THE ADVENT OF THE MESSIAH
PART VI
THE PRESENTATION OF JESUS IN HIS FATHER'S HOUSE
 and
THE GENTILES SEEK THE CHRIST-CHILD

So let his corporal birth be our spiritual birth, that is, the beginning of our conversion.  Let his persecution, that which he suffered from Herod, be to us a sign of the temptation we suffer from the devil in the beginning of our conversion.  Let his growing up in Nazareth express our advancement in perfection.
St. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167 AD)

1. Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem: Originally built in the 4th century AD, the Church of the Nativity was built over the cave where Jesus was born.
2. Interior of the Church of the Nativity. The entrance to the birth cave is on either side of the altar.
3. Interior of the birth cave. The fourteen pointed silver star marks where the Christ-child was born.

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Luke 2:22-24 ~ Joseph and Mary bring baby Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple
22 When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to represent him to the Lord, 23 just as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord," 24 and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  26 It had been revealed to him that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord.  27 He came in the Spirit into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, 28 he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: 29 "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." 33 The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted 35 and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."  36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.  38 And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.

After Jesus' birth, it was necessary for the Holy Family to remain in Bethlehem.  They would not have considered leaving Bethlehem until after Jesus' presentation in the Temple, forty days after His birth.  It is possible that Joseph may have decided to relocate to Bethlehem to raise the Messiah in the ancestral home of King David.  Scripture tells us that they were still living in Bethlehem when the Gentile Magi arrived about a year or more after Jesus' birth.

The passage in Luke 2:22-24 refers to the rites of purification after childbirth under the Sinai Covenant stipulated in Leviticus 12:1-8.  This is followed by quotes from two commands of the Law.  The first is a quote from the Book of Exodus: Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me (Exodus 13:2), and the second is from Leviticus 12:8 which concerns one of the required sacrifices a mother of a newly born child must offer to God when she went to the Jerusalem Temple for her purification ceremony: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Question: What were the requirements under the Law for the mother of a newly born child?  See Leviticus 12:1-8
Answer: If the child was a boy, the mother was ritually unclean for seven days after the birth.  On the eight day the boy child was to be circumcised.  After the brit [covenant ceremony], the mother was to wait thirty-three more days (for a total of forty days after the boy child's birth) before she could be fully purified.  During this time, she could not go to the Temple.  The period of purification for the mother of a girl was longer: an initial two weeks followed by sixty-six days for a total of eighty days.

When the days of purification were completed, the mother was to present herself at the Temple.  At that time she was to offer a female lamb or kid (Leviticus 5:1-7) as a sin sacrifice.  If she could not afford an animal for the sacrifice, she could offer two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a whole burnt offering (consumed entirely on the altar fire) and the other for a sin sacrifice, which was eaten in a sacred meal by the priest (Leviticus 6:17[24]-23[30].(1)

Question: What does the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons reveal about Joseph's economic status?  See Lev 5:7 and 12:8.  Please quote the significant verse pertaining to the sacrifice Joseph and Mary offered.
Answer: This was the sacrifice for the poor: If, however, she cannot afford a lamb, she may take two turtledoves or two pigeons, the one for a holocaust [whole burnt offering] and the other for a sin offering.  The priest shall make atonement for her, and thus she will again be clean [purified].

When Mary arrived at the Temple, she would have ritually immersed in the Temple mikveh (ritual holy water pool) before making the presentation of her sacrifice.  Everyone who entered the Temple inner courtyard had to ritually immerse, even the priests (Mishnah: Yoma, 3:3 ~ A person does not enter the courtyard for the service, even if he is clean, unless he immerses).

Mikveh of the Jerusalem Temple where Mary received ritual purification.

Question:  What was the other requirement for redeeming Jesus as a firstborn son?  See     Exodus 13:13-15 and Numbers 18:15-16.
Answer: In addition to Mary's gift offering of a "whole burnt offering" and her sin sacrifice, Joseph would have paid a five shekel redemption tax.

In obedience to the commands and obligations of the covenant, Joseph and Mary presented Mary's firstborn son, Jesus, to Yahweh in the holy house of the Lord-the house of Jesus' true Father (Luke 2:49).  In the redemption of the firstborn, every generation of Israel relived the Exodus themes of redemption and judgment (Exodus 13:11-16).  Every firstborn from the womb, whether animal or human, belonged to God.  The firstborn "clean" animals were animals that could be eaten.  Of the "clean" animals only cattle, sheep, goats, or turtledoves and pigeons (the poor man's sacrifice) were fit for sacrifice; only these animals could be offered on God's holy altar of sacrifice (Deuteronomy 15:19-20).  The "unclean" animals, like the donkey (Leviticus 13:13; 27:26-27; 34:20; Numbers 18:15), had to be "redeemed" by being replaced by a lamb or a kid or it had to be killed.   All firstborn clean animals and the redemption tax for firstborn children went to support the priests (Numbers 18:15-18).

The obligation of redeeming the firstborn was to remind Israel of the firstborn of Israel who were redeemed in the event of the tenth plague during Egypt's night of judgment.   But the offering of the firstborn was also to remind Israel of God's judgment in the sin of the Golden Calf.  Before the sin of the Golden Calf, every firstborn son was to be given to Yahweh for a lifetime of service.  Instead of being the head of his natural family, the firstborn sons were to be the older brothers to God's spiritual family.  It was this command that made Israel a "nation of priests" (Exodus 19:6).  The sons of Aaron were to function as the ministerial chief priests (Exodus 28:1), while the firstborn sons were to serve as the lesser ministers (similar to deacons).  However, in the rebellion of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) the first generation of redeemed firstborn sons who were sanctified the night of the last plague when they were saved from death under the sign of the blood of the sacrificed lambs and kids (Exodus 12:3-14; 21-23), did not rally to Moses.  Instead Moses' tribe, the Levites, put down the rebellion.  The apostasy of Israel and fall from grace of the firstborn sons resulted in God's judgment on the Exodus generation.  In God's judgment concerning Israel's sin of rebellion in the incident of Golden calf worship, the firstborn sons were disposed of their firstborn ministerial status.  Their positions as Yahweh's lesser ministers was given to the all the clans of the Levites.  The Levites were to serve their brothers, the chief priests, who were the descendants of Aaron in place of the "firstborn sons" of Israel (Exodus 32:28-29; Numbers 3:11-13; 18:5-7).(2)

The redemption rite also reminded every family who redeemed a firstborn son that the fall from grace of the first Exodus generation of firstborn sons caused their son to be dispossessed of his rightful place in Yahweh's service.  It was ironic that the family's redemption tax that should have gone to the support of their sons as God's ministers went to the support of the Levitical ministers instead (Leviticus 18:20-24; Deuteronomy 14:22).  This was the redemption tax and sacrifice that Joseph and Mary were obliged to offer Yahweh at the Jerusalem Temple.(3)

Luke 2:25-26 ~ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  26 It had been revealed to him that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord.
The term "the Christ" (Christos) is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for "the Anointed One" = the Messiah.

and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  Under the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit usually did not fill and indwell the faithful believer.  Instead, God's Spirit "rested upon" the righteous or "came over" those God wanted to move by the power of His Spirit (Numbers 11:25-26, 29; 24:2; and 1 Samuel 10:10; versus: John 14:17; Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:14).  The exceptions are Bezalel the craftsman who executed the metal work, the cutting of the precious stones, and wood work for the desert Sanctuary (Exodus 35:30-33) and Joshua, Moses' successor, in Numbers 27:18.

Question: Scripture says that Simeon was looking forward to "the restoration of Israel."  What exactly does this mean?  Isaiah 7:14; 11:6-9; Jeremiah 23:5-8; Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:15-28.
Answer: He was looking for the reunification of all Israel under the rule of a Davidic king as promised by the prophets.

A civil war after the death of King Solomon divided Israel into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  It was Jeroboam, a prince of the tribe of Ephraim, who led the revolt against the House of David.  Jeroboam of Ephraim ruled over the ten Northern tribes and expelled the priests and Levites from his kingdom.  He reintroduced the worship of the Golden Calf, leading the Israelites into idol worship.  In opposition to the Jerusalem Temple, which God designated as the one site of legitimate worship (1 Kings 11:36), Jeroboam set up his own sites of idol worship (1 Kings 12:26-31).  As a result of Israel's apostasy, God withdrew His hand of protection and the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians (722 BC; 2 Kings 17:1-24).  The Assyrians depopulated the Northern Kingdom, disbursing those ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel into the Gentile world from which the majority of the ten tribes never returned to their ancestral lands.  In the 6th century BC, the Prophet Ezekiel prophesized that the day was coming when God would restore the lost ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, reuniting them with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as one people to be ruled by a Davidic Messiah who would be the King of the restored Kingdom (Ezekiel 37:25-28).  It is this Davidic ruler for whom Simeon waited because the Lord had promised him he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (see 1 Kings 11:26; 12:20-33; 2 Chronicles 9:30-10:19; 11:13-17; 2 Kings 17:5-18).

Question: How did Jesus of Nazareth accomplish this promised restoration of those ten lost tribes that had been scattered into the Gentile world for over 500 years to reunite them with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as one holy people of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus?  How does Isaiah's final prophecy of restoration reach fulfillment in Jesus and His Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, the universal Church (see Isaiah 66:18-24; Ezekiel 36:19-27 and Jeremiah 31:31-34)?
Answer: In the Messianic Davidic Kingdom, all the nations of the earth were called into covenant with Yahweh.  Those descendants of the lost tribes of Israel were drawn back into covenant with Yahweh from the Gentile nations into which they had been dispersed (Ezekiel 36:19-27).  From Judah and the faithful remnant of the ten lost tribes came the Apostles and disciples who served as the first ministers of Christ's Kingdom: the new Israel of the New Covenant, Universal (catholic) Church, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 66:18-24 and Jeremiah in 31:31-34.

The Jewish emissaries of the new, restored Israel were to be sent out into the Gentile world as priests and deacons to lead the nations of the world to salvation (Isaiah 66:21; Matthew 4:17; 28:19-20; Acts 1:6).  The covenant blessing of this new creation in Christ was eternal life for those who accepted Jesus' gift of restoration and salvation.  But just as blessings became eternal in the New Covenant so were judgments.  Eternal separation for God was the judgment for those who, of their own free will, rejected Christ and His gift.  Jesus' First Advent (coming) is the first stage of the universal restoration.  There will be a final universal restoration when Jesus comes again in His Second Advent (Acts 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), which will be immediately followed by the resurrection of the dead and the Final Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).  The final prophecy of Isaiah addresses the establishment of the Universal Church and both stages of the Messiah's universal restoration.

Luke 2:27-32 ~  He came in the Spirit into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, 28 he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: 29 "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."
Question: How did Simeon happen to be at the Temple when Joseph and Mary brought the Christ-child?
Answer: The Holy Spirit sent Simeon to the Temple to fulfill the promise God made to this righteous man that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

Simeon's rendezvous with the Messiah was the climax of the old man's faith journey.  Simeon's canticle of praise to God in verses 29-32 is known by its Latin name from the first two words of Simeon's hymn: the Nunc Dimittis, "Now Master."  The hymn is in two parts. The first part of the canticle addresses Simeon's approaching death.  Having been told that he will live until he has seen the Messiah, Simeon recognizes that the prophecy is fulfilled as he declares Jesus the promised Redeemer-Messiah.  In the second part of the canticle, Simeon addresses the promise of glory, not just for Israel but for all nations, as he proclaims a message of universal salvation.  Addressing God and using the prophetic language of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 from the "Song of the Servant" passages of Isaiah, it is the child Jesus who Simeon identifies as "your salvation."  This declaration may also suggest wordplay on Jesus' name in Hebrew: "Yahweh is salvation."  The promised gift of God's salvation through His Messiah is offered to all men, including the Gentiles who see the revelation of God in the light of the Messiah and the glory for Israel as she fulfills her mission as God's holy nation of emissaries (apostles) to the peoples of the world.  It is as Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman: salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22).

Luke 2:33-35 ~ The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted 35 and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." 
In Simeon's prophecy for Mary in verse 35: "and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed," Simeon is not referring to a literal "sword."  Literal swords pierce bodies they do not pierce "souls," or psyche in the Greek.  Simeon's prophecy about Mary is related to his words concerning the fall and rise of many in Israel in verse 34It is an ominous prophecy because the "fall" comes before the "rise."  Simeon's prophecy foreshadows the Passion of the Christ and Mary's suffering at the foot of the Cross.

Question: What was Simeon's prophecy concerning Jesus?  Concerning Mary?  What is the connection to Matthew 10:34-36?
Answer:

  1. The child will be a sign that will cause division among the people; they will either be for Him or against Him. 
  2. Mary will suffer as a result of her son's mission to restore a redeemed and purified Israel. 

The child will create opposition and people will be divided over their response to Him.  Simeon has announced the rejection of the Messiah by His own people.  Mary also used the "rising" and "falling" imagery in reverse in the Magnificat when she spoke of God lifting up the lowly and throwing down the rulers from their thrones (verse 52).  Jesus will speak of the division over His mission when He says that He did not come to bring peace but division; there can be no middle ground in response to His message (see Matthew 10:34-36 and Luke 12:51-53).

Question: Why was Mary to suffer from Jesus' mission to redeem her people?  Hint: God's plan for salvation history is carried forth and preserved by the "faithful remnant" of Israel, and Mary is the living image of "daughter Zion" spoken of by the prophets (Micah 4:10; Zechariah 2:10; 9:9, 13; etc.).  See John 19:25; CCC# 618; 964.
Answer: Mary is a link between the Old and New Covenants.  She is a true daughter of the Old Covenant and therefore she bore the joy of the faithful remnant but also the sorrow for those of her people who failed to embrace the gift of salvation through her son.  She offered up her suffering for the redemption of her people at the foot of the Cross.

Simeon's prophecy that "a sword" will pierce Mary's soul is an allusion to the shadow of the Cross.  Simeon's prophecy may be a reference to either Ezekiel 14:12-20 and the prophecy of God's judgment on a faithless and sinful covenant people or perhaps Zechariah 12:9-13:1 which prophesizes the mourning over the "piercing" of the Messiah whose death opens a fountain of salvation to wash away sins and impurity-or perhaps it is an allusion to both passages. Simeon's prophesy is that Mary will share in her Son's suffering.  The Cross is Jesus' unique sacrifice and is a sacrifice He asks all His disciples to embrace as His partners in the plan of redemption (see Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke 9:23; 14:27).  The Catechism teaches: "...Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries.  This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering" (CCC 618).  As the embodiment of the "daughter of Zion," Mary will live out the sorrow of her people in their struggle to come to terms with Jesus' mission.

Luke 2:36-38 ~ There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.  38 And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
Much that is revealed about Anna in this passage may be only symbolic or symbolic as well as literal.  Anna was a prophetess, meaning God spoke through her, and she was a devout elderly woman who fasted and prayed in the Temple continually.  Her name is "Anna" in Greek but her Hebrew name is "Hannah," the same name as the mother of the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11).  It is a name derived from the Hebrew root hnn, means "grace" or "favor" (see Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, and The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of Luke, page 430)

The Scripture passage provides much information about Anna:

  1. Anna/Hannah was in God's favor ("graced" by God, the meaning of her Hebrew name); she was a prophetess.
  2. She was the daughter of Phanuel and was a member of the tribe of Asher. 
  3. Anna was married for seven years and had been widowed.
  4. She was eighty-four years old (in the literal Greek text, "four score and four years."
  5. She was devout: she fasted and prayed in the Temple daily for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Only ten true prophetesses are mentioned in Scripture: Miriam sister of Moses (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Isaiah's wife (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36), and St. Philip's four daughters (Acts 21:9).

Anna's tribe, Asher, was one of the northern tribes exiled into the Gentile world in 722 BC, never to return to its ancestral lands.  The tribe was descended from Asher, the eighth son of Jacob/Israel and his wife Leah's slave girl Zilpah.  When Asher was born, Leah made a word play on the meaning of the child's name: Then Leah said, "What blessedness!  Women will call me blessed!"  So she named him Asher (Gen 30:13 NJB).  In Hebrew the word asher is a prime root which can mean, as Leah used the word, "to be blessed."  Anna was "blessed" as one of the few remaining members of this tribe still living in the Holy Land and remaining faithful to the covenant.

The climax of the passage is in verse 38 when the Holy Spirit revealed to Anna that the child she saw that morning in the Temple was the promised Messiah.  Seeing Jesus was a visible "sign" for her of the redemption and deliverance of her people.  For her the revelation would have recalled the promise of the prophet Ezekiel that when the Davidic Messiah came all Israel (expressed as "Ephraim" and "Judah" = northern and southern tribes) would be gathered in from the Gentile lands into which they had been scattered (Ezekiel 37:15-28), and Israel would be restored and redeemed!

Question: Did Anna keep this revelation to herself?  What is the obligation of New Covenant believers concerning God's revelation of salvation through His Son?  See Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 4:11-12.
Answer: She told everyone (verse 38).  It was the mission of the prophet or prophetess to share God's revelation with others.  It is also our mission as Jesus' disciples to joyfully share the "good news" of God's gift of redemption for all mankind and that His gift of salvation is only through Jesus Christ, Son of God.

THE GENTILES SEEK THE MESSIAH

Let us remain in adoration; and to him, who, in order to save us, humbled himself to such a degree of poverty as to receive our body, let us offer not only incense, gold and myrrh (the first as God, the second as king, and the third as one who sought death for our sake), but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes.
St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio, 19

I am coming to gather every nation and every language.  They will come to witness my glory. I shall give them a sign ...
Isaiah 66:19-20a NJB

I see him but not in the present.  I perceive him but not close at hand: a star is emerging from Jacob; a scepter is rising from Israel....
Numbers 24:17 NJB

After Jesus' birth, the Holy Family moved into a house.  This is believed to be the house of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem and the site where the Magi came to find the Christ-child.

Matthew 2:1-12 ~ The Gentiles come seeking the Christ-child
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."  3 When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them, where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.  8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."  9 After their audience with the king they set out.  And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

This part of St. Matthew's narrative in verses 1-23 is full of Old Testament prophecy.  First there is the allusion to the prophecy of the star that was a sign of the future king of Israel in Numbers 24:17 (Matthew 2:6), and then there are three additional quotations from Malachi 5:1 (Matthew 2:6), from Exodus 4:23 which is related to Numbers 23:22a and Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:15), and Jeremiah 31:15 (Matthew 2:18).  Finally there is a mysterious fourth quote for which no single Old Testament prophecy can be found in Matthew 2:23.

The "wise men" from the East who came looking for the Messiah are indentified in the Greek text as Magoi ("Magi" in English)There are three elements in St. Matthew's narrative about the Magi that point to a historical account:

  1. The Magoi were a priestly cast of astrologers from ancient Empires of the East (Assyrian/Babylonian and later Persian) about whom we have knowledge from ancient non-biblical documents.  They are mentioned in the works of the 5th century BC historian Herodotus, and there is a biblical reference in the 6th century BC prophecies of the Book of Daniel.(4)
  2. The Magi's interest in the stellar phenomenon and their interpretation of the appearance of unusual cosmic events associated with the birth of a king is consistent with beliefs and the practice of astronomy and astrology in the ancient world.
  3. Until recently there were still communities of Israelites living in the homeland of the Magi.  The largest Jewish community was in Mosel whose ancient name is Nineveh, but they were and in Bagdad.  These Israelite communities dated back to the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.  Through centuries of interaction with Israelite scholars and court officials (like Daniel) and the religious writings of their people, the Gentile Magi very likely became familiar with the prophecies of the future Davidic Messiah.  The ancient Jewish communities and also Christian communities in Mosel were massacred or driven out of the city by the Moslem ISIL [ISIS] army in 2014.

Magi were scholars who studied astronomy, probably from the ancient city of Babylon.  At the time Jesus was born, Babylon was a Parthian royal city and continued to enjoy the distinction of being one of the ancient world's most important centers of astronomical and astrological knowledge.  From the beginning of the pursuit of the study of the cosmos in the early second millennium BC, astronomy was linked to astrology and divination.  Royal courts in the ancient world employed astronomers/astrologers to interpret the king's dreams as well as to interpret the significance of celestial events which were viewed as signs from the gods (see Daniel 2:1-2).   A lunar eclipse, for example, was often interpreted as a sign that a king would die (Jewish historian Flavius Josephus links an eclipse of the moon to Herod the Great's death.(5)  The work of these ancient astronomers was, of course, limited to what they could see (the telescope was not invented until the early 17th century).  For the ancients, the study of the star constellations and the stars that traveled in erratic paths (which they called planetes, meaning the "wanderers" or the "nomads," but which we recognize as planets) was limited to the naked eye.  Therefore, the only "wanderers" the ancient astronomers could observe were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.

The Magi who made this momentous journey to Jerusalem were from the region that had become part of the Empire of the Greeks after the 4th century BC conquests of Alexander the Great.  They were probably familiar with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Jews' sacred texts) that translated the messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17 in Greek as: A star shall come forth out of Jacob, a man shall arise out of Israel (underlining added).  This prophecy, which originated from the time of the Exodus journey, was partially fulfilled in King David, but the Jews also saw it as a prophecy that pointed to a future Messiah from the lineage of the great David.  The Numbers 24:17 prophecy was so widely known that references to it are found in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.(6)

The Magi certainly believed a star had led them on their journey by their statement, recorded in Greek text of the New Testament: eidomen gar autou ton astera: "We saw his star as it rose..."  Astronomers down through the centuries have attempted to determine the nature of the celestial sign that prompted the Magi to travel the hundreds of miles from the region of what had been ancient Babylonia and Persia to the Roman province of Judea.  Some have speculated that it was a supernova, others that it was a unique alignment of several planets.  The description of the "star" rising and then traveling to appear stationary over the village of Bethlehem supports the theory that the "star" was a planet or an alignment of planets.  Stars remain fixed in the sky while planets move on what appears to be an erratic pattern.  When a planet is about to complete its turn in its orbit around the sun, in a vantage point from earth it appears to slow down and then to be "stationary" in the sky since the earth is also moving through its orbit.  It is entirely possible for a planet, perhaps aligning with another planet, to appear stationary over a place on earth like Bethlehem.  It is significant that in Jesus' birth as well as in His death that there were unexplained cosmic phenomenon (from noon to 3 PM on the day of His death there was appeared to be a total solar eclipse lasting for several hours).

However, at about this same time there was another cosmic phenomenon that would have also caught the attention of Near Eastern astronomers as well as religious leaders.  For centuries ancient astronomers had observed the precession of the equinoxes, and they understood through their observations that the position of the earth gradually changed in relation to the cosmos.  We understand this phenomenon as the gyroscopic wobble of the earth's axis that changes approximately one degree every 72 years.  At the time Scripture and the Church traditionally identifies within the timeframe of the birth of Jesus, the occurrence of the vernal equinox was starting to take place under the sign of Pisces rather than the sign of Aries.  In the ancient world, this was indeed a momentous event.(7)

The last 4 astrological periods related to the shifting constellations of the vernal equinox occur approximately every 2,000 years:(8)

4000 BC - 2000 BC Taurus
2000 BC - 1 BC Aries
1 BC - 2000 AD Pisces
2000 AD - 4000 AD Aquarius

The Magi probably arrived in Jerusalem in about the year 1 BC, at the time of the constellation shift.  This can be determined by St. Luke's information that Herod ordered that all boy children under two years of age were to be murdered (Luke 2:17).  If the date of 3/2 BC is accepted as the year of Jesus' birth, according to the testimony of St. Luke that both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were 30 years old in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1-4, 23), then the Magi probably arrived within a year or a year and a half of the Messiah's birth, at a time when Pisces had come into the ascension position.

The advent of the Messiah under the sign of Pisces, the astrological sign of the fish, was a symbolically significant event for Israel, the people of God's holy Covenant.  Fish symbolism figured prominently both in the Old Covenant faith and in early Christianity (which was heavily Jewish).  The fish was a "sign" or symbol of Christ and is prominent in the Gospels as well in early Christian art.  The symbolic reference to "the fish" is found in:

Even before the birth of the Messiah, the fish symbolized both life and death.  In the Near East it was a symbol of the "death" of one age and the "birth" or "resurrection" of another.  This understanding becomes clear when one considers that early Christians came to use the fish as symbolic of the two most sacred of the seven Sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist.  Both these sacraments of the New Covenant indicate a death and a rebirth.  How perfect that the New Age for the New Covenant people of God should be heralded by the astrological sign that signaled the death of man's great enemy, sin and death, the birth of the New Covenant and the gift of eternal life that was to come from Jesus' death, burial and resurrection.

In addition, historians agree that the sign of the fish has always had been interpreted as being of Israel, the Old Covenant Church, as well as the Universal New Covenant Church.(9)  It is interesting that there are two fishes symbolized in the constellation of Pisces and that they are arranged with one fish in a horizontal position and the other perpendicular with a band uniting the two fishes.  The perpendicular fish points to the polar star.  In the spirit of the Magi, we could speculate that the cosmic placement of the stars in the pattern of the horizontal fish is the Old Covenant Israel, the foundation of the covenant people, while the perpendicular fish is the New Covenant Church rising above the Old Covenant Church and pointing the way to salvation.

But what about the phenomenon the Biblical text identifies as a star?  St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred 107 AD) made an interesting statement concerning the star of Bethlehem.  He wrote in circa 69 AD: "At the appearance of the Lord a star shone forth brighter than all the other stars."  St. Ignatius, who studied at the feet of the Apostles, may have been repeating an eyewitness account of the phenomenon.  The Magi interpreted what they saw as a new star.  It is of course possible that the Bethlehem star was a stellar phenomenon that God created for this moment in salvation history, but it is also possible that what they believed to be a "new" star may have been a conjunction of planets which God orchestrated to converge at that moment in time.

Stars are flickering lights that appear to move across the sky in the course of a night, but their positions in relation to each other remain fixed.  Planets, however, are lights that change position slightly with respect to the stars.  The positions of the planets change from week to week and do not repeat the same position from year to year.  The earth and the planets orbit the sun more or less in the same flat plane; therefore they appear to travel along the same path across the sky, known as the ecliptic.  But whereas the sun makes a smooth journey across the ecliptic, spending exactly one month in each of the twelve visible constellations the ancients called the Zodiac, the planets do not.  The path of the planets appears erratic.  The planets appear to change speed and, to the ancients, they even appeared to change direction.  It was for this reason that the Greeks gave them name planetes, meaning "wanderer" or "nomad."  What the ancients didn't understand, of course, was that what appeared to be the retrograde motion of the planets was actually an illusion due to the fact that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the solar system and that the Earth was just another planet circling the sun.(10)

In the 16th century AD the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1631) determined that there were three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the year 7 BC.  Both astronomers and Bible scholars felt certain that the conjunction of these major planets had to be the Bethlehem star, especially since the significance of the planet of the king (Saturn) and the planet of the supreme god (Jupiter) seemed to fit so appropriately to the birth of Jesus the God who is King.  This discovery of the conjunction of the planets in 7 BC, coupled with Kepler's other discovery of a partial lunar eclipse in the year 4 BC (Josephus recorded that King Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse and before the Feast of the Passover), therefore set the date as far as most Bible scholars were concerned for Jesus' birth in 7 BC and Herod's death in 4 BC.  This theory continues to be accepted even though it contradicts St. Luke's testimony that Jesus was 30 years old in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, and also contradicts the writings of several early Church Fathers who identified the date of Jesus' birth as 3 BC (in agreement with Luke's information) and the official Church date of year 1 AD as the beginning of the calendar "in the year of the Lord."

However, there have been new discoveries that may help to identify the stellar phenomenon of both the star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.  Dr. Ernest Martin has argued that an even more striking planetary alignment took place during the year 3/2 BC.  During the year 3/2 BC, the planets Jupiter and Venus made a triple alignment that would have appeared as one tremendous single light, with Venus rising in the east.  With the exception of the sun and the moon, Venus is the brightest light in the heavens and Jupiter the second brightest.  A Biblical link to support this theory might be the passage in Revelation 22:16 that refers to Jesus as "the bright morning star."  Martin's argument for this stellar alignment as the Bethlehem star is so convincing that many of the observatories around the world, including the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, present this theory for the Bethlehem star in their annual Christmas programs.(11)

The 2/1 BC date for the Magi's journey following the star of Bethlehem is a date that agrees with St. Luke's testimony that Jesus was 30 years old in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1, 23), establishing St. John's birth and Jesus' birth "six months later" (but five months as we count) in range of 3/2 BC.  This is a date that agrees with the testimony of several of the early Church Fathers that Jesus was born in what would be about 3/2 BC according to our calendar.  The discovery of a full lunar eclipse (Kepler discovered only a partial lunar eclipse occurred in 7 BC) that occurred in the year 1 BC, fourteen weeks prior to the Passover of that year, supports Josephus' testimony that Herod died between a lunar eclipse and the Jewish Passover, and also points to a 3/2 BC date for Jesus' birth. Then too, there was the event of the shift of the constellations that occurred at this time; it was a long-awaited 2,000 year event that would have been seen by these ancient peoples as marking a change in the destiny of mankind.

Question: What does the narrative about the Magi and the star tell us about the importance of Jesus' birth?
Answer:

  1. All of Creation was impacted by the birth of the Messiah that was announced through a cosmic event.
  2. The birth of the Jewish Messiah is important not just for the Old Covenant people of God but for all peoples of the earth.

Question: Why did the Magi go to the court of King Herod?
Answer: It probably had not occurred to these men that the birth of the new king of the Jews would not be in the family of the current ruler.

Matthew 2:3-6 ~ When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  4 Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them, where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Question: Why was Herod disturbed by the inquiries being made by these strangers from the East and why was the population of the city of Jerusalem aroused?
Answer: Everyone knew about the prophecies of the Messiah, the promised Davidic king.

Herod was ruling a kingdom to which he had no hereditary claim, being not a Jew but a descendant of Esau (see the Laws of the King in Deuteronomy 17:15), and news of the birth of a Davidic heir was enough to drive this suspicious and unstable man into a frenzy.(12)

The Magi had traveled a great distance from territory that was under the domination of the Parthians, enemies of the Romans.  If their journey originated in the ancient city of Babylon, the distance from Babylon to Jerusalem was about 800 miles.  Depending on where they originated, the journey probably took from six months to a year traveling by donkey or camel.  Tradition identifies the Magi as a company of three, but there is no Biblical evidence to support this tradition. The Biblical text only says there were three gifts not three men (Matthew 2:11).  In the Medieval times, many myths and legends were written about the Magi and in the west they were assigned the names Melchior, Gaspar (Caspar), and Balthazar.(13) However, since the Magi were men of high social status, they probably traveled with a retinue of servants in a large caravan.  The arrival of any large caravan from the east probably was enough to generate interest in the city, but the richly dressed men of this particular caravan announced that they were looking for the promised Messiah.  This news would have spread like wildfire throughout the holy city.

Herod called together the most learned men in Jerusalem to tell him where the Messiah was prophesized to be born:

  1. The chief priests: the leaders of the priesthood which included the anointed High Priest (a group equivalent to our Magisterium).
  2. The scribes: students of the Law and the Scriptures (equivalent to our theologians).

Question: What prophet wrote that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah that is quoted in Matthew 2:6?  See Micah 5:1-3 [2-4].
Answer: It was the prophecy of the 6th century BC prophet Micah who wrote that the Messiah would be born in the ancestral village of King David and would come to reunite the nation of Israel.

Matthew 2:7-8 ~ Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.  8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."
By the time these events occurred, Herod had been firmly gripping his royal throne for 37 years.  He had married nine wives and had many children.  His success as a ruler stemmed not only from his administrative abilities but from his ruthlessness.
Question: Why did Herod question the Magi about the exact date they first saw the star in verse 7?  Was he sincere in his expressed desire to do "homage" to the child?
Answer: He questioned the Magi carefully about the exact date they saw the star because Herod was already forming his plan to murder the Messiah.  He needed to know age range of the children that would need to be murdered to include the promised child.

Matthew 2:9-12 ~ 9 After their audience with the king they set out.  And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Scripture records that the Magi found the "house" = oikia and the "child" = paidion  (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon).  Bethlehem is only about five miles south of Jerusalem.  The Fathers of the Church see in the three treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh the symbols of Christ's kingship:

  1. gold = His kingship
  2. incense (offered in religious rites) = His divinity
  3. myrrh (a burial preparation) = His Passion. 

At the time of the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family is located in a house in the village of Bethlehem.  The Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child on January 6th in the Liturgical Calendar.

Several Old Testament Scripture passages are fulfilled in the Gentiles following the star to the Messiah, bringing gifts and worshipping God the Son:

The priests and scribes probably also shared these passages with Herod.  It is the second part of the Numbers 24:17-18 passage which mentions Edom as an enemy of the Messiah that would have certainly have made Herod fearful.  Herod was a descendant of Esau, the father of the Edomites who in Herod's day were called Idumeans.  Herod was a "converted" Jew who was really more Greek in his religious observances; he was the Idumaean enemy in the prophecy.

Question: What is the irony concerning the attitude of the Magi toward the Christ-child as opposed to the chief priests and scribes who are Herod's allies?
Answer: The Davidic Messiah is to be the Redeemer of Israel and yet it is the Gentiles who are anxious to seek Him, to find Him, and to worship Him.

Matthew 2:12 ~ And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
God continually intervenes in human events to protect His divine plan for mankind's salvation.  The Magi will return to their Gentile lands and tell their story.  They will prepare the way for Jesus' disciples who will come to share the Gospel of salvation some forty years later.

Matthew 2:13-15 ~ Joseph is warned in a dream and takes the Holy Family to Egypt
13 When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.  Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him."  14 Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.  15 He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord has said through the prophet might be fulfilled, "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Question: How many dream revelations has Joseph had so far?  See Matthew 1:20-24.  What Old Testament men of God also received God's revelations in dreams?  What is their link to Joseph the foster father of Jesus?  Genesis 37:5-7, 9; Daniel 7:1, 13-14.
Answer: This is Joseph's second dream revelation of God's plan.  His first was when the angel told him it was God's plan for him to take Mary as his wife.  Joseph the son of Jacob-Israel, who shared the same name as Joseph of Nazareth, received God's revelation through dreams.  The Prophet Daniel, who prophesized the historical countdown to the coming of the Messiah also received God's revelations through dreams.

Since "the star rose" and they followed the star on the short journey to Bethlehem, it must have been nighttime when the caravan of the Magi located Jesus and His family.  After their visit, instead of returning the short distance to Jerusalem, they camped near Bethlehem.  Everyone concerned must have had a troubled sleep that night.  The Magi and Joseph were warned in their dreams about the child's danger.  Perhaps the Magi weren't na´ve concerning Herod's expressed desire to honor the child; after all, they didn't hurry back to report to Herod.  Perhaps the dream was all the confirmation they needed to quickly withdraw from this historic scene, hoping Herod would think they had been unsuccessful in their search.  Perhaps they took the Holy Family with them to help start them on their journey to Egypt.  The costly gifts they gave Jesus could certainly finance such a journey and could support the family for several years.

Joseph was immediately obedient to the Lord's command (verse 14).  St. Matthew then refers to a prophecy that is related to Exodus 4:23, Hosea 11:1, and to Numbers 23:22.  The verse from Numbers 23:22  is part of the story about the prophet Balaam who was hired by the King of Moab to curse the children of Israel on the final leg of their Exodus journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 22:1-24:25).  Each time Balaam tried to curse Israel, God turned the curse into a blessing, which understandably infuriated the King of Moab.  On the fourth attempt, Balaam did not utter a curse or a blessing, instead he uttered a prophecy of a future Israelite king:  I see him-but not in the present.  I perceive him-but not close at hand: a star is emerging from Jacob, a scepter [a man = LXX] is rising from Israel... (Numbers 24:17 NJB).  This was the prophecy that probably inspired the Magi to follow the star to find the King of the Jews.  But in the second curse-turned-blessing, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Balaam recounted God's blessings in bringing Israel out of Egypt, referring to the tribes of Israel as "Jacob," the ancestor from whom the twelve tribes of Israel are descended.  Balaam said: God has brought him out of Egypt (Numbers 23:22a NJB)-referring to Jacob as a single individual.  This is a statement that is related to Exodus 4:23 where God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh: Israel is my first-born son (singular), meaning out of all the nations of the earth, the children of Israel, the descendants of Noah's righteous firstborn son, Shem (Genesis 10:1; 11:10-26), were God's "firstborn" among the nations and to Hosea 11:1 NJB ~ When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt.

Question: What is the significance of the passages from these prophecies that St. Matthew quoted and alluded to in Matthew 2:15 ~ what the Lord has said through the prophet might be fulfilled, "Out of Egypt I called my son" ?  How is this Biblical text connected to the star prophecy in Numbers 24:17, to Moses, and how does it prefigure the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, son of God? Also see Exodus 2:1-10.
Answer: The connection is to Jesus, the descendant of Jacob through Mary, who is God's firstborn son.  Jesus is being sent "into Egypt," just as Moses was sent into Egypt when his life was also threatened as a child by a wicked king, the Pharaoh of Egypt who demanded the death of all male Israelite children (Exodus 2:1-10).

As an adult, Moses' mission was to lead the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land, because God had called Israel, His "firstborn son" out of Egypt.  This event in salvation history prefigured an even greater exodus when God's firstborn son, Jesus of Nazareth, takes His place as the new Moses.  Jesus will also be a "firstborn son" called "out of Egypt," when Joseph brings the Holy Family back to Judea after the death of Herod and when the child Jesus becomes an adult, His mission as the "new Moses" will be to inaugurate a "new Exodus," leading the children of God out of slavery to sin and into the true Promised Land of Heaven.

Matthew 2:16-18 ~ Herod's revenge: the massacre of the innocent
16 When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious.  He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.  17 Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled since they were no more."

Matthew 2:17 contains a quote from Jeremiah 31:15 concerning Israel, the Bride of Yahweh (symbolized by Rachel), and also the mothers of Israel who, after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 587/6 BC, mourned as their children were rounded up and kept on the plains of Bethlehem near Rachel's tomb before being sent into exiled into the lands of Babylon.  St. Matthew applies that mourning to the cries of the mothers who are the "Rachels" of Israel from the villages around Jerusalem, whose infant sons had been murdered by Herod's soldiers.

In the archaeological excavations around Ein Karem (the traditional home of John the Baptist) only a few miles from Bethlehem, thousands of the bones of infants dating to this period have been discovered.  If you visit Ein Karem you can view a repository that holds thousands of tiny bones and bone fragments.  According to the account of the Massacre of the Innocents in the non-canonical document, The Proto-Evangelium of St. James, St. Elizabeth managed, with the help of an angel, to hide young John the Baptist, as St. John's father, Zechariah, in his attempt to protect the children of his village, was murdered by Herod's soldiers.  There is no historical evidence of the murder of these children outside of the Biblical record (with the exception of the highly unusually amount of children's bones discovered at the sites of the small villages around Bethlehem and Jerusalem); however, from what is know historically of Herod's ruthlessness, he was certainly capable of ordering such a horrendous massacre.

Picture of the rock where John the Baptist was hidden. In the crypt of the Church of the Visitation there is a rock where tradition claims the infant John was hidden from the soldiers of Herod.
Mural of The Murder of the Innocents in Ein Karem
Rachel's tomb near Bethlehem

Matthew 2:19-23 ~ The Holy Family returns from Egypt
19 When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and 20 said, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead."  21 He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.  And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.  23 He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

Question: When Herod died, the angel appeared to Joseph a third time and told him to return to his homeland.  Again, Joseph was obedient, but he did not return to Bethlehem for what two reasons?
Answer: He feared Herod's son Archelaus, and he was warned in another dream to go the Nazareth in the Galilee.

When Herod died, the Romans honored Herod's will and appointed his son Archelaus to rule from Jerusalem as ethnarch over the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, while Herod's son Herod Antipas became tetrarch of the Galilee and Perea.  Archelaus was every bit as cunning and cruel as his father but with none of his father's administrative skills.  He ruled Judea for only about 2 years before the Romans removed him and made Judea a Roman province administrated by a Roman procurator under the Roman governor of Syria.  This is why Pontius Pilate and not an heir of Herod will be the Roman ruler of Judea when Jesus begins His ministry.  The Romans could overlook cruelty but not the inability to collect taxes for the Roman Empire.

Verse 23 is the fourth fulfillment formula statement in Matthew's Gospel, but this passage has mystified Biblical scholars since there is no clear text in the Old Testament which states the Messiah would be called a Nazorean.  However, unlike the other quotes, which refer to what is spoken by "the prophet," this passage does not refer to a single prophet but to "what had been spoken through the prophets," plural; therefore, Matthew may not be referring to a single text but to a larger theme in the prophetic texts.  He may also be making a word-play on the Hebrew word netzer, which means "branch" and may be the root word for Nazareth in Hebrew, which is Nazara/Nasrat.  Netzer, "branch" is a Messianic title, most notably in the prophetic passage in Isaiah 11:1 NJB ~ But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud [netzer] shall blossom.

Luke 2:39-40 ~ The Return to Nazareth
39 When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

These verses complete the infancy narratives.  The final prophecy found in Matthew 2:23 ~ "He shall be called a Nazarene" were fulfilled when the Holy Family settled in Nazareth.  The birth narratives of Jesus of Nazareth reveal that even in His birth, God the Son manifested Himself to people from all walks of life, first to the lowly Jewish shepherds, then to the humble prophets Simeon and Anna, and later to scholarly and sophisticated Gentile Magi.  St. Augustine commented: "The shepherds were Israelites; the Magi, Gentiles.  The first lived near-by; the latter, far away.  Yet both came to the cornerstone, Christ" (Sermons on the Nativity of God, #202).  From the very beginning of His earthly life, He called Jew and Gentile, the humble and the proud, the poor and the wealthy to come to Him and in repentance and humility to receive God's gift of salvation!  How ironic that it was the Gentile Magi sought Him out at the beginning and Gentiles will also seek Him out and acknowledge His kingship at the end.  It was a group of Greek converts to the faith of the Sinai Covenant who requested to speak to Jesus the last day He taught in the Jerusalem Temple in 30 AD just prior to His Passion.  It was the Gentile's willingness to come to Him that prompted the Messiah to declare: The hour has now come for the Son of man to be glorified (John 12:23), and it was a Gentile Roman centurion and his men who were the first to proclaim from the cross: "Truly, this was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54b).

Endnotes:
1. The defilement attached to childbirth had no moral significance; procreation and childbirth were not considered sinful.  That which was "unclean" resulting from childbirth was simply a part of nature, as was the woman's issue of blood from her monthly menstrual cycle (Lev 15:19-24).  The text in Leviticus explicitly states that the woman who has given birth needed to be purified "from her flow of blood" (Lev 12:7).  The two stages of her purification (for a boy seven days and then thirty-three days) had to do with the heavy discharge of blood immediately after birth which is followed by the lighter flow which may last for a number of weeks.  She could not enter the Sanctuary during this time because her flow of blood is a ritual impurity that could contaminate the holy space.  A sin sacrifice purifies the covenant believer and renders that person ready to re-enter into communion with God through a communion sacrifice and a sacred meal known as the Todah, "thanksgiving" (Lev 7:11 [7:1]-27 [7:17].  She was also required to ritually purify herself through immersion in the Temple mikveh before entering the Temple courtyard to make her presentation before God; it was an external sign that signified an internal condition of spiritual purity (Mishnah: Miqvaot). 
2. Aaron and his sons were of the clan of Kohath, one of the three clans that comprised the tribe of Levi.  Their ancestral father was Levi, the third son of Jacob/Israel.  Both the chief priests and the lesser ministers were all from the tribe of Levi, but only Aaron and his descendants were the chief priests from whom the anointed High Priest was chosen.  Even Moses' descendants were considered Levites and not from the order of chief priests because they were not descendants of Aaron.  God's covenant of the perpetual priesthood only applied to Aaron and his descendants (Lev 2:13; Num 18:9; Sir 45:7, 15).
3. The son bearing the title "firstborn" inherited the double portion of the father's estate and the authority over his younger brothers and sisters.  When the Levites replaced the firstborn sons of Israel, they became the "older brothers" with authority over the "younger sons" of Israel: Jewish Study Bible, pages 289-90 (Levites replaced firstborn sons) 594 (authority), 728 (double portion).
4. Herodotus, Histories, 1.7.1; 1.108.2; 1.128; 1. 140.2-3; 3.61-63; 3.67.2-3; 3.76-79; 3.79.3; 7.19.2; 7.37.2-3; 7.43; 7.113.2; 7.191.2;  Daniel 2:2 (Daniel described them as sorcerer Chaldeans); also see Acts 8:9 and 13:6, 8 where they are called false miracle workers.
5. Antiquities of the Jews, 17.6.4 [167].
6. Tacitus, Histories, 5:13.
7. In the 6th century AD, the abbot Dionysus Exiguus (Denis the Short) reformatted the calendar, rejecting the tally of the years from the founding of pagan Rome and recalculating from what he determined was the birth of Christ, which he expressed as year 1 in Anno Domini, "in the year of the Lord," recognized by the initials "AD."  Clement of Alexandria [3rd century] and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the Holy Land [4th century]; however, would not have agreed with Denis' calculation for the birth of Christ.  Both early Christian scholars agreed that Jesus was born three years earlier than the 1 AD date assigned for His birth in the 6th century AD [see Clement of Alexandria's Stomata, I and Eusebius' History of the Church chapter 5].  Eusebius wrote in his Church History: It was in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the death of Antony and Cleopatra.  These calculations place Jesus' birth in 3 BC [BC = Before Christ].  Also see the document "Dating the Birth of Jesus of Nazareth" in the Documents/New Testament section.
8. Bible Review, December 2001, "The Magi and the Stars," by Simo Parpola, pages 20-23, 52-54; Bible Review, December 1999, "Why 2K?," by James Tabor, page 25.
9. For symbolic references to "fish," "nets," and "fishermen" pertaining to Israel or to salvation and judgment in the Old Testament see Jer 16:14-16; Ez 12:8-13; 17:19-20; 47:9-12; Hab 1:14-17. The Witness of the Stars, E. W. Bullinger, Kregel Publications, 1998, pages 36-39.
10. It wasn't until the 16th century that the Polish astronomer Nicklaus Copernicus realized that the retrograde motion of the planets was actually an illusion due to the fact that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the solar system.
11. Bible Review ,December 1999, "Why 2K?," by James Tabor, page 25: see The Star of Bethlehem: the Star that Astonished the World, Dr. Ernest L. Martin, 1996.  A Venus and Jupiter conjunction in right ascension takes place on November 30th, 2008 at 7 pm central time.  This conjunction is not as close as the year 3/2 BC conjunction but it will be spectacular as the two plants form a triangle with the crescent moon.  A conjunction is when the planets appear to be side by side while in an occultation one planet passes directed in front of the other.  Venus and Jupiter will occult again in the year 2065.
12. Herod was not a Jew.  He was an Idumaean (the people who were descendants of Esau; Gen 25:19-28; 27:1-45).  The Idumaeans were conquered by the Maccabees in the second century BC and were forced to convert to the faith of the Sinai Covenant (1 Mac 5:3).  In 40 BC, Herod was appointed King of the Jews by his Roman overlords and consolidated power to assume the throne in 37 AD.  His only tenuous claim to the throne was his marriage to the granddaughter of the last Hasmonean ruler, who he would eventually murder.  During the course of his career, Herod, in his desire to eliminate any possible threat to his throne, executed a brother and three of his own sons not to mention many other unfortunate men and women who he considered real or imagined threats. Herod publically practiced the commands and prohibitions of the covenant, including the dietary restrictions, which prompted Augustus Caesar to comment that "it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son."
13. The first century AD Jewish theologian and contemporary of Jesus, Philo of Alexandria, mentions the scholarly eastern Magi in "Every Good Man is Free", # 74.  In 490 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Zeno announced his representatives had discovered the graves of the Magi somewhere in Persia.  He had the bones brought to Constantinople and entered in a magnificent crypt.  The relics were stolen during the sack of Constantinople in the fourth Crusade and were taken to Milan, Italy. In 1164 Frederick Barbarossa had the bones removed to Cologne, Germany.  Today the bones reside in a magnificent reliquary shrine which was built for them in the late 12th century.

For a list of the political and religious rulers of Judea from 37 BC to 68 AD see the chart Rulers of Judea.

Michal Hunt copyright © 2008

Resources and recommended reading:

  1. Anchor Bible Commentary: – Gospel of Luke, Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., Doubleday, 1981.
  2. Anchor Bible Dictionary, volumes 1-6; editor in chief: David N. Freeman; Doubleday, 1992
  3. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, David E. Duncan, Avon Book, Inc., 1998.
  4. Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History, E. G. Richards, Oxford Press, 1998, reprinted 2005.
  5. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vo. 1: Church History, Eusebius, Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
  6. A History of Rome, M. Cary and H. H.  Scullard, Palgrave, 1988.
  7. The Navarre Bible Commentaries: Matthew, Luke, and Mark, Faculty of Theology, Navarre University, Four Courts Press, 1988, reprinted 1998.
  8. The Navarre Bible: Major Prophets, Faculty of Theology, Navarre University, Four Courts Press, 1999.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church
  10. Christianity and the Roman Empire, Ralph M. Novak, Trinity International Press, 2001.
  11. Offerings, Sacrifices, and Worship in the Old Testament, J.H. Kurtz, Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
  12. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Hendrickson Publishers, 1994 edition.
  13. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, Fortress Press, Philadelphia , 1969.
  14. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services in the Time of Jesus Christ, Alfred Edersheim, Hendrickson Publishers, 1994 edition.
  15. The Temple of Jerusalem, Simon Goldhill, Harvard University Press, 2005.
  16. The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Second Division, Volume I, Emil Schurer,  Hendrickson Publishers, 1890.
  17.  The Mishnah, Jacob Neusner translator, Yale University Press, 1988.
  18. The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.
  19. The Works of Philo of Alexandria, translated by C. D. Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
  20. The Jewish Festivals from Their Beginnings to Our Own Day, Hayyim Schauss, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1938.
  21. Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Doubleday, 2007.
  22. The Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  23. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, Ronald L. Eisenberg, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2004.
  24. Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, Mark Miravalle, S.T.D., Queenship Publishing Company, 1993.
  25.  The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II, Pauline Books, 1999.
  26. Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988.
  27. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, editor: Robert B. Strassler, Pantheon Books, New York, 2007.
  28. Bethlehem to Patmos, Paul Barnett, Paternoster Press, 1989.
  29. The Temple Haggadah, Israel Ariel, The Temple Institute, Carta- Cana, Jerusalem, 1996.
  30. Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture, Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
  31. The Anchor Bible: The Book of Daniel, Louis F. Hartman and Alexander A. Di Lella, Doubleday, 1978.
  32. A History of Israel, John Bright, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
  33. The Temple of Jerusalem, Simon Goldhill, Harvard University Press, 2005.
  34. The Septuagint with Apocrypha, translator Sir Lancelot Brenton, Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.
  35. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, E. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Griggs, Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.
  36. Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Joseph H. Thayer, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
  37. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, Thomas Nelson Published, 1994.
  38. Mesopotamia and the Bible, edited by Mark W. Chavalas and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Baker Academic, 2002.
  39. A History of the Ancient Near East ca 3000 – 323 BC, Marc Van De Mieroop, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  40. Astronomy, Jay M. Pasachoff, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1988.