A Child Is Born

Adoration of the Shepherds 
by Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, 1632
Read Matthew 1 – 2 & Luke 1 – 2

Here is how the birth of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) took place. When his mother Miryam (Mary) was engaged to Yosef (Joseph), before they were married, she was found to be pregnant from the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) Matthew 1:18 CJB

There were three distinct stages to Jewish weddings during this time.  The first, shiddukhin, involved promise and negotiation of terms, while the second and third stages were wedding ceremonies celebrating a two-part process in getting married, kiddushin and nissuin.  Because marriage is covenantal, both components, kiddushin and nissuin, were initiated with the blessing over wine. (1)

Long before any wedding ceremony, the two families came together in שִׁדּוּכִין,   Shiddukhin (mutual commitment).   In Jewish law Shiddukhin was the mutual promise, generally between the parents of the young couple (older, previously married individuals could make the promise on their own behalf) to contract a marriage at some future time.  It was the preliminary arrangements prior to the legal betrothal and included formulation of the terms (tena’im) on which the marriage would take place.  If one party committed a breach of promise, i.e., by not marrying the other party, then penalties could be imposed but no divorce was required at this stage.  (2)

Betrothal Ceremony קידושין, Kiddushin (sanctification)

The first part of the process of getting married was the betrothal ceremony קידושין, Kiddushin (sanctification).  There are several parallels between this and our sanctification as the bride of Christ. Through this ceremony the bride becomes sanctified (set apart) to the groom.

Traditionally, in preparation for this betrothal ceremony, the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan) were separately immersed (baptised) in water for a ritual purification called the mikvah, which was symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

A Jewish mikvah

After the immersion, the couple entered the chuppah (marriage canopy) – symbolic of a new household being planned, to establish a binding contract by kichah, the “taking” of a woman by a man before two Jewish men appointed as witnesses.  As that phrase suggests, the man was the active agent in the ceremony while the woman was the silent recipient.  Yet she was not without agency as her consent was required for the marriage to be legal.  The man’s “taking” of the woman involved giving to her.  He declared a blessing over the wine that was to be shared to seal his covenant vows and then the bircat erusin (betrothal blessing), as he gave his bride a coin of stipulated value: “You are hereby betrothed unto me with this gift in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”  The woman demonstrated her consent to marrying the man by accepting the money and drinking the wine.  In return for her consent the groom presented his bride with a ketubah (covenant), in which he recorded his binding obligations to her.  In Jewish law consent is required of both parties, but only the groom gives the contract, and only the bride receives it. (3)  (4)

Under the entered the chuppah (marriage canopy)

Once kiddushin was complete, the bride was betrothed and legally belonged to the groom.  The relationship created by kiddushin could only be dissolved by death or divorce, and any sexual relations outside of that relationship were subject to the laws of adultery and punishable by death (Deut. 22:23-24).  However, the spouses did not become physically intimate or live together during their time of betrothal, the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship did not take effect until about a year later when the final stage of the wedding ceremony, nisuin, was completed.  During their engagement the groom was to prepare a place for his bride, generally this was done by building an extra room for them onto his father’s house.  While the groom was doing this, his bride focused on her personal preparations: wedding garments, lamps, and all that was required to be ready when the groom’s father gave the word and he came to lift her up and take her to the wedding feast at his home.  It was during this time of her betrothal to Yosef that Miryam was found to be pregnant. (5)

Scandal in Nazareth…

Can you imagine the scandal in the little religiously conservative town of Nazareth when one of their teenage girls got pregnant during her betrothal?  “The law says she should be stoned!”  Everyone had thought Miryam (Mary) was a good and devout young woman who would make a suitable wife for the pious carpenter Yosef (Joseph), to whom she was engaged.  That was until they found out that she was pregnant.  Word travels quickly in a village. The whole town felt betrayed.  This was a close-knit community and their young women remained chaste.  How many people would believe a young woman’s defence that she had not been with a man but was impregnated by God Himself?  As far as they were concerned, Miryam had brought shame upon herself and upon them.   With her pregnancy the only proof needed of her guilt, the pressure mounted for Yosef to avenge his good name by having her stoned, but this righteous man would have none of that.

Her husband-to-be, Yosef, was a man who did what was right; so he made plans to break the engagement quietly, rather than put her to public shame.  But while he was thinking about this, an angel of ADONAI (the Lord) appeared to him in a dream and said,

“Yosef, son of David, do not be afraid to take Miryam home with you as your wife; for what has been conceived in her is from the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).  She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Yeshua, [which means `ADONAI saves,’] because he will save his people from their sins.” 

All this happened in order to fulfill what ADONAI had said through the prophet, 

“The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him `ImmanuEl.” (The name means, “God is with us.”) 

When Yosef awoke he did what the angel of ADONAI had told him to do — he took Miryam home to be his wife, but he did not have sexual relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Yeshua.   Matthew 1:19-25 CJB

נישואין Nissuin – Joseph took Mary home as his wife…

The final step in getting married was נישואין, Nissuin (to take, from naso, to lift up as in an elevation of status), the actual marriage.  At this time the groom, with much noise, fanfare and romance, carried his bride home to the place that he had prepared for her and the feast he had prepared for all their guests.  The couple would again stand under the chuppah (wedding canopy) while an officiant recited the seven marriage blessings.  The groom again recited a blessing over the wine (a symbol of joy) and they would both drink from the cup before retiring to the privacy of a room to consummate their marriage.  In contrast to kiddushin, the transformation of nissuin was accomplished in a private room.  Nissuin was not about giving promises in front of witnesses or establishing a legal bond in the community, but about fulfilling those promises through the couple’s togetherness in the hidden place, yichud.  As opposed to kiddushin, nissuin positively permits – indeed commands – sexual intercourse between bride and groom.   Once this was accomplished the wedding feast, seudah, might continue in great joy for days of feasting, music, dancing and celebrations. (6) (7)

After an angle of the Lord appeared to Yosef, not only did he refuse to seek revenge against Miryam, hestepped up to be Miryam’s protector and defender, taking her home to be his wife and thus covering her shame of being pregnant outside of wedlock.  Yosef undertook nissuin in carrying his bride home to be his wife but did not yet complete the process.  No doubt there were some tongues that would not be so easily quietened in their gossip and backbiting.  The snide remarks whispered condemnations and disparaging glances likely continued.  The transformation of nissuin was not yet accomplished.  Yosef had no sexual relations with Miryam until after Yeshua was born.  And so it was that Luke wrote of Miryam still in terms of being pledged to Yosef in marriage, because the marriage had not yet been consummated, even though they had celebrated both public ceremonies of marriage and were now living together as husband and wife in every other way.

To Bethlehem …

Mary & Joseph travel together to Bethlehem
Yosef took Miryam to Bethlehem with him

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  This was the first census to take place whilea Quirinius was governor ofb Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the City of David called Bethlehem, since he was from the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to him in marriage and was expecting a child.                     Luke 2:1-5
a Or ‘This was the census before’
b Or ‘governing in’

There was no legal requirement for Miryam to accompany Yosef to Bethlehem, but it provided the perfect opportunity to escape the bitter tongues and veiled threats to her “bastard child” from those in the village of Nazareth who were still scandalised by her presumed adultery while engaged.  Few would believe that a teenage girl had encountered God, and not a teenage boy.  The angel in Yosef’s dream had convinced him, but how many others remained unconvinced?  The only way for Yosef to protect Miryam was to take her with him to Bethlehem.  There she could simply be presented as his wife and all would rejoice at the impending birth of ‘their’ child.

It was a walk of about 130km and, for safety’s sake, would have been undertaken with others who also had to travel for the census.  The evidence suggests that they were planning this to be a permanent move, so they likely carried all their worldly possessions with them, particularly Yosef’s tools for his trade as a carpenter (builder). The walk included a particularly steep and rough climb from Jericho down in the Jordan valley, 258m below sea level, up the mountain range to Jerusalem, 754m above sea level, and then another 10km over the fertile limestone hills to the south of the city until they arrived at Bethlehem, another 30m higher, on a hilltop ridge near the edge of the Judean desert.

The Roman Census…

There were at least two Roman censuses towards the end of Herod’s reign – one in around 8 – 7 BC and one around 2 BC   (N.B. there is contention among historians over the exact year for almost everything during these ancient times – different sources give slightly different years).

The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded in Antiquities of the Jews, XVI, ix 3, that Caesar Augustus was furious with Herod in 8 BC and threatened to treat him no longer as a friend (“client” – collecting his own taxes and paying a tribute to Rome from them), but as a subject (subject to Roman taxation).  It has been suggested that Augustus, scandalized by Herod’s outrageous reputation and increasing madness, began the movement toward making Judea a prefecture in 8 BC, and part of that preparation was a registration of all citizens. Quirinius was a high official in central Asia Minor in 8 BC, and in charge of the army in Syria.

The second census, this one associated with an oath of allegiance, was ordered throughout the Roman Empire in preparation for Augustus’ silver jubilee in February, 2 BC.  This celebration marked the 25th anniversary of Augustus’ elevation to supreme power by the Senate and people of Rome. It was also the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. At this celebration, the Senate conferred upon him the title Pater Patriae (“Father of [his] Country”). The year before, Augustus sent out a decree requiring “the entire Roman people” throughout the empire to register their approval for the bestowal of this honour (T. Lewin, Fasti Sacri [1865] 135). This registration was required of all Roman citizens and others of distinguished rank among Rome’s client kingdoms such as Judea.  In Antiquites 17, Josephus mentions that at this time “all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government.”  This suggests that the pharisaic school of Bet Hillel still held sway in the Sanhedrin at this time, with their middle path of honouring both God and their heathen rulers for the sake of their nation’s safety and freedom of religion. Josephus further records that there were six thousand Pharisees who refused to swear the oath.  We have already noted that the Shammaites would not bow to Roman rule. This becomes significant as the scene is prepared for Christ’s ministry. (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13)

In Bethlehem Christ is born…

Luke records that Yosef and Miryam travelled to Bethlehem (the City of David) because Yosef’s family came from this hilltop town where King David had also been born (Ruth 4:18-22 & 1 Samuel 1:12) and anointed as king (1 Samuel 16:1-13).   

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (κατάλυμα).  Luke 2:6-7 NIV

Yosef and Miryam had arrived in Bethlehem well before she was due to give birth.  They had been welcomed by Yosef’s family and community, taken up residence and started settling into community life when it came time for Miryam to give birth. κατάλυμα (‘kataluma’), the Greek word that is translated as “inn” here, is translated “guest room” everywhere else that it is used in scripture (Mark 14:14 & Luke 22:11).

Floorplan of a Jewish home

Significantly, the Arabic and Syriac versions of the New Testament, which reflect more of a Middle Eastern context, have never translated kataluma as meaning an inn, but instead as a guest room.  Furthermore, Luke elsewhere in his Gospel when referring to an actual inn (Luke 10:34) uses the Greek word pandokheion, not kataluma.  As Kenneth Bailey, a Middle Eastern and New Testament scholar points out, “This translation [of the word as ‘inn’] is a product of our Western heritage.” (14) 

Alternate floor plan of Jewish home

While Romans and other foreign travellers often stayed in roadside hostelries or ‘inns’, Jews stayed in the homes of relatives or other Jews when travelling so as to avoid contact with pagan foods and customs (see Leviticus 11:1-47).   Another reason for doubting that Yosef and Miriam sort shelter in an inn is that, for commercial reasons, these were situated on the major trading routes, and no such route passed through the little town of Bethlehem. Thus, no inn.  Most importantly, when Yosef returned to Bethlehem with Miriam he was honour bound to seek out his relatives and stay with them.  When a Jewish son returned to his village, the village of his fathers, it brought much joy and warm welcoming into the home of his relatives. (15)

Although there was some variation in floor plan, peasant houses in Yeshua’s day generally catered for the family’s livestock as well as the people, all under the one roof.   Often the family’s living area was just slightly raised from the area for their livestock.  Sometimes it was on a second story.   When they could afford it a guest room (kataluma) was added, either to the side or above the family’s quarters.  There was usually a manger (feeding trough) for the larger animals towards the end of the living room floor next to the lower level where the animals were kept.   The animals were brought in at dusk, then let out first thing in the morning and their area cleaned-out for use by the family during the rest of the day. (16)

Finding that there was no room left for them in Yosef’s family’s guest-room – it being already filled with other relatives who had earlier returned to Bethlehem for the Census – Yosef and Miryam would have been asked to share the family area next to where animals were normally kept.   Having them stay anywhere other than with Yosef’s family would have been unthinkable, regardless of how crowded the conditions there might be. (17) (18)

While they were living with Yosef’s relatives in Bethlehem the time came for Miryam’s baby to be born (Luke 2:6).   Birthing was woman’s business.  The midwife would have been called and all the female relatives gathered around to help with the delivery, while Yosef was sent off to a neighbour’s house with the men.  The midwife may have brought a birthing stool with her, otherwise one or two of the women would have performed the role of the birthing stool with Miryam on their lap, supported and held during the contractions, while the midwife sat on a low stool facing her to check on progress and catch the baby.  They may have used the ledge from the slightly raised living room to the lower animal area to provide the somewhat upright, somewhat seated position for birthing, with the midwife sitting on her low stool down in the animal area to monitor the baby’s progress and receive him into the world.  Other women would have been applying wet cloths, heating water, massaging and encouraging.   To make delivery easier, “all the ties and knots in a woman’s garments were undone and all doors in the house were opened wide.” (19)

After the umbilical cord was cut, the baby was washed with water and rubbed with finely ground salt, then warm olive oil was applied and he was powdered with pulverised myrtle leaves.  His limbs were then straightened “so they would grow properly” and he was wrapped firmly in swaddling bands.  Since there were no nappies, being swaddled like this would not last for long.   Right next to where Miryam gave birth was the manger, animal’s feed trough, with fresh soft hay, so when she had fed her new-born baby and held him, marvelling at this perfect new life, and Yosef had been brought back in and introduced to ‘his’ son, Miryam laid Yeshua in the manger.

An Angel Announces the Saviour’s Birth…

In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, when an angel of ADONAI appeared to them, and the Sh’khinah of ADONAI shone around them. They were terrified; but the angel said to them,
“Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord. Here is how you will know: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”    Luke 2:8-12 CJB

Sheep grazing on the hills near Bethlehem

The “glory of the Lord” shone around the shepherds. This glory of the Lord is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Shechinah Glory and Ezekiel 8-11 describes it leaving the First Temple before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587/6 BC.  Nowhere in Scripture, nor in extra-biblical Jewish literature, is it stated that the glory of the Lord, His divine presence, filled the Second Temple as it had the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35) and the First Temple (1K. 8:10-11; 2Chr. 5:13-14; 2Chr. 7:13).  Rather, Jewish sources such as the Tosefta made a point of its absence.  The Shechinah Glory had not been seen for over 580 years. It enveloped these fields on the night of the birth of the Lord Jesus, and those privileged to witness this glory were not the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem but the shepherds on watch in the fields at Migdal Edar, the Tower of the Flock.  No wonder they were terrified, for no one may see God and live (Exodus 20:33).

Migdal Edar was close to Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem.  The first time this landmark is mentioned in scripture is in the Genesis 35:16-21 account of Rachel dying during the birth of Israel’s twelfth son, whom she named Ben-oni “son of my sorrow”, but his father renamed him Benjamin “son of my right hand”.   After burying Rachel, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.”   This ancient watchtower had been used for centuries by shepherds watching out for any threat to their flocks; bandits, wild animals or marauding raiders.   Such towers were common in agricultural areas that lacked the protections of a city wall.

Yet, for many pious Jews at this time the ‘Tower of the Flock’ held a greater significance and expectation.   Micah, whose prophesies led to the anticipation that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:5 with Micah 5:2), had also prophesied:

And you, O Tower of the Flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.  Micah 4-8

This had led to the belief that the announcement of the arrival of Messiah would come first to the Tower of the Flock.  Such was expressed in Targum Yonatan’s paraphrase of Genesis 35:23 and Micah 4:8 as: “He spread his tent beyond Migdol Eder, the place where King Messiah will reveal Himself at the end of days.”  

Targums are Jewish Aramaic translations of books of the Hebrew Bible. The targumic genre combines literal renderings of the biblical text with additional material, ranging in size from a word to several paragraphs. The additions provide important insights into ancient Jewish biblical interpretation. Targum Jonathan (Hebrew: תרגום יונתן בן עוזיאל), otherwise referred to as Targum Yonasan/Yonatan, is the official eastern (Babylonian) targum.   The Talmud attributes its authorship to Jonathan ben Uzziel, a pupil of Hillel the Elder. According to this source, it was composed by Jonathan b. Uzziel “from the mouths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi,” implying that it was based on traditions derived from the last prophets. 

These sheep, pastured so close to Jerusalem, were probably destined for sacrifices in the Temple – as long as they remained without blemish.   The Mishnah: Shekalim, Chapter Seven, Mishnah Four, makes specific reference to Migdol Eder (the tower of the flock):

Beasts which were found in Jerusalem as far as Migdal Eder and within the same distance in any direction: Males are [considered as] burnt-offerings; Females are [considered as] peace-offerings.  Rabbi Judah says: that which is fit for a pesach (Passover) offering, is [considered as] a pesach-offerings [when found] within thirty days before the pilgrimage [of Pesach]. 

The Mishnah or Mishna (/ˈmɪʃnə/; Hebrew: מִשְׁנָה, “study by repetition“, from the verb shanah שנה, or “to study and review”, also “secondary”) is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the “Oral Torah“.  Every aspect of how the Jews were to obey the Law (according to these Pharisees) was recorded in the Mishnah – it supplements, complements, clarifies and systematizes the commandments of the Torah. The Torah, for example, commands: “When you eat and are satisfied, give thanks to your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The Mishnah spells out specific blessings to be recited before and after each kind of food, and what to do if the wrong blessing is recited by mistake. It also extends the recitation of blessings to areas other than food, detailing blessings to be recited before and after the performance of commandments, blessings of praise and thanksgiving, even establishing a regular order of daily prayers.  The Mishnah was written after the time of Christ but it contained much of the Oral Law espoused by the Pharisees during his lifetime and helps us understand how many of the Jews were thinking during this time.  The Mishna comprises six major sections, or orders (sedarim), that contain 63 tractates (massekhtaot) in all.   Shekalim is the fourth tractate in the second order, Moed (Festivals), and so deals principally with matters connected to the Temple in Jerusalem and the temple taxes and offerings.

Those shepherds who first heard tidings of the Saviour’s birth, who first listened to angels’ praises, who beheld the glory of God, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices in the Temple, a temple that was a magnificent structure but lacked God’s Sh’khinah glory.  How many baby sheep had they seen come into the world and checked to ensure that they were male and without blemish so they could grow up to become Passover Lambs?  Now they were to witness that the Lamb of God had come into the world, the one who would be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. (20) (21) (22) (23)

There is a teaching being propagated that these were no ordinary shepherds but were Levites and that they would take any ewes who were about to lamb into the ground floor of Tower of the Flock to give birth, and inspect the lambs when born and if they were fit to be a Passover sacrifice they would wrap them tightly in swaddling clothes and lay them in the mangers within the tower’s ground floor so that they would not struggle and inflict any blemishes upon themselves, and that this was actually the place of Jesus’ birth, the same place where the Passover lambs were born and swaddled, so the shepherds knew exactly where to go to find the Lamb of God and assess Him as fitting for sacrifice as God’s Passover Lamb. (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30)   While this is a beautiful story to illustrate the spiritual truth of Jesus being born as the Lamb of God to pay the price for our sins, I can find no source material to support it.   Most often it seems to be drawn and exaggerated from the following oft-quoted passage from Alfred Edershiem’s classic “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” (Vol., I; Pg. 186 & 187) which makes no mention of birthing in the Tower or swaddling the lambs and placing them in Tower mangers:

And yet Jewish tradition may prove here both illustrative and helpful, that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction.  Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. 

Whether people around them thought of these shepherds as ordinary shepherds or special temple shepherds, God chose them for the extra-ordinary task of testifying to the appearance of His glory with the birth of His Son into this world.

Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising God: 
“In the highest heaven, glory to God! And on earth, peace among people of good will!”    Luke 2:13-14 CJB

The angel’s declaration of Messiah’s birth in the ‘town of David’ (Bethlehem) had been accompanied by a manifestation of the glory of God and was now followed by the appearance of a multitude of the heavenly angel army proclaiming God’s glory and declaring peace.

No sooner had the angels left them and gone back into heaven than the shepherds said to one another,

“Let’s go over to Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) and see this thing that has happened, that ADONAI has told us about.” 

Hurrying off, they came and found Miryam (Mary) and Yosef (Joseph), and the baby lying in the feeding trough.  Upon seeing this, they made known what they had been told about this child; and all who heard were amazed by what the shepherds said to them. 

Miryam treasured all these things and kept mulling them over in her heart. 

Meanwhile, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen; it had been just as they had been told.  Luke 2:15-20 CJB

It would not have been difficult for the shepherds to find out in which house a baby had just been born in this small town of Bethlehem.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business in such towns, and the joyous news of a birth would travel quickly indeed as an air of celebration filled the streets.  They arrived at the house during that brief interval of time when Yeshua was still wrapped in His swaddling cloths and lying in the manger – just as the angel had said. 

The shepherds were not the first people outside of Yosef and Miryam to see Yeshua after his birth, but they were the first to look upon Him as saviour, Messiah and Lord.   Their testimony of God’s glory and the angel’s proclamation concerning this baby impacted everyone who had been involved in, or heard of, the birth.   Now Miryam and her baby were surrounded by a whole community of people who knew that He was God’s promised Messiah on the testimony of the shepherds.  Gone was the guilt and shame that some in Nazareth had tried to put onto her, in Bethlehem they were honoured and exalted.

Yeshua circumcised…

Yeshua’s parents followed the Jewish law and customs of their time.  In obedience to the Biblical commandment (Gen. 21:4 & Lev. 12:3) they had Yeshua’s b’rit-milah (circumcision) on the eight day after his birth.  In accord with Jewish custom at that time they also had a public naming of their baby boy as part of the celebrations on this day.   All this would have been done in their local synagogue in Bethlehem, surrounded by Yosef’s family and neighbours.

When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Yeshua, which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.  Luke 2:21 HNV

Yeshua Presented in the Temple…

After another 33 days they travelled the 10km to the temple in Jerusalem for Miryam’s purification sacrifice (Lev. 12:1-8) and Yeshua’s presentation to the Lord and redemption payment to the priests as her first-born boy (Exodus 22:28-29, 34:19-20 & Num. 18:15-16).

When the days of their purification according to the Torah of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord(as it is written in the Torah of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the Torah of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”   Luke 2:22-24 HNV

If Yosef had been planning to return to Nazareth after registering in Bethlehem for the Census, now would have been the time to do so.  They had fulfilled their duties in the temple following the birth of their first-born son, so the way was open for them to continue on the long walk back to Nazareth for Yosef to resume his business there.   They did not head back, but continued living in Bethlehem.   Maybe Yosef thought it best to stay here, were everyone honoured his wife and her baby boy, rather then return to the ignorant judgments of some in Nazareth.   Yosef, being a carpenter/builder, likely built an extra room onto his relative’s house during that time, so he and Miryam would have their own living quarters.  

There were various and diverse messianic expectations in the Jewish community at the time of Yeshua’s birth.  The more brutal Herod’s reign became, the more widespread and eager became the hopes and expectations for a Jewish Messiah to deliver the people from Herodian and Roman rule.  For some it was a wistful hope, for others it was intense, theologically charged and very detailed.  Those details varied within the different Jewish groups at the time.  Some who studied Daniel’s prophesies saw in them that they were in the age of the fourth beast and the time was near.  

There were mixed hopes, pre-conceived ideas and pre-built eschatologies.  And then there were those who walked with God and headed the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.   It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Yeshua, that they might do concerning him according to the requirement of the Torah, then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,        

“Now You are releasing Your servant, Master, according to Your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

Joseph and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him and Simeon blessed them, and said to Miriam (Mary), His mother,

“Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against.  Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 

There was one Hannah, a prophetess, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshipping with fastings and petitions night and day. Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem.                   Luke 2:25-38 HNV

Magi Come a Long Way to Worship…

There was no single and uniform description of the messianic task.  Some considered the Messiah to be a purely natural in-history political leader (albeit more powerful than the Romans). Some considered the Messiah to be super-natural/super-angelic. Some considered him to be an after-history universal King/Son of God. Then there were some (notably the Sadducees who accepted only the Torah as inspired), who did not expect one at all.  Such variety, intensity and pervasiveness of messianic beliefs led to several different men during Herod’s reign rising up, making messianic claims and drawing a following. The expectation that most haunted King Herod and played on his paranoia was that of a descendant of King David who would conquer all who oppressed Israel and rule as king of the Jews.  If such a one was identified by the people, even as a baby, the masses might rebel against Herod and declare the infant their king. (31) (32)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking,

“Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”      Matthew 2:1-2

Who Were the Magi?
Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century B.C.  They were priests of a monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrainism and were considered “wise men” who observed the stars and interpreted dreams, signs and omens for the kings.   As there was, in the Eastern World View, no separation between the spiritual and the mathematical or scientific, Magi were expected to excel in both and use both together in advising their king.   According to Herodotus’ account they predicted that the Median king Astyages’ young grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia.  The boy grew up to be Cyrus, who led a revolt of Persians against Astyages and overcame the Medes, captured Babylon (who were at that time ruling over Judea) in 539 BC and built the largest empire the world had yet seen. It was during the first year under Persian rule that an elderly Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den and God’s deliverance of him lead to the decree that everyone reverence the God of Daniel.  It was also during this time that the Messianic revelation of Daniel 9 was given.  In 537 BC, 70 years after their captivity, following the Magi’s advice, Cyrus sent the Jews home to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. 

It is widely believed that records of Daniel’s wisdom and prophesies were maintained and consulted by the Magi.  There were enough similarities between Zoroastrainism and Judaism for Daniel to be honoured as chief among the Magi and his prophesies to be highly regarded by them even though Daniel never compromised in his devotion to Yahweh.  Both were monotheistic religions that were founded on prophetic revelation and contained a good versus evil world view.  Most of all, Zoroastrainism, exalted the prophetic and Daniel had proven over and over to be the most accurate prophet they ever encountered, whose relationship with God was real and powerful.  This was a man whose words they were keen to weave into their traditions and expectations for the future.   Thus, the Gathas, the sacred hymns attributed to Zoroaster, speak of a future figure called the Saoshyant or “future benefactor” who will be sent by God (called Ahura Mazda by the Zoroasters) to lead righteousness to triumph over wickedness.  It appears that this group of Magi had high expectations that the time for the birth of this coming righteous one, who would be the king of the Jews, of Daniel’s people, was almost upon them and so had been scanning the heavens for a sign to confirm it.   

Both Greek and Parthian empires had exalted Magi to positions of prominence and political power.   The Parthians ruled from 247 BC to 224 AD, creating a vast empire that stretched from the Mediterranean in the west to India and China in the east.  In 53 BC Crassus, the Roman triumvir had invaded Parthia and been utterly defeated, and the Roman standards taken, a huge psychological blow for Rome.  Then, in 32 BC the Parthians had defeated Mark Antony and regained Armenia, bringing Rome to the negotiating table.  In 20 BC Augustus secured a peace agreement with the Parthian King, Phraates IV. 

While there was a diversity of religions within the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrianism was widespread, and Magi held prominent positions of influence and power.  So, having Magi from anywhere in that vast empire come to Jerusalem, which was part of the rival Roman Empire, and speak of a King who had been born whom they wanted to worship, raised all sorts of concerns for those in Jerusalem, not least Herod himself.  Fears stirred that the Magi might use this as some pretext to advise Phraates to break the agreement with Rome, and Jerusalem could become the epicentre of another great battle of empires, under attack from both sides.  Herod had established his reign over Jerusalem by laying siege and defeating the Parthian backed Antigonus in 37 BC, resulting in a mass slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so was especially fearful that they were planning some form of revenge. (33) (34) (35) (36)  

When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired where the Christ was to be born.    Matthew 2:3-4

This assembly of all the chief priests and scribes was likely the Sanhedrin, consisting of Sadducees (chief priests) and Pharisees (scribes).  The Pharisees in the Sanhedrin at this time were led by Hillel and included many from his school, as well as those from the school of Shammai.

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.’” Matthew 2:5-6

Interestingly, Matthew does not record them as quoting the scripture directly, but rather giving a Midrash (Jewish method of interpretation that brings out the meaning and application of the text) in answer to Herod’s question.  This midrash drew from two scriptures: Micah 5:2 (v.1 in Hebrew) “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” KJV and 2 Samuel 5:2b “And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’” NIV.   This Jewish understanding of where Messiah would be born is also reflected in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a, “The King Messiah… from where does he come forth?   From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared.  And sending them to Bethlehem, he said:
“Go, search carefully for the Child, and when you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” Matthew 2:7-8

We are not told the exact time the star appeared, and thus how long they had been travelling, but we are later told that Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding countryside from two years old and under “according to the date which he had learned from the magi.” (Matthew 2:16 AMP).  If the Magi had been travelling for two years since the star first appeared they likely had come from a great distance, possibly even from the far reaches of the Parthian Empire.  Some western traditions suggest they came from Persia, India and Babylonia.  ‘Revelation of the Magi’, a Syriac manuscript the earliest versions of which have been suggested to have been written in the mid-second century, numbers the Magi at 12 to several score of monk-like mystics from a far-off land called Shir (possibly China).  They had been travelling for long enough to have come from far away eastern China.  Others have suggested that the Magi came from the ancient kingdom of Sheba, located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, since that kingdom grew rich on three commodities: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The Queen of Sheba had brought gifts of gold and spices when she came to pay homage to Solomon (1 Kings 10:2) and Yeshua refers to her in Matthew 12:42, saying that she brought gifts to Solomon, but “one greater than Solomon is here”, which has been interpreted to imply that officials from the same country had come to pay homage to Him.   Isaiah had declared “A multitude of campel shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall some.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”  (Isaiah 60:6 NRS) To get to Jerusalem from Sheba the route passed through the kingdoms of Midianites and Ephah.  Ultimately, we don’t know how many Magi came to worship Yeshua, nor where they had travelled from.  We do know that they considered their quest for this new born king to be of utmost importance, that their arrival caused a great disturbance in Jerusalem and that they honoured Yeshua with three of the most expensive commodities of that era. (37) (38) (39) (34)

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great delight. Matthew 2:9-10

These Magi who came from the east had, when in their homeland, seen something different and significant in the heavens, “his” star “en te anatole” (Gk) which was a technical term used in Greek mathematical astrology to describe when a planet first ‘reappeared’ from being hidden by the sun’s brightness, as it rose above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear (heliacal rising) and hide it once more in the bright glare of the sun as it rose in the morning sky.  As the planet gradually got further ahead of the sun over the ensuing weeks and months it would be seen earlier in the night and more towards the southern sky (for viewers in the norther hemisphere).  The Magi had interpreted what they saw in the sky as the omen they had been looking for to confirm that the righteous Jewish king they had been expecting and longing for had been born.  

There are many theories but no consensus or proof of what the Magi saw.  Some have suggested that it was a triple conjunction between Jupiter (known as the king of the planets) and Saturn – with the two planets coming close together in the sky three times over a short period, something that only happens about every 900 years.  Astronomer Michael Molnar contends that it was a pattern of movement in the skies that began with the heliacal rising of Jupiter on the morning of April 17th in 6 BC, followed at noon by its lunar occultation (hidden by the moon being in front of it) in the constellation of Aries and lasted until December 19th of 6 BC when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east (in comparison with the background stars). Others have suggested that it was the bright comet which appeared in the constellation of Capricorn and was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5 BC.  Others suggest it was a nova, a new star, one of which was recorded in the northern constellation of Aquila in 4 BC by astronomers in the Far East. (40) (41)   Here is the first indication that the star the Magi had followed was not a natural star, for no normal star, or comet or conjunction of stars moves and then stands over a single house – they are too far away.   Thus, all attempts to date the Magi’s journey based on astronomical records could be futile. 

On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route.      Matthew 2:11-12 NIV

Seeking Refuge in Egypt…

This gave Yeshua’s family a bit of extra time in safety but would not be sufficient to protect them from Herod’s paranoia for long, he already knew too many details and would become enraged when he realised that the Magi had failed to conform to his murderous plans.  God uses different means to protect us from an untimely death, according to His infinite wisdom, plans and purposes.   Yosef was a simple carpenter, a godly man who walked his faith, but not a scholar.  He did not understand the necessary significance of taking his young family to Egypt so that his wife’s vulnerable young child would live out the fulfilment of their nation’s redemptive history in God – such would only be recognised in hindsight as inspired scholars reflected on their lives.  But there was one thing that Yosef did know how to do – recognise God’s voice and obey Him fully even when he could not understand much of what was happening or why. 

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.

“Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”

So he got up, took the Child and His mother by night, and withdrew to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

“Out of Egypt I called my Son.”      Matthew 2:13-15 NIV

So it was that this family fled for their lives from their native land and sort refuge in a foreign nation – like so many other refugees have done.   Yosef was not given time to contemplate all the implications of what the angel was telling him.  The command was urgent, the action required was immediate.  Leave all the people he knew and loved in Bethlehem, leave everything he had been building there in his business and for his family.   Leave right then, in the middle of the night, without a word to anyone, because they would try to convince him to stay and telling them anything could put them in greater danger from Herod’s men.  Taking only what they could carry with no preparation time – and GO. With their gifts from the Magi this family was not destitute as the fled, but they were in need of a safe refuge from Herod’s impending decree.

Herod’s Bethlehem Slaughter…

When Herod saw that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was filled with rage. Sending orders, he put to death all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi.    Matthew 2:16 NIV

Despite his own impending death, Herod was still desperately paranoid and trying to cling to power.   So when the Magi had told him of a new born king of the Jews, then failed to return to report on his identity and exact location, Herod ordered all the infants of Bethlehem murdered.   He did not want anyone to be able to say that the King of the Jews had somehow been missed in the massacre so ordered even those up to two years old to be slain.   Without warning Herod’s troops suddenly fell upon the tiny town of Bethlehem and carried out their gruesome task as desperate mothers wailed and fought and tried to hide their little boys. As Bethlehem at this time had a fairly small population this would have been a minor atrocity numerically compared with so many of Herod’s other mass-murders.  But to the families of those murdered infants it was catastrophic and many years before Jeremiah (Ch.31:15) had captured their pain:

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’    Matthew 2:17-18 NIV

It had been in giving birth to Benjamin that Rachel died, and was buried and her monument still stood not far out from Bethlehem.  The inhabitants of Bethlehem and surrounds were descendants of Benjamin, the tribe from which King David had come.  Rachel, the mother of them all, was representative of all the mothers weeping and refusing to be comforted. 

More massacres were to come.

Herod’s Death…

Herod wanted more than to remain king – he wanted a Herodian dynasty to rival the Hasmonean dynasty that he had replaced.  Herod divided his kingdom between three of his remaining sons and they began reigning under his authority as his health declined:

  • Archelaus – his eldest son by his fourth wife Malthace the Samaritan, received the lion’s share of the kingdom; Idumaea, Judea and Samaria, and the title of Ethnarch (“ruler of the people”).
  • Herod Antipas – another son of Malthace the Samaritan, became Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
  • Philip I – a son by his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became Tetrarch of the northern part of Herod’s kingdom, east of Galilee.
Map of Herod's Kingdom and how it was divided between his remaining sons

Herod was 70 years old at his death, which some historians have placed at 4 BC, and others at 1 BC. (37)   With the death of this tyrant several saw an opportunity to fight for their people, or for their own aggrandisement. The result was some very turbulent times, and thousand more deaths.

Both Josephus and the Roman historian, Tacitus, record that at Herod’s death, without waiting for Roman imperial decision, a certain Simon who had served in Herod’s court, usurped the title of king. He raised an army of followers and burnt down the royal palace at Jericho, plundering what was left in it. He also set fire to many other of Herod’s houses in several places of the country, utterly destroyed them, and permitted those that were with him to take what was left in them for a prey. The commander of Herod’s infantry, Gratus, with the backing of some Roman soldiers, chased after and defeated Simon. 

There were hopes of a new regime under Herod’s Roma appointed successor over Judea, Archelaus (who was then just 19). Some of the Pharisees stirred up the crowds assembled to demand that the new ruler punish those who had been favourites of Herod, and that the high priesthood should be given to a new incumbent. They also wanted their taxes reduced. Archelaus was terrified of open revolution, all the more so given the approach of Passover, when the city would be filled with outsiders from the countryside. Josephus wrote:

“But those that were seditious on account of those teachers of the law, irritated the people by the noise and clamours they used to encourage the people in their designs; so they made an assault upon the soldiers, and came up to them, and stoned the greatest part of them, although some of them ran away wounded, and their captain among them; and when they had thus done, they returned to the sacrifices which were already in their hands.”

Archelaus responded by sending out the whole army upon them, and slew three thousand men, then issued a proclamation cancelling the Passover feast. Similar disasters followed at Pentecost. “A countless multitude flocked in from Galilee, from Idumaea, from Jericho, and from Peraea beyond the Jordan, but it was the native population of Judea itself which, both in numbers and ardour, was pre-eminent.” The mob besieged the Roman garrison, leading to another bloody battle, in which the Jews were alarmingly undaunted by their Roman enemies.

According to Josephus: “at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture.”

Trouble also brewed in Galilee, and it centred around the city of Sepphoris, just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Back in 47 BC, when Herod had been appointed by his father as Prefect to Galilee, his first act had been to capture and executed a Hasidim named Hezekiah who had been leading a band of rebels in attacking gentile outposts in Galilee. Now with Herod’s death, Hezekiah’s son, Judas, together with the Pharisee Zadok, headed a large number of Zealots in attacking the city of Sepphoris. Judas made an assault upon the Roman garrison, and seized all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there. These Zealots did not only attack Roman soldiers, but also any Jews whom they considered to be in league with the Romans or not sufficiently devout in their Judaism. The Romans called for the governor of Syria, Varus, based in Antioch, to assist in crushing this rebellion. He brought a very substantial force of two legions, plus allied and auxiliary forces into Galilee, attacked the Zealots and retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a disincentive to such revolts.  (46)

Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery. After Herod’s son, Herod Antipas was made tetrarch, or governor, he proclaimed the city’s new name to be Autocratoris, and rebuilt it as the “Ornament of the Galilee” (Josephus, Ant. 18.27). The new population was loyal to Rome.

Did those invading troops also plunder Nazareth as they continued marching down through Samaria towards Jerusalem? It is possible, Roman soldiers were not known to be very circumspect when reeking revenge. Although, it’s more secluded position, away from the main road south, may have afforded it some protection. Varus continued marching his army down through Samaria, stopping en route to burn Emmaus, a storm centre for Athronges’s rising. Athronges was another who tried to rise to power and remove Herod’s family from the throne over Israel. Like King David, Athronges had been a shepherd. He was a tall, strong man. Josephus wrote of him:

He had four brothers, who were tall men themselves, and were believed to be superior to others in the strength of their hands, and thereby were encouraged to aim at great things, and thought that strength of theirs would support them in retaining the kingdom. Each of these ruled over a band of men of their own (for those that got together to them were very numerous). They were every one of them also commanders; but when they came to fight, they were subordinate to him, and fought for him. After he had put a diadem about his head, he assembled a council to debate about what things should be done, and all things were done according to his pleasure. So, this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased. Together with his brothers, he slew a great many of both of Roman and of the king’s forces, and managed matters with the like hatred to each of them. They fell upon the king’s soldiers because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod’s government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them.  Once, they attacked a Roman company at Emmaus, soldiers who were bringing grain and weapons to the army, and fell upon Arius, the centurion, who commanded the company, and shot forty of the best of his foot soldiers. The other Romans panicked after this slaughter, left their dead behind them, and were saved by Gratus, who came to their assistance with the king’s troops that he commanded. 

When Varus entered Jerusalem, Jewish leaders managed to cast most of the blame onto extremists and agitators, pledging allegiance once again to Rome, and thus saving their city from destruction.

Returning to Nazareth…

Yeshua’s family may not have been in Egypt for long before an angel of the Lord appeared again in a dream to Joseph, instructing him to return to Israel.  Their time as refugees had been relatively brief, but vital for the purposes of God.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 

“Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those seeking the Child’s life are now dead.”

So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he learned that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.   Matthew 2:19-22

It is interesting that each time God spoke to Joseph it was through an angel appearing in his dream.  Yet to Zechariah God spoke through an angel who appeared in the temple when he was burning incense in the Holy Place.  Mary, likewise, was awake and alert when the angel Gabriel came to Nazareth to give her God’s message.   He speaks to each of us in different ways, but the important thing is that we believe and obey Him when He speaks.

So, what was the prophetic significance of Yeshua going down to Egypt in his infancy and being called out of Egypt when he was still young?   Matthew 2:15 NIV states:   This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”       Yeshua, even as an infant and through circumstances that this little boy had no control over, was fulfilling (was the fulfilment of) God’s redemptive historical purposes for His people Israel.   Matthew’s quote is from Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”   Here God is referring to the nation of Israel as His son whom He loved and called out of Egypt when it was “a child” nation that did not even know who to govern itself.  The following verses in Hosea speak of Israel’s failure to fulfil God’s purposes in calling them out of Egypt: “The more I called Israel, the further they went from me…  It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them.”  So Yeshua, like Israel – or rather as a fulfilment of Israel – was taken down to Egypt as an infant and then called out of Egypt by God and into the Promised Land where He would fulfil Israel’s calling, in living as the obedient Son to the Father and blessing to all nations. (38) (39) (40)

The family’s time in Egypt was so brief that Luke could write:

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.    Luke 2:39 NIV

Nazareth was a small village (possibly less than 200 people) built upon limestone rock, not far from mount Tabor and within sight of the city of Sepphoris. The country about it abounding in wheat and fruits of all kinds; wine, oil, and honey were produced there. Yet it was a place held in contempt by many Jews.

The ancient settlement of Nazareth was never large, since it had only one spring. It has been described as a rich and beautiful fiend in the midst of barren mountains. Nazareth was overshadowed by the city of Sepphoris, just 3.5 miles to the northwest, and the conflicts that had emanated from there. This whole region had been soaked in the smell of death as the roads were lined with thousands hanging rotting on Roman crosses.

Matthew makes an interesting claim that has perplexed commentators:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”      Matthew 2:23 NKJV

Such an emphasis on fulfilled prophecy is prominent in Matthew, occurring over a dozen times in his Gospel.  In all of the four quotations before this one, Matthew either mentioned a prophet by name or said “the prophet” (singular) in connection with a quotation which can be easily found almost exactly as quoted.  

  1. All this happened in order to fulfill what ADONAI had said through the prophet, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him `ImmanuEl.” (The name means, “God is with us.”) Matthew 1:22-23 referring to Isaiah 7:14.
  2. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.’” Matthew 2:6 referring to Micah 5:2 combined with 2 Samuel 5:2b .
  3. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Matthew 2:15 referring to Hosea 11:1.
  4. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ Matthew 2:18 referring to Jeremiah 31:15.

Yet nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find the statement, “He shall be called a Nazarene”, so what was Matthew referring to?  Ray Pritz, who has taught at the Caspari Centre for Biblical and Jewish Studies, directed the Bible Society in Israel and been assigned to the Translations Department of the United Bible Societies, provides the following explanation:

The challenge is to find a scriptural prophecy or prophetic idea which yet maintains a connection with the town of Nazareth. One long-standing candidate has been Isaiah 11:1 which says, “A shoot will come forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” The word for “branch” is נֵצֶר (netser), which contains the same three consonants that form the root of the name Nazareth.

When we look in the Targum at the Aramaic translation of this verse, we see that the verse was interpreted messianically: “There shall come forth a king from the sons of Jesse, and a Messiah will grow from the sons of his sons.” The Targum goes on to read the Messiah into verses 6 and 10. The first ten verses of this chapter of Isaiah were almost always interpreted in Jewish midrashic literature as referring to the Messiah.[7] One interesting baraita[8] shows disciples of Jesus using Isaiah 11:1 in arguing with the rabbis about the messiahship of Jesus.

An attractive feature of Isaiah 11:1 as the source for Matthew’s statement is that not only is the verse itself messianic, but it also can be connected to a broader messianic context. The idea of the Messiah as a branch is found elsewhere in the prophets, although using other words than netser for branch. So, for example, Isaiah 53:2 speaks of a יוֹנֵק (yonek, tender shoot) and a שֹׁרֶשׁ (shoresh, root) out of dry ground. In Jeremiah 23:5 we read: “Behold days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous צֶמַח (tsemakh, plant) for David, and a king will reign and will bring about justice and salvation in the land.” Tsemakh is also used of a messianic figure in Jeremiah 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8 (“my servant, the Branch”) and 6:12.

When Matthew says that in going to Nazareth, Jesus was fulfilling something spoken by “the prophets,” perhaps he intended to point to the one idea which most unifies the biblical prophets, the idea of the Messiah. Here, then, we have a solution to the puzzle of Matthew 2:23, which connects with “the prophets” while still linking to one prophetic verse that bears an etymological tie to the name of the town where Jesus went to live. (41)

Another possibility is that Matthew uses the word Nazarene in reference to a person who is “despised and rejected.” In the first century, Nazareth was a small, insignificant town about 55 miles north of Jerusalem, and it had a negative reputation among the Jews. Galilee was generally looked down upon by Judeans and the religious elite who resided in Jerusalem, and Nazareth of Galilee was especially despised (see John 1:46). If this was Matthew’s emphasis, the prophecies Matthew had in mind could include these two passages concerning the Messiah:

“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:6–7).

It’s true that Nazarenes were “scorned by everyone,” and so one could see this messianic prophecy as an allusion to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).

Again, in Jesus’ day, Nazarenes were “despised and rejected,” and so Isaiah’s prophecy could be viewed as an indirect reference to Jesus’ background as the supposed son of a carpenter from Nazareth.

If Psalm 22:6–7 and Isaiah 53:3 are the prophecies that Matthew had in mind, then the meaning of “He shall be called a Nazarene” is something akin to “He shall be despised and mocked by His own people.” Jesus not only identified with humanity by coming to our world; He also identified with the lowly of this world. His upbringing in an obscure and despised town served as an important part of His mission.

Reference List

1. Gordis, Rabbi Daniel. Nissuin: The Second of the Two Ceremonies. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/nissuin-the-second-of-the-two-ceremonies/.
2. Encyclopedia Judaica. Betrothal (Heb. Shiddukhin). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/betrothal-jewish-virtual-library.
3. Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Betrothal (Kiddushin). Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465163/jewish/The-Jewish-Betrothal-Kiddushin.htm#Acquisitionby.
4. —. The Jewish Nuptials (Nissuin). Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/479942/jewish/The-Jewish-Nuptials-Nissuin.htm.
5. Issues in Jewish Ethics – Marriage. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/marriage-in-judaism.
6. Messianic Bible. Ancient Jewish Wedding Customs and Yeshua’s Second Coming. The Messianic Prophecy Bible Project. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://free.messianicbible.com/feature/ancient-jewish-wedding-customs-and-yeshuas-second-coming/.
7. Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Marriage Ceremony “Accordig to the Laws of Moses and Israel”. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 2nd November 2019.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465162/jewish/The-Jewish-Marriage-Ceremony.htm.
8. Kilmon, Jack. HISTORY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT. Works of the Scribe – The Scriptorium . [Online] [Cited: 16th Sept. 2016.] http://www.historian.net/newindex.html.
9. Esposito, Lenny. Is Luke Wrong About the Time of Jesus’ Birth. Come Reason. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] http://www.comereason.org/roman-census.asp.
10. Historical Evidence for Quirinius & the Census. Bible History. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/quirinius.htm.
11. Pursiful, Darrell. When Was Jesus Born – The Census. Dr. Platypus Darrell J. Pursiful’s Bible and Faith Blog. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] https://pursiful.com/2006/12/15/when-was-jesus-born-the-census/.
12. Sarfati, Jonathan. The Census of Quirinius – Did Luke Get It Wrong? Creation Ministries International. [Online] 29th December 2011. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] http://creation.com/quirinius-census-luke.
13. Caesar, Steve. A Brief Comment on the Census in Luke 2. Biblical Archeology. [Online] [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/10/16/A-Brief-Comment-on-the-Census-in-Luke-2.aspx.
14. Bailey, Kenneth. s.l. The Manger and the Inn: the Cultural Background of Luke 2:7.  : Bible and Spade, Fall 2007, Vol. P. 103.
15. Blincoe, Bob. A Clear View of Christmas. Bob Blincoe. [Online] 16th December 2010. [Cited: 30th October 2019.] https://bobblincoe.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/a-clear-view-of-christmas/.
16. Taylor, Chris & Jenifer. The Birth of Jesus. The Bible Journey. [Online] [Cited: 29th Oct 2019.] https://www.thebiblejourney.org/biblejourney1/3-jesuss-childhood-journeys-b/the-birth-of-jesus/.
17. PhD, Kenneth Bailey. The Manger and the Inn. Bible Archaeology. [Online] 8th November 2008. [Cited: 29th October 2019.] https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2803-the-manger-and-the-inn?highlight=WyJiaXJ0aCIsImJpcnRoJyIsIm9mIiwiJ29mIiwib2YnIiwiamVzdXMiLCJqZXN1cyciLCJqZXN1cydzIiwiJ2plc3VzIiwiJ2plc3VzJyIsImJpcnRoIG9mIiwiYmlydGggb2YgamVzdXMiLCJvZiBqZXN1cyJd.
18. Chaffey, Tim. Born in a Barn (Stable)? Answers in Genesis. [Online] 30th November 2010. [Cited: 28th November 2019.] https://answersingenesis.org/holidays/christmas/born-in-a-barn-stable/.
19. Stern, Safrai . The Jewish Peoplr in the First Century. P. 765.
20. Simcha, Kehilat Kol. Let us Camp in Migdal Eder. Kol Simcha Messages. [Online] 16th November 2013. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] http://www.kolsimcha.org/messages/2013/111613M.pdf.
21. Gill, John. Commentary Genesis 35:21. Study Light. [Online] 1999. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] https://www.studylight.org/commentary/genesis/35-21.html.
22. Clarke, Adam. Commentary Genesis 35:21. Study Light. [Online] 1832. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] https://www.studylight.org/commentary/genesis/35-21.html.
23. Buehler, Dr. Juergen. The Tower of the Flock. International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. [Online] 22nd November 2012. [Cited: 29th October 2019.] https://int.ice.org/news/commentary/tower-flock.
24. Horn, Dr. Christine Van. The Tower of the Flock: The Christmas Story. s.l. : WestBow Press, 2017.
25. Pope, Johnny. Mary Had a Little Lamb. FaceBook. [Online] 16th December 2013. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10152150326100452&id=35270290451.
26. McCracken, Charles E. Pinpointing Messiah’s Nativity. Charles E McCracken Ministries. [Online] [Cited: 31st October 2019.] https://charles-e-mccracken-ministries.org/2016/12/23/pinpointing-messiahs-nativity-luke-215/.
27. courage42day. A Lamb’s Tale and a Mysterious Tower. Mini Manna Moments. [Online] 19th December 2017. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] http://www.minimannamoments.com/a-lambs-tale-and-a-mysterious-tower/.
28. Lenard, Joseph. Jesus’ Birth – The Case for Migdal Edar. Truth in Scripture. [Online] 21st January 2017. [Cited: 31st October 2019.] https://truthinscripture.net/2017/01/21/jesus-birth-the-case-for-midal-edar/.
29. —. Jesus’ Birth – The Significance of Migdal Edar. Truth in Scripture. [Online] 24th January 2017. [Cited: 29th October 2019.] https://truthinscripture.net/2017/01/24/jesus-birth-the-significance-of-midal-edar/.
30. Cantor, Ron. Unlocking the Mystery of the Tower of the Flock. Messiah Mandate. [Online] 22nd December 2018. [Cited: 29th October 2019.] http://messiahsmandate.org/unlocking-the-tower-of-the-flock-mystery/.
31. Miller, Glenn. Messianic Expectations in 1st Century Judaism – Documentation From Non-Christian Sources. Christian Think Tank. [Online] 24th March 1996. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] http://christianthinktank.com/messiah.html.
32. chab123. Is Jesus Really the Messiah? Three Messianic Expectations at the Time of Jesus. Think Apologetics. [Online] 17th October 2014. [Cited: 15th Sept. 2016.] https://chab123.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/is-jesus-really-the-messiah-three-messianic-expectations-at-the-time-of-jesus/.
33. Smith, Patrick Scott. Parthia (Empire). Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] 22nd July 2019. [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://www.ancient.eu/Parthia_(Empire)/.
34. Jones, Christopher. “Magi from the East”. Gates of Nineveh. [Online] 24th December 2011. [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/magi-from-the-east/.
35. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Phraates IV King of Parthia. Encyclopedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Phraates-IV.
36. —. Phraates V King of Parthia. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Phraates-V.
37. Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi?”. Biblical Archaelogy . [Online] [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/bible-scholar-brent-landau-asks-who-were-the-magi/.
38. Landau, Brent. The Revelation of the Magi – A summary and introduction. Tony Burke. [Online] 20th June 2016. [Cited: 30th December 2019.] http://www.tonyburke.ca/wp-content/uploads/Landau-Revelation-of-the-Magi.pdf.
39. Longenecker, Fr Dwight. Where Did the Wise Men Come From? Pathos. [Online] 5th January 2014. [Cited: 30th December 2019.] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/01/where-did-the-wise-men-come-from.html.
40. Gill, Victoris. Star of Bethlehem: The astronomical explanations. BBC News. [Online] 23rd December 2012. [Cited: 31st December 2019.] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20730828.
41. Weintraub, David. Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem? The Conversation. [Online] 24th December 2014. [Cited: 31st December 2019.] https://theconversation.com/can-astronomy-explain-the-biblical-star-of-bethlehem-35126.
42. GERTOUX, Gerard. Herod and Jesus: Historical and Archaeological Evidence. s.l. : PhD candidate in Archaeology and histroy of Ancient World, 2015.
43. DeYoung, Kevin. Out of Egypt I Called My Son. The Gospel Coalition. [Online] 9 December 2010. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/3133/.
44. About Bible Prophesy Editors. Did Matthew Misinterpret Hosea 11:1? About Bible Prophesy. [Online] [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] http://www.aboutbibleprophecy.com/q36.htm.
45. Yeulett, Paul. ‘Out of Egypt I called My son’. Banner of Truth. [Online] 21st Dec 2012. [Cited: 31st Aug 2019.] https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2012/out-of-egypt-i-called-my-son/.
46. Paul Anderson, Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, George Fox University. Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth? The Hometown of Jesus. Huffpost. [Online] 22 March 2017. [Cited: 29 March 2020.] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/can-any-good-thing-come-from-nazareth-the-hometown_b_58d1f758e4b062043ad4ae1a.
47. Pritz, Ray. “He Shall Be Called a Nazarene”. Jerusalem Perspective. [Online] 01 November 1991. [Cited: 5th November 2019.] https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2608/.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* What are the similarities and differences between a Jewish wedding in Jesus’ time and weddings in your culture?
* In what ways does the ancient Jewish wedding provide a picture of our relationship with Christ?
* What are the similarities and differences between peasant houses in Bethlehem and those in your area?
* When you return to your home village/area where are you expected to stay and what are you expected to do? How is this alike, or different to, Joseph’s situation when he arrived in Bethlehem?
* What are the birthing practices in your culture, and in what ways are they like or different to those in Joseph and Mary’s culture?
* If your people have suffered through war or violent attacks during your lifetime, what effects has that had on them?
* What can we learn about God’s ways from Jesus’ birth and early life?

The Apostolic Reformation Begins ~ Jesus (Yeshua) as a Jewish Reformer

In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua’s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.

As we have seen, there were many wonderful, and many problematic, ways in which Judaism had been developing.  Through it all the expectation of a coming Messiah and messianic age had continued growing in the general population.  Those who had been counting knew that it was getting close to Daniel’s 69th ‘seven’, during which Messiah would be revealed.  

They needed deliverance from Roman occupation, and Hellenising influences, which clashed with maintaining the purity of the Jewish people and their religious practice.  Not long before they had needed deliverance from self-rule, which had degenerated under the Hasmonaean dynasty into such bitter conflict that all sides had called for Roman intervention.   Yet still there were many who glorified in the Maccabean revolt and engaged in guerrilla warfare, seeking to re-live such a victory in their day and hoping that their courage in battle would induce Messiah to come to their rescue and supernaturally destroy the Roman army and all heathens in the way of establishing their glorious kingdom.  

Messianic hopes and expectations were many and varied.   The religious practice of much of the population was fervent and genuine.  The wall the Pharisees were building around the Torah was becoming ever higher and thicker and governed every conceivable aspect of devout Jewish life.   These were a people in need of seeing the reality of their God.

In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua‘s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.

As with all Bible studies and commentaries, what is presented here is not infallible, that designation belongs to scripture alone. While every effort has been made through years of research to present as accurate an account as possible, there are many things that we do not know and many areas that even the best Bible scholars, and historians, disagree on. If you disagree with anything written in these blogs please feel free to do so, but don’t dismiss what I have written until you have first searched the scriptures afresh to see what God has to say on it – then please share with us what He reveals to you through His word. The purpose of this work is not to establish doctrine, a standard by which other works are judged, but to provide a perspective that broadens and deepens your understanding of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Messiah / the anointed one) so as to grow in your love for Him, in your discipleship of Him, and in your effectiveness in discipling others in Christ Jesus.

As language is an essential part of culture, names will often be written in their original Hebrew (along with the English translations that most of us are more familiar with).

We also have a grouping of seven blogs (in the section ‘INTERLUDE‘) on the authors of each of the four gospel accounts. Again, the purpose of studying such is to help deepen our understanding and appreciation of our wonderful Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Now to “A Child is Born“…