Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king,
behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. (Matt. 2:1)
The Enlightenment represented a major shift in man’s thinking about himself. It was a return to a non-Christian view of man as a being controlled by reason. The medieval position was Christian in its view that man was faith-driven: that is, man’s thought is controlled by what he assumes is true.
What man assumes or believes may be true or untrue, but once he believes it to be fact, it is hard for him to let go—his assumption or his belief that something is true causes him to treat it as fact. Once such a fact becomes so widely accepted among many men that it is never doubted, it becomes a “truism.”
Jumping to Assumptions
The brief references to the Magi or Wise Men afford us an example of how easily we accept a particular understanding of Scripture and stick to it tenaciously. Dr. Floyd Nolan Jones notes a widely held view of Matthew 2:1 that seems to create more problems than it resolves.1 It has become very common to assume that the visit of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents came long after the birth of Jesus even though Matthew 2:1 say they came “when” Jesus was born. The primary logic for this view is that it explains two facts: first, Jesus was in a house, not a stable, when the Wise Men visited; and second, Herod murdered all males under two years and younger.
To assume the Wise Men’s visit came well after the birth of Jesus easily resolves these two facts of the narration, but it is not necessary to account for them. Joseph and Mary would have moved into better accommodations as soon as possible. Joseph had family ties to Bethlehem; the family would have likely been given more suitable shelter as soon as their need was known. Likewise, the slaughter of children up to two years old, even if Herod believed the child was a newborn, is not out of character. Herod was notorious for his brutal treatment of potential rivals. Herod killed every member of the Sanhedrin when he came to power, and murdered dozens of his political rivals, including three of his own sons. When he believed she was conspiring to decide his successor, Herod had his favorite wife executed as well as others in her family. A moral and political pragmatist, Herod might have felt it best not only to eliminate the newborns, but also any young child which might have been substituted for him. Overkill was part of Herod’s methodology.
The question of the Wise Men to Herod was, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Had time lapsed, the logical question would have been, “Where is he that was born King of the Jews?”
Further, the Wise Men followed the star to Jerusalem.2 They were then told by Herod to go to Bethlehem, just five miles to the south. If the Wise Men came later, they would have had to have been redirected from Bethlehem to Nazareth, for that is where Joseph took Mary and Jesus after His dedication at forty days (Luke 2:39). No mention of such a redirection is made. Moreover, if the visit of the Wise Men was to a home in Nazareth, the warning to Joseph to flee Herod by going into Egypt (Matt. 2:13–15) makes little sense, as the slaughter was in Bethlehem and such travel by the holy family would have brought them closer to both the slaughter and Herod’s center of power. Fleeing Nazareth far to the north to escape violence in Bethlehem makes no sense. The warning to Joseph to flee Herod must have come during their stay in Bethlehem.
The Order of Events
Dr. Jones suggests the following order prevents inconsistencies and does complete justice to the gospel texts:
First, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That night the shepherds were visited by an angel and went and saw Jesus in a manger. As soon as they left, they “made known abroad” what had happened to the amazement of all those who heard (Luke 2:6–18). Note that when the Wise Men visited Jerusalem not two hours away, no religious leader had any knowledge of what the shepherds “made known abroad.” Their only knowledge of the birth place of the Messiah was the prophecy of Micah 5:2. It is not possible that they remained ignorant of the shepherd’s accounts for two days, much less for two years.
Second, the Wise Men came to Jerusalem “when Jesus was born” (Matt. 2:1), not months or years later. Since the news of the shepherds had not yet traveled five miles, this was likely the day of the birth or the day after the shepherds’ visit.
Third, the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem and found Jesus in a house (into which the holy family had presumably just relocated). Neither their names, their number, nor their races are given. The number “three” comes from the three gifts brought. The Wise Men then were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so “they departed into their own country another way” (Matt. 2:12). Had Jesus been much over forty days old, he would have been in Nazareth (Luke 2:39) and their homeward trip would not have taken them far to the south to Judaea. Once they determined not to return to Herod, return from Nazareth to Persia or any point east would not have necessitated any evasive change of course. If they were in Bethlehem, such evasion would have been very necessary and precarious enough (given Herod’s known tendency to violence) to warrant mention.
Fourth, Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus still a tender newborn. This makes the flight all that more remarkable.
Fifth, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). This was likely done while en route to Egyptian territory.
Sixth, Herod died just days or weeks after his order to kill the children in Bethlehem was carried out. That Herod would commit such an atrocity when he knew his evil end was near is also in keeping with our knowledge of his character. We know he gave orders that, on his death, prominent Jews confined in Jericho be put to death; he reasoned that if the people would not mourn for his passing, they would mourn because of it.3 (The order was apparently not carried out.) Thus, all the events of Matthew 2:1–21 took place in a matter of weeks.
Seventh, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem by the time Jesus was forty days old in order to dedicate Jesus at the temple, where they saw Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22–38). Immediately thereafter, Joseph takes the family to Nazareth in Galilee (Matt. 2:22–23; Luke 2:39–40) because Herod’s son, Herod Archelaus, was unexpectedly given the throne by his father’s will. Wisely, he refused to accept it until the emperor agreed. This gave Joseph time to go quietly back to Nazareth.
Dr. Jones’s chronology may not be the last word on the subject, but his work merits our respect for one reason. His is a critical examination of man’s interpretation of the details of Scripture, not of Scripture itself, the authority, of which he presumes. It is the assumption of a time gap where none is required to which he objects, because such an unnecessary addition itself seems to conflict with Matthew 2:1 and causes inconsistencies in the sequence of events recorded in the gospels.
Historical details are important. All of Scripture is given within an historical context—names, places, historical reference points (known reigns and events), and witnesses are abundant in Scripture. If our assumptions change the sequence of events, we change the story. Assuming a time gap before the coming of the Wise Men may be a convenient way to explain some details, but it calls into question the accuracy of the Scripture itself which says they came “when Jesus was born.” That one wrong idea then also confuses the sequence of historical events.
A mistake about the timing of the Wise Men’s visit does not change the doctrine of, say, the incarnation, but the same cannot be said of errors we may believe about other doctrines. Accommodation to evolution alters the basis of man’s accountability to God and moves God to the position of, at best, a latecomer to the universe. Likewise, if we believe the truism that grace is opposed to law, then we have in one stroke both dismissed the law as an aspect of God’s grace and justified the legitimacy of lawlessness in the name of grace.
In ways far more damaging to the integrity of the Word than the timing of the Wise Men, we have created a host of ways in which we shift the intent or change the meaning of Scripture. “That was for another dispensation” changes the Word of God. “ That was a cultural custom, not law” changes a great deal. “That was a civil law, not a moral law” dismisses pages of Scripture. “The Bible never forsaw the church age, so that doesn’t apply” changes the applicability of all of Scripture. “That’s not loving” or “That’s not spiritual” create abstract, self-defined concepts of love and spirituality that are wrongly used to reinterpret all of God’s Word. We could go on and on, and, unfortunately, many self-professed Christians in and out of the pulpit do just that.
An old saying has it that a proof text without a context is a pretext. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to use God’s Word as a pretext. Our calling is to read and obey the Word, not rationalize why it does not apply.
If we believe we are reason-driven then we will see the necessity of subjecting the Word to our mind, and every interpretation and rationalization we bring to it will be seen as legitimate. If, however, we see ourselves as faith-driven, we will see the Word as our authority, and given for our edification in obedience. If we are wise men, we will see the difference.
1. Floyd Nolan Jones, The Chronology of the Old Testament (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2007).
2. The Wise Men were likely educated Gentile converts or Jews of Persia (not astrologers, astronomers, magicians, or mystics) who looked for the Messiah. The star they followed moved so it was a miraculous manifestation, not a star, comet, or conjunction.
3. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, s. v. “Herod.”