(1) There went out a decree.—The passage that follows has given rise to almost endless discussion. The main facts may be summed up as follows:—(1) The word “taxed” is used in its older English sense of simple “registration,” and in that sense is a true equivalent for the Greek word. The corresponding verb appears in Hebrews 12:23. It does not involve, as to modern ears it seems to do, the payment of taxes. The “world” (literally, the inhabited world, οἰκουμένη, œcumenè,—the word from which we form the word “œcumenical” as applied to councils) is taken, as throughout the New Testament, for the Roman empire. What Augustus is said to have decreed, was a general census. (2) It may be admitted that no Roman or Jewish historian speaks distinctly of such a general census as made at this time. On the other hand, the collection of statistical returns of this nature was an ever-recurring feature of the policy of Augustus. We read of such returns at intervals of about ten years during the whole period of his government. In B.C. 27, when he offered to resign, he laid before the Senate a rationarium, or survey of the whole empire. After his death, a like document, more epitomised—a breviarium—was produced as having been compiled by him. There are traces of one about this time made by the Emperor, not in his character as Censor, but by an imperial edict such as St. Luke here describes. (3) Just before the death of Herod, Josephus (Wars, i. 27, § 2; 29:2) reports that there was an agitation among the Jews, which led him to require them to take an oath of fidelity, not to himself only, but to the Emperor, and that 6,000 Pharisees refused to take it. He does not say what caused it, but the census which St. Luke records, holding out, as it did, the prospect of future taxation in the modern sense, sufficiently explains it. (4) It need hardly be said that the whole policy of Herod was one of subservience to the Emperor, and that though he retained a nominal independence, he was not likely to resist the wish of the Emperor for statistics of the population, or even of the property, of the province over which he ruled. (5) It may be noted that none of the early opponents of Christianity—such as Celsus and Porphyry—call the accuracy of the statement in question. St. Luke, we may add, lastly, as an inquirer, writing for men of education, would not have been likely to expose himself to the risk of detection by asserting that there had been such a census in the face of facts to the contrary.
B.C. 9.—Sentius Saturninus.
B.C. 6.—T. Quintilius Varus.
A.D. 6.—P. Sulpicius Quirinus.
It was, however, part of the policy of Augustus that no governor of an imperial province should hold office for more than five or less than three years, and it is in the highest degree improbable that Varus (whom we find in A.D. 7 in command of the ill-fated expedition against the Germans) should have continued in office for the twelve years which the above dates suggest. One of the missing links is found in A. Volusius Saturninus, whose name appears on a coin of Antioch about A.D. 4 or 5. The fact that Quirinus appears as a rector, or special commissioner attached to Caius Cæsar, when he was sent to Armenia (Tac. Ann. iii. 48), at some period before A.D. 4, the year in which Caius died—probably between B.C. 4 and 1—shows that he was in the East at this time, and we may therefore fairly look on St. Luke as having supplied the missing link in the succession, or at least as confirming the statement that Quirinus was in some office of authority in the East, if not as præses, or proconsul then as quætor or Imperial Commissioner. Tacitus, however, records the fact that he triumphed over a Cilician tribe (the Homonadenses) after his consulship; and, as Cilicia was, at that time, attached to the province of Syria, it is probable that he was actually “governor” in the stricter sense of a term somewhat loosely used. St. Luke is, on this view, as accurate in his history here as he is proved to be in all other points where he comes in contact with the contemporary history of the empire, and the true meaning is found by emphasising the adjective, “This enrolment was the first under Quirinus’s government of Syria.” He expressly distinguishes it, i.e., from the more memorable “taxing” of which Gamaliel speaks (Acts 5:37). St. Luke, it may be noted, is the only New Testament writer who uses the word. Justin Martyr, it may be added, confidently appeals to Roman registers as confirming St. Luke’s statement that our Lord was born under Quirinus.
Of the house and lineage of David.—Others also as, for example, Hillel, the great scribe—boasted of such a descent. What, on one hypothesis, was the special prerogative of Joseph was that the two lines of natural descent and inheritance—that through Nathan and that through Solomon—met in him. (See, however, Note on Luke 3:23.) It is possible that the two nearly synonymous words, “house” and “lineage,” may have been used as referring to this union.
With Mary his espoused wife.—Many of the best MSS. omit the substantive: “with Mary who was betrothed to him.” The choice of the participle seems intended to imply the fact on which St. Matthew lays stress (Matthew 1:25). She went up with him, not necessarily because she too had to be registered at Bethlehem, but because her state, as “being great with child,” made her, in a special sense, dependent on Joseph’s presence and protection.
Wrapped him in swaddling clothes.—After the manner of the East, then, as now, these were fastened tightly round the whole body of the child, confining both legs and arms.
Laid him in a manger.—A tradition found in the Apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy fixes a cave near Bethlehem as the scene of the Nativity, and Justin Martyr finds in this a fulfilment of the LXX. version of Isaiah 33:16, “His place of defence shall be in a lofty cave.” Caves in the limestone rocks of Judæa were so often used as stables, that there is nothing improbable in the tradition. The present Church of the Nativity has beneath it a natural crypt or cavern, in which St. Jerome is said to have passed many years, compiling his Latin translation (that known as the Vulgate) of the Sacred Scriptures. The traditional ox and ass, which appear in well-nigh every stage of Christian art in pictures of the Nativity, are probably traceable to a fanciful interpretation of Isaiah 1:3, which is, indeed, cited in the Apocryphal Gospel ascribed to St. Matthew, as being thus fulfilled.
There was no room for them in the inn.—The statement implies that the town was crowded with persons who had come up to be registered there—some, perhaps, exulting, like Joseph, in their descent from David. The inn of Bethlehem—what in modern Eastern travel is known as a khan or caravanserai, as distinct from a hostelry (the “inn” of Luke 10:34)—offered the shelter of its walls and roofs, and that only. It had a memorable history of its own, being named in Jeremiah 41:17, as the “inn of Chimham,” the place of rendezvous from which travellers started on their journey to Egypt. It was so called after the son of Barzillai, whom David seems to have treated as an adopted son (2 Samuel 19:37-38), and was probably built by him in his patron’s city as a testimony of his gratitude.
Keeping watch.—Literally, keeping their night-watches, as in Matthew 14:25. Who the shepherds were, or why they were thus chosen as the first to hear the glad tidings, we cannot know. Analogy suggests the thought that it was an answer to their prayers, the fulfilment of their hopes, that they, too, were looking for “the consolation of Israel.” We may venture, perhaps, to think of the shepherds of Bethlehem as cherishing the traditions of David’s shepherd-life, and the expectations which, as we know from Matthew 2:5, John 7:42, were then current throughout Judæa—that the coming of the Christ was not far off, and that Bethlehem was to witness His appearing, as thus gaining a higher spiritual receptivity than others. The statement in the Mishna that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the Temple were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem, gives a special interest to the fact thus narrated, and may, perhaps, in part, explain the faith and devotion of the shepherds. They had been rejoicing, at the Paschal season, over the spring-tide birth of the lambs of their flocks. They now heard of the birth of “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The glory of the Lord . . .—The word suggests the thought of the Shechinah, or cloud of intolerable brightness, which was the token of the divine presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-3). (See Note on John 1:14.) Never before had there been such a manifestation to such men as these. What had been the privilege of patriarchs and priests was now granted to shepherds, and the first proclamation of the glad tidings was to those who were poor in their outward life as well as in spirit.
I bring you good tidings.—The verb is formed from the word for glad tidings, which we translate as “gospel”—i.e., good spell, good news.
Which shall be to all people.—Better, to all the people. The words point, in the first instance, to the joy which shall be for Israel as God’s “people,” and as such distinguished from the other “nations” of the world. (Comp. Luke 2:32.)
On earth peace, good will toward men.—The better MSS. give, “on earth peace among men of good will”—i.e., among men who are the objects of the good will, the approval and love of God. The other construction, “Peace to men of peace,” which the Christian Year has made familiar, is hardly consistent with the general usage of the New Testament as to the word rendered “good will.” The construction is the same as in “His dear Son,” literally, the Son of His Love, in Colossians 1:13. The word is one which both our Lord (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21) and St. Paul use of the divine will in its aspect of benevolence, and the corresponding verb appears, as uttered by the divine voice, at the Baptism and Transfiguration (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). The words stand in the Greek, as in the English, without a verb, and may therefore be understood either as a proclamation or a prayer. The “peace on earth” has not unfrequently been connected, as in Milton’s Ode on the Nativity, with the fact that the Roman empire was then at peace, and the gates of the Temple of Janus closed because there was no need for the power of the god to go forth in defence of its armies. It is obvious, however, that the “peace” of the angels’ hymn is something far higher than any “such as the world giveth”—peace between man and God, and therefore peace within the souls of all who are thus reconciled. We may see a reference to the thought, possibly even to the words of the angelic song, in St. Paul’s way of speaking of Christ as being Himself “our peace (Ephesians 2:14).
This thing. . . . which the Lord hath made known.—Literally, this word, or spoken thing. The choice of the Greek word seems to indicate that St. Luke was translating from the Aramaic.
To present him to the Lord.—This, as the next verse shows, was only done according to the law of Exodus 13:2, when the firstborn child was a son. It was obviously a witness of the idea of the priesthood of the firstborn—a survival of the idea in practice, even after the functions of that priesthood had been superseded by the priesthood of the sons of Aaron. The firstborn of every house had still a dedicated life, and was to think of himself as consecrated to special duties. Comp. Hebrews 12:23 as giving the expansion of the thought to the whole company of those who are the “firstborn,” as they are also the “firstfruits” of humanity (James 1:18). As a formal expression of the obligation thus devolving on them, they had to be redeemed by the payment of five shekels to the actual Aaronic priesthood (Numbers 18:15).
Devout.—The Greek word expresses the cautious, scrupulous side of the religious life, and is therefore used always in the New Testament (Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2; Acts 22:12) of Jewish devoutness.
The consolation of Israel.—This is the first occurrence of this word. In its general use it included the idea of counsel as well as comfort. Here the latter is obviously the dominant thought. We cannot pass over the words without remembering that the Child of whom Simeon spoke called Himself the Comforter, and promised His disciples to send them another, who should bear the same name (John 14:16).
The Holy Ghost was upon him.—The words point to a special moment of inspiration, rather than a continuous guidance.
The Lord’s Christ.—The word retains all the fulness of its meaning—the Messiah, the Anointed of Jehovah.
The parents.—Here, as in Luke 2:33; Luke 2:48, St. Luke does not shrink from reproducing what was obviously the familiar phraseology of the household of Nazareth. In common life it is almost obvious that no other phraseology was possible.
To do for him after the custom of the law.—In common practice, the child would have been presented to the priest who offered the two turtle doves on behalf of the parents. In this instance Simeon, though not a priest (there is, at least, nothing but a legend in an Apocryphal Gospel to fix that character on him), takes on himself, standing by the priest, to receive the child as he was presented. This fits in, as far as it goes, with the idea of his having been an Essene, revered as possessing prophetic gifts. (See Notes on Luke 2:25.)
According to thy word.—The reference is to the oracle which had been uttered within his soul, and was now being fulfilled.
The glory of thy people Israel.—Here, again, the language is the natural utterance of the hope of the time, not the after-thought of later years. The Christ whom Israel had rejected was hardly “the glory of the people” when St. Luke wrote his Gospel.
For a sign which shall be spoken against.—Better, “a sign that is spoken against.” In the choice of the phrase, we have again an echo from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). The child Immanuel was to be Himself a sign, even as Isaiah and his children were (Isaiah 8:18), but the sign was not to win acceptance. He was to endure the “contradiction” of sinners (Hebrews 12:3). There is probably a reference also to the words of Jehovah (Isaiah 65:2) stretching forth his hands to a “gainsaying” people. The whole history of our Lord’s ministry—one might almost say, of His whole after-work in the history of Christendom—is more or less the record of the fulfilment of Simeon’s prediction.
That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.—This was conspicuously the result of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It brought out latent good, as with publicans and harlots and robbers, rich and poor disciples, and the common people, who heard Him gladly; latent evil, as with Pharisees and scribes and rulers. And what was true of His work then, has been true in greater or less measure ever since. Wherever Christ is preached, there is a manifestation of the thoughts of men’s hearts, of their secret yearning after righteousness, their secret bitterness against it. It may be noted, however, that the Greek word for “thought” is almost always used in the Greek with a shade of evil implied in it.
Seven years from her virginity.—The words are emphasised (1) as expressing chastity prior to marriage, and (2) as excluding the thought of a second marriage.
Which departed not from the temple.—Probably some chamber within the precincts was assigned to her, as a reputed prophetess, as seems to have been the case with Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22). Her form, bent and worn, we may believe, with age and fastings, had become familiar to all worshippers at the Temple. She, too, was one of the devout circle who cherished expectations of the coming of the Christ.
That looked for redemption in Jerusalem.—The better MSS. give, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” the phrase being the counterpart of the “consolation of Israel” in Luke 2:25. Both the verbs “gave thanks” and “spake” imply continued, and not merely momentary action.
Filled with wisdom.—The Greek participle implies the continuous process of “being filled,” and so conveys the thought expressed in Luke 2:52, of an increase of wisdom. The soul of Jesus was human, i.e., subject to the conditions and limitations of human knowledge, and learnt as others learn. The heresy of Apollinarius, who constructed a theory of the Incarnation on the assumption that the Divine Word (the Logos of St. John’s Gospel) took, in our Lord’s humanity, the place of the human mind or intellect, is thus, as it were, anticipated and condemned.
The grace of God was upon him.—The words seem chosen to express a different thought from that used to describe the growth of the Baptist. Here there was more than guidance, more than strength, a manifest outflowing of the divine favour in the moral beauty of a perfectly holy childhood.
On the history of the period between this and the next verses, see Excursus in the Notes on Matthew 2.
Joseph and his mother knew not of it.—The better MSS. read, his parents, the alteration having probably been made in the received text on the same ground as that in Luke 2:33.
Both hearing them, and asking them questions.—The method of teaching was, we see, essentially and reciprocally catechetical. The kind of questions current in the schools would include such as, What is the great commandment of the Law? What may or may not be done on the Sabbath? How is such a precept to be paraphrased; what is its true meaning? As the Targum of Jonathan included the books of Joshua, Judges 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, the questions may probably have turned also on the meaning of prophecies, the expectations of the Christ, and the like. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels make the wisdom of the child Jesus take a wide range over astronomy and other sciences.
About my Father’s business.—Literally, in the things that are My Father’s—i.e., in His work, the vague width of the words covering also, perhaps, the meaning “in My Father’s house,” the rendering adopted in the old Syriac version. The words are the first recorded utterance of the Son of Man, and they are a prophecy of that consciousness of direct Sonship, closer and more ineffable than that of any other of the sons of men, which is afterwards the dominant idea of which His whole life is a manifestation. We find in a Gospel in other respects very unlike St. John’s, the germ of what there comes out so fully in such words as, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I also work” (John 5:17), “I and My Father are One” (John 10:30). The words are obviously emphasised as an answer to Mary’s words, “Thy father.” Subject unto His parents as He had been before and was afterwards, there was a higher Fatherhood for Him than that of any earthly adoption.
His mother kept all these sayings.—The repetition of words like those of Luke 2:19 is significant. The twelve years that had passed had not changed the character of the Virgin Mother. It was still conspicuous, more even than that of Joseph, for the faith which accepted what it could not understand, and waited patiently for the solution of its perplexities.
In favour with God and man.—This, it will be noted, is an addition to what had been stated in Luke 2:40, and gives the effect while that gave the cause. The boy grew into youth, and the young man into manhood, and the purity and lowliness and unselfish sympathy drew even then the hearts of all men. In that highest instance, as in all lower analogies, men admired holiness till it became aggressive, and then it roused them to an antagonism bitter in proportion to their previous admiration. On the history of the eighteen years that followed, see Excursus on Matthew 2.