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The Christadelphian | February 2012

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Watching
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Cleansing our conscience” | Fred Pearce
  • Nottingham BLC Progress report | BLC Management Team
  • Samson – a man of faith | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • The message to the seven churches 2 – To Ephesus | James Andrews
  • Questions Jesus asks “Seest thou this woman?” | Paul Aston
  • The heart and holiness of God 2 – The parable of Hosea and Gomer | Andrew E. Walker
  • “Unto us a child is born …” 4 – The visit of the Magi: “We … are come to worship him” | John M. Hellawell
  • “Sing forth the honour of His Name” Ten years of worship from the 2002 hymn book | John Botten
  • Signs of the times Syria and her allies
  • Israel and their land “Instability and uncertainty”
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

“Unto us a child is born …”

The visit of the Magi: “We … are come to worship him”

THE assumption that the Magi visited the family of Jesus in Bethlehem is based on the Authorised Version rendering of the opening of Matthew’s account:

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem …” (2:1)

The use of “when” implies synchrony but other versions render this as “Now after Jesus was born …” (ESV); “After his birth …” (NEB, REB); “Not long after his birth …” (J. B. Phillips). The timing is indicated by comparing the information in verses 2, 7 and 16. The Magi came from “the east” and said they had seen his star “in the east” which, presumably indicates the location where they had observed it, not its compass direction. It is not clear whether this was a new star that astronomers had not previously recognised or some other phenomenon. The latter appears more likely as will be seen below. Herod “inquired of them [the Magi] diligently what time the star appeared” and hence the time of birth of the child. This would provide him with some indication of the age of any potential rival and, given his attempt to destroy the possible candidates (verse 16), it is probable that less than two years had elapsed since the star appeared, for Herod would probably add some extra time, just to be certain.

Worship of a young child

We have additional evidence of the lack of synchrony with the birth because of the different words used to describe the child that the shepherds worshipped and the infant to whom the Magi presented their gifts. The shepherds saw a newborn baby, in Greek a brephos, which is confirmed by the angelic statement that he was born “this day”. On the other hand, the Magi saw a young child, in Greek a paidion, or, as we might say, a toddler. Again, this accords with the time period that Herod selected.

Another significant difference is that the Magi did not enter a stable or anything similar, but a house. The location of this house is the next issue. Was it in Bethlehem or in Nazareth? Did Joseph and Mary stay on in Bethlehem for almost two years or did they, as Luke states, return to Nazareth, “their own city”? After all, this is where Joseph’s business would be based and there were only two reasons why he had gone to Bethlehem. Firstly, scripture had stated that the Messiah would be born there and secondly, Caesar had decided to update the tax data. Once those had been accomplished there would be no reason to stay, especially if Mary was, as we have surmised, disowned by the family in Bethlehem.

“Where is he …?”

There are practical difficulties in assuming that the family remained in Bethlehem. The Magi would, quite naturally, assume that the new prince would live in the palace in the capital city Jerusalem and so it was to this location that they travelled. Note that the record does not say that they were guided by the star to Jerusalem for this would be unnecessary.

On arriving at Herod’s palace the party of the Magi would, no doubt, first arouse curiosity and then alarm. We do not know how many there were. Two would be the minimum because the word is plural, three is the usual assumption because of the three gifts offered. Given that they had probably travelled a great distance [1] with precious gifts they would have had a considerable retinue, if only for protection. When they asked to be allowed to worship the new king, Herod was “troubled”. Herod was paranoid about attempts to depose him and had murdered even family members whom he suspected of plotting against him.

When Herod had gathered all the chief priests and scribes together he demanded to know where the Messiah should be born. Was his question prompted by something the Magi had said? Herod’s ignorance of the scriptures suggests that it was unlikely that he had associated a new king with the Messiah. The answer was easily supplied from the prophet Micah: it would be in Bethlehem Judah, only a relatively short distance away. It is possible that the Magi were not present at this gathering, and it would be possible for Herod to hold a private audience for the Magi (verse 7) and suggest that they should find the child and then report back so that Herod could worship him. It is difficult to know why Herod did this. He had his own spies and secret police who could quickly locate the home of the child who had caused such a stir when he was born by the stories of shepherds and then later by the faithful in the temple and their friends who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Could it be that Herod’s paranoia made him wish to keep the matter as secret as possible? The Magi posed no threat, but if it became common knowledge that a Jewish king had been born (Herod was an Edomite), there could be an uprising and many of Herod’s men might defect and seek to depose him.

Led by the star

Bethlehem would be visible from the outskirts of Jerusalem, as it is today. We have already noted that the shepherds had no difficulty in locating the infant Jesus and his family in Bethlehem. Why then did the Magi need the star to guide them? Even more problematical is how an astronomical star could be seen to stand over a particular house? If, however, the ‘star’ was in fact a manifestation of the Shekinah glory then it could lead them, like a pillar of fire by night. Note Matthew’s description: it “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was”. If the ‘star’ led them north and eventually arrived in Nazareth then not only do we have an explanation as to why and how the star was necessary, it also helps to explain how Herod lost track of the Magi. He would expect them to return almost immediately given the short distance to Bethlehem and, when they did not, he would take action, no doubt sending his staff to locate them. They returned saying that not only could they not be found, but nobody had even seen the entourage in Bethlehem! Hence, as Matthew tells us, he “was exceeding wroth”. If the Magi had visited Bethlehem but decided not to visit Herod, it would not have been easy for them to return home without passing through or near Jerusalem unless they went south and crossed the hostile wide desert between Judaea and Mesopotamia.

Return by another way

If the Magi went to Nazareth, by this time they would be able to return home by “another way”. This would be easy given that they were well on their journey towards the “fertile crescent” through which the normal route to the east was located. It is interesting also to conjecture how two or more could “be warned of God in dream that they should not return to Herod”, unless they both or all had exactly the same dream.

Assuming that the Magi did visit the Lord Jesus in Nazareth, it is interesting to speculate what the reaction would be of the local populace when the Magi, and their retinue, turned up at the house of Joseph and Mary. The visit of the angel Gabriel and the subsequent pregnancy of Mary would not have been forgotten and now these foreign strangers had arrived! What would they make of it all?

The massacre by Herod

On the departure of the Magi, Joseph was warned that Herod would seek the young child to destroy him. Herod would stop at nothing until he had done this. He massacred all the children of two years and under, not only in Bethlehem but in the surrounding region, just to be certain. He would also have access to the temple records of the births, circumcisions and related events that could help to identify all the likely candidates, even those who came from a distance. Similarly, the Roman tax enrolment records would identify anyone who was in Bethlehem at the relevant time. Herod the Great’s kingdom extended to Galilee and even as far north as the area beyond Caesarea Philippi and so Nazareth was well within his jurisdiction. Therefore, as the divine command required, Joseph took Mary and Jesus into Egypt for sanctuary, beyond the reach of Herod, where there were thriving Jewish colonies, especially in Alexandria. This also fulfilled the prophecy, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”(Hosea 11:1). [2]

Return to Nazareth

The sojourn in Egypt would perhaps have been for about a year or so. The Lord was born around 5 BC; the exact date is not certain but is usually assumed to be between 6 and 4 BC, and Herod died in 4 BC. On the death of Herod Joseph was told to return. It seems that he was prepared to live almost anywhere in Israel but, on learning that Archelaus had acquired the tetrarchy of Judaea, he was warned by God to avoid this territory and settled again in Nazareth, the region now ruled by Herod Antipas. This was also necessary in God’s purpose for it was essential that not only should he be called a Nazarene but for the rest of his life he would be known as Jesus of Nazareth, a town from which, by common assent, nothing good ever came (John 1:46). This name also meant that it could be used to undermine his claims for Messiahship (7:52). Had he been known as “Jesus of Bethlehem” things may have been quite different.

John M. Hellawell

[1] Could they be from Babylon? Had the Hope of Israel been kept alive from the days of Daniel?

[2] This prophecy is probably best understood in these terms: “The son in Hosea and the Son in Matthew are a study in contrasts. Israel came out of Egypt, was disobedient, deserved punishment, yet was forgiven by God (Hosea 11:8-11). Christ came out of Egypt, led a life of perfect obedience, deserved no punishment, but was crucified – the guiltless for the guilty. By presenting Jesus this way, Matthew was able to mount an argument for his readers that Jesus fulfilled the ideal that Israel was supposed to have reached but never did. Jesus is the true Israel.” G.K. Beale, Themelios 32(1): 22 October 2006.


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