thought was a rival. Josephus does not mention the killing, but there could be many reasons for that, including that the details of the event were not well known. Furthermore, although there are a few parallels—a very few—between Herod and Pharaoh, there is also such a large number of differences that the average reader never even sees any parallel between Pharaoh and Herod. If Matthew concocted the story of Herod killing the children around Bethlehem to draw a parallel to the story of Pharaoh ordering the death of the male babies of Israel, it seems he would have made the parallels easier to see. Furthermore, if Matthew invented the story of the killing of the babies, it would have defeated his purpose of writing an account of the life of Jesus that was designed to get people to know about Jesus and accept him as Messiah. When Matthew wrote it could still be confirmed or rejected that Herod killed the babies; some of the siblings and most likely even some of the parents of those babies would still have been alive. If word got around that Matthew fabricated what is certainly a major event in his gospel record, then many people would doubt the entire account Matthew had written. But, on the other hand, if what Matthew wrote could be confirmed by people who lived through the events that Matthew recorded in his gospel, then what Matthew wrote would indeed get people to believe, which is exactly what has happened through the millennia; people read the Gospel of Matthew and believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that he died for their sins.
[For more on Herod’s character and ruthless ways, see commentary on Matt. 2:3, “deeply disturbed.”]
|Mat 2:17||- (top)|
“a sound was heard in Ramah.” Most translations read, “a voice was heard.” However, the Greek word phone (#5456 φωνή) can be used to mean just a sound (e.g., John 3:8; 1 Cor. 14:7; Rev. 8:5; 8:13 [“blasts”]). Though the sound would have been coming from a human voice, it would have been the sound of sobbing.
“sobbing.” Traditionally, this has been translated “weeping.” But it does not seem that “weeping” best captures the sense of the Greek word klauthmos (#2805 κλαυθμός). In English, weeping conjures up pictures of a weak and quiet, teary sadness. Klauthmos is more of a loud crying with obvious physical manifestations: “not merely with tears, but with every outward expression of grief.”a Hence, we have rendered the word here “sobbing,” which gives a better sense of physical wailing than does the term “weeping;” after all, these mothers’ babies had just been murdered. This is the noun form of the verb klaio (#2799 κλαίω) translated as “crying” in the second sentence in this verse.
“Rachel.” The favorite wife of Jacob the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Here, Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife represents the people around Bethlehem. Rachel was buried near Bethlehem; she died while giving birth to Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin (Gen. 35:16-20), whereas Leah was buried in Hebron (Gen. 49:31).
“crying.” The Greek verb is klaiō (#2799 κλαίω). We have translated it as “crying” rather than “weeping.” Klaiō is the verb form of klauthmos; see commentary on “sobbing” in this verse.
“after.” The phrase “after Herod had come to the end of his life” is a Greek construction known as a genitive absolute. Although there are no specific time words, a genitive absolute has a temporal sense, usually translated “while,” “when,” or “after.” Did the dream come “while,” “when,” or “after” Herod died? To say “after Herod died” is the most ambiguous translation (the dream could have come right after Herod died, or at some later point). To say “while” or “when” would mean the dream occurred simultaneously with Herod’s death, which most likely would not have been the case. Political and social tension always accompanied regime change in ancient times; would there be a peaceful transfer of power, or a coup d’état? We have translated the genitive absolute with “after,” to allow for the possibility of some time elapsing for Archelaus—who had already begun reigning when Joseph arrived in Israel (Matt. 2:22)—to stabilize control and for things to settle down after the transfer of power.
“had died.” The Greek is teleutaō (#5053 τελευτάω), which is related to the word telos (#5056 τέλος), “end,” and means to finish, bring to an end, come to an end, close. It was used by the Greeks as a euphemism for death. God could have used a common word for death here, such as apothneskō (#599 ἀποθνῄσκω), so the fact that he did not, but used the euphemism, should catch our attention. All of us will eventually, “come to the end,” so it behooves us to take our lives seriously because after our end will come Judgment Day.
[For more on dead people being truly dead and not alive in any form or place, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.”]
“behold” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20.
“the Lord.” For more information on “the Lord” see commentary on Matthew 3:3.
“saying.” The verse division of the Nestle-Aland text includes this word at the beginning of Matt. 2:20. However, many translations put it here at the end of verse 19 (cp. NASB; NRSV; RSV; ASV). We felt the cleaner division was to include it in verse 19.(top)
“Get up! Take the child and his mother.” For the significance of the parallelism between the angel’s command and Joseph’s response see commentary on Matthew 2:13.
“life.” The Greek word often translated “soul” is psuchē (#5590 ψυχή; pronounced psoo-'kay), and psuchē has a large number of meanings. Here it refers to the physical life of the body, which is why most versions translate it “life,” which is accurate in this context.
[For a more complete explanation of “soul,” see Appendix 7: “Usages of ‘Soul.’”](top)
|Mat 2:21||- (top)|
“instructed by God.” The Greek word is chrēmatizō, see commentary on Matthew 2:12.(top)
“he will be called a Nazarene.” This phrase is not meant to be a quotation of any scripture, for the saying is not found in any of the biblical writings. So what does Matthew mean here? There are two possibilities. First, these words could be a prophecy that was “spoken” (rheō, #4483 ῥέω), but not written. Unlike any other such reference in Matthew, this was said to be spoken by the “prophets” (plural), rather than by the “prophet.” The fact the noun is plural tells us Matthew did not intend this to be taken as a reference to a particular prophetic writing, but the words of the “prophets.” Hence, there were some things God told his prophets regarding the Messiah that were spoken and preserved in oral tradition but never inspired as holy writ—that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene was one such orally preserved prophecy. In this case, it is the figure of speech hysteresis, when an author gives added information not known in the historical narrative.a
The second possibility for understanding this phrase—the way it is understood by Lenski and Hendriksen, for instance—is that the expression “he will be called a Nazarene” is meant as a summary statement of what the prophets spoke about the Messiah, that he would be considered lowly and rejected. We recall the words of Nathanael, who showed typical disdain for Nazarenes: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). If this interpretation was correct, Matthew would be combining the sense of several prophetic writings about the Messiah and then describing them by saying “He will be called a Nazarene.” But this view is unlikely. For why would Jesus have to literally move to Nazareth in order to fulfill this saying? If being called a Nazarene does not refer to actually living in Nazareth, then moving there would not fulfill the prophecy. If the phrase was meant as simply a derogative saying, “he’ll be called ‘a Nazarene,’” then there would be no need for the Messiah to literally live there. Therefore, the first interpretation is to be preferred.
“so that.” The Greek word translated “so that” is hopōs (#3704 ὅπως), and it denotes purpose. Often when prophecies were fulfilled the Greek text used hina (cp. Matt. 1:22), but this use of hopōs shows that Joseph moved to Nazareth with the intention that the prophecy would be fulfilled. A study of prophecy shows that there are different “kinds” of prophecies. There are prophecies that will come to pass without or in spite of human involvement, and there are prophecies that require human involvement to come to pass. This is quite clearly articulated in Jeremiah 18:5-10. God can say something, but human involvement can help it be fulfilled or cause it to go unfulfilled. In this case, Joseph moved to Nazareth “so that” the words of the prophets were fulfilled.
[For more on the way human behavior can change whether or not a prophecy is fulfilled, see commentary on Deut. 18:20.]