(1) In the days of Herod the king.—The death of Herod took place in the year of Rome A.U.C. 750, just before the Passover. This year coincided with what in our common chronology would be B.C. 4—so that we have to recognise the fact that our common reckoning is erroneous, and to fix B.C. 5 or 4 as the date of the Nativity.
No facts recorded either in St. Matthew or St. Luke throw much light on the season of the birth of Christ. The flocks and shepherds in the open field indicate spring rather than winter. The received day, December 25th, was not kept as a festival in the East till the time of Chrysostom, and was then received as resting on the tradition of the Roman Church. It has been conjectured, with some probability, that the time was chosen in order to substitute the purified joy of a Christian festival for the license of the Saturnalia which were kept at that season.
The time of the arrival of the wise men was probably (we cannot say more) after the Presentation in the Temple of Luke 2:22. The appearance of the star coincided with the birth. The journey from any part of the region vaguely called the East would occupy at least several weeks.
Wise men from the east.—The Greek word is Magi. That name appears in Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13, in the name Rab-Mag, “The chief of the Magi.” Herodotus speaks of them as a priestly caste of the Medes, known as interpreters of dreams (I. 101, 120). Among the Greeks the word was commonly applied with a tone of scorn to the impostors who claimed supernatural knowledge, and magic was in fact the art of the Magi, and so the word was commonly used throughout the Roman world when the New Testament was written, Simon Magus is Simon the sorcerer. There was however, as side by side with this, a recognition of the higher ideas of which the word was capable, and we can hardly think that the writer of the Gospel would have used it in its lower sense. With him, as with Plato, the Magi were thought of as observers of the heavens, students of the secrets of Nature. Where they came from we cannot tell. The name was too widely spread at this time to lead us to look with certainty to its original home in Persia, and that country was to the North rather than the East of Palestine. The watching of the heavens implied in the narrative belonged to Chaldea rather than Persia. The popular legends that they were three in number, and that they were kings, that they represented the three great races of the sons of Noah, and were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, are simply apocryphal additions, originating probably in dramatic representations, and perpetuated by Christian art.
We have seen his star in the east.—Here again we enter on questions which we cannot answer. Was the star (as Kepler conjectured) natural—the conjuncture of the planets Jupiter and Saturn appearing as a single star of special brightness—or supernatural; visible to all beholders, or to the Magi only? Astronomy is against the first view, by showing that the planets at their nearest were divided by the apparent diameter of the moon. The last hypothesis introduces a fresh miracle without a shadow of authority from Scripture. We must be content to remain in ignorance. We know too little of the astrology of that period to determine what star might or might not seem to those who watched the heavens as the precursor of a great king. Any star (as e.g., that which was connected with the birth of Cæsar) might, under given rules of art, acquire a new significance. Stories, not necessarily legends, of the appearances of such stars gathered round the births of Alexander the Great and Mithridates as well as Cæsar. The language of Balaam as to “the Star that was to rise out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) implied the existence of such an association of thoughts then, and tended to perpetuate it. As late as the reign of Hadrian, the rebel chief who headed the insurrection of the Jews took the name of Bar-cochab, the “Son of a Star.” Without building too much on uncertain data, we may, however, at least believe that the “wise men” were Gentiles. They do not ask for “our king,” but for the king of the Jews; and yet, though Gentiles, they were sharers in the Messianic hopes of the Jews. They came to worship, i.e., to do homage, as subjects of the new-born King. They were watchers of the signs of the heavens, and when they saw what they interpreted as the sign that the King had come, they undertook a four months’ journey (if they came from Babylon, Ezra 7:9; more, if they came from Persia), partly, perhaps, led by the position of the star (though this is not stated), partly naturally making their way to Jerusalem, as certain to hear there some tidings of the Jewish King.
Enquired of them diligently.—Better, ascertained exactly.
Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.—These were natural enough as the traditional gifts of homage to a ruler. Compare the gifts sent by Jacob to Joseph (Genesis 43:11), and Psalm 45:8, for the myrrh and spices; Psalm 72:15, for the gold; Isaiah 60:6, for gold and incense. The patristic interpretation of the gifts as significant—the gold, of kingly power; the incense, of Divinity; the myrrh, of death and embalmment—interesting as it is, cannot be assumed to have been definitely present to the mind of the Evangelist. It is noticeable that there is here no mention of Joseph. Looking to his prominence in St. Matthew’s narrative, we must assume that his absence on the night of their arrival was accidental.
We need not ignore the fact that the narrative has been treated by many critics as purely mythical. Those who so regard it, however, with hardly an exception, extend their theory to every supernatural element in the Gospel history; and so this is but a fragmentary issue, part of a far wider question, with which this is not the place to deal. The very least that can be said is that there are no special notes of a legendary character in this narrative which could warrant our regarding it as less trustworthy than the rest of the Gospel. Why St. Matthew only records this fact, and St. Luke only the visit of the shepherds, is a question which we may ask, but cannot answer. The two narratives are, at any rate, in no way whatever irreconcilable.
Flee into Egypt.—The nearness of Egypt had always made it a natural asylum for refugees from Palestine. So Jeroboam had found shelter there (1 Kings 11:40), and at a later date, Johanan the son of Kareah and his companions had fled thither from the face of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43:7). The number of Jews who were settled in Alexandria and other cities of Egypt had probably made the step still more common during the tyranny of Herod’s later years.
And departed into Egypt.—The brevity with which this is told is, to a certain extent, an argument for the non-mythical character of the narrative of which it forms a part. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels, embodied in many forms of poetry and art, show how easily, in later times, the fabulous element crystallised round the Gospel nucleus of fact. The idols of Egypt bowed or fell down before the divine child; a well sprung up under the palm-tree that gave the traveller shelter. They were attacked by robbers, and owed their preservation to the pity of Dismas, one of the band, who was afterwards the penitent thief of the crucifixion. How far the journey extended we cannot tell. It would have been enough for Joseph’s object to pass the so-called River of Egypt, which separated that country from the region under Herod’s sovereignty.
Out of Egypt have I called my son.—As the words stand in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt,” they refer, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to the history of Israel, as being in a special sense, among all the nations of the world, the chosen son of Jehovah (Exodus 4:22-23). It is hard to imagine any reader of the prophecy not seeing that this was what we should call the meaning. But the train of thought which leads the Evangelist to apply it to the Christ has a distinct method of its own. A coincidence in what seems an accessory, a mere circumstance of the story, carries his mind on to some deeper analogies. In the days of the Exodus, Israel was the one representative instance of the Fatherhood of God manifested in protecting and delivering His people. Now there was a higher representative in the person of the only begotten Son. As the words “Out of Egypt did I call my Son” (he translated from the Hebrew instead of reproducing the Greek version of the LXX.) rose to his memory, what more natural than that mere context and historical meaning should be left unnoticed, and that he should note with wonder what a fulfilment they had found in the circumstances he had just narrated. Here, as before, the very seeming strain put upon the literal meaning of the words is presumptive evidence that the writer had before him the fact to which it had been adapted, rather than that the narrative was constructed, as some have thought, to support the strained interpretation of the prophecy.