Jesus' Birth--Part 2
Dec 24, 2007
After Mary's purification according to the law, they returned to Bethlehem, where they stayed for another seven weeks or so. Luke's account ends here, saying only in 2:39,
"And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth."
Luke says nothing of the Magi's arrival or even of their flight into Egypt. But where Luke is silent, Matthew reveals more details between their stay in Bethlehem and their return to Nazareth.
Matthew 2:11 says that when the Magi arrived, they found Jesus in a "house" in Bethlehem. If they had planned to leave town shortly, they would probably have moved into the inn, once their fellow travelers had signed the decree of Augustus and had returned to their homes. But instead, they moved into a house, showing that they planned to stay a while.
Jesus was three months old when the Magi arrived. Matthew's account of the Magi's visit (2:9) says that Jesus was a paidion ("child"). When the shepherds had arrived on the night of His birth, Luke called him a brephos ("infant"). Some say this is proof that Jesus was already a toddler of about two years old, but the fact is, Luke 2:21 calls Jesus a paidion when He was just eight days old. So we cannot make a big deal of this difference in terminology. Certainly, paidion does not have to mean a child of two years old.
In December of 2 B.C., Matthias the high priest at that time, along with a rabbi by the same name induced some of the young rabbinical students to remove Rome's golden eagle from the temple wall. They were taught that such emblems were idolatrous, and that God would bless the students for removing the idol from the temple wall. Herod, of course, had a different opinion, and he immediately began an investigation into this crime of treason.
Shortly into the investigation, the Magi arrived from Parthia, inquiring, "Where is He that has been born king of the Jews?" (Matt. 2:2). It was bad enough that Herod was already smelling treason among the priests. It was bad enough that Herod was getting old, sick, and paranoid, as Josephus recounted. But now some Magi from Parthia had arrived with their entourage and probably with a small army to guard them and their gold--and they were all excited about the birth of a rival king.
It is no wonder that Matt. 2:3 says, "And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." Was this some sort of Parthian trick to disturb the long-held peace between the two nations that had held since 36 B.C.? Were they looking for a pretext for war? Herod called them in for an interview. There the question was answered, which the Magi did not know, for they apparently did not have a copy of the prophecy of Micah. It was discovered that the Messiah-King was to be born in Bethlehem.
The Magi had been following Jupiter, the King's Planet, in its westward movement. Between September of 3 B.C. and May of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Regulus, the King's Star, had had three conjunctions. Jupiter, in fact, formed a loop over Regulus, "crowning" the King's Star. It was an astronomical event that had great significance, because Regulus was the bright star between the feet of Leo, the lion. This is the star referred to in Gen. 49:9 and 10, when Jacob prophesied to Judah, "Judah is a lion's whelp . . . The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes."
That "law-giver" was represented by Regulus, the King's Star, for it was located between the feet of Leo, the Lion of Judah.
So when the King's Planet crowned the King's Star in the year before Jesus' birth, the Magi understood that this was the fulfillment of Jacob's prophecy. They probably had preserved Daniel's copy of the book of Genesis.
No doubt they would have had to observe these astronomical events for many months and to discuss their significance. But once they were agreed that the prophesied King had been born in Judea, they began to prepare for the long journey, finally arriving in December of 2 B.C. When they left Herod's palace, they looked up and saw the "star" (actually, Jupiter) positioned directly over Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9). Dr. Ernest Martin shows from astronomical data that Jupiter was positioned over Bethlehem (as viewed from Jerusalem) on Dec. 25, 2 B.C.
And so the Magi finally arrived in Bethlehem at the house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been staying for some months. They gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold was important because it financed their trip to Egypt.
That same night, at least one of the Magi had a dream, warning them to return to their country by a different route without telling Herod that they had seen the King-Messiah. An angel of the Lord also appeared to Joseph, telling him to go to Egypt for their protection. Joseph took the family immediately while it was still night.
In a few days Herod sent troops to kill all the children in Bethlehem. Herod only knew that the heavenly signs had begun in May of 3 B.C., with the main signs coming in September of 3 B.C. The signs, then, had been occurring for about a year and a half. Interpreting signs is a bit subjective, of course, so Herod still did not know the age of the child. He could have been born as early as May of 3 B.C. So to be on the safe side, he ordered the troops to kill all the children up the age of two (Matt. 2:16).
This would have occurred in the final days of December. Hence, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates this day on December 29, while the Church of England celebrates it on December 28. Jesus would have arrived in Egypt for his protection at the precise age of three months (Sept. 29 to Dec. 29). Moses was a type of Christ in this manner, for he too went into the house of Pharaoh for his protection at the age of three months (Ex. 2:2).
Herod died a month later on January 28 of 1 B.C., and his death was celebrated for a time as a festival. But before his death, he concluded his investigation of the removal of Rome's Golden Eagle. He deposed the high priest named Matthias, and he burned at the stake Rabbi Matthias on January 9. Josephus tells us that there was a lunar eclipse that same night (Antiquities of the Jews, XVII, vi, 4). In fact, the lunar eclipse fixes the date of this historical event, and indirectly fixes the date of the arrival of the Magi a few weeks earlier. It also shows that Jesus was born some time prior to the death of Herod.
A few centuries later, a simple Christian named Nicolas, who lived in Ephesus, thought it would be a great idea to leave some gifts on the door steps of poor people on the night of December 24 each year, following the example of the Magi. Later, the Church declared him to be a saint. And so began the story of Saint Nicolas. And the rest is history.
This is the final part of a series titled "Jesus' Birth." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones