THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM: PART TWO
Was it Bethlehem or Nazareth?
An issue related to the nature and activity of the star the Magi saw is the location of the Christ child at the time the Magi arrived to present their gifts. While it is generally understood that the Magi visited the Christ child in Bethlehem, some have concluded it was to Nazareth the Magi traveled to worship the newborn king. This conclusion is based on Luke appearing to indicate Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth shortly after the birth in Bethlehem. Let's explore this issue by first looking at Matthew's account of this event.
After King Herod learned that the Christ child was to be born in Bethlehem and found out from the Magi when the star appeared, he sent them to Bethlehem to search out the child and report back to him. Matthew records that “they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew writes that the star they had seen in the east now went ahead of them. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. The implication is that they had not seen this star since they left the east and they were now being reintroduced to it and that is why they were filled with joy. At what point was it that they again saw the star?
Because Matthew says the star "went ahead (Greek proago) of them" some believe the star was visibly moving ahead of the Magi and the Magi followed the star to the place where the child was. As explained in Part One of this series, The phrase “went ahead” can mean something or someone having gone somewhere ahead of others and being there when others arrive. Therefore, it may be unwarranted to conclude the star was out in front of the Magi leading them and they simply followed the star to where the Christ child was staying. Matthew does not say the Magi followed the star.
In view of how the Greek proago can be used to designate something or someone being at a location in advance of others arriving at that location (See Part One for examples of this), It may be the Magi first saw the star when it stopped over the place where the child was and not that it led them to such place. If you allow the phrase"went ahead" to designate the star arriving at the location of the Christ child ahead of the Magi (which is certainly an allowable use of proago) you can easily see Matthew 2:9 showing the Magi first saw the star when it stood over the location of the Christ child.
Matthew 2:9-10 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 stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
As pointed out in Part one, It should be noted that Matthew reports the star stopped over the place where the child was. This is often interpreted to mean the star stopped over the exact house where Jesus was. However, Matthew doesn't say this. He simply reports the star stopped over the place where Jesus was. As explained in Part One, Matthew could be referring to the general area where Jesus was located and not necessarily the exact house. The Greek rendered "place " here has a broad usage in the New Testament in describing everything from a very specific location to a broad area.
Matthew then says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” It should be noted that Matthew doesn’t say where the house is located. It’s generally assumed it is located in Bethlehem because that is where Herod sent the Magi. He sent them there because he learned Bethlehem is where the prophets said the Christ would be born. Was the child in Bethlehem when the Magi came to visit? To begin answering this question we need to turn to Luke’s accounts of the birth.
Luke 12: 21-24: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord" ), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."
Luke doesn’t mention the Magi event but shows that on the eight day the child was circumcised. Luke proceeds to tell us that after Mary had completed her time of purification as required by the law, she and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord. Leviticus 12 tells us that circumcision was to take place on the eight day after which there was a purification period of thirty-three days associated with giving birth to a male child. So we know the child was at least forty-one days old (8+33=41) when brought to Jerusalem. Luke tells us that after Joseph and Mary had done everything required of them by the law, they returned to Nazareth. Nazareth is where they were living prior to leaving for Bethlehem to fulfill the requirements that they return to their ancestral home to be counted for tax purposes.
Luke 2:39-34: When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
Now let’s return to Matthew’s account of the birth events.
We find that after the Magi came to the house where the child was, they worshiped Him and presented him with gifts. At some point after they had left Herod, they were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod. Matthew's narrative doesn't reveal whether the Magi were warned before or after seeing the child. The flow of the narrative would indicate it was after they had seen the child. At some point after the Magi departed, Joseph also had a dream in which he was warned to immediately flee to Egypt because Herod would seek to kill the child. This warning directed to Joseph would appear to have occurred sometime after the Magi left and Herod came to realize the Magi were not returning to Jerusalem to advise him as to the whereabouts of the Christ child.
Matthew 2:12-15: And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. 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 escape 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 during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
It should be noted that Matthew records in 2:11 that the Magi visited the Christ child in a house. Manger scenes often picture both the shepherds and the Magi visiting Jesus while in the manger. While the manger where the Christ child was born could have been in a house, as animals were sometimes kept in the lower level of a house in first century dwellings, the house where the Magi came to see the child appears to be a different location from the place where the child was born. The Greek word oikia, translated "house" in Matthew 2:11, has the general meaning of "family abode." This Greek word appears 95 times in the NT and can be seen by context to always reflect this meaning.
Luke records that because there was no room in the inn, the child was born in a manger. Such manger could have been in the lower level of the Inn but probably was separate from the inn. The Greek word katuluma, translated "inn" in Luke 2:7, means a "lodging place" or "guest chamber." This Greek word is used three times in the NT and by context can be seen as referring to a guest chamber. As such, it would be a temporary dwelling place. Since it is recorded that the Magi came to an oikias and not to a katuluma, it is more likely this was a different location from that where the Christ child was born.
In Luke’s account of the birth events, we see the child being circumcised the eight day and Mary fulfilling her purification period as required by the law. Luke records that when they had done everything required by the law, they returned to Nazareth. There is no mention of a sojourn in Egypt. Luke's account gives no indication there was a space of time between the family fulfilling the requirements of the law and returning to Nazareth. Luke simply has them returning to Nazareth from where they had originally come from.
Matthew, on the other hand, has them escaping to Egypt to avoid Herod having the child killed. Matthew says nothing about the trip to Jerusalem. After their stay in Egypt, Matthew has them heading back to Judea but then deciding to go to Nazareth instead. Skeptics have had a field day with this in pointing out that the two accounts don’t match and appear contradictory. How can this supposed contradiction be resolved?
Most commentators on the NT simply conclude that Luke reported on some of the family's activities subsequent to the birth of the Christ child and Matthew reported on other of the families activities subsequent to the birth. It is pointed out that Luke and Matthew are eclectic in their reporting of events associated with the birth of Jesus. Luke records the travel of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to the taxation requirement. Luke also reports the manger birth, shepherds visiting the Christ Child and the trip to Jerusalem and return to Nazareth. Luke records nothing about the Magi or the escape to Egypt. Matthew records nothing about the trip to Bethlehem from Nazareth, the taxation requirement, the manger birth, the shepherds visiting the Christ child or the trip to Jerusalem.
It is believed that because of the eclectic manner of reporting by Matthew and Luke as to events connected with the birth of Jesus, we can't draw any definitive conclusions as to the exact sequence of how events related to the birth took place. These Gospel accounts were written many years after the events they report. It is very possible Matthew and Luke had different sources for their information and those sources provided different details as to the events pertaining to the birth. It is possible Luke knew nothing about the Magi visit or the escape to Egypt and Matthew did not have knowledge of what Luke wrote about.
It must be noted that eclectic and non-sequential reporting of events in the life of Christ is not uncommon in the Gospels. For example, Matthew records a number of parables in Matthew 13 that Jesus spoke to the people while sitting in a boat. After Jesus is finished speaking these parables, Matthew shows Jesus moving on from where He was and returning to His hometown (Matthew 13:53-54). In Mark, chapter 4, Mark reports on Jesus speaking the same parables Matthew reported on and doing so under the same circumstances. He did so while sitting in a boat. The recorded activity of Jesus just prior to the giving of the parables is also the same in Matthew as in Mark. All this strongly indicates Matthew and Mark are recording the same event. Yet we see quite a difference in what Matthew and Mark report as to Jesus' activity subsequent to His teaching from the boat.
After Jesus is finished speaking the parables, Mark records that Jesus, on that same day when evening came, left in a boat to go across the lake to the other side. While on the boat a severe wind comes up threatening to swamp the boat. However, Jesus calms the wind. When He reaches the other side, he heals a man who was possessed by evil spirits and the spirits are allowed to possess a group of swine. He then returns by boat to where he came from where He is met by a large crowd. He then is seen as healing a woman who has an issue of blood. Then it's recorded he raises from the dead the daughter of a ruler of the local synagogue (See Mark, chapters 4 and 5).
Only after all this is accomplished does Mark show Jesus returning to His hometown (Mark 6:1). Matthew records none of these events occurring before Jesus returns to his hometown. If one wasn't aware of Mark's account of Jesus doing all these other things before returning to His hometown, one could easily conclude from Matthew's account that Jesus simply returned to His hometown shortly after speaking the parables with no other events of any significance occurring. This is very similar to Luke saying Joseph, Mary and the Christ child returned to Nazareth upon leaving Jerusalem but failing to report the Magi and escape to Egypt events.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude Luke simply choose not to include the Magi/Egypt event assuming he actually knew about it. Such exclusion of information is certainly consistent with other such exclusions in Scripture. Eclectic writing about events in the life of Christ is common in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke write about events associated with the birth of Jesus. Mark and John say nothing about the birth. Matthew, Mark and Luke record the transfiguration. John doesn't mention it. The feeding of the four thousand is recorded by Matthew and Mark but not Luke or John. Matthew and Mark record Jesus healing a deaf and mute man. Luke and John do not report this event. Luke and Mark report Jesus casting out a demon from a man in a synagogue in Capernaum. Matthew and John don't mention this event.
In view of the eclectic reporting of events in the life of Christ, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Luke may simply have overlooked, didn't know about or choose not to report the Magi and escape to and return from Egypt event and simply skipped to recording that the family went back to Nazareth after fulfilling the requirements of the law.
However, let's assume Luke is indeed saying the family immediately returned to Nazareth after fulfilling the requirements of the Law which would force the Magi visit and escape to Egypt to occur at some point after their return to Nazareth. Some scholars have actually concluded Luke's account is the true account and that Matthew fabricated the whole episode involving the Magi and the escape to Egypt. Some scholars believe this because there is no secular historical account of the killing of the children.
Luke records that after the family fulfilled all that was required by the law, they returned to Nazareth. Matthew has them escaping to Egypt with no mention of them going to Nazareth until they returned from Egypt. When, and from where, did they escape to Egypt? Because Luke has them returning to Nazareth in Galilee not long after the child’s birth, some have concluded that the Magi visited the Christ child in Nazareth and it is from Nazareth they escaped to Egypt and not from Bethlehem. Therefore it is Nazareth to where the star led the Magi. Is this what happened? Let's explore this perspective by returning to Matthew, chapter two.
Matthew 2:16: When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Herod had the boys killed in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Herod had inquired of the Magi as to the exact time the star appeared. The fact that Herod had all boys two years old and under killed, indicates he believed, based on what the Magi told him, that the star appeared up to two years earlier. Herod must have concluded the child was born at the time the star appeared or anytime afterwards. Not wanting to take any chances on the Christ child not being killed, he ordered all boys two years and under be killed.
The appearing of the star in the east appears to signify the birth having taken place at the time the star appeared or sometime before the star appeared and not at some time subsequent to the stars appearance. Some believe the star may have signaled the time of Christ's conception and not His birth. However, Matthew 2:2 records that the Magi inquired were the child that had been born (past tense) king of the Jews could be found as they had seen his star in the east. The implication is that the star they saw in the east told them the child had already been born at the time the star appeared and it was the star that announced his birth. This would appear to rule out the Magi visiting the child while he was still in a manager and instead visiting him some one to two years after his birth. Scripture does not reveal from where the Magi came other than from the east. Scripture does not reveal when the Magi left subsequent to seeing the star. Scripture does not reveal how long it took them to arrive in Jerusalem after they left their homeland.
If the Magi came from Babylon as some speculate, it would have taken at least several months to make the journey to Jerusalem. In Colin Nicholl's book The Great Christ Comet, he reasons that the Magi came from Babylon which is about 550 miles from Jerusalem. Nicholl quotes another author who estimates a camel caravan could travel around 16 miles a day which means it would have taken the Magi nearly two months to make the trip from Babylon if indeed Babylon was from where they left. The fact that Herod killed all boys two years old and under indicates he believed the star appeared two years before the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. This indicates the Magi may have first left some time after seeing the star, traveled from a much greater distance than 550 miles or made a number of stops along the way before arriving in Jerusalem. In other words, they may have been on the road for a much longer period than two months.
Matthew writes that Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem. While Matthew does not explicitly inform us that it was to Bethlehem that the Magi went, he does inform us that after being warned of God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi returned to their homeland by a different route from the one they had taken to Jerusalem. If they had gone to Nazareth and left from Nazareth to return home, their route home would automatically have been different and it would appear superfluous to speak of them choosing a different route to return home.
Since the Magi were told to go to Bethlehem, they would not have gone to Nazareth unless they were actually led to go there by the star. Assuming a physical star is involved here and not an angel, such star leading them on their journey to visit the Christ child in Nazareth appears problematical for the following reason. As discussed in Part One of this series, heavenly bodies move east to west and not north to south or south to north. Nazareth is around 70 miles due north of Jerusalem. If the star the Magi saw led them from Jerusalem to Nazareth, it would have been moving contrary to the normal movement of celestial bodies.
Those who hold to the star being an angel see this as evidence it wasn't a physical star but an angel as an angel could travel any direction including in the direction of Nazareth. This, of course, is assuming the thing to be proved, namely that the star was an angel. Whether the star was an angel or a physical star, the idea that it led the Magi to Nazareth presents a number of problems. What follows is a discussion of these problems.
Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity” (NIV). (districts NKJV, region RSV, environs NASV). Nazareth is some 80 miles north of Bethlehem. It doesn't appear that a city 80 miles away would be considered in the vicinity, district, region or environs of Bethlehem. Why would there be a danger of Herod seeking to kill the child in Nazareth necessitating an escape to Egypt? If the Magi visited the Christ child in Nazareth, it would have been from Nazareth the family escaped to Egypt. Scripture shows the Magi visit preceded the escape to Egypt. Yet there is no reason to believe the Child would have been in danger in Nazareth. Joseph, himself realized this as we will see later in this essay.
It must be remembered that Herod was told the Christ child would be born in Bethlehem. Scripture reveals nothing about Herod being told the Christ child would ultimately wind up in Nazareth. There is no Scriptural reason to believe he would be looking for the Christ child as far away from Bethlehem as Nazareth. To conclude “Bethlehem and its vicinity” extended all the way to Nazareth would mean Herod’s decree would have included Jerusalem and a number of other cities along the way to Nazareth. To have killed all the boys two years and younger in such an extended area of Israel would have caused quite a stir in Israel and one would expect to see mention of it in the writings of first century Jewish historian Josephus and other historians of the time.
Yet there is no secular historical account of Herod killing the children. The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote a comprehensive history of the period under consideration, writes nothing about the killing of the children by Herod. Josephus had little use for Herod and went out of his way to write about the nasty things Herod did. Yet there is no mention of the killing of the children. Because of this, Biblical scholars have concluded the killing of the children was a rather small affair and limited to the immediate area of the small town of Bethlehem
Some may conclude that Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:14-16) about a voice of weeping heard in Ramah (Matthew 2:18) gives evidence to Herod’s decree extending beyond the immediate environs of Bethlehem. Ramah is about eleven miles north of Bethlehem which means it is about six miles north of Jerusalem. Jeremiah's reference to weeping in Ramah relates to the Babylonia captivity. Indications are that it was from Ramah that captives were being taken to Babylon. Matthew appears to be using Jeremiah's reference to women weeping over the loss of their children to the Babylon captivity as representative of the suffering being experienced by the women who lost their children due to Herod's decree. Matthew was not referring to women literally weeping in the town of Ramah.
So how do we reconcile the Matthew and Luke accounts if indeed the family immediately returned to Nazareth upon leaving Jerusalem? Luke indicates the family returned to Nazareth upon fulfilling everything required of them in the law. Yet Matthew has them escaping to Egypt and not returning to Nazareth until after their stay in Egypt. Since there is no Scriptural or historical reason to believe the decree of Herod extended all the way to Nazareth necessitating an escape to Egypt from Nazareth, it would appear the family escaped to Egypt from Bethlehem. Yet what if they did return to Nazareth upon leaving Jerusalem? Can we correlate the Matthew and Luke accounts?
One solution that has been proposed is that the family left Nazareth shortly after having returned there and moved to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was the ancestral home of Joseph and possibly Mary. They may have had relatives there. Therefore, it is entirely possible Joseph and Mary decided to make their home in Bethlehem. They may have returned to Nazareth from Jerusalem only to gather their belongings and then move to Bethlehem. There is circumstantial evidence for this as seen in what happened after they were told they could return to Israel after their stay in Egypt.
Matthew 2:19-23: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard 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, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
It's recorded Joseph was afraid to go to Judea because Archelaus, son of Herod was ruling there. It's apparent Joseph was fearful that the life of his son Jesus was still at risk if the family moved to Judea. Apparently this risk was real as it is recorded Joseph was warned in a dream about this as well. So rather than going to Judea, the family is seen as going to Galilee and settling in the city of Galilee called Nazareth.
The question that must be asked is this. Why would the family be going to Judea if it was from Nazareth of Galilee the family had escaped to Egypt? It is only after becoming afraid and being warned in a dream that Joseph decides to go to Nazareth. That doesn't appear to be his original intention. If Nazareth was his initial intention, his becoming afraid and being warned in a dream would have been superfluous. Why would Joseph be warned not to go to Judea if Judea was not were the family was intending to relocate?
Some may argue that Joseph only expressed fear and was warned in a dream about traveling through Judea on his way to Galilee and not about actually living in Judea. The language of the narrative does not support this argument. The context is Joseph choosing to go to Galilee only after becoming fearful and being warned in a dream about going to Judea. If Galilee was the destination from the start, Galilee would not be seen as an alternative to Judea. Joseph is seen as going to Galilee only after Judea is no longer an option.
The language of the narrative is highly suggestive of Joseph intending to take up residence in Judea. After experiencing fear and being warned in a dream of the danger that still existed in Judea, the family decides to go to Galilee. It is highly indicative of the family having lived in Bethlehem of Judea where they had taken up residence prior to the escape to Egypt and not that they escaped to Egypt from Nazareth of Galilee.
It is instructive that Joseph had no qualms about going to Nazareth even though another son of Herod was ruling there. History shows that after Herod's death, the territory he reigned over was split up between his three sons and a daughter. While Archelaus got Judea, Herod's son Antipus got Galilee where Nazareth is located. While Joseph was afraid to return to Judea because Herod's son Archelaus was now reigning there, he wasn't afraid to go to Galilee where another of Herod's sons was now reigning.
This would indicate that Joseph believed there was still danger of the Christ child being sought after in Judea but did not believe this danger existed in Galilee. This appears to confirm that Nazareth of Galilee was never considered a target of Herod regarding the search for the Christ Child. The search for the child appears to have been confined to Judea. This further supports the position that Joseph and family would not have been told to flee to Egypt if indeed they were living in Nazareth at the time of the Magi' visit which is when Herod sought to kill the Christ child.
If indeed the family did move from Nazareth to Bethlehem after briefly returning to Nazareth after fulfilling the requirements of the Law as recorded in Luke, it is apparent they were living there one to two years after the birth of Jesus and it is after this period of time the visit from the Magi occurred. After the visit from the Magi, they escaped to Egypt as directed. After their sojourn in Egypt they intended to return to Bethlehem of Judea but went to Nazareth instead for the reasons already cited. Looking at this issue from this perspective resolves the apparent conflict between Matthew and Luke regarding the travels of Joseph and his family if indeed the family did immediately return to Nazareth upon leaving Jerusalem as Luke indicates.
Luke says the family returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth upon leaving Jerusalem. He follows this statement by saying the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and that the grace of God was upon him. Some conclude from this that Luke is saying the child did all this while living in Nazareth which negates the proposition that the family moved to Bethlehem. However, Luke may simply have been making an editorial comment about the growth of the child regardless of where he was living. Luke makes a similar statement about Jesus in Luke 2:52 and a similar statement about John the Baptist in Luke 1:80.
Scripture simply doesn’t provide enough information about the nature of the star to allow for a definitive conclusion as to what it was. Therefore, I feel it prudent not to take a dogmatic position as to the identity of the star.
The star being an angel is certainly a possibility but not very probable in view of the objections to this theory discussed in both Part One and Two of this series. The perspective that Jupiter was the star that appeared to the Magi is also a possibility but lacks undeniable evidence. Establishing the correct date of Herod's birth is a critical dynamic to this perspective. Such dating has not been definitively established. A comet being the star is plausible but this theory needs support from astronomical records of the time if a comet is to be definitively identified as the star of Bethlehem. Such records are currently unidentified.
The above discussed perspective about Joseph and his family moving from Nazareth to Bethlehem is an attempt to resolve a possible conflict between Luke and Matthew. If Luke is not allowing for a gap in time as to the return of the family to Nazareth, then there is reasonable circumstantial evidence supporting the view that the family moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This could resolve apparent conflict between Luke and Matthew. On the other hand, if Luke is to be viewed as allowing for a gap in time, the apparent conflict between Luke and Matthew is resolved without having to resort to the move to Bethlehem view discussed above.