THE BIBLE ACCOUNTS
THE BIBLE ACCOUNTS
Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, the Romans having given an order to return to the city of one's lineage to be registered. The order was given by Caesar Augustus in 8 BC, although its effect probably did not reach Palestine immediately.2 While the order was undoubtedly for
males, they were both of the lineage of David (Matt 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38). Joseph had to go, but no doubt wanted to care for Mary. She was near the full term of her pregnancy, and he knew she was expecting a very important baby. Clearly, they decided to made the trip together (Luke 2:1-5). Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:6-7). The words translated "the inn" could also refer to "guest quarters" of homes, typically offered for use by those that had arrived to keep the autumn festivals. Apparently, the census registration was timed to occur just before them. As many as 2 million worshipers would swell the 120,000 population of Jerusalem to celebrate those days. This would explain why there
was no room at the inn, Bethlehem being less than 5 miles from Jerusalem. There were shepherds minding their sheep by night when a light shown and an angel appeared who announced to them that Christ had just been born in Bethlehem. To find Him, they were told to search for a baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:8-12). The shepherds were not told to look for a caravan of wise men, or a star hovering over a barn. A special star just above a barn would have been easy to spot, and no doubt would have attracted a crowd. But the shepherds were simply instructed to go into Bethlehem and find a baby in a manger. Notice that God chose to make this important announcement to lowly shepherds, not to important officials.
A true star is a sun, a nuclear fission furnace, that is light years away. Planets are closer, but still very far away. Go outside at night and attempt to determine which star is exactly over your dwelling, as opposed to some other dwelling a mile away. From this exercise you will quickly understand why a typical star or planet in the sky cannot serve as a marker for a specific location. This is in mainly due to the distance involved. If anything called a star were to denote a particular barn, it would have to be a supernatural glowing mass, hovering not far above the roof.
Had that occurred in Bethlehem, the report of it would have likely reached the Roman authorities.
Before the shepherds journeyed into Bethlehem, the sky opened up and they were treated to a choir of numerous angels singing (Luke 2:13-14). No doubt this was the best choir ever to perform on earth. Correctly translating Luke 2:14, they sang, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among men of good will." The shepherds then went into the small town of Bethlehem, inquired, discovered the baby Jesus lying in a manger, and became witnesses proclaiming what they had seen (Luke 2:15-20). As we'll see, that witnessing never reached the ears of Herod or the Jewish hierarchy, who simply didn't know that the King had been born.
On the eighth day after His birth, Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). After the required additional 33 days of purification for Mary (for a total of 41 days), the family appeared at the temple in Jerusalem to offer the required sacrifice (Luke 2:22-24, Lev 12:1-4, 6-8). Because they were not rich, they offered the optional sacrifice of two pigeons or two turtle doves in lieu of a lamb and one bird. Had the wise men visited them before this point, Jesus' family would have been rich and would have offered the better sacrifice. For that matter, had the wise men found Jesus in the manger of a barn in Bethlehem, they would have arranged better accommodations. While Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in the temple, a man named Simeon, moved by the holy spirit to go to the temple, took Jesus in his arms. He blessed God that he was able to see the Christ before he died, after which he blessed Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:25-35). After that, the 84
year old prophetess Anna gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Jesus to all around her (Luke 2:36- 38). After these events, Joseph and Mary took Jesus and returned to their home city of Nazareth
(Luke 2:4, 39). Luke does not mention the visit of the wise men. The next event Luke describes is
when Jesus' parents found Him speaking with the teachers in the temple at age 12 (Luke 2:40-46).
An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Joseph was told not to fear to take Mary as his wife, as she was with child by the holy spirit, and that the child should be named Jesus (Matt 1:20-21). This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23). Joseph then had no relations with Mary until after Jesus was born, but later they had four sons named James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, plus at least two daughters (Matt 1:24-25, Matt 13:55-56, Mark 6:3). We next read that after Jesus was born, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem. They inquired, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" They said they had seen His star in the east, and that they had come to worship Him (Matt 2:1-2). They did not say that they had< followed a star from the east to Jerusalem. And they would not have needed any supernatural star to lead them to Jerusalem. Besides being wise men, the routes to principal cities were well known. Arriving in Jerusalem and inquiring, they apparently thought that the location of the King whom they sought was known. But an immediate answer to their inquiry was not forthcoming.
When Herod heard of the inquiry of the wise men, scripture tells us that both he and all Jerusalem was troubled (Matt 2:3). Why would everyone be troubled about a few foreigners askin a question? The explanation is that the wise men were officials of the Parthian Empire, composed of Israelites of the so-called "lost ten tribes". A single Parthian official was known to travel with a personal army of 10,000 soldiers. It is likely that at least one official representative of each of the ten tribes had made the journey. So if several officials arrived with their personal armies, or with even just a couple such armies, everyone would know about it. And everyone might be wondering if a war was about to break out, with thousands of soldiers camped in the environs of Jerusalem. Some historical background might help at this point. The Roman and Parthian empires had fought a number of battles. In 40 BC, the Parthians expelled the Romans from Palestine. Herod, then Roman ruler of Judea, fled for his life, and returned to Rome. While there, the Senate voted him the title "King of the Jews." The victorious Parthians installed the Jewish vassal king Antigonus as ruler, and withdrew to their homeland. The Jews enjoyed freedom from Herod. But after three years, Roman forces sent by Mark Antony, commanded by his general Ventidius, defeated Antigonus. Herod was then reinstalled. Antony ordered Antigonus beheaded, and then personally mounted a massive invasion of Parthia.
Despite having 100,000 troops at his command, Antony was defeated at every turn. A truce was made between Rome and Parthia, with agreement that the boundary between the two empires would be the Euphrates River. That truce lasted from 36 BC to 58 AD, and was strictly enforced by Roman emperors Caesar Augustus and Tiberius. In 19 BC, Herod demolished the Second Temple in order to replace it with a much larger and magnificent one.3 Still, Herod was not well liked. In addition to a decadent lifestyle, he had put to death several rabbis, family members associated with multiple marriages, and other enemies.4 (One of his sons, also named Herod (Herod Antipas), would later be ruler of Galilee when Jesus was crucified.)
Given the history described above, one can understand why Herod was troubled by the unexpected visit of the Parthian wise men, accompanied by an army large enough to easily overcome his Jerusalem garrison of perhaps 3,000 soldiers. With the previous war still in the memory of many inhabitants, they would be wondering if another war was about to begin. Many may have hoped that the Romans would be forced out of Judea yet again. Herod was no doubt upset that the Parthians had ventured far beyond the agreed boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires. He likely bristled at the idea that the wise men were asking for someone who was born to be King of the Jews. After all, wasn't Herod the King of the Jews, the title conferred upon him by the Roman Senate? But Herod also knew that he was under a strict order from Caesar Augustus not to start another war with Parthia. (See the book Parthia: The Forgotten Ancient Superpower and Its Role in Biblical History by Steven Collins for
more detail regarding the Parthian Empire.)
Jesus instructed His disciples to go "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6). He did not have to tell them where the lost sheep were located. Everyone knew about Parthia.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, "the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude" (Antiquities of the Jews, 11:5:2). Other early sources state that Thomas, Andrew, Bartholomew, and Philip visited the region where "the lost sheep" resided.
Returning to the story line, Herod sought to answer the single and annoying question posed to him by the Parthian wise men. Herod convened a gathering of the chief priests and scribes of the Jewish people, and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They told Herod that "the prophet" (Micah) wrote that a Ruler would be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:4-5, Mic 5:2).
Herod then held a secret meeting with the wise men, and determined from them the timing of when the star had appeared to them in the east. Probably Herod did not want the Jewish leaders to have any idea that he was inclined to eliminate any rival King of the Jews. Herod then told the wise men that they should go to Bethlehem and search for the child. He added that they should let him know where they find him, so that he could worship him as well (Matt 2:8). We know from subsequent events that Herod had no intention of worshipping Jesus. The wise men departed, presumably heading toward Bethlehem. But at that point, the very same star that they had seen in the east reappeared, and they clearly recognized it as such. They rejoiced with "exceedingly great joy" when the star reappeared (Matt 2:9-10). It led them to a house where they found Jesus, the one born to be King. It is clearly no accident that the star reappeared to them just when they really needed better directions. How the star directed the wise men to Jesus is correctly translated in Young's Literal Version of Matt 2:9, "And they, having heard the king, departed, and lo, the star, that they did see in the east, did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was." So the star went before them. We do not read that a star flew or hovered or glowed in the daytime. If it had, it might have attracted many other folks, including those loyal to Herod. We read that the star stood over where the child was. The wise men went into a house and saw Jesus as a child and also His mother Mary. They bowed down and worshipped Jesus, and presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). Was this really a star like one sees in the sky, or some other glowing point of light? The answer to this question is readily answered by the Bible. The Bible refers to angels as stars (Job 38:7, Isa 14:13, Dan 8:10, Jude 13, Rev 1:20; 9:1; 12:4).
Even Christ is referred to as the Bright and Morning Star (Rev 22:16), and also as the Star of Jacob (Num 24:17). It is nothing but poor Biblical scholarship to read the word star and imagine this to be a literal star in the sky. The Bible is full of symbolism, metaphor, hyperbole, and other literary devices. The star was an angel, not any natural or supernatural glowing mass or object. But few think to question the established traditional story of a literal star of some kind in the sky.
It is sad that much effort has been expended by many individuals researching convergences of planets and other astronomical events proposed to be the star that the wise men saw. And why would a divine sign from God to the wise men have to be a scientifically calculated event? God has the power to create a special star or glowing light any time He wants. But in this case, the wise men did not see a special light, but rather an angel. If those researching celestial phenomena were familiar with Bible symbolism, they could have saved themselves a lot of effort. In the Bible, announcements and instructions to men are typically in the form of a personal angelic appearance, or as an angelic image in a dream. Many angels showed up for the shepherds watching their flocks, and performed as a great choir. In fact, the word angel means messenger. And there are countless numbers of these messengers available to serve both God and man. There is no need to follow some star in the sky, as hard as that might be, especially during the daytime.
Throughout the Bible passages mentioned up to this point, it is angels (messengers) who
have spoken in person or in dreams to Zacharias, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds. And next we'll see that angels will speak in dreams to the wise men, and three more times to Joseph. It's their job. If an angel makes an announcement, using recognizable language, one can act accordingly. If one sees a bright star in the sky, one must guess as to what it might portend. One would have to wonder how the appearance of a star in the sky could have led the wise men to conclude that they should get a caravan together and head to Jerusalem in search of the King of the Jews.
For any miraculous star in the sky to lead a caravan, it would first have to delay moving until the caravan was assembled. Then it would have to move at the same speed as the caravan, stopping each day when the caravan stopped to get some sleep. This would continue over the 9 to 10 weeks it would take the caravan to travel from Parthia to Jerusalem. The star would also need to lead the caravan, not in a straight line, but from oasis to oasis. The distance between Parthia and Jerusalem was 540 miles as the crow flies. However, the caravan route was about 700 miles in
length, owing to sparse water resources and difficult terrain.
Of course the wise men had not followed a star to Jerusalem. But when the star appeared to the wise men for the second time, the wise men recognized it as the same one they had previously seen in the east. How were they sure? It would be easy to be sure if it was an angel with distinctive voice, facial features, and clothing. And yes, it is possible for angels to appear as everyday men (Heb 13:2, Gen 18:1-3; 19:1-5).
Had the wise men been following a miraculous star in the sky, surely it would have led them straight to Jesus. But instead, even though they were wise men, they had traveled directly to Jerusalem and made inquiry to the Roman ruler Herod. How would Herod know about the birth of some particular child, unless everyone had been expecting and watching for the event, knowing how important it was? The wise men knew that Jesus was important. But apparently they were about the only ones who knew that the Messiah had been born, thanks to the star/angel. The Biblical account of Jesus' birth being announced to shepherds indicates to us that God did not want the news of Jesus' birth to reach the authorities right away. And for good reason, as we'll see that Herod would seek to have Jesus killed.
So did the wise men make it to Bethlehem? Had they followed Herod's instructions, they would have gone to the small town of Bethlehem. If Jesus was there, it would seem there would have been less need for the star/angel to intervene. Were they led all the way to the family home in Nazareth? That seems unlikely, as the route from Jerusalem to Nazareth is 70 miles in length. The Biblical account does not say specifically where the wise men found Jesus. Maybe He was in a< house in Jerusalem, or in fact in Bethlehem, which is 4.5 miles to the south. Yet another possibility of where the wise men found Jesus is the town of Aramathea (modern day Ramallah), which is 9 miles due north of Jerusalem where Jesus' Uncle Joseph lived.
This is where Jesus' family might have stayed on a visit to the area for any reason. Since Luke 2:39 told us that Jesus' family returned to Nazareth after visiting the temple in Jerusalem, either they were there when the wise men arrived, or they had traveled to the Jerusalem area for some reason.
During the night following their visit to Jesus, the Parthian wise men were warned in a dream to depart back to their land, and they returned by a different route (Matt 2:12). Had they found Jesus in Aramathea, this would have been convenient. Several trade routes converged there, providing the wise men and their large personal armies that different route out of the area. While they did not need to have all their military escorts follow them everywhere in Jerusalem, such forces were needed to protect them from bandit armies that raided caravans.
After the wise men had departed, Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to take his family and flee to Egypt. He arose and they left in the night (Matt 2:13-15). The gifts of the wise men would have made the cost of such a journey possible. But no doubt there was a significant surplus of gifts to be left with a trusted party. If they had been staying with Jesus' uncle on his mother Mary's side, Joseph of Aramathea, he could have acted as steward of the surplus gifts.
Joseph of Aramathea would play an important role in Jesus' life. Some historical sources claim that he dealt in the tin trade, was possibly responsible for Roman tin mining operations in Britain, and took Jesus with him on seagoing trips there and elsewhere. If so, Joseph of Aramathea was, like some Jews, a Roman citizen. The Bible tells us that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews, but did not consent to their decree to have Jesus crucified. His high standing, and the fact that he was a family relation to Jesus, gave him direct access to Pilate and a claim on Jesus' body (Luke 23:50-53).
Noting the sudden departures of the wise men right after their visit, and then Jesus' family right after that, it is again very clear that the wise men were not present at the birth of Jesus. It would have been traumatic for Jesus' family to flee to Egypt with Jesus as an infant only days old.
But what happened after Jesus' birth is as Luke described. Prior to traveling, Mary completing the 41 days of her purification after Jesus' birth. Next, the family presented Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem with the prescribed sacrifice. They offered the sacrifice permitted for poor individuals, not having yet received riches from the wise men.
Herod was angry that the wise men departed without informing him of the location of Jesus. In an attempt to eliminate this person of great interest to the wise men from the Parthian Empire, adversary of the Roman Empire, Herod gave an order. All male children in the area of Bethlehem that were two years old and younger were to be put to death. This event had been prophesied (Matt 2:16-18, Jer 31:15). The age of two years was based on what Herod had learned in his secret meeting with the wise men, regarding the timing of when they had seen the star.
We should expect that the star/angel appeared to the wise men at the time of Jesus' birth in the autumn. But for all we know, the Parthians may not have been in a big hurry to travel.
Usually dependable Roman records tell us that Herod died near the end of March, 4 BC, after a long and excruciating illness. So perhaps the wise men visited in the summer of 5 BC or 6 BC, with Christ having been born in the autumn of 7 BC, in either case making Him less than two years old at the time of their visit. Other scenarios are possible. Romans records show that the census order was given by Caesar Augustus in 8 BC, but it no doubt took some time to be administered throughout the Empire.5 We simply cannot know the year of Christ's birth with total certainty.
Research reveals many conflicting claims about the year Christ was born, often relying on interpretations of the 70 weeks prophecy (Dan 9:22-27). As they conflict, most must be in error.
In Egypt, Joseph learned from an angel that Herod had died, and that they should return home. During the return journey, likely in the summer of 4 BC, Joseph learned that Herod's son Archelaus was king of Judea, and they were afraid to go there. Joseph was again warned in a dream to take his family to Galilee, where they settled in their original home town of Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23, Luke 1:26; 2:4; 2:39). (Herod's son Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. A third son, Philip, was tetrarch of territories east of the Jordan River.)