There are few verses of scripture more familiar to Christians than these. We understand that this “tax” was more of a census, and I have read that by Roman law Joseph and Mary might have remained in Nazareth and registered there, but Jewish tradition declared that they should return to his — or their — ancestral home, Bethlehem, the City of David. Thus the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was fulfilled.
As to where Jesus was born, I have often heard that it was probably a cave where animals were kept, not a barn. But I recently read an article by Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” He argues something entirely different. It’s an interesting exploration, though I am not scholar enough to evaluate it. See what you think.
In any case, the fact that he was born, the angelic announcements, and the role of the shepherds matter more than the specific structure and do not depend on it for their validity or significance. Even if what our imaginations have built may be shaky in purely historical terms — good grief, we sing of “bleak midwinter,” “snow on snow on snow,” and “a cold winter’s night,” which scarcely fit the climate — the text itself is mostly clear on the essentials.
I have often reflected on the role of the shepherds in this story and heaven’s choice of shepherds for that role. Whether these were ordinary shepherds tending ordinary flocks or temple shepherds tending temple flocks matters little to our calculation of their humble station and circumstances.
As I have written elsewhere,
God invited shepherds to visit the manger that night, then bear witness – not religious, civic, or business leaders. The God and Friend of ancient shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Abel, Moses – was not just being social. He was continuing a frequent and powerful symbol, declaring both who Jesus is to us – Shepherd and Lamb – and who we are to him. (“Short Take: Shepherds and Lambs“)
Note what the shepherds did after they visited Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. They became the first missionaries of the Christian era:
When they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:17-18)
Here and elsewhere, we read that “Mary kept these things, and pondered them in her heart.” I wish we had her account.
By this point of the chapter, we’ve often stopped reading, at least at Christmas. But the stories of Simeon and Anna the Prophetess are not to be overlooked.
Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem, when he was eight days old, as the Law required, to offer sacrifice and to have him circumcised. There they met Simeon, apparently an old man, whom the Holy Spirit had promised something wonderful: he would live to see the Christ. He took the Baby in his arms and prayed.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Note that “lighten” means to give light, not, as in modern usage, to reduce weight or to lighten the shade of a color.
Anna had long been a widow. I believe the language means she was 84 years old. She too saw the Baby and, like Simeon, “spake of him to all them that looked for the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38).
It was a memorable day in the temple.
Let’s pause here to consider Luke’s possible sources for this account. The obvious possibilities seem to be Joseph and Mary themselves — and given the recurring theme of Mary keeping things and pondering them in her heart, I wonder if she was the primary source.
The boy Jesus’s experience resembles our own at least in this sense: he has to grow, not just physically but spiritually too. Yet his was also a unique adolescence: “filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.”
Mary and Joseph — and presumably Jesus — went to Jerusalem annually for the Passover. When Jesus was twelve years old, the party left for home without him. Apparently, it was a large traveling party, consisting of “kinsfolk and acquaintances.” This may account for Mary and Joseph traveling all day without realizing Jesus was not in the company.
Naturally, they returned to Jerusalem, likely in distress, to look for him. They found him in the temple. In the King James Version (KJV), he was listening to the doctors (scholars) and asking them questions. By itself this is impressive; these learned men were taking a twelve year old seriously.
In the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) the roles are reversed: “They were hearing him and asking him questions” (JST Luke 2:46). This is even more impressive.
Impressive or not, Mary has words for her son. He replies that he has been about his Father’s business. I’d love to hear Joseph’s, Mary’s, and Jesus’ detailed accounts of this episode. And the scholars’, for that matter.
Again we see Jesus growing physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually.
Luke 2 is sweet and beautiful. Matthew 2 is scary, politically charged, and a bloodbath. But before we dive into specific passages, let’s talk about footnotes and two other general matters.
Notice the Footnotes
This chapter, in the LDS printing of the King James Version (KJV), illustrates most of the different sorts of value we can find in the footnotes as we read. (The same notes are available in the online version at LDS.org or in the LDS Library app.)
- Some footnotes refer to the Topical Guide (available in the LDS publication and online), where one can explore a topic further in the Bible and our other books of scripture. For example, footnote 1a says: “TG Jesus Christ, Birth of.” Similar notes sometimes refer us to an entry in the Bible Dictionary, “BD.”
- Some footnotes give cross references to specific scriptures, as in footnote 6c, which points us to the prophecy quoted in that verse, as well as other related verses: “1 Chr. 5:2; Micah 5:2; John 7:42.”
- Some particularly useful notes, if you’re trying to understand the text, tell us how the Hebrew (for the Old Testament) or Greek (for the New Testament) might translate differently than the King James Version. (Note that we don’t have original texts in either case, but we have some very old ones.) For example, footnote 6d suggests that the Greek word translated “rule” in verse 6 might mean something slightly different — and significant: “GR tend, protect, nurture.”
- Some notes are simply explanatory. The text refers to “Jeremy the prophet.” Footnote 17a says, “IE Jeremiah.”
- The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) appears in two types of footnotes. The more common type gives an alternate text in the note, as in note 2a: “JST Matt. 3:2 Where is the child that is born, the Messiah of the Jews? . . .” Notes 4b and 23c refer us to longer passages in the Appendix to the LDS printing of the King James Version. Note 23c says, “JST Matt. 3:24-26 (Appendix).” For what it’s worth, the two books of the Bible where Joseph Smith made the most changes are Genesis and Matthew.
Matthew and Messianic Prophecy
The four Gospels cover a lot of the same ground. The first three, the “Synoptic Gospels,” have more in common with each other than with John, but each author has his own points of emphasis. One of Matthew’s is the fulfillment of prophecy. We saw it in one instance in the previous chapter, “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet …” (Matthew 1:22-23).
In Matthew 2 he introduces three instances of fulfilled prophecy in a similar manner (Matthew 2:15, 17-18, 23), and a fourth is implied in the chief priests’ and scribes’ citation of prophecy in answering Herod’s question (Matthew 2:4-6).
What the Text Doesn’t Tell Us
One of the most valuable skills for a student of any text is the ability to notice what the text doesn’t say. These first chapters of Luke and Matthew are fine places to practice this skill. They provide plenty of examples — but they seem mostly to be fairly innocent, inconsequential examples.
As nations around the world, including many non-Christians, have embraced at least some of the lore of Christmas, we have all made it our own, connecting key elements of the story to our own places, times, and experiences. This is probably not harmful, as a rule; it may even be beneficial, in that we are connecting ourselves to the sacred text.
We have also made some assumptions that the text does not support. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were, for example, but we typically suppose that there were three, because he lists three gifts.
In general, if we are careful to notice the difference between what the text actually says and the way we usually understand it — not to mention how we usually use it in our lessons and sermons — we can often mine rich veins of new insight in our studies.
This first Herod, who ruled under the Romans when Jesus was born, was friendly with Augustus, the Roman emperor. He and his family were Jewish converts, but he was not on friendly terms with the Jews. To increase his popularity with his subjects, he undertook a massive project: rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem. This began more than 15 years before Jesus’ birth and continued for decades after Jesus’ death, but it was mostly complete when Herod died, perhaps two years after Jesus was born.
He was known to be cruel. He had his wife and her two sons, as well as one of his own sons, put to death. So later in this chapter, when he orders the slaughter of the innocents, he is, regrettably, acting somewhat in character. We presume that he has by this point abandoned any reasonable expectation of gaining favor with his people, preferring instead to put down a supposed rival, despite the horrific cost.
Sometime after Jesus’ birth — perhaps almost two years — a group of wise men comes “from the East.” Whether they were from Persia or somewhere else to the east, we can but speculate. Tradition has it that there were three of them, because Matthew lists three gifts they brought, but there may have been twenty, for all we know. For that matter, the three gifts Matthew lists later in this chapter may not have been all the gifts they brought.
Among the Gospel writers, only Matthew mentions the star which guided the wise men from the East.
In the New World, five years before the Savior’s birth, the Lamanite prophet Samuel foretells the appearance of a new star, among other signs, to mark the birth (Helaman 14:1-5). It is to be a remarkable star, “such an one as ye never have beheld.” Nephi, son of Helaman, later records that the star appears (3 Nephi 1:21).
That said, I’m not sure we can assume that the Nephites and the wise men see the same star — and I’m not altogether certain that the heavenly light which guides the wise men was a star at all; see below.
Note that wise men’s arrival and their news seem to be widely known, not just to Herod and his court. “[Herod] was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod calls the chief priests and scribes together and asks them where Christ would be born, according to prophecy. The JST adds that Herod “feared greatly” — yet he did not believe in the prophecies. It also refers to this prophesied king as the Messiah (a Hebrew word; “Christ” is a synonym in Greek). So this threatened rival whom Herod fears is not just any king, but the King of Kings.
He commands the wise men to find the “young child” (who sounds older than a baby, but we might be pinning too much significance on a phrase in translation), and then to bring him word, when they have found him, “that I may come and worship him.”
Here’s why I doubt that the wise men’s star is a star at all. (I don’t question that it was some sort of light source in the heavens.) “The star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” You can get a direction from a single star, in navigation; I’m not aware that a single reference point can tell you distance as well. And if a star appears to be directly overheard, it will look that way from other locations that are miles apart. Yet this “star” — whatever it was — seems to give them precise guidance.
In any case, the wise men find Jesus and Mary — Joseph is not mentioned — and fall down and worship him. They give him gifts — at least the three gifts listed here. I am not sufficiently well versed in these gifts to know whether their some of their symbolism existed before this event or has been added since, because of this event. In any case, frankincense was used in some sacrifices under the Mosiac Law. (See Leviticus 2:1.)
An angel warns them not to return to Herod, but to depart by another route.
We don’t know whether the wise men stay for minutes, hours, days, or weeks, but they must not be too conspicuous, if Herod needs them to return to tell him the Child’s location, despite all Jerusalem being abuzz. Does he send no one to follow them and report? And where are the paparazzi?
After they leave, an angel warns Joseph that “Herod will seek the young child to destroy him,” and says they must flee to Egypt. They do so without delay.
Finding himself deceived by the wise men, Herod blows a gasket and orders the slaughter of “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts [surrounding regions] thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.” With this Herod establishes himself among the too-numerous host of the world’s bloodiest rulers.
This is our also best clue as the time of the wise men’s visit: it appears to be within two years of his birth, though not immediately after it. It’s not difficult to imagine the wise men spending weeks or months preparing for their long journey, even if they see the star from the night of Jesus’ birth. Then the journey itself may take weeks or months. So paintings of the Nativity which have both shepherds and wise men in them have a chronology problem.
Matthew notes Jeremiah’s prophecy of weeping, lamentation, and great mourning. One would not wish to dwell at much greater length on the horror, I suppose, but imagine the depth and the breadth of the anguish, when all children — or perhaps all male children — under two years of age are slaughtered by the king.
One wonders: where is John at this time? Does he have to flee, perhaps to the desert? Or is he just outside the two-year window?
Several months after the massacre, King Herod himself dies. The Romans divide his kingdom among his three sons. Archelaus is given Samaria, Idumea, and Judea (including Bethlehem); Philip is given the northeastern territories; and Antipas receives Galilee (including Nazareth) and Peraea.
The angel advises Joseph that “they are dead which sought the young child’s life,” and sends the holy family back to Israel. Matthew says that, when Joseph heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea, he was afraid to go there — which suggests that they might have planned to return to Bethlehem, or at least somewhere in Judea. Instead, they go back to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary lived before Jesus’ birth.
Matthew notes that this fulfils the prophecy that Jesus would be from Nazareth, that is, “called a Nazarene.” The immediately interesting detail here is that this prophecy is not in the Bible. Matthew must have known it from some other record.
Next week’s reading is John 1. Don’t leave it for the last minute. It’s a fertile field.
Thanks for reading!
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