I fully expect some of these answers to be controversial.  Between competing traditions and the attempts to explain miracles scientifically, we have all been programmed to be a bit defensive about the timing and means of God’s workings in Matthew 2.  Here are the best answers I can find from the Scriptures, history, and reasonable speculation.

  1. Matthew 2:1 When were the days of Herod the King?

Not all historians agree, and the changing of the calendar from Julian to Gregorian confused the issue, but the best research shows that Herod died in late March or early April of 4 B.C.  These events occurred near the very end of his life—my best guess is that the magi arrived in late winter of 4 B.C.

 

  1. Who were the Wise Men from the East?  How many were there?

The Greek word for them comes directly from the Persian word magoi, referring to people highly trained and widely respected for their knowledge in astronomy (and perhaps astrology).  They would have been relatively wealthy, and would have been considered wise men indeed.  They came from the East (of Israel), which would agree with their identification as Persians.  If that is the case, they would have traveled 900-1,000 miles—a journey of 2 months or less.  They were certainly NOT kings, and we only know that there were more than 2—because they brought 3 gifts, the myth has arisen that there were 3 magi named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and that one rode a camel, one rode a horse, and one rode an elephant.  Some nativity scenes portray this, and the myth is carried on even in popular literature such as Ben Hur.

 

  1. Why did they go to Jerusalem instead of to Bethlehem?

They may not have known Micah’s prophecy, and in any case the place for a “king” is in the capital city.  Apparently they were not discrete in their inquiries, for soon all Jerusalem was aware of their arrival and purpose, and word got to Herod indirectly—not from them. 

 

4.   v. 2 How did they know the prophecy about a star, and why did they associate it with a King of the Jews?

They must have known the prophecy in Numbers 24:17 and its relation to Genesis 49:10.  It is possible, though less likely, that they knew Isaiah 60:1-3—less likely because they probably knew the books of Moses from Daniel’s tenure and ministry among the magi in the Medo-Persian Empire about 550 years earlier, and we have no indication that Daniel (or his companions) knew the prophecies of Isaiah.

 

5.   v. 3 Why would Herod, the “King of the Jews,” NOT know the prophecy about Bethlehem? 

He was not an educated, trained, or practicing Jew.  Exposure to the Scriptures came from attendance at synagogue or temple, and he certainly did not attend either—let alone have a private tutor to educate him in the teachings of the rabbis.  Though he claimed to have some Jewish heritage, he was thoroughly Romanized.

Even if he had known the answer, the question itself may have given Herod the opportunity he wanted to gather all the chief priests and scribes together in Jericho, where he had them locked in the Hippodrome (horse track/coliseum).  History records that shortly before his death, he had them locked up with orders that they be killed upon his passing, so that there would be mourning in the land instead of the rejoicing he feared would happen at his death.  Fortunately, his orders were not carried out, and the men were released instead.

 

6.  v. 6 How does Micah describe the Messiah?

The reference partially quoted  by Matthew comes from Micah 5:2 and following, where He is described not only as a ruler in Israel, but as an eternal King who will leave and then return to rule the whole earth.

 

7.  v. 7 What one question does Herod ask the magi?  What is their answer?  (Compare v. 16)  What is the significance of their answer?

This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christmas story, which makes my comments controversial.  Herod asks the magi when the star appeared, and we don’t know what they told him.  Based on whatever they said, Herod chose the 2-year time frame for the execution of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem.  As a result, most Bible readers, preachers, and scholars have assumed that their answer to Herod was “2 years”, which logically makes no sense whatever.  Herod wanted to be sure to kill the baby king, so he included all the boys two years old and under—not just those two years old.  It is inconceivable that he would choose to include those younger than the magi indicated, but ignore those older.  Any crafty king (and Herod was crafty indeed) would have included anyone remotely possible as the baby in question; so the most logical conclusion is that the magi said that the star appeared one year earlier.

The other assumption that most people make is that the star appeared on the night that Christ was born, even though there is no Scriptural reason to assume that.  In reality, the star appeared twice (see vv. 9-10)—which appearance marked the birth?  It is just as reasonable and Scripturally justifiable to assume that the star first appeared before Christ was born, in order to start the magi on their journey; just as it appeared the second time after He was born, to lead them to their destination.

 

8.  v. 8 Why do you suppose Herod sent the magi alone to Bethlehem, instead of soldiers?

We can only speculate; but given his distrust of everyone around him, (and especially so if this was very close to the end of his life,) he might have suspected that the guards might be won over by the teachings of the magi, or the presence of the Messiah.  It is also possible that the magi refused the escort, and Herod did not want to offend his only means of finding the child—though in that case, he probably would have had them followed by his spies.  Perhaps he considered them fools and didn’t believe their message until they disobeyed by not returning.  The fact that Herod sent the magi out by night indicates that he did not want anyone from Jerusalem joining them, and that he probably had a curfew enforced by guards, which depleted his numbers.  Perhaps God used his mental and physical condition to distract him from being thorough.  (We know from history that Herod attempted suicide 5 days before his death.)

 

9.  v. 9 What evidence is there that the star was miraculous and not merely an astronomical oddity?

It appeared when they were in the East, and at some point it disappeared.  (The Bible never says that they followed it to Jerusalem.)  There is no indication either Scripturally or historically that anyone else ever saw the star.  It reappeared when they were ready to leave Jerusalem (thus their joy when they saw it again).  A natural astronomical oddity could have guided them southward toward Bethlehem—but only a miraculous star could have indicated one particular house.

 

10.  v. 11 Where did they find the Christ?  Who was there?  How old was Jesus?

In a house in Bethlehem.  While Jesus and Mary were present when they arrived, it is clear from v. 13 that Joseph was there before they left.

The age of the Christ child has been caught up in the misunderstandings of the timing of the star and Herod’s order to kill the babies 2 years old and under—we are often told that He was two years old when the magi arrived.  This is often “supported” by the use of the word child in vv. 11, 13.  In reality, the Greek word used in those verses is the same word used to describe Jesus when He was a newborn (Luke 2:16-17) and when he was 8 days old (Luke 2:21).  John also used the word to refer to a newborn (John 16:21)  Without that linguistic support, and IF the star first appeared at His birth, He would probably have been about a year old.  However, it makes no sense that Joseph would have stayed in Judea for a year or more.  (It was not to hide the timing of Mary’s delivery, since she was already “great with child” when they left Nazareth.) 

And it is inconceivable that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could have appeared to Simeon and Anna in the temple without anyone knowing about it—especially with Anna spreading the word (Luke 2:38); so Jerusalem was already beginning to buzz with talk of the Messiah before the magi arrived, though the gossip had not yet reached Herod in Jericho (even with his network of spies).  The most reasonable conclusion is that Jesus had been presented in the temple just days (or even hours!) before the magi arrived—and Jesus was 40 days old when He was presented.  It is logical to think that Jesus was no more than 2 months old when the magi came.

 

11.  v. 11 What is the significance of the gifts?

Gold signified royalty; frankincense was used in the worship of Jehovah God; and myrrh was associated with death and burial.  Jesus was Divine King and our Perfect Sacrifice.

 

12.  v. 12 Why do you suppose God spoke to the magi in a dream, instead of using the star?  How did they respond?  What does this say about the spirituality of these scientists?

It probably would have confused them if the star appeared again.  What would it mean?  Should they follow it?  Did it indicate another king?  A dream from God was much more direct, especially when they were in a worshipful and spiritually receptive mode.  They obeyed implicitly and immediately, as we all should.

 

13.  v. 13 Where was Joseph told to go, and for how long?

He was told to go to Egypt until he heard from God again.  He was not told that Herod would die—only that he would seek to kill Jesus.  We have no idea how far into Egypt they went, but there was no reason for them to go as far as Alexandria or Thebes.  It is reasonable to assume that they went only far enough inside the border to be safe from Herod’s forces, who could not cross into Egyptian territory without creating an international incident.  As early as the 5th Century, 2 sites in Cairo were claimed to be locations related to the exile, and were visited by pilgrims as such.

 

14.  v. 16 When did Herod send his soldiers to Bethlehem?  What were their instructions?  Why do you suppose that this episode is not recorded in history apart from the Bible?

He waited until it was obvious that the magi were not going to return, which indicated their deliberate disobedience and his own failure to oversee them. This would have happened within days—a little longer if Herod was distracted.   However, he does not send troops to catch and kill the magi; by this time he was convinced that the recently-born “King of the Jews” was a greater threat, and ordered the soldiers to kill all baby boys in and around Bethlehem 2 years old and younger.  The number of babies and children is unknown, but would have been fairly small, since Bethlehem was a small village.  Even so, it would have been reported among the long list of Herod’s depredations, unless it was completely overshadowed by a far more significant event—such as the death of Herod himself.

Though tradition in the Greek Orthodox church claims that 14,000 children were killed, that number far exceeds the total population of the village, which was probably no more than 2,000 people.  Based on that figure, the number of murders would have been around 20 or 30.

 

15.  vv. 19-22 How did Joseph know when to leave Egypt, and where to go?

Sometime not long after the death of Herod, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to return to Israel.  The normal route to Nazareth led through Judea, but Joseph was wisely afraid of Herod’s son, and God instructed him to take a detour to get back home.  (It almost sounds like Nazareth is a new location for the family; but actually Matthew had never mentioned where they were from, and chooses to identify the town at this time in order to link it to a prophecy.

 

16.  v. 23  Where does the prophecy regarding the Nazarene come from?

Isaiah 11:1 refers to the coming Messiah as a branch, which is the Hebrew word netzer.  Apparently there was a rabbinical school that interpreted this to mean that He would come from Nazareth.  (The kabala believed in by so many celebrities today comes from the unique interpretations of just such a mystic group.)   Though the followers of this particular sect had taught this prophecy (justifying Matthew’s referring to the prophets), the teaching was apparently not widely known or believed.  Compare John 1:46 and 7:41, where the speakers express their doubt that Messiah could come from anywhere in the Galilee, let alone the village of Nazareth.

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