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Messiah’s Missing Months and the Magi

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series The Curious Corners of Christmas

Copyright © 2022

by
Jim Kerwin

Not Enough Christmas Time!

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Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”1 Most of us love the Christmas season, but few of us are happy about its relationship to time. Children feel like there’s too much time to wait until Christmas morning arrives. Time-starved adults, especially parents, feel there’s not enough time, like everything is “happening at once” — special church activities, seasonal school events, work-related parties to attend, family reunions to plan, decorating, shopping, wrapping, baking, and cooking. Stress, and finally, exhaustion, seem like unavoidable parts of our annual Christmas experience, mostly because too much activity gets crammed into too little time. There’s just too much “happening at once,” but it’s our tradition. It’s how we celebrate Christmas, and that may never change this side of Jesus’ return.

But coming from that frenetic mindset, without meaning to spoil things (most especially God’s truth!), it seems like we’ve also allowed our out-of-breath, out-of-time approach to Christmas to cloud and confuse our understanding of the Bible’s true “Christmas story.” We’ve tried to cram too many events into too little time, making it so the Bible narratives “happen at once.”

Because the integrity of the Scriptures and God’s truth is paramount, we need to make it a point to hold very loosely our tradition-based perception of the narratives of the holy family, the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men. Where we don’t line up with Scripture, it’s time to change our thinking.

In almost 55 years of annually reading through the Bible, the truth that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16) has been confirmed to me many more times than I can count. I’ve always found that the safest course is to trust God’s truthfulness first, freely admit what I don’t understand or what seems to me to be contradictory, and then ask the Holy Spirit to teach me, especially in those areas which don’t make sense to me. I can testify that He has always been faithful to fulfill Jesus’ promise: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).

So what’s our quandary with the Christmas story? It comes down to a matter of time. If it’s true that “time is what keeps everything from happening at once,” then we’re going to discover that we haven’t allowed enough time between events in the New Testament’s “shepherd story” and “wise men story” to permit the Wonderful Birth Event to be accurately told. (And more than a few of us may have experienced — and dismissed — fleeting thoughts like, “Huh. This event seems to contradict that event. Oh, well. Whatever.”) Like our annual Christmas season, we’ve tried to cram too many events into too little time.

Please allow me to explain.

A Mismatched Mishmash

The way we usually tell the Christmas story is confusing. It’s like we don’t recognize what even a casual, open-minded, non-Christian reader of the Gospels notices: Matthew’s story and Luke’s recounting hardly coincide at any point!

They certainly agree completely on one fundamental point:

  • Mary’s conception was miraculous. Compare Matthew 1:18-25 with Luke 1:26-45; 2:7 (“her firstborn son”), 2:21.

There are two other items on which Matthew and Luke are thought to agree:

  • It’s commonly assumed that these writers concur that the family experienced two visits while they were in Bethlehem — that of the shepherds (Luke 2:1-21) and that of the magi (Matthew 2:1-18). So they did; nevertheless, we may be conflating two stories separated by a significant period of time, as we shall see.
  • Both record that the family returned to Nazareth, as we find in Matthew 2:22-23 and Luke 2:39-40. But we will discover that the writers don’t agree about when.

So much for points of agreement. But what about the major areas in which the stories don’t overlap, intersect, or coincide at all? Let’s take a look at the important variances.

On the one hand, Matthew completely omits:

  • the Roman census which drove the family to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-2);
  • the travel of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2:3-5);
  • the Birth itself (Luke 2:6-7);
  • the inn (Luke 2:7) and, by extension, the stable, as well as the manger (Luke 2:7,12,16);
  • the angelic visitation to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15);
  • the shepherds themselves, along with their humble adoration and subsequent testimony (Luke 2:15-20);
  • Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day (Luke 2:21);
  • and, on the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, the purification in the Temple and the prophecies which occurred during that Temple visit (Luke 2:22-28).

On the other hand, Luke doesn’t mention:

  • the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy (Matthew 1:23);
  • the prophecy from Micah 5:2 (Matthew 2:4-5);
  • the natal star (Matthew 2:2,9-10);
  • the magi’s long journey, their interview with Herod, and their worshipful, gift-laden visit to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-12);
  • Herod’s machinations and how God confounded them (Matthew 2:7-8, 12, 16-18);
  • the family’s escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), just before…
  • Herod’s murder of the innocent children (Matthew 2:16-18);
  • the family’s return from their refugee status in Egypt (Matthew 2:19-21);
  • and Joseph’s unwillingness to return to Judea (Matthew 2:22-23). (That poses a question which we will answer later: What would have caused Joseph to want to return to Judea, not Nazareth in Galilee? The plot thickens!)

Matthew and Luke are tasked with recording the amazing saga of the Son of God coming to earth as the Christ Child. We need to look at the full picture of how their scriptural sketches fit together.

As we begin to collect “time clues” from our stories, we can make note that Luke’s “shepherd narrative” clearly happens the night of Jesus’ birth. Right off the bat, Matthew makes it clear that his “magi narrative” occurs after [not “when” or “as soon as”] Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:1). How long “after” is part of what we need to determine.

Another fact we need to recognize is that neither of the inspired writers calls the magi “kings,” a status the Gospels never afford them. (In another article, we’ll look at how a wonderful Old Testament prophecy was misapplied to the magi, thus mistakenly bestowing on them this undeserved royalty.)2

Our Christmas Challenges

“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once” — that’s our starting point for reconciling the “Christmas” stories of Luke and Matthew. Our two main challenges will be these:

  1. To be careful readers of the passages, asking the all-important question: What is the context? What does each text actually say? In fact, since we need to approach our project on several different levels, we’ll have to expand our question to “what are the contexts?” Receiving light from various contexts — historical, cultural, linguistic, genre, etc. — will illuminate the narratives of these two Gospel writers and help us to uncover the divine timeline and chronology which harmonize everything.
  2. To be willing to give up cherished, but man-made, traditions whenever God shows us “a more excellent way” in Scripture. Because of our strong emotional ties to various aspects of the Nativity story and how we have celebrated the Christmas season throughout our lives, this may well be the larger challenge of the two we face.

What we’ll discover is that we haven’t allowed enough time between the two narratives. And it’s not just a little bit of time, not merely days or weeks, but months, that we’ve left out of our accounting. We are on the hunt for “Messiah’s missing months,” especially as they relate to the magi.

Fitting Together Time-Based Puzzle Pieces

As we bring the chronologies of Luke and Matthew together, we need to account for several known periods of time:

  • The 8-day period required for Jesus’ circumcision;
  • The 40-day period which must elapse for Mary’s post-birth cleansing, during which Jesus was presented in the Temple; and,
  • The roughly two-year window which Herod employed in his attempted Messiah-murdering massacre of the innocents.

Our traditional interpretation — with which we all tacitly agree by cramming Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds, and the wise men all together into our table-top nativity scenes at home — is that very soon after Jesus’ birth Joseph had to flee away from Bethlehem to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, perhaps even the same night the Babe was born.

But Luke is completely at odds with the tradition of such a birth-night-escape timeline, as we see in the two points below:

1. Jesus’ Circumcision

Anyone even casually acquainted with the Old Testament knows that circumcision was performed on a newborn Jewish male at the age of eight days. This was the Lord’s mandate to Abraham:

    • 9God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.
    • Genesis 17:9-12

Luke describes this fulfilling of the Law in the holy Infant’s life:

    • And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
    • Luke 2:21

2. Mary’s Ritual of Purification

Now the b'rit-milah ceremony of naming and circumcising could be done just about anywhere a mohel (a man specializing in circumcision) could be found, so it’s not inconceivable that this might have been done “on the run” as the family fled to Egypt. But Luke tells us about an event that occurred several weeks after Jesus’ circumcision, 32 days later, to be precise:

  • 22And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to pre­sent Him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtle­doves or two young pigeons.”
  • Luke 2:22-24

This actually gives us a fixed time-stamp in the story, because the quoted passages measure out an exact number of days after birth. First, Luke quotes from a famous passage in Exodus, and the setting was this. The angel of death had just passed over the blood-marked homes of the children of Israel, but had slain all the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:1-30). Pharaoh and the people of Egypt were begging the children of Israel to leave (12:31-33). Thus the sons of Israel, with their unleavened dough and kneading bowls “bound up in the clothes on their shoulders,” with the “plunder” of the gold and silver that the Egyptians proffered freely, marched out of Egypt with their flocks and herds and livestock (12:34-41).

As they marched, the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron that the Passover was to be an established annual feast (Exodus 12:43-51), and He issued one other decree, the first part of Luke’s quotation:

  • “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me.”
  • Exodus 12:2

That seems straightforward; but there’s hardly a “time stamp” there. No, the time-related clue is found, rather, in the quotation about the sacrifice. Where is that “written in the Law of the Lord”? We’ll find the passage in Leviticus 12. The entire chapter contains a mere eight verses; but only the first four and the last one concern us:

    • 1Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Speak to the sons of Israel, saying: ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. 3On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed.…’”
    • Leviticus 12:1-4

There are two things to observe here:

  1. Note the wisdom of God. As circumcision was usually an event which took place in the home, not the “sanctuary” which she cannot yet enter (see v. 4), the mother is free to attend since it occurs on the eighth day.
  2. Then follows a 33-day period of purification, counted from the last, that is, the seventh day of her uncleanness.3

At the end of this period — forty days in all for the mother of a baby boy — comes the next step in the process.

  • 6“‘When the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7Then he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her, and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female. 8But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”
  • Leviticus 12:6-8

So we have the obvious time clue: On Jesus’ 40th day of life, Mary and Jesus must be able to appear at the temple (“at the doorway of the tent of meeting,” a phrase which referred to Moses’ tabernacle, had long since been updated to Herod’s Temple) with a sacrifice.

Ah, but the sacrifice offered gives us another time clue! Mary doesn’t have the means to offer the standard lamb and turtledove for a burnt offering and a sin offering, respectively (v. 8). She must, as Luke points out, offer two pigeons or turtledoves because she and Joseph are as poor as most newlyweds!

How is this a time clue? Because of the forty days? Yes, that much is obvious. But think for a moment: Joseph and Mary had to offer the sacrifice of the poor. That means that the Child had not yet been the recipient of myrrh, frankincense, and gold which the magi will eventually bestow upon Him. We are forty days into the nativity and birth story, and the eastern visitors haven’t yet arrived with their gifts!

The First Return to Nazareth

Are you seeing stress cracks in our “wise men around the manger” tradition? Well, stand back, because that tradition is about to shatter completely! Luke tells us that once the ceremony of purification had been fulfilled, once they had “performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

What?! But what about the wise men visiting the Christ Child in Bethlehem? What about their dream premonition? What about the the angel warning Joseph in his dream? What about the slaughter of the innocent male children? The escape to Egypt?

We will get to that, and in the end it will all fit together nicely. (Spoiler alert! It amounts to this: Jesus’ family was in Bethlehem a second time, and lived there for a period.) But first we need to study a couple of Greek words which will help slice through a few more unwarranted constraints of tradition.

The Greek Words for “Child”

There is another time clue to guide us through the accounts of Luke and Matthew, but it’s not very obvious in English translations. Look again at the words of the herald-angel in Luke’s narrative of the shepherds:

  • “…you will find a baby [βρέφος / bréphos / newborn] wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12);
  • …so they came in a hurry and found… the baby [τὸ βρέφος / tó bréphos / the newborn] as He lay in the manger (Luke 2:16);
  • …they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child [παιδίον / paidíon] (Luke 2:17).

Bréphos (βρέφος)

Bréphos, in the New Testament, is a word used to describe a male or female4 infant before and immediately after birth. The word only appears seven times in scripture:

    • In his Gospel, Dr. Luke, the physician, employs this word to describe the fetal (i.e., unborn) John the Baptist in Elisabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41,44).5
    • Women brought their newborn babies (βρέφη / bréphē, the plural of βρέφος / bréphos) to Jesus to receive His blessing (Luke 18:15).
  • When Stephen describes the Exodus-narrative infanticide committed by the Egyptians against the newborn male Hebrews, the word he uses is βρέφη / bréphē6 (Acts 7:19).
  • Peter uses the plural βρέφη / bréphē as well when he exhorts new believers, “like newborn babies,” to “long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).7
  • Paul reminds Timothy of how blessed he was from birth, because from infancy (the insightful reading of ἀπὸ βρέφους / apó bréphous8 in the niv and weymouth translations) he had known “the holy scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15). How? One imagines Timothy’s faithful mother Eunice and his godly grandmother Lois (2 Timothy 1:5) singing psalms over and cooing Bible passages to this much-favored baby boy.
  • The other two New Testament uses bring us back around to the angel directing the shepherds to the Bréphos in the stable’s manger (Luke 2:12) and the shepherds beholding that very same Bréphos there (Luke 2:16).

The main point to remember is that the New Testament always uses this particular word of a newborn child. The word doesn’t have a sharp, time-based “expiration date,” but but we can state confidently that bréphos is used of babies still in the womb up through at least the first week of life.

Paidíon (παιδίον)

Far more common and generic in the New Testament is the Greek word paidíon (παιδίον) — child. In terms of age range, we know that it is used of children at least through age 12.

The word sometimes is used generically of a “newborn infant”; after all, a newborn is a child (but a child is not a newborn for long). For instance:

  • Regarding the “Christmas shepherds” whom we considered under the heading of bréphos, we find Luke 2:17 telling us that the shepherds “made known the statement which had been told them about this Paidíon (Child).”
  • We also find that Jesus used the term once, generically, of a newborn in John 16:21 — “…but when she gives birth to the paidíon….”9 However, this all-inclusive word is usually found on His lips when referring to children of any age.10

Without laying down a hard and fast rule, we might say that bréphosnewborn — gives way in scriptural use to paidíonchild — at some time after the baby’s first week; whether the “cut off” point was by the eighth day, the day of circumcision,11 isn’t clear. But we do find Baby John (the Baptist) being referred to repeatedly as paidíon during his b’rit-milah (circumcision ceremony on the boy’s eighth day of life) — Luke 1:59, 66, 76, 80.12

Although we don’t find either of our words used of Jesus at His circumcision ceremony, paidíon is used to describe Him during:

  • His 40th-day visit to the Temple with Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:27);
  • The visit of the magi and the subsequent escape from Bethlehem into refugee status in Egypt (Matthew 2:8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20, 21).
  • His subsequent “growing up” years (Luke 2:40).

There doesn’t seem to be an exact age when paidíon drops out of use, but the “upper end” of the range in the New Testament seems to be about 12 years of age, as in the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:39-31). However, we also find it occasionally and affectionately used of adults (e.g., John 21:5; 1 John 2:14,18).

So how does our new understanding of the words paidíon and bréphos help us to realize that there is a chunk of time missing in the “Christmas story” between the manger of Luke 2 and the house of Matthew 2? For now, we’ll just say this:

  • Only the shepherds are early enough to see the Bréphos, the newborn Infant, in the stable’s manger.
  • The magi are “too late to the party” to see the Bréphos, but nevertheless are quite delighted to worship and honor the Child, the Paidíon.13

So the magi, the wise men, came eight days after Jesus’ birth? No, much more time elapsed than that! You see, once the magi finally arrived, it was only a matter of hours until Joseph had to flee with his family to Egypt. Once the family becomes refugees, there will be no opportunity to fulfill the time-based requirements of Luke 2, events we have already considered. Thus, before the magi arrived in Bethlehem:

  • Jesus had been circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21);
  • He had been presented in the Temple at forty days of age, at the same time as Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22-24), during which time…
  • …He and his family had encountered holy Simeon and Anna, with their respective prophecy and testimony of His Messiah­ship (Luke 2:25-38);
  • and He had returned to Nazareth to meet his grandparents.14

Wait — what?! If Jesus and his family have returned to Nazareth (at least a month and half after their tax-enrollment journey to Bethlehem — Luke 2:1-5), how are the wise men going to encounter Him in Bethlehem? Good question: now you’re catching on to our “missing months” problem and its solution! So let me add this last point to the list:

  • In order to be present for the visit of the magi in Matthew 2, Joseph had to bring his family back to Bethlehem. But why would he do such a thing? (And although this doesn’t seem to be in Scripture, please bear with me.)

So thinking of our Christmas story’s “missing months,” what have we accounted for so far?

  • As we’ve seen, the “bréphos / paidíon gap” begins to pry open some time. The shepherds see the newborn infant (bréphos); the magi only encounter the older (paidíon).
  • Taking Luke’s account (Luke 2:1-39) at face value (without excuse or interruption), Joseph and Mary spent at least a half week traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, at least 40 days from Jesus’ birth to Mary’s ritual of purification in the Temple, and, say, another half week returning to Nazareth. That rounds up to nearly seven weeks, close to two months.

But how can Matthew’s account of the magi work out if Luke’s account of this early return to Nazareth is true? More detective work will be required to ferret out those missing months. We will have to turn to more contextual clues of culture and history in order to sort things out, and make some other discoveries. Some of the mystery will be unraveled, I think, if we consider another word — “carpenter” (τέκτων / téktōn) — and take into account an ongoing, pressing need a certain famous tradesman had.

Carpenter?

We often hear it said that “Jesus was a carpenter.” — “Is not this the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3). This makes sense, for He would have been expected to follow Joseph’s trade — “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55). “Carpenter” as a translation of the Greek word téktōn / τέκτῶν is partially accurate, but therefore a bit misleading. A téktōn15 was a builder or craftsman of almost any sort. Since the word only appears twice in the New Testament (in the two passages we’ve already cited in this paragraph), perhaps a quick peek at the Septuagint’s16 broad use of the same Greek word in the Old Testament would serve to enhance our understanding:

  • 1 Samuel 13:19 tells us of dark days in Israel under Philistine oppression: Now no blacksmith could be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears.” Blacksmith here is the English translation of the Hebrew חָרָשׁ (ḥā∙rāš), a word which can be translated from Hebrew variously as gem cutter, blacksmith, carpenter, and stonemason.17 Jewish scholars around 200 b.c. translated ḥārāš, blacksmith, into Greek as τέκτων σιδήρου (téktōn sidḗrou) — a craftsman of iron.
  • Those same Jewish scholars gave us an even better example of the versatility of the Greek word téktōn when they translated 2 Samuel 5:11—
  • Then Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David with cedar trees and carpenters and stonemasons; and they built a house for David.
  • Carpenter is our English rendering of the Hebrew phrase אֶבֶן קִיר (ḥārāš ʿēṣ). The LXX translators, moving this to Greek, used the phrase τέκτονας ξύλων (téktonas xúlon) — craftsmen in wood. When the translators came to חָרָשֵׁי אֶבֶן קִיר (ḥārāš ʾě∙ḇěn qîr), stonemason, their Greek translation became τέκτονας λίθων (téktonas líthōn), literally, craftsmen of stone wall.18

Did you notice the versatility of téktōn in each instance? Because it’s an encompassing, multi-discipline sort of word, téktōn / craftsman needed to be qualified with an adjective like iron or wood or stone. Without the modifier, we are left without clarity as to what sort of craftsman we are dealing with.

So what sort of téktōn was Joseph? Well, in order to construct buildings in Roman Judea and Galilee, the primary material used was stone. Wood, too, was used, but not nearly so much as we use in our lumber-framed homes of today. In Joseph’s day, wood was used for temporary scaffolding, as well as for door framing, door building, rafters, and furniture, and for various tools and kitchen utensils.

All that is to say that a téktōn was far more than a “carpenter.”19 And since Scripture gives no modifier to limit Joseph (or Jesus) to one trade only, we are safe in assuming that he could fulfill multiple roles on the job site.

An Employment Problem
with an Ironic Solution

Now our righteous, worthy téktōn, Joseph, had a problem common to young men newly married — he now had a wife to feed. And unlike most newly married righteous men, he actually had two extra mouths to feed, so to speak. He needed better, steadier, higher-paying employment. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

There being no such thing as “paid vacation” or “paternity leave” or paid FMLA20 time in those days, Joseph found himself in need of employment while away from Nazareth for multiple weeks. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem had cost him several days of pay, and there were travel costs along the way. Then during the six weeks he and Mary had to wait until she could go through her postpartum cleansing in the Temple (as mentioned above), he had to find work to support his new family.

And being in his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem, he was in nearly the perfect location to find work. Bethlehem was only four miles south of Jerusalem. All he had to do was get a job working on one of King Herod’s many building projects. Herod the Great? The ruler who, a little later in our story, will be the one trying to kill Jesus? Yes, the very man!

Herod was a king who shared the Roman passion for building things. Even discounting his many building projects remote from Jerusalem (like the fortress of Masada and the port city of Caesarea Maritima), construction projects north of Bethlehem, in Jerusalem (including the Temple and various aqueducts), were always ongoing. And just about two miles southeast of Bethlehem had been the massive project known as Herodium.21 The king was never satisfied and always had more projects in mind. And those projects always needed workers — slaves, hired contractors, and day laborers. With his array of skills, Joseph would have had no problem bringing home the… well, the necessary support for his new family.22 And since his heritage was tied to Bethlehem, he no doubt had family contacts who could have helped direct him to open positions.

Thus, Joseph would have found sufficient employment within walking distance during his six weeks away from home before his family’s first return to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).

The Second Sojourn in Bethlehem

But the magi still have to encounter Jesus — in Bethlehem! How will that happen, if, as Luke describes, the family is living in Nazareth? Simple. Joseph and his family probably returned to the capital-city area because work prospects were better.23

Why return to Bethlehem in particular? Joseph, being of “the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), was associated with Bethlehem. No doubt his post-exilic ancestors had returned to that town (Ezra 2:21; Nehemiah 7:26) and re-settled the area. Thus he likely had relatives in the area, family connections, who could help with finding both local accommodations and employment. The family wound up living in a local house (οἰκία / oikía,24 Matthew 2:11). As we’ve already noted, Bethlehem was perfectly situated for the many public-works projects providing employment.

Doesn’t that conflict with the “no room at the inn” part of the story, the crowded caravansary? Not in this new, reconsidered timeline; that no-vacancy situation had happened many months previously, during the events of Luke 2:1-20, before this return to Bethlehem, which we are proposing. No doubt being turned away by a “no vacancy” sign in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages (including Bethlehem) was a frequent occurrence during one of the three annual Jewish religious festivals. (Surely Roman efficiency and economy would have dovetailed the mandated Luke 2:1-3 census with one of these annual festal migrations.) But during the rest of the year, finding lodging would not have been nearly so difficult.

No one can be certain of the length of time intervening between the family’s first return to Nazareth and their relocation to Bethlehem. These are the time clues we are given by the Holy Spirit in inspired scripture:

  • During their visit, the magi find the family living (as we have noted) in a house (οἰκία / oikía, Matthew 2:11). No mention is made of a feeding trough (manger is the usual translation of φάτνη / phátnē), as in Luke 2:7, 12, 16,25 or a stable.
  • For some reason, Joseph seems to have been absent during the magi’s visit, because Matthew does not mention him during this encounter (“they saw the Child and his mother,”26 Matthew 2:11, again), even though Joseph played a key role in the subsequent escape scant hours later. This is another point in favor of the family’s relocation to Bethlehem, since Joseph could have been en route from work in Jerusalem. Luke makes it clear that the shepherds encountered “Mary, Joseph, and the baby” (Luke 2:16); Matthew’s account is unique because of Joseph’s absence.
  • In that house, the magi do not encounter a newborn infant (recall that the word used in Luke’s “shepherd” account is βρέφος / bréphos); no, Matthew uses the word for a young child (παιδίον / paidíon).
  • How old is that Child at this point? Based on all the information Herod could tease out of the magi during the private royal audience (“he secretly called the magi,” Matthew 2:7) about the astral phenomenon they had observed and followed, the period of their preparations, and the length of their journey (Matthew 2:7), the murderous monarch’s best estimate of his perceived rival’s age is in the one- to two-year range.27 It is on the basis of this personal intelligence gathering that Herod determined to kill every male-child in the two-years-and-younger range once he realized that he had been “betrayed” by the magi (Matthew 2:12,16).

Now that we realize that we probably are dealing with two different stays in Bethlehem, Matthew’s account of what follows the magi’s visit no longer collides with the normal-life events reported by Luke after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:21-40): the circumcision at eight days, the Temple presentation on the fortieth day, and the subsequent, back-to-normal-life return to Nazareth.

The Escape to Egypt

No, the life-and-death escape to Egypt reported by Matthew doesn’t take place on “Christmas Eve” or even “Christmas morning.” Jesus was somewhere between one and two years of age by the time the magi visited. He was at that point a paidíon, and, most probably, a toddler. Weary Joseph, after a long day’s work and long walk home, received the report from an excited Mary about the distinguished visitors who had just departed. And seeing the precious, costly gifts they had left behind, the man of the house could only marvel, offer a prayer of thanks, break his bread, and prepare for a much-needed night’s sleep.

“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet” (Ecclesiastes 5:12a), but Joseph’s well-earned slumber that night didn’t last very long. As with his namesake from nearly two millennia before, God communicated to Joseph in dreams. To Joseph of old, the Lord spoke indirectly through dreams; but when the Lord chose to speak to “Joseph, son of David,” an angel was the one who interrupted our builder’s normal dreaming with important announcements. Joseph had already experienced this when he had quietly determined to privately divorce young Mary over her pregnancy (Matthew 1:19-21). Back then, quite certain that his dream was from God, he walked in loving obedience “and took Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:24-25).

This night, only hours after the departure of the magi, Joseph had an ominous oneiric visitation:

  • Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child [paidíon] and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child [paidíon] to destroy Him.”
  • Matthew 2:13

Unlike the twice-appearing Gabriel in Luke’s Gospel, this angel is not named,28 though he gives his dream-borne counsels to Joseph a total of three times.29 And tonight the dream-angel’s command is so urgent that weary Joseph is energized into instant action.

Egypt?! Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the eastern border line of the Roman province of Ægyptus was 40 to 50 miles away “as the crow flies” — more or less where the modern-day border separates Egypt from Israel today. At a minimum, that is a two-day journey on foot. The dead-of-night urgency of the angel’s message means that wily, crafty, suspicious, cruel Herod would realize in a matter of a few short hours, perhaps by morning light, that he had been “betrayed” by the magi. He would know through his agents that those wise men are nowhere to be found in his territory. He will act with dread dispatch and sanguinary celerity:

    • Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.
    • Matthew 2:16

Dozens, if not hundreds, of male bréphoi and paidía were slaughtered before another night or two had passed, and many families were left in mourning (Matthew 2:16-18).

May we, too, as the days grow darker, learn the same sort of instant obedience exemplified by the magi and by Joseph!

Political Refugees Going Through Goshen?

    • So Joseph got up and took the Child [paidíon] and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.
    • Matthew 2:14

A departure at night not only provided the “cover of darkness,” but also some protection from the daytime heat, as they were headed towards the desert. Crossing the administrative border into Egypt was all important for safety’s sake.

But chances are good that the Egyptian border, 50 miles away, wasn’t Joseph’s ultimate destination. As he prayed and formulated a contingency plan for his family, Joseph probably had one Egyptian city in mind as a goal. Arguably the largest Jewish community outside of Judea and Galilee in those days was associated with the city of Alexandria on the west side of the Nile River delta.30 Alexandria would have provided a Jewish community and atmosphere in which Joseph’s family could take root. But at a cost — Alexandria was yet 250 miles further than the border.

Why go all that extra distance? Alexandria — that thriving metropolis, a port city, far from Herod, with a large Jewish population — might have had an extra appeal for a téktōn: it not only offered a large Jewish community, but such a prosperous city promised an abundance of employment opportunities!

And if the family did travel to and live in Alexandria for a season, consider what divine dovetailing that would add to the story. Matthew 2:15 gives us an apostolic look into fulfilled Messianic prophecy:

He [Joseph] remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.

The quotation comes straight from Hosea, where God speaks of the Exodus and the pre-idolatrous days of His people:

When Israel was a youth I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.
—Hosea 11:1—

The route to Alexandria, as well as the passage taken on the eventual return home to Palestine, would have caused the family to pass straight through the famous “Goshen” territory of Egypt’s Nile Delta land, where Grand Vizier Joseph had settled his father’s family almost seventeen centuries earlier on Pharaoh’s orders.31 It was in Goshen that God protected the sons of Israel from at least the plagues of flies and hail.32

Thus in fulfilling this cryptic Messianic prophecy from Hosea, Jesus, coming out of Egypt, is identified with all Israel.33 But there is an important difference between Israel’s journey from Egypt to the “Promised Land” and that of His Son. God didn’t send Israel by a direct route:

    • 17Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” 18Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea; and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt.
    • Exodus 13:17-18

The first “son” must journey a considerable time in the wilderness (not even counting the forty-year punishment incurred during the trek) in order to encounter God, learn His law, and learn what it meant to walk in obedience. But the second Son is God incarnate, the Giver of the Law, the One who has come to walk in perfect obedience to the Father’s will. He, along with His family, travels straight to the Promised Land.

Bethlehem a Third Time? Almost!

You will probably be as surprised as I was to discover that it seems to have been Joseph’s intention to go straight from Egypt back to Bethlehem in the Jerusalem area. Nazareth was not his initial, intended destination. How do we know that? Because Matthew 2:22-23 says,

22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he [Joseph] was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

We can certainly understand why Joseph “was afraid to go there”Archelaus was reigning.34 Other than this one mention, the Scriptures don’t tell us much about Archelaus; but history does! Very shortly after the death of his father, Herod I (the Great), Archelaus was preparing to leave for Rome to be confirmed as king of Herod’s territories. But before his departure, he manifested his like-father-like-son butchery by ordering the slaughter of 3,000 people in the Temple precincts; at the same time he canceled Passover in order to quash what he considered an uprising. (These details are given to us by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.) Thus the new-reigning son proved himself to be every bit as bloodthirsty as his murderous father.35

But the question is why did Joseph even consider returning to Judea rather than Nazareth in Galilee? For the reasons we’ve already considered:

  • He probably had family in the Bethlehem area.
  • Several weeks or months before, they had left Judea (specifically Bethlehem) in great haste to flee to Egypt at the angel’s command. They had fled with little more than the clothes on their backs (and, no doubt, the magi’s gifts, which probably came in handy during their sojourn in Egypt). Since they had lived in a house (oikía, remember?), most of their earthly belongings were probably still there.
  • The area still held “federal jobs” for a skilled téktōn such as Joseph was. His intention seems to have been to return to a place where there was steady employment and sufficient income so that he could support his family.

“He [Joseph] was afraid to go there [to Judea]” — I think this key phrase from Matthew 2:22 helps to confirm that Joseph and Mary had set up residence in Bethlehem subsequent to their first return to Nazareth (in Luke 2:39). Why else would Joseph have even considered going back to Judea, instead of “home” to Nazareth? Why? Because up until the night of their flight, Bethlehem had been their new hometown, the place where they had relocated. Considering how many “missing months” we’ve discovered, Joseph might have even had time to have built the house in which they lived in Bethlehem.

Yet despite Joseph’s family ties and abundant job opportunities near Bethlehem, Judea still was not safe for the Child. Nazareth may be of no reputation, a dismissive byword (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46); but it is Mary’s hometown, where her kin live. Yes, there may be idle talk and scurrilous scuttlebutt around the village well, and gossip may wound; but it won’t kill. Joseph’s final dream leaves him in no doubt (Matthew 2:22); he has a higher calling than prosperity for his family. He and his family will return to Nazareth for the second time (Matthew 2:23).

Consecutive Stories, Not Concurrent

Remember our starting quote? — “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” That’s what our traditional interpretation of the Bible’s “Christmas stories” has lacked — that time which keeps the magi narrative from crashing into the stable to see the Baby (bréphos) in the manger, elbowing through the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. Our “shepherd story” and our “wise men” story aren’t concurrent, but consecutive. They didn’t happen at the same time, and nothing in either narratives forces us — or allows us! — to think that they did. Rather, these narratives occur as much as two years apart. Plenty of time kept them “from happening at once.”

I’m sure I still have a few readers from “high church” tradition who may be saying to themselves, “Well, we never said that the wise men came on the night of Jesus’ birth. Of course they came later. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’ so to speak; it’s why we call the twelfth day ‘Three Kings Day.’ They came a bit afterwards.”

Although this is another non-biblical tradition, at least it has the advantage of providing a little “time… to keep everything from happening at once.” That’s a point in its favor. But the Epiphany tradition doesn’t provide enough time — not nearly enough time to keep the flight to Egypt from tripping over the presentation in the Temple after the forty days was complete. We don’t need twelve days; we need at least twelve months!

If you’ve considered and agreed with what I’ve proposed, I think we’ve found Messiah’s missing months. Allowing a second return to Bethlehem frees the Biblical account from the constraints and anchors of forcing the narratives to be more less concurrent. And “Bethlehem, part two” frees us from trying to dovetail Luke’s “shepherd story” with Matthew’s “magi story,” attempting to make one single narrative out of two thematically related, but entirely separate, incidents and timelines. Instead of suffering any longer by being tradition-forced to listen to a cacophonous “duet,” we can allow each Gospel “soloist” to sing the song given to him by the Holy Spirit.

More importantly, adding the missing months of tradition-truncated time back into the storyline, we discover the Scripture once again shining in its full inerrancy, proving afresh that “all scripture is theopneustos — God-breathed.” Unfortunately, to cling to our beloved but baseless customs might find us side by side with the Pharisees, “invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down” (Mark 7:13).

We’ve found the “missing months,” so go ahead — take the magi out of your manger scene at home. (Yes, the camels, too.) Give them their own private tableau. It will certainly make your Christmas display more biblical. And rest assured that the relocated magi won’t be offended; they’ve known the truth for 2,000 years! And, being wise, no doubt they’ve often shaken their heads in disbelief, wondering how their clear story in Matthew 2 got tangled up with the shepherds’ story in Luke 2!

Speaking of wondering, I’d be surprised if you haven’t wondered, “What does the word magi mean, anyhow?” Short answer in our context: astronomers. But the magi themselves may have been wondering for a long time, “How did we get ‘promoted’ to royalty as ‘kings’!? When did tradition decide there were three of us? And camels​? Matthew says nothing about any of that.”

Ah, well, that’s what happens when a poorly applied prophetic interpretation is “helpfully” (but erroneously) overlaid on our Christmas story. Neither “time” nor “missing months” will help us with that set of problems. We’ll have to look at all of that in another article,36 which (and I write this while cognizant of the small irony) will come another time.

“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” And once we accept that fact, and use time to lubricate the apparent friction between Luke’s shepherd narrative and Matthew’s magi narrative, all the seeming conflict between the two writers ceases. We see instead that their accounts complement each other beautifully if they happen at significantly different times. The main “puzzle piece” which allows us to grasp Messiah’s “missing months” is the recognition of the likelihood that the holy family relocated to Bethlehem, a second, longer sojourn in “the city of David.”

Allowing for that relocation helps us to comprehend Joseph’s otherwise curious initial inclination to return from Egypt back to Judea (Matthew 2:22). Joseph’s hesitation to go back to their Judean home in Bethlehem because of political danger, and the redirection to Nazareth because of divine leading, explain how there must have been two different “returns to Nazareth” (Luke 2:39 and Matthew 2:22-23). Overall, by the simple expedient of adding back these “missing months,” the inerrancy of Scripture is affirmed and undergirded.

Let’s give glory to God this season by freeing ourselves from tradition and keeping our hearts closely aligned to God’s truth as He has revealed it in Scripture!


Endnotes:


  1. This clever quotation has been wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein or various other scientific worthies. In reality, it comes from a short story titled “The Girl in the Golden Atom,” written by Ray Cummings, which appeared in All-Story Weekly magazine in March 1919. Special thanks to the Quote Investigator (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/07/06/time, accessed on 12 October 2021) for clarifying the quote’s attribution.
  2. For more on this, see the forthcoming article titled Magi, “Kings,” and Camels: A Poorly Applied Prophetic Interpretation.
  3. The period of waiting in the case of a female child until the mother’s Temple purification was 66 (33 × 2) days, after 14 (7 × 2) days of uncleanness:

      • “ ‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.’ ”
      • Leviticus 12:5

    That’s twice as long as for the birth of a male child! It must be a a clear-cut case of God’s prejudice against females, right?

    Not so fast! It might just be the mercy of God curbing the husband's pressing desire to produce male heirs. Praise God that for a woman — exhausted from childbirth, perhaps healing from perineal tearing, and regaining her strength from blood loss, and sleepless nights while nursing — the Torah affords healing time and freedom from possible “back-to-back pregnancy” for a minimum of almost six weeks while she is in recuperation.

    Yes, but what about the 14 + 66 day differential for female babies? Here’s my conjecture — enough rest for the wife and mother in a patriarchal society that particularly valued male heirs. For instance, imagine this Scenario A on night #41, after the birth of a baby boy:

    Husband: Finally we can make love again!

    Wife: I’m still very tired. Can we wait a little longer? I want to recover my full strength to bear another strong son.

    Husband: Well, you have given me a wonderful son, a healthy heir. I’m very proud of him. You’ve made me very happy. Very well, beloved, for your sake we can wait a bit longer.

    In Scenario A the happy father of a healthy baby boy might be a little more patient to re-engage in intimate relations. But contrast that with the father’s possibly reduced patience in Scenario B, on night #41, after the birth of a baby girl:

    Husband: Well, God gave us a daughter, which is all well and good. But, really, we need to get started again on producing another male heir!

    Wife: Oh, sweetie, if only we could! But the Lord has said in the Torah that we have to wait another 39 days until my purification in the Temple.

    Husband: Oh… right. I forgot. Well, um, the will of the Lord be done. {Exits}

    Wife {to nursing infant daughter a few moments after the husband has left}: Thank you, baby doll! And thank You, too, Lord, for Your Law!

  4. The Greek gender for βρέφος / bréphos is neuter.
  5. As we go through the short list of βρέφος / bréphos-related verses, it’s interesting to note that 75% of the occurrences of the word (6 of 8) appear in the inspired writings of this medical doctor.
  6. Bréphē is the neuter plural form of bréphos.

    There was a special level of cruelty that remains unspoken in Exodus 1:22—

    Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.”

    It would be cruel enough to drown a newborn baby boy in the Nile. But the Nile abounded with crocodiles, so much so, in fact, that one of the main Egyptian deities was Sobek (or Sobki), the crocodile god. I will let the reader add this tragic “two plus two” together. It’s hardly a “Christmas-y” thought; but then, neither is the Slaughter of the Innocents, which is part and parcel of the Nativity story, at least, the way we tell it. God sent His Beloved Bréphos into a very dangerous and sin-sick world.

  7. Peter even strengthens the “new-born-ness” of βρέφος / bréphos with the New Testament’s only appearance of the adjective ἀρτιγέννητος / artigénnētos — newborn. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent (Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Volume 1, s.v. 1 Peter 2:2) would have us render Peter’s phrase ἀρτιγέννητα βρέφη as just now + babes. Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon gives just born for the same adjective, which would leave us with the phrase just-born newborns.
  8. Paul’s phrase here seems to be deliberately chosen. He might have used an adverb based on the more generic, less age-restricted paidíon (παιδίον) — child. (More on that word in what follows immediately in the text.) Mark makes use of the adverbial form paidióthen (παιδιόθεν) in Mark 9:21. (In some Greek manuscripts, this word appears in an alternate spelling as paidóthen / παιδόθεν.) Jesus asks the father of the demon-possessed boy, “How long has this been happening to him?” The father replies, “Ek paidióthen,” more or less “Since he was a little boy.”

    In contrast, Paul’s word choice in 2 Timothy 3:15 is almost like saying, Since the day you were born into your household, you have been in a scripture-soaked atmosphere.”

  9. As we have just seen in Luke 2, the shepherds were sent by the angel to the bréphos (v. 12), whom they rushed to see (v. 16). But when Luke reports the shepherds’ subsequent testimony (v. 17), he uses the generic word for “young child of any age,” that is, paidíon. And in John 16:21, the “beloved disciple” quotes Jesus as using the same generic word for child and an even more generic term for the same child:
    • “Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child (paidíon), she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child (ἄνθρωπος / ánthrōpos ­– man or human being) has been born into the world.”
    • John 16:21

    The emphasis here isn’t so much on the “newborn-ness” of the child, but on the fact that the woman, having passed through childbirth, has borne a human being who will be her child (however old it lives to be!) to cherish for the rest of her life, even when it grows to adulthood (ánthrōpos / a man).

  10. See Matthew 11:16; 18:3-5; 19:14; Mark 5:39; 9:37; 10:14-15; Luke 7:32; 9:48; 11:7; 18:16-17.
  11. As we have noted, Stephen says that the Egyptians threw the bréphoi — the newborn male infants — into the Nile (Acts 7:19). But Hebrews 11:23, in relating the watery adventure of baby Moses, calls him a “beautiful paidíon” during the three-month period when he was hidden in his parents’ home. This happens to be same word that the Septuagint (the 200 b.c. translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek) uses of Moses in the corresponding story in Exodus 2:3, 6, 7, 9. Thus we note the age difference: male newborns / bréphoi were tossed into the Nile (and probably to the crocodiles); but Moses was hidden and spared by his family’s intrigues until he would have been considered a paidíon.
  12. As we’ve already noted, Dr. Luke makes the most use of bréphos, so his change to paidíon in John the Baptist’s Luke 1 storyline might be significant.
  13. There are other paidíon-related time clues in the magi narrative. At the departure of the magi, the angel of Joseph’s dreams refers to Jesus as paidíon twice in Matthew 2:13. Joseph immediately obeys (in v. 14) and takes “the paidíon (not the bréphos) and His mother” to Egypt. The same(?) angel appears to Joseph subsequently, telling him to take “the paidíon and His mother” back to Israel (v. 20); again, in obedience, Joseph “took the paidíon and His mother” back to Israel (v. 21).
  14. Grandparents​? That’s not in Scripture, you say! Having been a grandparent for nearly thirty years, I’m just telling you how the real world works!
  15. I don’t think we have an English word which is derived from téktōn directly. However, there’s a compound form of téktōn found once in the Greek New Testament, and the English word derived from that word you will recognize instantly: ἀρχιτέκτων / architéktōnarchitect! When Paul calls himself a wise master builder in 1 Corinthians 3:10, architéktōn is the word he uses.
  16. The reader will recall that the Septuagint is a Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into the Greek language. This labor of love was done around the turn of the Second Century b.c. This Greek Old Testament translation was often quoted by New Testament writers.
  17. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 3093, #1). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  18. For the Hebrew references for this paragraph, see Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 6770, #12; 74, #15; and 7815, #7, respectively). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  19. It opens up all sorts of devotional and Bible-study possibilities when we realize that Jesus wasn’t just a “carpenter,” but a man skilled in masonry, stonework, woodwork — every aspect of the building trades.

    Just about every painting I have ever seen of Jesus portrays Him with “lily white” skin, and having soft, manicured hands. Have you been in the presence of a man who makes his living as a carpenter or a mason? His skin bears the dark weathering of one who works outdoors under a hot sun. Have you ever shaken hands with such a man? His hands are massive and powerful. Apply those descriptions to Jesus “the carpenter,” the téktōn, and you come away with a very different mental portrait of the Lord.

    As for Jesus’ hands-on experience in the building trades, this thought illumines passages like…

    • Jesus saying, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18)!
    • Jesus’ statement about wise men who build their houses on rock foundations and foolish men who build on “sand” (Matthew 7:24-27).
    • Jesus’ interpretation of the “cornerstone prophecy” from Psalm 118:22. (See Matthew 21:42 ∥ Mark 12:10 ∥ Luke 20:17.) Who but a stonemason could fully appreciate the importance of the most important block in a building?! This stuck in Peter’s mind so much that he preached on the same verse before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:11).
    • Speaking of Peter, he tells us that we are “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5-6). Continuing that passage, he segues into a quotation of this famous “chief cornerstone” (vv. 7-8), the subject we just mentioned in our previous point. Peter was a fisherman. Who taught him so much about building? One guess!

  20. Family Medical Leave Act
  21. Herodium is its Latin name; in Greek it would be Herodion. This location isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, but the archaeological dig has been well preserved and opened to the public. Josephus tells us that Herod chose to be buried in Herodium. I’m not saying that Joseph would have worked at Herodium, which was largely complete by around 15 b.c. (about ten years before Jesus’ birth). Nor am I suggesting that Joseph labored on the building of the Temple, the main work of which was done by priestly masons and builders. But in this time of prosperity under Herod’s reign, there was plenty of work to be found for any skilled, motivated téktōn.
  22. Finishing that sentence with the word bacon wouldn’t have been kosher, would it?
  23. One could also speculate that Joseph and Mary might have left to escape the undeserved stigma of local gossip. Their neighbors, judging by appearance, rather than by the revelation that both Joseph and Mary had received, still would have been clucking and tut-tutting about Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Though there are many wonderful and desirable advantages of small-town life, brutal small-town gossip is not one of them!
  24. Greek geeks: For house here, Matthew used the slightly less common οἰκία (oikía), the feminine version of the somewhat more familiar masculine noun οἴκος / oíkos.
  25. The word φάτνη / phátnē appears only one other time in the New Testament, in Luke 13:35.
  26. Remember, if Joseph had a “public works” job, as we suspect, he would have had to walk about an hour home to Bethlehem after sunset from a job in Jerusalem.
  27. As a point of devotional and meditative interest, I offer this thought: If Jesus had been closer to two years of age, He may well have been speaking in sentences at this point in His life. Can I prove that? Of course not! But one can be forgiven for thinking that the Incarnate Word of God may have shown a pronounced facility in the matter of intelligent speech at an early age. Imagine being a wise man on the receiving end of a personal, verbal “thank you” from the God Child!
  28. Note that it is not “the angel of the Lord” (the reading found in the old kjv, Geneva, and Bishops Bibles), because the Greek (yes, even the Textus Receptus) lacks the definite article “the” — ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου φαίνεται κατ̓ ὄναρ τῷ Ἰωσὴφ / idoú ángelos kuríou phaítetai kat’ ónar tō Iōseph. (The phrase would read ἄγγελος / ho ángelos if the definite article “the” were meant.) Every other English translation of which I am aware (including the nkjv), as well as every Spanish translation available to me (except the older-than-kjv Reina-Valera Antigua) omits the definite article.

    We touch on this important distinction further in our Bible study Who Was the Angel of the Lord?

  29. Assuming, of course, that it is the same angel in Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13; and 2:19-20. Curiously, no angel is mentioned in Joseph’s fourth and final dream in Matthew 2:22. But that’s a study for another day, when we delve into the Greek word χρηματίζω / chrēmatízoto divinely communicate or to oracle. (We find this rendered as “warned by God” in our two passages, but the words by God are inserted by translators because the source is implied in the divine-oracle nature of the verb.)

    By the way, this is the same verb used of the warning experienced by the magi in Matthew 2:12. Chrēmatízo is a short but fascinating word study worth pursuing at some point!

  30. Alexandrian Jews must have had a sizable presence in Judea, for the reader will recall that Stephen had to contend with Alexandrians and Cyrenians in Acts 6:9. And we should not forget that the godly Jewish Bible teacher Apollos was born in Alexandria, Egypt (Acts 18:24).
  31. For more on Goshen as the “prime real estate” home of Jacob/Israel and his family in Egypt, see Genesis 45:10; 46:28-29, 34; 47:1,4,6,27; and 50:8.
  32. Cf. Exodus 8:22; 9:26. Obviously, the children of Israel were spared from other plagues, too, as we read in the early Exodus account. However these are the only two verses that specifically mention Goshen as the protected area.
  33. As He was in a different way, later, when He required John to baptize Him.
  34. Archelaus, known to his contemporaries as Herod Archelaus (Archelaus meaning ruler of the people), lived from 23 b.c. to around a.d. 18. He assumed the throne in 4 b.c. and reigned nearly 10 years until a.d. 6. Actually, he did not reign as a “king,” as had his father Herod I. The Emperor Augustus made Archelaus ethnarch over most of what had been Herod’s kingdom — Idumea, Judea, and Samaria. But Galilee was not under Archelaus’ rule, that territory having been given to his brother and rival, Antipas. Thus Galilee, including Nazareth, Mary’s town, was not under Archelaus’ jurisdiction, no doubt a factor weighed by Joseph in his final decision about where to make his family’s home.
  35. Joseph’s caution was hardly unfounded. Such was the continued cruelty of Archelaus during his reign that even the Romans couldn’t turn a blind eye forever. He was deposed by Rome in a.d. 6 and banished to what is now Vienne, France for the last decade of his life.
  36. Our working title for that article is Magi, “Kings,” and Camels: A Poorly Applied Prophetic Interpretation.
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