Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 2

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Matthew 2

Supplemental Commentary:

Prelude:  The Coming of the Savior  1-2 (continued)

2, 1-12:  The Magi.    1.  Bethlehem of Judea, or Bethlehem of the land of Juda (6): to distinguish it from Bethlehem of the tribe of Zabulon in Galilee (cf. Jos. 19, 15).  It was about five miles south of Jerusalem and famous as the birthplace of King David.  On King Herod (the Great) see chapter on The New Testament Background.  Magi were Persian pseudo-scientists, devoted especially to astrology and medicine.  They were the lineal descendants of the Babylonian astrologists and soothsayers; hence they came from the East to Jerusalem, that is, from the Parthian empire.  Within the Roman empire the name was used for a less reputable class of men who were skilled in magic, such as Simon Magus of Samaria (cf. Acts 8, 9 ff) and Elymas the magician of Cyprus (cf. Acts 13, 6 ff).  The Magi of Matt. 2 were not kings; this false notion originated from the liturgical use of Ps. 71, 10 in the applied sense on the Feast of the Epiphany.  The common idea of making them three in number probably arose from the consideration of the three types of gifts that they offered (11).  Their names, "Gaspar, Melchior and Baltassar," date from the Middle Ages.    2.  In the East probably means merely "while we were in the East"; it is less likely that it means to specify the position of the star when they saw it.  We do not know why they concluded from the appearance of the star that a king of the Jews was just born.  There are hundreds of Babylonian astrological tablets which pretend to foretell events from celestial phenomena, but no known cuneiform tablet contains any forecast like this.  If the Magi understood from the beginning that the newly born King of the Jews was the Messias, they must have acquired this knowledge from the Jews of the Dispersion.  The prophecy of Balaam (Num. 24, 17) probably had nothing to do with it.  The Gospel does not say that the star was visible to them all the time and guided them on their way; from 9 we would conclude that the opposite was the case.    4.  All the chief priests and the Scribes of the people: a meeting of the Sanhedrin, but probably not an official, plenary session.    6.  This quotation from Mich. 5, 2 is cited somewhat freely according to the sense rather than strictly according to the wording of the Prophet, but the Scribes understood it correctly as foretelling that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messias.

7.  It would seem from 16 that the Magi told Herod that they had first seen the star two years before their arrival in Jerusalem.  God, however, might have revealed the star to them some time before the birth of Christ.    8.  That I too may go and worship him: obviously a lie, for the context shows Herod's real intention.    9.  The star . . . went before them: either, "anticipated their arrival," or, as seems more natural, "preceded them along the way."  That the star could point out an individual house shows that it must have been some luminous object very near the earth and therefore entirely miraculous.    11.  The house: hardly the stable where our Lord was born but a regular dwelling-place.  Joseph probably intended to make Bethlehem his permanent home (cf. 22).  They worshipped him: they bowed down in homage before Him.  This verb in itself does not necessarily signify divine adoration; but it is evident that God must have revealed to the Magi something of the nature of the Child whom they worshipped or they would not have acknowledged Him even as king of the Jews in such lowly surroundings.  Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh: evidently the most valuable exports of their native land which they thought any foreign king would be glad to receive.  The Fathers of the Church have interpreted them mystically to typify Christ's Kingship, Divinity and mortal Humanity.

2, 13-15:  The Flight into Egypt.    13 f.  The Jews had numerous colonies in northern Egypt, especially at Alexandria, where Joseph would be welcomed and where he could find a livelihood.  Since this part of Egypt bordered on Palestine, many Jews found refuge there beyond the jurisdiction of Herod.    15.  The fulfillment of the prophecy of Osee (11, 1), interpreted in a typical sense.  The Evangelist sees in the history of the people of Israel a figure of the life of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10, 1-11), both having sojourned in Egypt, and therefore he takes the Exodus of Israel, the adopted son of God, as a prophetic type of the return of Jesus, the true Son of God.

2, 16-18:  The Innocents.    16.  Bethlehem and its outlying farms probably had about two thousand inhabitants at that time; therefore the number of boys slain by Herod would have been about twenty.    17 f.  The words of Jeremias (31, 15) are interpreted by the Evangelist in the typical sense.  At Rama, a village about five miles north of Jerusalem, within the ancient borders of the tribe of Benjamin, the Babylonians first assembled the captives from Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 40, 1).  The prophet poetically represents Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, mourning for her descendants who are to be taken away into exile.  St. Matthew sees in this a figure of the mothers of Bethlehem weeping for their slain children.  Perhaps, he also has in mind the ancient tradition which identifies Ephrata, the burial place of Rachel, with Bethlehem (cf. Gen. 35, 19).

2, 19-23:  The Return to Nazareth.    19.  The text seems to imply that the angel appeared to Joseph shortly after the death of Herod.  Herod died in 4 B.C.  Christ was born about 8 B.C.  (See Commentary on Luke 2, 1 f)  If our Lord was about one year old when the Magi came to Bethlehem (cp. 7 with 16), then the holy Family stayed about three years in Egypt.    20.  Those . . . are dead: the plural signifies perhaps Herod and his accomplices.    22.  On Archelaus see The New Testament Background.    23.  The prophecy to which Matthew refers cannot be identified with certainty.  Most commentaries follow St. Jerome who thinks that the Evangelist is alluding to Isa. 11, 1, where the Prophet in a passage that is certainly Messianic says, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root."  Now the word which is here translated as "flower" is in Hebrew neser, identical with the root of the words Nazareth, Nazarene.  But since Matthew speaks in general of the prophets, other commentators think that the reference is to all those passages of the Prophets (as Isa. 53, 2 ff) where the Messias is spoken of as lowly and despised; for Nazareth was in fact a lowly and despised village (cf. John 1, 46).

Confraternity Bible:

The Magi  1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, 2* saying, "Where is he that is born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him."  3 But when King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and so was all Jerusalem with him.  4 And gathering together all the chief priests and Scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  5 And they said to him, "Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet,
6* 'And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Juda, art by no means least among the princes of Juda;

 For from thee shall come forth a leader who shall rule my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly, and carefully ascertained from them the time when the star had appeared to them.  8 And sending them to Bethlehem, he said, "Go and make careful inquiry concerning the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and worship him."

9 Now they, having heard the king, went their way.  And behold, the star that they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was.  10 And when they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly.  11 And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshipped him.  And opening their treasures they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another way.

The Flight into Egypt  13 But when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee.  For Herod will seek the child to destroy him."  14 So he arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and withdrew into Egypt, 15* and remained there until the death of Herod; that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled,
 "Out of Egypt I called my son."
The Innocents  16 Then Herod, seeing that he had been tricked by the Magi, was exceedingly angry; and he sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem and all its neighborhood who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the Magi. 
17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremias the prophet,
18* "A voice was heard in Rama, weeping and loud lamentation;

Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are no more."
The Return to Nazareth  19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead."  21 So he arose and took the child and his mother, and went into the land of Israel.  22 But hearing that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there; and being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee.  23 And he went and settled in a town called Nazareth; that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets,
"He shall be called a Nazarene."


2: His star: apparently a miraculously governed meteor.

6: Mich. 5, 2.

15: Os. 11, 1.

18: Jer. 31, 15.