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The Events Surrounding the Birth of Christ

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Question:  How do the stories of the Wise men, the shepherds, and the other details of the Christmas story fit together?  I know that different parts are treated in different gospels.

Response:  It is true that the bulk of the information we possess about the events surrounding our Lord's birth occur in Matthew and Luke.  Putting them together is a matter of some controversy.  My own take on these things will be found in part 4A of the Basics series, "Christology" [update note: NOW POSTED; see link]  But as that installment will not be available until sometime next year, I include the pertinent portions below (please be advised that this material still requires some serious editing; as always, I am greatly appreciative of any such advice).

Merry Christmas!

Bob L.

From the forthcoming BB 4A: Christology (sections I.5.f.4-5):

4) The birth of Christ:
 

a) The birth of Christ Prophesied: We have already seen (in section 5.d.1 above) that the historical birth of Christ was prophesied extensively in the Old Testament.

Therefore the Lord will Himself give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive and will give birth to a Son, and you shall call His Name "Immanuel" (i.e., "God is with us").
Isaiah 7:14 (Matt.1:23)
 

b) The date of the birth of Christ:

To begin with, we know from Luke 3:1 that John began baptizing "during the fifteenth imperial year of Tiberius" (i.e., from August 19th of A.D. 28 to August 18th of A.D. 29). (1) Since Luke states that Jesus was "about thirty" at the commencement of His public ministry (Lk.3:23), an event that post-dates the time when John began baptizing, there can be little doubt that the birth of Christ is to be fixed ca. 1-2 B.C. To place Christ's birthday any earlier would make Him "twenty-something", not "about thirty". Moreover, this phrase is best taken (and arguably can only be properly taken, especially given Luke's penchant for precision: cf. the precise dating of John's ministry at Lk.3:23) to mean that while Christ had not yet reached His thirtieth birthday, He was very close to doing so, that is, He was 29 and set to turn thirty that same calendar year. (2) If we accept December as Christ's birth-month, therefore, He will then have been born in 2 B.C. (only one year earlier than supposed by the Christo-centric calendar we now use, established by Dionysius Exiguus ca. 525 A.D. at the behest of Pope John I). (3) It is impossible within the scope of this study to detail all of the chronological details and arguments connected with Christ's birth, but the 2 B.C. date, in addition to being based on the only two clear chronological references in the gospel (i.e., Lk.3:1 and 3:23), is also recommended by three other important factors. First, it allows for a three year ministry of Christ (as required by the chronological details of John's gospel as we shall see when discussing the date of the crucifixion). Secondly, it allows for a crucifixion date of 33 A.D., by far the most likely date when independently derived (see below). And, thirdly, it squares most precisely with the universal census mentioned by Luke (Lk.2:1-3).

As to the census, the first two points that need to be clarified here are that the universal census described in Luke 2:1-3 is not the census of Quirinius, and, secondly, that Luke does not in fact equate the two. That Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria from ca. AD. 6 to 11, held a census in A.D. 6-7 is well established (cf. Josephus, B.J. 2.118; 2.433; 7.253; A.J. 18.4-10; 18.23-25; 20.102). (4) It is therefore unfortunate that English versions of the Bible inevitably mis-translate Luke's Greek to make these two separate censuses appear to be one and the same. Properly translated, Luke 2:2 states that "this was a census which occurred prior to Quirinius' governorship of Syria". (5)

It was important for Luke to point out the distinction between the census that took place at Christ's birth and the one held later by Quirinius. For, being seven years more recent and also more notable on account of the armed resistance it engendered, Quirinius' census would have been easily confused by his readers with the earlier one he describes at 2:2 (a confusion which, ironically, modern interpreters have almost universally failed to avoid in any case). The Roman Empire was a triumph of bureaucratic organization as well as military might. Not surprisingly, accurate census data (especially as it related to taxation) was essential for its administrative and financial operation. (6) In his res gestae, the synopsis of his most prestigious accomplishments, Augustus devotes considerable space to his work in census matters (CIL v.3, in loc., para.8). Secular historians have been (unreasonably, in my view) skeptical about extrapolating a regular, empire-wide census from Augustus' remarks cited above. Indeed, Augustus' census of Roman citizens in 9/8 B.C. is paralleled by evidence for a census taking place in the Roman province of Egypt at the same time. (7) This Egyptian census cycle is known to us primarily from papyrological records, and that fact is significant, for papyrus has generally only survived from antiquity in places with extremely arid climates (i.e., conditions which did not obtain in most of the rest of the Empire). Mundane records such as official census returns are not likely candidates for preservation in climates where heroic efforts were historically necessary to safeguard important literary texts. In other words, there is much we simply will never know, because the documentation has not survived. But when we add to the 9/8 B.C. and 6/7 A.D. censuses the further fact of a 13/14 A.D. census under Augustus and Tiberius, the pattern of a seven year cycle emerges, and 2/1 B.C. is the only gap within this otherwise repetitive cycle. (8) Rather than a slap-dash approach, it seems more in keeping with his penchant for careful organization that Augustus would have begun the systematic application of Roman census procedures (cited in his res gestae above) not just to certain provinces, but to all territories under Roman sway, exactly as the biblical record indicates:

And it came about in those days that a decree went out from Augustus Caesar to conduct a census of the entire civilized world (i.e., the whole Roman empire).
Luke 2:1

One of the characteristics of Roman provincial census procedures which seems to be indicated by our admittedly incomplete data on the topic is that results are recorded for the year preceding the year of recording. (9) The census process thus covered roughly two calendar years, with the first year being the year of record and the second the year of recording. But unlike in the U.S. today where we file income tax by April the 15th of the year following the year being officially recorded, under the Roman system the census was a "snapshot" of assessable wealth and legal status, taken (and officially registered) during the first year, thus giving the imperial administration a further year to verify, validate, correct if necessary, and record the information submitted by all residents of the province in question. That, at least, is what the surviving evidence strongly suggests. And coupling this last fact with the likelihood that Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem to fulfill the legal requirements of the universal census of 2/1 B.C., we would come again to the proposition stated above that Christ was born in 2 B.C., the year of registration (as opposed to 1 B.C., the year of official recording).

c) The place of the birth of Christ: Our Lord's nativity in Bethlehem fulfilled the prophecies about the coming Son of David, offering tangible proof of His Messiahship from the instant of His unique birth (cf. Is.9:1-2; Matt.2:23; 4:14-16; 28:7):

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, too small to be numbered among the clans of Judah, from you I will bring forth the One who is to rule over Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, even from the days of eternity.
Micah 5:2

Being born in Bethlehem also has to do with the important issue of demonstrating and validating our Lord's inheritance and claim to the throne as the greater Son of David who was prophesied to come and "rule over Israel" (cf. the importance of our sharing in an eternal inheritance through Him: Rom.8:17; Gal.3:29; Eph.1:11-18; 3:6; Col.1:12; 3:24; Tit.3:7; Heb.6:17; 9:15; 11:9; 1Pet.1:4; 3:7; Jas.5:2; Rev.21:7). Bethlehem is of course David's city, and our Lord's physical line (through Mary) and legal line (through Joseph) both go back to David and were both therefore intimately connected with Bethlehem as the geographic focus of the earthly inheritance of David's progeny. Being born in Bethlehem was thus a prerequisite for anyone claiming a share in the Davidic line, especially for anyone who claimed to be the Messiah. Additionally, the name Bethlehem means "house of bread", and this fact is certainly also meant to be prophetically significant since Jesus, the true Messiah, is "the Bread of Life" through the partaking of whom by faith we have eternal life (cf. Jn.6:32-58).

As we have already seen, the genealogies in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 serve slightly different purposes, with Matthew's genealogy giving Jesus' legal line (through His "step-father", Joseph), and Luke giving Jesus' blood line (traced from Mary all the way back to Adam in order to demonstrate beyond any question Jesus' true humanity). Both lines go back to David through the royal family of Israel, making both Mary (Jesus' blood line) and Joseph (Jesus' line of inheritance) regal in every respect. This also means that Mary and Joseph were distantly related, though not nearly so closely as to provide any grounds for objection. This detail was in fact something that recommended the match since it kept any inheritance within the clan (a not uncommon thing in arranged marriages before and since). Moreover, since they were each of the line and lineage of David, both Mary and Joseph would have had their "official inheritance" in Bethlehem and its environs, a fact important both for Jewish genealogical recording (especially important in the royal line and also in the priestly line, cf. Ezra 2:62), and also for Roman administrative purposes. (10) As discussed above, Rome carried out a regular sequence of the census in the provinces (every seven years - the one at Jesus' birth being the first "world-wide" one, though they had been held in some provinces before this), and in each such case there was first a "year of enrollment" wherein each individual had to register his/her property in his/her official place of residence. This, of course, was a much more crucial thing in that day and age than it is today, for citizenship and civil rights were tied to localities for non-Roman citizens (so that this would be analogous today to U.S. citizens having to return to their original home states every so often to maintain their rights and pay their taxes). Although we do not know anything specific about Mary's immediate family, it is well to note that the Law required women who were heirs to the ancestral inheritance in their own right for want of male siblings to marry within their tribe and within their immediate clan, exactly the situation we have here (Num36:6-9). So it may very well be that Mary as well as Joseph were each heirs to their own ancestral inheritances, giving our Lord in this instance (as well as other; cf. section I.3.a above) the "double portion" symbolism that is characteristic of His unique humanity. Furthermore, if Mary no less than Joseph had reason to register for the census in Bethlehem, it would explain why Joseph felt it necessary to take her along, even though her pregnancy was by that time very far advanced. In any case, all of these events worked together to bring about our Lord's birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, according to the prophecies.

d) The timing of the birth of Christ: Scripture is clear that Christ's coming into the world occurred at exactly the right time, the precise time, in fact, that God had ordained since before the world began. Indeed, God has constructed history's true timetable entirely around Jesus Christ who is the pivot of God's plan and the central Person of history when correctly understood from the divine point of view. (11)

[Jesus, whose coming was] foreordained before the creation of the world, but who appeared [in the flesh] at the end of times because of us (i.e., for our salvation).
1st Peter 1:20

(1) God, from antiquity having communicated to our fathers in the prophets at many times and in many ways, (2) has in these last days communicated to us in a Son, [the One] whom He has appointed heir of all things, [the One] through whom He created the universe.
Hebrews 1:1-2


1. Jesus came when "the right time was at hand": Mark 1:15

2. Jesus came at the "proper time": Romans 5:6

3. Jesus came in the "fullness of time": Galatians 4:4

4. Jesus came when "the times had reached their fulfillment": Ephesians 1:10

5. Jesus came at the very "conjunction of the ages": Hebrews 9:26



e) The events surrounding the birth of Christ:

The coming of the Messiah did not occur with the fanfare with which His arrival was expected by the religious community of that day. Instead of being announced to the reputed leaders of Judaism, Jesus' coming was announced to shepherds at night, as light shining out of darkness (Is.9:1-7; Lk.1:78-79), and good news being preached to the lowly (Is.61:1; Lk.1:52). Instead of being revealed to His countrymen, His coming was made known to foreigners, believers who followed God's word instead of the traditions of mere men (Matt.15:9; Mk.7:7), and who used the things of this world to worship the Savior rather than worshiping the things of this world (Matt.23:1-36). And instead of returning in resplendent glory, Jesus came as a true, as yet unglorified human being through physical birth (Heb.2:14-17; 4:14-16), coming into this world in order to die for us (Heb.10:5-10).


1. The proclamation to the shepherds:

(8) Now there were shepherds in that area who were camping out and keeping watches through the night to tend their flock. (9) And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone all around them [so that they] were very frightened. (10) And the angel said to them, "Don't be afraid. For, behold, I proclaim good news to you [of] a great [occasion for] joy which will belong to your entire people. (11) Today there has been born for you a Savior. [Even He] who is Messiah (i.e., Christ), Lord - in the city of David. (12) And this will be your sign [that the One you find is truly Him]: You will find a [newly] swaddled baby lying in a feeding trough". (13) And immediately there was with the angel a multitude of [the] heavenly army [of elect angels], [all] praising God and saying, (14) "Glory to God in the highest [heavens]! And [also] on [the] earth among men of [His] good pleasure (i.e., "men with whom He is well pleased = believers)". (15) And it came about as the angels left them for heaven that the shepherds were talking with each other. "Let's go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us". (16) And they hurried and went, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby [who was] lying in a feeding trough. (17) And when they saw [these things], they let [everyone] know about what had been told them concerning this child. (18) And everyone who heard was amazed at what was told them by the shepherds. (19) And Mary remembered these words of theirs, [and was] meditating on them in her heart. (20) And the shepherds returned [to their flocks], glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen [which turned out] exactly like it had been told to them.
Luke 2:8-20

In the manner of His famous ancestor king David whom God prepared to lead His people Israel through the experience of faithfulness in shepherding, Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the sheep (Jn.10:14), and our Lord uses this same analogy to show Peter and all "pastors" after him what is really important in leading the Church of Christ: feeding the flock and caring for their safety through the Word of God (Jn.21:15-19; cf. Lk.10:38-42). As is obvious from their positive response, these shepherds to whom the angels proclaimed the coming of the Messiah were clearly believers who were awaiting the "hope of Israel" (cf. Acts 28:20). Rather than being heralded in Jerusalem to the assembled multitude and rulers of the people, our Lord is announced instead to a group of men who would never enter the thoughts of the rulers, priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and other powerful individuals of Judea. But these faithful believers prove obedient to the angelic proclamation, and do not take umbrage at the fact that the Messiah has been born as a lowly human baby in most inglorious circumstances (as the worldly "persons of repute" would most certainly have done, and in fact did throughout our Lord's first advent).


2. The babe in the manger (Lk.2:4-20):

In the place where Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem, there was no crib in which to lay our newly born Lord. For this reason, they used a feed trough instead, that is, a movable wooden tray deep enough to hold animal feed, normally employed in a barn, but used here in place of a normal crib. This was the "sign" to the shepherds that the baby they found in Bethlehem was indeed the Messiah - not the fact that He was "swaddled", that is, bound up in the wrap normally used to dress newborn infants in that day and age, but the fact that He, the Lord of the world, the One who created everything and who holds everything together by His powerful Word, was to be found lying in something so far from elegant that it was worthy of note and comment. This sign was a clear indication of the kenosis or humbling which coming into this world, becoming a true, unglorified human being, and taking on the form of a servant would entail for the Son of God. It was symbolic and representative of the human life He would lead: not a life of privilege, luxury, and appreciation for who He was and what He was about to do for all mankind, but instead a life characterized by humility, by privation, and by experience of the most outrageous ingratitude.

Given the many popular misconceptions about this particular aspect of our Lord's birth, a few further words of explanation are in order here. The notion that Jesus was born in a barn and that this is where Joseph and Mary had to stay because "there were no rooms at the inn" is, while very popular today, entirely based upon a misunderstanding of what the original text means in Greek as the following translations demonstrate:

And [Mary] gave birth to her Son, her first born, and she wrapped Him up, and she lay Him down in a feed-trough (Greek phatne, φάτνη), because they did not have a[other suitable] place [to put Him] at the inn.
Luke 2:7

And the [shepherds] hastened to come, and they found Mary and Joseph and the baby [Jesus] who (singular) was lying in the feed trough (i.e., the one explained in Lk.2:7 - this is the sign they were looking for).
Luke 2:16

The Greek word translated "place" (topos, τόπος) may be only translated as "room" in the sense of "area" or "space" and does not have the meaning here of a "room" in a house (or inn) as, for example, the King James version seems to imply. Secondly, the word translated feed-trough above (Greek phatne, φάτνη), refers to just that, a relatively small oblong wooden box used for feeding cattle, and it is highly doubtful whether it can ever mean anything else. (12) The KJV actually allows for understanding the passage as translated above (i.e., in English, a "manger" is a feed-trough as well as a barn), but once extrapolated from a misunderstanding of the KJV's English, the "barn-manger" story has acquired an unfortunate cultural momentum of its own, unfortunate because the focus on the "barn" takes away from the fact that the sign of humiliation here belonged to and was meant to be focused upon our Lord alone - it did not extend to His parents. The feed-trough crib was a sign of His Messiahship, and a symbol of the life of humility and humiliation that He would endure on our behalf. It was, moreover, a sign and symbol of the momentous nature of the gift our heavenly Father was giving to the world by offering up His one and only Son on our behalf. The Lord of life, Maker and Sustainer of the universe, glorious God forever, was born to die. He came into this world in a dirty wooden box resembling a coffin and left it (before His resurrection) nailed to a rugged wooden cross, having died in our place that we might not die but instead have life eternal with Him.
 

3. Jesus' dedication and presentation in the temple (Lk.2:21-38):

Our Lord was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth in keeping with the sign of the covenant given to Abraham (Lk.2:21; cf. Gen.17; Ex.12:3; Jn.7:22; Acts 7:8; Gal.3:17), and given the name Jesus in accord with the directions of the angel to Joseph and to Mary individually (cf. Matt.1:21; 1:25; Lk.1:31). After the forty days of separation and purification mandated for women upon the birth of a first born son were completed (Lk.2:22; cf. Lev.12:1-4), the family made the short journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in order to present the required sin offering for Mary (Lev.12:6-8; cf. Lev.5:7; 5:11), as well as to present Jesus in the temple in order to consecrate Him to the Lord (Lk.2:23; cf. Ex.13:2; Num.3:13; 8:17), without doubt also paying the redemption price required of all first born males, "five shekels of silver" (Ex.13:11-15; 34:20; Num.3:13; 3:44-48; 18:14-16). (13) Joseph and Mary fulfilled all of these details carefully, and given this scrupulous approach, we can certainly conclude from the fact that the sin offering they provided for Mary was the inexpensive alternative to a lamb, namely, "a pair of doves or two young pigeons" (Lk.2:23), that 1) they were not of people of great means, and 2) the Magi had not yet come and presented Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As it would turn out, these gifts would be very needful to support the family during their flight to Egypt. Finally, the presentation of our Lord in the temple also provided an opportunity for two further witnesses to His Messiahship in the words of Simeon (Lk.2:29-32, also known as the nunc dimittis), who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ (Lk.2:26; cf. Lk.2:30: "my eyes have [now] seen Your salvation"), and in the words of the prophetess Anna, which, while not recorded verbatim, were directed to all those who were "looking forward to the redemption of Israel", a feat that the Messiah could accomplish (Lk.2:38).
 

4. The star and the Magi (Matt.2:1-18):

Following our Lord's presentation in the temple, Joseph and Mary, along with our Lord Jesus, returned to "their city" of Nazareth (Lk.2:39). We are not told specifically why it was that the family then returned to Bethlehem shortly thereafter. They may have received divine direction to do so, or they may have concluded on their own that the city of David, the ancestral town of both Mary and Joseph, was the proper place for the Messiah to be raised. In any case, the hypothesis that their brief return to Nazareth after Jesus' presentation in the temple was for the purpose of closing down their household there and collecting up their possessions for the move has much to recommend it: in Matthew 2:11, the Magi find them in a "house" rather than in an "inn", and we may glean from this that the family had secured what they though would be a permanent residence in Bethlehem after traveling south this second time. (14) This is also implied by Joseph's first inclination to take up residence in Judea rather than in Nazareth after the return from Egypt, a fact that suggests he had intended to return to the new household already in place in Bethlehem. It was at this time that the Magi arrived, following the star which portended the birth of the Messiah, the Light of the world. (15)

(78) Because of the compassionate mercies of our God, through which the rising [Light] from on high will visit us, (79) to shine upon those in darkness and dwelling in the shadow of death, to make straight [paths for] our feet in the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79 (cf. Is.9:2; Mal.4:2)

Jesus is the Light of the world (see section I.4.b.18 above). Throughout the Bible, light is powerful metaphor, especially when contrasted with darkness. Light is good (Gen.1:3); light is truth (Jn.3:21); light is life (Jn.1:4). Darkness is the absence of all these things, and it was into the darkness of this world that Jesus, the true Light, did come. Thus the star of light that heralds His birth, shining in the darkness, is a fitting symbol for our Lord's first advent. He alone is life and light, clearly visible in the darkness around us, drawing all who are willing to come to His light.

(6) I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and shall take You by the hand, and guard You, and appoint You a covenant for the nations and a Light for the gentiles, (7) to open the eyes of the blind, to bring forth the prisoner from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from their place of captivity (i.e., physical and spiritual redemption).
Isaiah 42:6-7

In Him was life, and this life was the light of men. And this light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not quenched it.
John 1:4-5 (cf. Jn.8:12; 12:46)

For God who said, "Let light shine forth from the darkness!", is He who has shone forth [His light] into our hearts to illuminate our knowledge of God's glory in the Person of Jesus Christ.
2nd Corinthians 4:6

The true Light which illuminates every human being was coming into the world.
John 1:9


Sadly, however, though He came to give light to the entire world, only a handful are willing to open their eyes and see the Light of truth. That the star of Bethlehem was visible far and wide throughout Judea, yet it was left to a small number of foreigners to recognize it for what it was, the sign of the Messiah. Thus the star shining in the darkness and leading the way to the Messiah, to salvation through faith in the true Light of the world, is an apt metaphor for the fact that although Jesus came to His own, His own were, by and large, not willing to receive Him.

He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him.
John 1:11

This is the [basis for] judgment, that the light came into the world, and that men loved darkness rather than light.
John 3:19

The Magi (a Persian word from which our "magic" is derived through Greek) are traditionally known as the "wise men". That these gentiles were believers who were waiting for the kingdom of God is evident from their actions:  

  • They come from a long distance on a difficult trip (Matt.2:1-2).
     
  • God guides them on their journey (Matt.2:1-2; 2:9-10; 2:12).
     
  • They bestow extremely expensive gifts on the Messiah (Matt.2:11).
     
  • They "worship" Jesus when they find Him in Bethlehem (Matt.2:2; 2:11).
     
  • They respond obediently to the dream given by God which warned them not to return to Herod (Matt.2:12).
     

The status of the wise men as believers may also be seen from the means by which they known to come and had been motivated to come at all, namely, through the diligent searching of the scriptures:

[The wise men] were saying, "Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him".
Matthew 2:2

For a Star will march forth from Jacob, and a [Ruler's] scepter [will arise] from Israel.
Numbers 24:17b (Matt.2:1-13; cf. Gen.49:8-12; Deut.33:7; Lk.1:78; Rev.12:5)

Given that in Matthew 2:1 the wise men are said to have come "from the east", and given the fact that they know the scriptures and prophecies about the Messiah and respond to them so wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, it seems certain that these Magi are successors to the guild of wise men of whom Daniel was put in charge and over whom he unquestionably exerted considerable influence during his long tenure as their head (Dan.2:48). At the time of Christ, moreover, Babylon, while no longer an important political capital, was still a center of such "higher learning". While we would certainly not wish to accord all who claimed the title "Magician" at that time the truly blessed appellation of "believer", this small group of gentile men, dedicated to the scriptures, were rewarded for their faith in the truth and used of God in this extraordinary way, being privileged not only to experience the fulfillment of the prophecy they had long studied even to the extent of seeing the Messiah with their own eyes, but also to be allowed to contribute to God's plan so significantly in the giving of the expensive gifts of "gold, myrrh, and frankincense", with the gold representing His deity (as is often the case in symbolism of the temple, gold being rare, precious, and glorious), the myrrh (a costly substance used in making incense and in the process of embalming) representing His humanity taken on in order to die for us, and the sweet savor of the frankincense representing the acceptability of His sacrifice (cf. the "sweet savor" of the Levitical offerings representing Christ's work: Eph.5:2; cf. Heb.1:3). These valuable treasures almost certainly funded the escape of our Lord and His family to Egypt and supported them while they were there. (16)

As to the star itself, it is wrong to think of this object as a "star" in the sense that modern astronomy defines stars, or even as an asteroid or a comet. The description of this luminous object's behavior in Matthew makes it very clear that it is not to be identified with any such phenomenon and that we will search in vain for any secular evidence of its appearance, ancient or modern. This particular "star" has as its purpose not only the fulfillment of the prophecy in Numbers 24:17 (quoted above) heralding the advent of the Messiah, but also the directing of the Magi to Bethlehem. For this particular "star" actually guides the wise men to the place of Christ's birth - indeed it directs them to the very house in which He and Mary and Joseph were staying (Matt.2:9-10). The star appeared at Christ's birth, fulfilled the prophecy, brought the Magi to Judea, and led them to Jesus - and then apparently disappeared, its purpose having been accomplished. (17) This was entirely a supernatural event, foreordained and meticulously directed by God, not a predictable or otherwise recognizable astronomical event of the sort that can either be explained or rationalized by science. This was a miracle of the highest order.
 

5. The flight to Egypt and the second return to Nazareth:

Divine intervention in the form of another angelic warning (Matt.2:13-15) prompted the family's rapid departure from their new home in Bethlehem to seek refuge in a part of the empire not under Herod's control, namely, Egypt (a Roman province at this time). The fact that Joseph who had received the dream obeyed that very night is ample evidence of his responsiveness to the Lord. Such rapidity of response would be difficult for most if not all of us, having just made several long, overland round trips under what were no doubt very difficult circumstances, with Mary pregnant on the first leg, a very young child in tow on the second, and loaded down with all of the household possessions they could carry on the third. Having just now settled in to a new home after all of that, it would certainly be understandable if Joseph had been tempted to delay a few days, at least to get organized for the trip and to make arrangements for his new home during his absence - but he fled with his family that very night in complete and humble obedience to the Lord. From this and from Joseph's earlier considerate treatment of Mary we may glean that our Lord Jesus was given two God-fearing and spiritually mature individuals to rear Him.

Herod's command to destroy all of the male in Bethlehem who were "two years old and under" (Matt.2:16) is a further indication that the visit of the Magi did not occur immediately after Jesus' birth as the visit of the shepherds had. For it was certainly Herod's understanding after his conversation with them that the initial appearance of the star had occurred at some time in the past, thus necessitating the murder of many young boys who were clearly not newborns. (18) Wherever specifically in the east the Magi had come from, it is virtually certain that their journey and their preparations for it must have taken many months at least.

Following Herod's death, Joseph was once again told in a dream by an angel of the Lord to return to "the land of Israel". According to his by now familiar pattern of obedience, he did so, intending to take up residence now at last in the family's new homestead in Bethlehem of Judea (Matt.2:22). En route, however, he discovered that Herod's son Archelaus was the new ruler in Judea (not at all a certainty before the fact as the popular expectation may well have been that the Romans would dispense with the Herodian dynasty entirely after Herod's demise). (19) As a result, Joseph apparently decided on his own that it would be more prudent to head for Nazareth instead, and this spiritually laudable decision was graciously confirmed for him by a third dream (Matt.2:19-23), thus relieving him of any nagging feelings that abandoning the little they had now out of reach in Bethlehem might have been a mistake. Nazareth thus becomes the place where Jesus grows up (cf. Jn.2:1). And herein we also see the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah about light coming out of the darkness (i.e., the secular north country: Is.9:1-2 - completed with the beginning and the end of Jesus' earthly ministry: cf. Matt.4:14-16; 28:7), as well as the prophecy of Jesus being a "Nazarene" (Matt.2:23).

The people who were walking in darkness have seen a Great Light. [And for] those dwelling in a land of the shadow of death, a Light has shone upon them.
Isaiah 9:2
 

Notes:

1. The life of the emperor Tiberius is relatively well documented, and this date certainly represents his fifteenth year of sole rule. Proponents of an earlier date (i.e., 26/27) can only argue that dating should begin from a period of "joint rule" between Augustus and Tiberius on the basis of similar co-regency ascension dating in other ancient cultures. Given the hostility of Augustus and Tiberius towards each other, the cloud that still hangs over Tiberius' ascension (so well documented by Tacitus), and the otherwise unparalleled notion of co-regency dating among the Julio-Claudians, it seems best to stay with the date A.D. 28/29.

2. This is important, because thirty was the age generally associated with the maturity necessary for service to God (cf. Num.4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47; 1Chron.23:3). Incidentally, as is clear from Luke 1:26, John was six months older than Jesus, and therefore also "about [but not yet] thirty" when he began his ministry (see below for the point that John's ministry commenced one year before that of our Lord.

3. 2 B.C., as opposed to 1 B.C., is also required because of the need to place the birth of Christ before the death of Herod (cf. Matt.2:1-19). Although many have found such a late date for the death of Herod impossible, it is important to note that our only source for the earlier dating of his demise is Flavius Josephus, a somewhat dilettantish historian. Moreover, it is entirely possible that Josephus' statements in this regard have been wrongly interpreted in any case. See W.E. Filmer, "The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great", Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1966) 283-298, who proposes January of 1 B.C. as the time of Herod's death. This date leaves ample time for a December 2 B.C. birth of Christ, the events of Matthew 2:1-9, and the death of Herod immediately following.

4. On the topic of Quirinius' census, see especially E. Schürer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh 1973) v.1, 399-427. While Schürer's conclusions are fanatically secular and wrong-headed, his excursus is invaluable for the details and bibliography he provides.

5. The absence of the Greek definite article in the initial phrase means that "census" is the predicate (i.e., "this was a census which occurred ..."). The second problem is the use here by Luke of the superlative form prote to govern the genitive case (i.e., "[occurred] 'first of' the governorship", meaning before the governorship). This usage is paralleled at John 1:15 and 1:30 in John the baptist's description of Jesus: "He was 'first of me'" (i.e., before me).

6. cf. the Cyrene edicts' use of census classifications to make jury assignments (SEG 9.8.1).

7. See especially Grenfell and Hunt's discussion of the P.Oxy. II 254, pp.207-214.

8. There was, in fact, also a provincial census in Gaul at this time (i.e., 1-2 B.C.). See the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd ed.) s.v. "census".

9. Grenfell and Hunt, op. cit., 208f.

10. We know that after being visited by the angel, Mary had traveled "to a town in the hill country of Judea" to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Lk.1:39), the mother-to-be of John the baptist who was "your relative" (Lk.1:36), showing clearly that Mary too still had kin in Judea, even though her immediate branch of the family called Nazareth home.

11. See The Satanic Rebellion Part 5: Judgment, Restoration and Replacement, section II.1, "The Plan of God in Human History: The One Central Person of Human History".

12. The argument for the possibility of "barn" is made by, e.g., the Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich Greek English Lexicon, but only half-heartedly and none too convincingly in terms of the dubious parallels sited.

13. Unlike circumcision which had to take place precisely on the eighth day (cf. Phil.3:5), no set day is given for the redemption of the first born. The Hebrew phrase used at Numbers 18:16, mibben-chodesh, suggests rather that the parents were to wait until the child was a full month old before presentation and payment.

14. See Thomas and Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (Chicago 1978) 30 n. o.

15. Thus the popular notion that the visits of the shepherds and the Magi were roughly contemporaneous is incorrect. The family flees to Egypt immediately after the Magi depart (Matt.2:13), and this fact necessitates our understanding of the first return to Nazareth as having occurred prior to visit of the Magi. For Luke 2:39 very clearly implies that the family's return to Nazareth took place immediately after presenting Jesus in the temple.

16. I am indebted to Rev. Chris Rodgers for this observation.

17. As angels are often described as stars and often appear as stars, though Matthew does not say so, it is certainly possible that the star of Bethlehem was an angel or directed by angelic agency (e.g., Rev.9:1-2; 12:4; cf. Is.14:13-14; and compare Lk.2:13 with Is.40:26).

18. In the absence of birth certificates, it is likely that the men sent to dispatch these poor children were commanded to kill all male infants who could not yet walk or speak.

19. Herod's kingdom was split between his three sons, with Archelaus receiving Judea and Samaria, Herod Agrippa (the "Herod" who interrogated Jesus) receiving Galilee and Perea, and Philip receiving Ituraea and Trachonitis (east of Galilee). Archelaus was deposed in A.D. 6, and Judea became an official Roman protectorate (rather than a client kingdom), governed by Roman procurators (e.g., Pontius Pilate).


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