A counting of the people, of Census; and that Census taken at the bidding of a heathen Emperor, and executed by one so universally hated as Herod, would represent that which was most repugnant to Jewish feeling. If the account of the circumstances, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, has no basis in fact, but is a legend invented to locate the birth of the Nazarene in the royal City of David, it must be pronounced most clumsily devised. There is absolutely nothing to account for its origination - either from parallel events in the past, or from contemporary expectancy. Why then connect the birth of their Messiah with what was most repugnant to Israel, especially if, as the advocates of the legendary hypothesis contend, it did not occur at a time when any Jewish Census was taken, but ten years previously?
But if it be impossible rationally to account for any legendary origin of the narrative of Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem, the historical grounds, on which its accuracy has been impugned, are equally insufficient. They resolve themselves into this: that (beyond the Gospel-narrative) we have no solid evidence that Cyrenius was at that time occupying the needful official position in the East, to order such a registration for Herod to carry out. But even this feeble contention is by no means historically unassailable. At any rate, there are two facts, which render any historical mistake by Luke on this point extremely difficult to believe. First, he was evidently aware of a Census under Cyrenius, ten years later; secondly, whatever rendering of Luke 2:2 may be adopted, it will at least be admitted, that the intercalated sentence about Cyrenius was not necessary for the narrative, and that the writer must have intended thereby emphatically to mark a certain event. But an author would not be likely to call special attention to a fact, of which he had only indistinct knowledge; rather, if it must be mentioned, would he do so in the most indefinite terms. This presumption in favor of Luke's statement is strengthened by the consideration, that such an event as the taxing of Judea must have been so easily ascertainable by him.
We are, however, not left to the presumptive reasoning just set forth. That the Emperor Augustus made registers of the Roman Empire, and of subject and tributary states, is now generally admitted. This registration - for the purpose of future taxation - would also embrace Palestine. Even if no actual order to that effect had been issued during the lifetime of Herod, we can understand that he would deem it most expedient, both on account of his relations to the Emperor, and in view of the probable excitement which a heathen Census would cause in Palestine, to take steps for making a registration, and that rather according to the Jewish than the Roman manner. This Census, then, arranged by Augustus, and taken by Herod in his own manner, was, according to Luke, 'first [really] carried out when Cyrenius was Governor of Syria,' some years after Herod's death and when Judea had become a Roman province.
We are now prepared to follow the course of the Gospel-narrative. In consequence of 'the decree of Caesar Augustus,' Herod directed a general registration to be made after the Jewish, rather than the Roman, manner. Practically the two would, indeed, in this instance, be very similar. According to the Roman law, all country-people were to be registered in their 'own city' - meaning thereby the town to which the village or place, where they were born, was attached. In so doing, the 'house and lineage' of each were marked. According to the Jewish mode of registration, the people would have been enrolled according to tribes, families or clans, and the house of their fathers. But as the ten tribes had not returned to Palestine, this could only take place to a very limited extent, while it would be easy for each to be registered in 'his own city.'
In the case of Joseph and Mary, whose descent from David was not only known, but where, for the sake of the unborn Messiah, it was most important that this should be distinctly noted, it was natural that, in accordance with Jewish law, they should have gone to Bethlehem. Perhaps also, for many reasons which will readily suggest themselves, Joseph and Mary might be glad to leave Nazareth, and seek, if possible, a home in Bethlehem. Indeed, so strong was this feeling, that it afterwards required special Divine direction to induce Joseph to relinquish this chosen place of residence, and to return into Galilee. In these circumstances, Mary, now the 'wife' of Joseph, though standing to him only in the actual relationship of 'betrothed,' would, of course, accompany her husband to Bethlehem. Irrespective of this, every feeling and hope in her must have prompted such a course, and there is no need to discuss whether Roman or Jewish Census-usage required her presence - a question which, if put, would have to be answered in the negative.
The way had been long and weary - at the very least, three days' journey, whatever route had been taken from Galilee. Most probably it would be that so commonly followed, from a desire to avoid Samaria, along the eastern banks of the Jordan, and by the fords of Jericho. Arriving in Bethlehem around late September / early October of 5 B.C., the chaste beauty and sweet quiet of the place would recall memories of Boaz, of Jesse, and of David. All the more would such thoughts suggest themselves, from the contrast between the past and the present. For, as the travellers reached the heights of Bethlehem, and, indeed, long before, the most prominent object in view must have been the great castle which Herod had built, and called after his own name. Perched on the highest hill south-east of Bethlehem, it was, at the same time magnificent palace, strongest fortress, and almost courtier-city. With a sense of relief the travellers would turn from this, to mark the undulating outlines of the highland wilderness of Judea, till the horizon was bounded by the mountain-ridges of Tekoa. Through the break of the hills eastward the heavy molten surface of the Sea of Judgement would appear in view; westward wound the road to Hebron; behind them lay the valleys and hills which separated Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and concealed the Holy City.
But for the present such thoughts would give way to the pressing necessity of finding shelter and rest. The little town of Bethlehem was crowded with those who had come from all the outlying district to register their names. Even if the strangers from far-off Galilee had been personally acquainted with any one in Bethlehem, who could have shown them hospitality, they would have found every house fully occupied. The very inn was filled, and the only available space was, where ordinarily the cattle were stabled. Bearing in mind the simple habits of the East, this scarcely implies, what it would in the West; and perhaps the seclusion and privacy from the noisy, chattering crowd, which thronged the khan, would be all the more welcome. Scanty as these particulars are, even thus much is gathered rather by inference than from the narrative itself.
Thus early in this history does the absence of details, which painfully increases as we proceed, remind us, that the Gospels were not intended to furnish a biography of Jesus, nor even the materials for it; but had only this twofold object: that those who read them 'might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,' and that believing they 'might have life through His Name.' As to all that passed in the seclusion of that 'stable' - the circumstances of the 'Nativity,' etc. the Gospel-narrative is silent. This only is told about Mary,
"And she gave birth to her son, the firstborn, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
Beyond this announcement of the bare fact, Holy Scripture, with indescribable appropriateness and delicacy, draws a veil over that most sacred mystery. Two impressions only are left on the mind: that of utmost earthly humility, in the surrounding circumstances; and that of inward fitness, in the contrast suggested by them. Instinctively, reverently, we feel that it is well it should have been so. It best befits the birth of the Christ - if He be what the New Testament declares Him.
On the other hand, the circumstances just noted afford the strongest indirect evidence of the truth of this narrative. For, if it were the outcome of Jewish imagination, where is the basis for it in contemporary expectation? Would Jewish legend have ever presented its Messiah as born in a stable, to which chance circumstances had consigned His Mother? The whole current of Jewish opinion would run in the contrary direction. The opponents of the authenticity of this narrative are bound to face this. Further, it may safely be asserted, that no Apocryphal or legendary narrative of such a (legendary) event would have been characterized by such scantiness, or rather absence, of details. For, the two essential features, alike of legend and of tradition, are, that they ever seek to surround their heroes with a halo of glory, and that they attempt to supply details, which are otherwise wanting. And in both these respects a more sharply-marked contrast could scarcely be presented, than in the Gospel-narrative.
But as we pass from the sacred gloom of the cave out into the night, its sky all aglow with starry brightness, its loneliness is peopled, and its silence made vocal from heaven. There is nothing now to conceal, but much to reveal, though the manner of it would seem strangely incongruous to Jewish thinking. And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, 'the tower of the flock.'
This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible. The same Mishnic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover - that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly greatest. Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak.
It was, then, on that fall night, that shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrificial services, in the very place consecrated by tradition as that where the Messiah was to be first revealed. Of a sudden came the long-delayed, unthought-of announcement. Heaven and earth seemed to mingle, as suddenly an Angel stood before their dazzled eyes, while the outstreaming glory of the Lord seemed to enwrap them, as in a mantle of light. Surprise, awe, fear would be hushed into calm and expectancy, as from the Angel they heard, that what they saw boded not judgment, but ushered in to waiting Israel the great joy of those good tidings which he brought: that the long-promised Savior, Messiah, Lord, was born in the City of David, and that they themselves might go and see, and recognize Him by the humbleness of the circumstances surrounding His Nativity.
Only once before had the words of the Angels' hymn fallen upon mortal's ears, when, to Isaiah's rapt vision, Heaven's high Temple had opened, and the glory of Jehovah swept its courts, almost breaking down the trembling posts that bore its boundary gates. Now the same glory enwrapt the shepherds on Bethlehem's plains. Then the Angels' hymn had heralded the announcement of the Kingdom coming; now that of the King come. Then it had been the Tris-Hagion of prophetic anticipation; now that of Evangelic fulfilment.
The hymn had ceased; the light faded out of the sky; and the shepherds were alone. But the Angelic message remained with them; and the sign, which was to guide them to the Infant Christ, lighted their rapid way up the terraced height to where, at the entering of Bethlehem, the lamp swinging over the hostelry directed them to the strangers of the house of David, who had come from Nazareth. Though it seems as if, in the hour of her utmost need, the Virgin Mother had not been ministered to by loving hands, yet what had happened in the stable must soon have become known. Perhaps friendly women were still passing to and fro on errands of mercy, when the shepherds reached the 'stable.' There they found, perhaps not what they had expected, but as they had been told. The holy group only consisted of the humble Virgin-Mother, the lowly carpenter of Nazareth, and the Babe laid in the manger. What further passed we know not, save that, having seen it for themselves, the shepherds told what had been spoken to them about this Child, to all around - in the 'stable' in the fields, probably also in the Temple, to which they would bring their flocks, thereby preparing the minds of a Simeon, of an Anna, and of all them that looked for salvation in Israel.
And now the hush of wondering expectancy fell once more on all, who heard what was told by the shepherds - this time not only in the hill-country of Judea, but within the wider circle that embraced Bethlehem and the Holy City. And yet it seemed all so sudden, so strange. That such slender thread, as the feeble throb of an Infant-life, the salvation of the world should hang - and no special care watch over its safety, no better shelter be provided it than a 'stable,' no other cradle than a manger!
Foremost amongst those who, wondering, had heard what the shepherds told, was she whom most it concerned, who laid it up deepest in her heart, and brought to it treasured stores of memory. It was the Mother of Jesus. These many months, all connected with this Child could never have been far away form her thoughts. And now that He was hers yet not hers - belonged, yet did not seem to belong, to her - He would be the more dear to her Mother-heart for what made Him so near, and yet parted Him so far from her. And upon all His history seemed to lie such wondrous light, that she could only see the path behind, so far as she had trodden it; while upon that on which she was to move, was such dazzling brightness, that she could scare look upon the present, and dared not gaze towards the future.
At the very outset of this history, and increasingly in its course, the question meets us, how, if the Angelic message to the Virgin was a reality, and her motherhood so supernatural, she could have been apparently so ignorant of what was to come - nay, so often have even misunderstood it? Strange, that she should have 'pondered in her heart' the shepherd's account; stranger, that afterwards she should have wondered at His lingering in the Temple among Israel's teachers; strangest, that, at the very first of His miracles, a mother's fond pride should have so harshly broken in upon the Divine melody of His work, by striking a keynote so different from that, to which His life had been set; or that afterwards, in the height of his activity, loving fears, if not doubts, should have prompted her to interrupt, what evidently she had not as yet comprehended in the fulness of its meaning.
Might we not rather have expected, that the Virgin-Mother from the inception of this Child's life would have understood, that He was truly the Son of God? The question, like so many others, requires only to be clearly stated, to find its emphatic answer. For, had it been so His history, His human life, of which every step is of such importance to mankind, would not have been possible. Apart from all thoughts of the deeper necessity, both as regarded His Mission and all the salvation of the world, of a true human development of gradual consciousness and personal life, Christ could not, in any true sense, have been subject to His Parents, if they had fully understood that He was Divine; nor could He, in that case, have been watched, as He 'grew in wisdom and in favor with God and men.' Such knowledge would have broken the bond of His Humanity to ours, by severing that which bound Him as a child to His mother.
We could not have become His brethren, had He not been truly the Virgin's Son. The mystery of the Incarnation would have been needless and fruitless, had His humanity not been subject to all its right and ordinary conditions. And, applying the same principle more widely, we can thus, in some measure, understand why the mystery of His Divinity had to be kept while He was on earth. Had it been otherwise, the thought of His Divinity would have proved so all-absorbing, as to render impossible that of His Humanity, with all its lessons. The Son of God Most High, Whom they worshipped, could never have been the loving Man, with Whom they could hold such close converse. The bond which bound the Master to His disciples - the Son of Man to humanity - would have been dissolved; His teaching as a Man, the Incarnation, and the Tabernacling among men, in place of the former Old Testament Revelation from heaven, would have become wholly impossible. In short, one, and that the distinctive New Testament, element in our salvation would have been taken away. At the beginning of His life He would have anticipated the lessons of its end - nay, not those of His Death only, but of His Resurrection and Ascension, and of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In all this we have only been taking the subjective, not the objective, view of the question; considered the earthward, not the heavenward, aspect of His life. The latter, though very real, lies beyond our present horizon. Not so the question as to the development of the Virgin-Mother's spiritual knowledge. Assuming her to have occupied, in the fullest sense, the standpoint of Jewish Messianic expectancy, and remembering, also, that she was so 'highly favored' of God, still, there was not as yet anything, nor could there be for many years, to lead her beyond what might be called the utmost height of Jewish belief. On the contrary, there was much connected with His true Humanity to keep her back. For narrow as, to our retrospective thinking, the boundary-line seems between Jewish belief and that in the hypostatic union of the two Natures, the passage from the one to the other represented such tremendous mental revolution, as to imply direct Divine teaching. An illustrative instance will prove this better than argument.
We read, in a commentary on the opening words of Genesis 15:18, that when God made the covenant with Abram, He 'revealed to him both this Olam (dispensation) and the Olam to come,' which latter expression is correctly explained as referring to the days of the Messiah. Jewish tradition, therefore, here asserts exactly what Jesus stated in these words: 'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad.' Yet we know what storm of indignation the enunciation of it called forth among the Jews!
Thus it was, that every event connected with the Messianic manifestation of Jesus would come to the Virgin-Mother as a fresh discovery and a new surprise. Each event, as it took place, stood isolated in her mind; not as part of a whole which she would anticipate, nor as only one link in a chain; but as something quite by itself. She knew the beginning, and she knew the end; but she knew not the path which led from the one to the other; and each step in it was a new revelation. Hence it was, that she so carefully treasured in her heart every new fact, piecing each to the other, till she could read from it the great mystery that He, Whom Incarnate she had borne, was, indeed, the Son of the living God. And as it was natural, so it was well that it should be so. For, thus only could she truly, because self-unconsciously, as a Jewish woman and mother, fulfil all the requirements of the Law, alike as regarded herself and her Child.
Jesus is circumcised
"Now when eight days were fulfilled for circumcising the little child, His name was called Jesus, which He was named by the angel before He was conceived in the womb." (Luke 2:21, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
Circumcision represented voluntary subjection to the conditions of the Law, and acceptance of the obligations, but also of the privileges, of the Covenant between God and Abraham and his seed. Any attempt to show the deep significance of such a rite in the case of Jesus, could only weaken the impression which the fact itself conveys. The ceremony took place, as in all ordinary circumstances, on the eight day, when the Child received the Angel-given name Jeshua (Jesus). Two other legal ordinances still remained to be observed. The firstborn son of every household was, according to the Law, to be 'redeemed' of the priest at the price of five shekels of the Sanctuary. Rabbinic casuistry here added many needless, and even repulsive, details. The following, however, are of practical interest.
Baby Jesus presented at Temple
"And when the days were fulfilled for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord; As it is written in the law of the Lord that every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord; And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (verses 22-24, HBFV)
The earliest period of presentation was thirty-one days after birth so as to make the legal month quite complete. The child must have been the firstborn of his mother (according to some writers, of his father also); neither father nor mother must be of Levitic descent; and the child must be free from all such bodily blemishes as would have disqualified him for the priesthood - or, as it was expressed: 'the firstborn for the priesthood.' It was a thing much dreaded, that the child should die before his redemption; but if his father died in the interval, the child had to redeem himself when of age. As the Rabbinic law expressly states, that the shekels were to be of 'Tyrian weight,' the value of the 'redemption money' would amount to about ten or twelve shillings. The redemption could be made from any priest, and attendance in the Temple was not requisite. It was otherwise with the 'purification' of the mother. The Rabbinic law fixed this at forty-one days after the birth of a son, and eighty-one after that of a daughter, so as to make the Biblical terms quite complete. But it might take place any time later - notably, when attendance on any of the great feasts brought a family to Jerusalem.
Thus, we read of cases when a mother would offer several sacrifices of purification at the same time. But, indeed, the woman was not required to be personally present at all, when her offering was presented, or, rather (as we shall see), provided for - say, by the representatives of the laity, who daily took part in the services for the various districts from which they came. This also is specially provided for in the Tulmud. But mothers who were within convenient distance of the Temple, and especially the more earnest among them, would naturally attend personally in the Temple; and in such cases, when practicable, the redemption of the firstborn, and the purification of his mother, would be combined. Such was undoubtedly the case with the Virgin-Mother and her Son.
For this twofold purpose the Holy Family went up to the Temple, when the prescribed days were completed. The ceremony at the redemption of a firstborn son was, no doubt, more simple than that at present in use. It consisted of the formal presentation of the child to the priest, accompanied by two short 'benedictions,' the one for the law of redemption money was paid. Most solemn, as in such a place, and remembering its symbolic significance as the expression of God's claim over each family in Israel, must this rite have been.
As regards the rite at the purification of the mother, the scantiness of information has led to serious misstatements. Any comparison with our modern 'churching' of women is inapplicable, since the latter consists of thanksgiving, and the former primarily of a sin-offering for the Levitical defilement symbolically attaching to the beginning of life, and a burnt-offering, that marked the restoration of communion with God. Besides, as already stated, the sacrifice for purification might be brought in the absence of the mother. Similar mistakes prevail as to the rubric.
It is not case, as generally stated, that the woman was sprinkled with blood, and then pronounced clean by the priest, or that prayers were offered on the occasion. The service simply consisted of the statutory sacrifice. This was what, in ecclesiastical language, was termed an offering oleh veyored, that is, 'ascending and descending,' according to the means of the offerer. The sin-offering was, in all cases, a turtle-dove or a young pigeon. But, while the more wealthy brought a lamb for a burnt-offering the poor might substitute for it a turtle-dove, or a young pigeon. The rubric directed that the neck of the sin-offering was to be broken, but the head not wholly severed; that some of the blood should be sprinkled at the south-western angle of the altar, below the red line, which ran round the middle of the altar, and that the rest should be poured out at the base of the altar. The whole of the flesh belonged to the priests, and had to be eaten within the enclosure of the Sanctuary. The rubric for the burnt-offering of a turtle-dove or a young pigeon was somewhat more intricate. The substitution of the latter for a young lamb was expressly designated 'the poor's offering.' And rightly so, since, while a lamb would probably cost about three shillings, the average value of a pair of turtle-doves, for both the sin-and burnt-offering, would be about eightpence, and on one occasion fell so low as twopence.
The Temple-price of the meat-and drink-offerings was fixed once a month; and special officials instructed the intending offerers, and provided them with what was needed.
There was also a special 'superintendent of turtle-doves and pigeons,' required for certain purifications, and the holder of that office is mentioned with praise in the Mishnah. Much, indeed, depended upon his uprightness. For, at any rate as regarded those who brought the poor's offering, the purchasers of pigeons or turtle-doves would, as a rule, have to deal with him. In the Court of the Women there were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests for pecuniary contributions, called 'trumpets.' Into the third of these they who brought the poor's offering, like the Virgin-Mother, were to drop the price of the sacrifices which were needed for their purification. As we infer, the superintending priest must have been stationed here, alike to inform the offerer of the price of the turtle-doves, and to see that all was in order. For, the offerer of the poor's offering would not require to deal directly with the sacrificing priest. At a certain time in the day this third chest was opened, and half of its contents applied to burnt, the other half to sin-offerings. Thus sacrifices were provided for a corresponding number of those who were to be purified, without either shaming the poor, needlessly disclosing the character of impurity, or causing unnecessary bustle and work. Though this mode of procedure could, of course, not be obligatory, it would, no doubt, be that generally followed.
We can now, in imagination, follow the Virgin-Mother in the Temple. Her child had been given up to the Lord, and received back from Him. She had entered the Court of the Women, probably by the 'Gate of the Women,' on the north side, and deposited the price of her sacrifices in Trumpet No. 3, which was close to the raised dais or gallery where the women worshipped, apart from the men. And now the sound of the organ, which announced throughout the vast Temple-buildings that the incense was about to be kindled on the Golden Altar, summoned those who were to be purified. The chief of the ministrant lay-representatives of Israel on duty (the so-called 'station-men') ranged those, who presented themselves before the Lord as offerers of special sacrifices, within the wickets on either side the great Nicanor Gate, at the top of the fifteen steps which led up from the Court of the Women to that of Israel. It was, as if they were to be brought nearest to the Sanctuary; as if theirs were to be specially the 'prayers' that rose in the cloud of incense from the Golden Altar; as if for them specially the sacrifices were laid on the Altar of Burnt-offering; as if theirs was a larger share of the benediction which, spoken by the lips of the priests, seemed like Jehovah's answer to the prayers of the people; theirs especially the expression of joy symbolized in the drink-offering, and the hymn of praise whose Tris-Hagion filled the Temple. From where they stood they could see it all, share in it, rejoice in it.
And now the general service was over, and only those remained who brought special sacrifices, or who lingered near them that had such, or whose loved abode was ever in the Temple. The purification-service, with such unspoken prayer and praise as would be the outcome of a grateful heart, was soon ended, and they who had shared in it were Levitically clean. Now all stain was removed, and, as the Law put it, they might again partake of sacred offerings.
And in such sacred offering, better than any of which priest's family had ever partaken, was the Virgin-Mother immediately to share. It has been observed, that by the side of every humiliation connected with the Humanity of the Messiah, the glory of His Divinity was also made to shine forth. The coincidences are manifestly undesigned on the part of the Evangelic writers, and hence all the more striking. Thus, if he was born of the humble Maiden of Nazareth, an Angel announced His birth; if the Infant-Savior was cradled in a manger, the shining host of heaven hymned His Advent. And so afterwards - if He hungered and was tempted in the wilderness, Angels ministered to Him, even as an Angel strengthened Him in the agony of the garden.
If He submitted to baptism, the Voice and vision from heaven attested His Sonship; if enemies threatened, He could miraculously pass through them; if the Jews assailed, there was the Voice of God to glorify Him; if He was nailed to the cross, the sun draped his brightness, and earth quaked; if He was laid in the tomb, Angels kept its watches, and heralded His rising. And so, when now the Mother of Jesus, in her humbleness, could only bring the 'poor's offering,' the witness to the greatness of Him Whom she had borne was not wanting.
The Blessing and Prophecy of Simeon
"And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and reverent, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. Now it had been divinely communicated to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
"And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the little child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, He also received Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, "Now You may let your servant depart in peace, O Master, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples; A light for the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel." "And Joseph and His mother wondered at the things that were being spoken concerning Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, His mother, 'Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising up of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be spoken against, (And you also, a sword shall go through your own soul) in order that the imaginations of many hearts may be revealed.'" (verses 25-35)
The 'parents' of Jesus had brought Him into the Temple for presentation and redemption, when they were met by one, whose venerable figure must have been well known in the city and the Sanctuary. Simeon combined the three characteristics of Old Testament piety: 'Justice,' as regarded his relation and bearing to God and man; 'fear of God,' in opposition to the boastful self-righteousness of Pharisaism; and, above all, longing expectancy of the near fulfilment of the great promises, and that in their spiritual import as 'the Consolation of Israel.' The Holy Spirit was upon him; and by that same Spirit the gracious Divine answer to his heart's longing had been communicated him. And now it was as had been promised him.
Coming 'in the Spirit' into the Temple, just as His parents were bringing the Infant Jesus, he took Him into his arms, and burst into rapt thanksgiving. Now, indeed, had God fulfilled His word. He was not to see death, till he had seen the Lord's Christ. Now did his Lord 'dismiss' him 'in peace' - release him in blessed comfort from work and watch - since he had actually seen that salvation, so long preparing for a waiting weary world: a glorious light, Whose rising would light up heathen darkness, and be the outshining glory around Israel's mission. With this Infant in his arms, it was as if he stood on the mountain-height of prophetic vision, and watched the golden beams of sunrise far away over the isles of the Gentiles, and then gathering their full glow over his own beloved land and people. There was nothing Judiac - quite the contrary: only what was of the Old Testament - in what he first said.
But his unexpected appearance, the more unexpected deed and words, and that most unexpected form in which what was said of the Infant Christ was presented to their minds, filled the hearts of His parents with wonderment. And it was, as if their silent wonderment had been an unspoken question, to which the answer now came in words of blessing from the aged watcher. Mystic they seemed, yet prophetic. But now it was the personal, or rather the Judaic, aspect which, in broken utterances, was set before the Virgin-Mother - as if the whole history of the Christ upon earth were passing in rapid vision before Simeon. That Infant, now again in the Virgin-Mother's arms: It was to be a stone of decision; a foundation and corner-stone, for fall or for uprising; a sign spoken against; the sword of deep personal sorrow would pierce the Mother's heart; and so to the terrible end, when the veil of externalism which had so long covered the hearts of Israel's leaders would be rent, and the deep evil of their thoughts laid bare. Such, as regarded Israel, was the history of Jesus, from His Baptism to the Cross; and such is still the history of Jesus, as ever present to the heart of the believing, loving Church.
Nor was Simeon's the only hymn of praise on that day. A special interest attaches to her who, coming that very moment, responded in praise to God for the pledge she saw of the near redemption.
"Now there was Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about eighty -four years, who did not depart from the temple, serving day and night with fastings and supplications. And at the same time she came up, giving praise to the Lord; and she spoke concerning Him to all those in Jerusalem who were waiting for redemption." (verses 36-38)
A kind of mystery seems to invest this Anna (Channah). A widow, whose early desolateness had been followed by a long life of solitary mourning; one of those in whose home the tribal genealogy had been preserved. We infer from this, and from the fact that it was that of a tribe which had not returned to Palestine, that hers was a family of some distinction. Curiously enough, the tribe of Asher alone is celebrated in tradition for the beauty of its women, and their fitness to be wedded to High-Priest or King.
But Anna had better claim to distinction than family-descent, or long, faithful memory of brief home-joys. These many years she had spent in the Sanctuary, and spent in fasting and prayer - yet not of that self-righteous, self-satisfied kind which was of the essence of popular religion. Nor, as to the Pharisees around, was it the Synagogue which was her constant and loved resort; but the Temple, with its symbolic and unspoken worship, which Rabbinic self-assertion and rationalism were rapidly superseding, and for whose services, indeed, Rabbinism could find no real basis. Nor yet were 'fasting and prayer' to her the all-in-all of religion, sufficient in themselves; sufficient also before God. Deepest in her soul was longing waiting for the 'redemption' promised, and now surely nigh.
To her widowed heart the great hope of Israel appeared not so much, as to Simeon, in the light of 'consolation,' as rather in that of 'redemption.' The seemingly hopeless exile of her own tribe, the political state of Judea, the condition - social, moral, and religious - of her own Jerusalem: all kindled in her, as in those who were like-minded, deep, earnest longing for the time of promised 'redemption.' No place so suited to such an one as the Temple, with its services, the only thing free, pure, undefiled, and pointing forward and upward; no occupation so befitting as 'fasting and prayer.' And, blessed be God, there were others, perhaps many such, in Jerusalem. Though Rabbinic tradition ignored them, they were the salt which preserved the mass from festering corruption. To her as the representative, the example, friend, and adviser of such, was it granted as prophetess to recognize Him, Whose Advent had been the burden of Simeon's praise. And, day by day, to those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem, would she speak of Him Whom her eyes had seen, though it must be in whispers and with bated breath. For they were in the city of Herod, and the stronghold of Pharisaism.
With the Presentation of the Infant Savior in the Temple, and His acknowledgment - not indeed by the leaders of Israel, but, characteristically, by the representatives of those earnest men and women who looked for His Advent - the Prologue, if such it may be called, to the third Gospel closes. From whatever source its information was derived - perhaps, as has been suggested, its earlier portion from the Virgin-Mother, the later from Anna; or else both alike from her, who with loving reverence and wonderment treasured it all in her heart - its marvellous details could not have been told with greater simplicity, nor yet with more exquisitely delicate grace. On the other hand, the Prologue to the first Gospel, while omitting these, records other incidents of the infancy of the Savior. The plan of these narratives, or the sources whence they may originally have been derived, may account for the omissions in either case. At first sight it may seem strange, that the cosmopolitan Gospel by Luke should have described what took place in the Temple, and the homage of the Jews, while the Gospel by Matthew, which was primarily intended for Hebrews, records only the homage of the Gentiles, and the circumstances which led to the flight into Egypt. But of such seeming contrasts there are not a few in the Gospel-history - discords, which soon resolve themselves into glorious harmony.
"Now after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east arrived at Jerusalem, Saying, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and have come to worship Him." But when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And after gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born.
"Then they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judea, in no way are you least among the princes of Judea; for out of you shall come forth a Prince, Who shall shepherd My people Israel.' "
" Then Herod secretly called for the Magi and ascertained from them the exact time of the appearing of the star. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the little child; and when you have found Him, bring word back to me, so that I also may go and worship Him." And after hearing the king, they departed; and behold, the star that they had seen in the east went in front of them, until it came and stood over the house where the little child was. And after seeing the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy." (Matthew 2:1-10, HBFV)
The story of the Magi visiting Jesus after his presentation at the Temple is told by Matthew, in language of which the brevity constitutes the chief difficulty. Even their designation is not free from ambiguity. The term Magi is used in the Septuagint, by Philo, Josephus, and by profane writers, alike in an evil and, so to speak, in a good sense - in the former case as implying the practice of magical arts; in the latter, as referring to the those Eastern (especially Chaldee) priest-sages, whose researches, in great measure as yet mysterious and unknown to us, seem to have embraced much deep knowledge, though not untinged with superstition. It is to these latter, that the Magi spoken of by Matthew must have belonged. Their number - to which, however, no importance attaches - cannot be ascertained.
Various suggestions have been made as to the country of 'the East,' whence they came. At the period in question the sacerdotal caste of the Medes and Persians was dispersed over various parts of the East, and the presence in those lands of a large Jewish Diaspora, through which they might, and probably would, gain knowledge of the great hope of Israel, is sufficiently attested by Jewish history. The oldest opinion traces the Magi - though partially on insufficient grounds - to Arabia. And there is this in favor of it, that not only the closest intercourse existed between Palestine and Arabia, but that from about 120 B.C. to the sixth century of our era, the kings of Yemen professed the Jewish faith. For if, on the one hand, it seems unlikely, that Eastern Magi would spontaneously connect a celestial phenomenon with the birth of a Jewish king, evidence will, on the other hand, be presented to connect the meaning attached to the appearance of 'the star' at that particular time with Jewish expectancy of the Messiah. But we are anticipating.
Shortly after the Presentation of the Infant Savior in the Temple, certain Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem with strange tidings. They had seen at its 'rising' a sidereal appearance, which they regarded as betokening the birth of the Messiah King of the Jews, in the sense which at the time attached to that designation. Accordingly, they had come to Jerusalem to pay homage to Him, probably not because they imagined He must be born in the Jewish capital but because they would naturally expect there to obtain authentic information, 'where' He might be found. In their simplicity of heart, the Magi addressed themselves in the first place to the official head of the nation. The rumor of such an inquiry, and by such persons, would rapidly spread throughout the city. But it produced on King Herod, and in the capital, a far different impression from the feeling of the Magi.
Unscrupulously cruel as Herod had always proved, even the slightest suspicion of danger to his rule - the bare possibility of the Advent of One, Who had such claims upon the allegiance of Israel, and Who, if acknowledged, would evoke the most intense movement on their part - must have struck terror to his heart. Not that he could believe the tidings, though a dread of their possibility might creep over a nature such as Herod's; but the bare thought of a Pretender, with such claims, would fill him with suspicion, apprehension, and impotent rage. Nor is it difficult to understand, that the whole city should, although on different grounds, have shared the 'trouble' of the king. It was certainly not, as some have suggested, from apprehension of 'the woes' which, according to popular notions, were to accompany the Advent of Messiah. Throughout the history of Christ the absence of such 'woes' was never made a ground of objection to His Messianic claims; and this, because these 'woes' were not associated with the first Advent of the Messiah, but with His final manifestation in power. And between these two periods a more or less long interval was supposed to intervene, during which the Messiah would be 'hidden,' either in the literal sense, or perhaps as to His power, or else in both respects. This enables us to understand the question of the disciples, as to the sign of His coming and the end of the world, and the answer of the Master.
But the people of Jerusalem had far other reason to fear. They knew only too well the character of Herod, and what the consequences would be to them, or to any one who might be suspected, however unjustly, of sympathy with any claimant to the royal throne of David.
Herod took immediate measures, characterized by his usual cunning. He called together all the High-Priests - past and present - and all the learned Rabbis, and, without committing himself as to whether the Messiah was already born, or only expected, simply propounded to them the question of His birthplace. This would show him where Jewish expectancy looked for the appearance of his rival, and thus enable him to watch alike that place and the people generally, while it might possibly bring to light the feelings of the leaders of Israel. At the same time he took care diligently to inquire the precise time, when the sidereal appearance had first attracted the attention of the Magi. This would enable him to judge, how far back he would have to make his own inquiries, since the birth of the Pretender might be made to synchronize with the earliest appearance of the sidereal phenomenon. So long as any one lived, who was born in Bethlehem between the earliest appearance of this 'star' and the time of the arrival of the Magi, he was not safe. The subsequent conduct of Herod shows, that the Magi must have told him, that their earliest observation of the sidereal phenomenon had taken place two years before their arrival in Jerusalem.
The assembled authorities of Israel could only return one answer to the question submitted by Herod. As shown by the rendering of the Targum Jonathan, the prediction in Micah 5:2 was at the time universally understood as pointing to Bethlehem, as the birthplace of the Messiah. That such was the general expectation, appears from the Talmud, where, in an imaginary conversation between an Arab and a Jew, Bethlehem is authoritatively named as Messiah's birthplace. Matthew reproduces the prophetic utterance of Micah, exactly as such quotations were popularly made at that time. It will be remembered that, Hebrew being a dead language so far as the people were concerned, the Holy Scriptures were always translated into the popular dialect, the person so doing being designated Methurgeman (dragoman) or interpreter. These renderings, which at the time of Matthew were not yet allowed to be written down, formed the precedent for, if not the basis of, our later Targum.
In short, at that time each one Targumed for himself, and these Targumim (as our existing one on the Prophets shows) were neither literal versions, nor yet paraphrases, but something between them, a sort of interpreting translation. That, when Targuming, the New Testament writers should in preference make use of such a well-known and widely-spread version as the Translation of the Septuagint needs no explanation. That they did not confine themselves to it, but, when it seemed necessary, literally or Targumically rendered a verse, appears from the actual quotations in the New Testament. Such Targuming of the Old Testament was entirely in accordance with the then universal method of setting Holy Scripture before a popular audience. It is needless to remark, that the New Testament writers would Targum as Christians. These remarks apply not only to the case under immediate consideration, but generally to the quotations from the Old Testament in the New.
The further conduct of Herod was in keeping with his plans. He sent for the Magi - for various reasons, secretly. After ascertaining the precise time, when they had first observed the 'star,' he directed them to Bethlehem, with the request to inform him when they had found the Child; on pretence, that he was equally desirous with them to pay Him homage. As they left Jerusalem for the goal of their pilgrimage, to their surprise and joy, the 'star,' which had attracted their attention at its 'rising,' and which, as seems implied in the narrative, they had not seen of late, once more appeared on the horizon, and seemed to move before them, till 'it stood over where the young child was' - that is, of course, over Bethlehem, not over any special house in it. Whether at a turn of the road, close to Bethlehem, they lost sight of it, or they no longer heeded its position, since it had seemed to go before them to the goal that had been pointed out - for, surely, they needed not the star to guide them to Bethlehem - or whether the celestial phenomenon now disappeared, is neither stated in the Gospel-narrative, nor is indeed of any importance.
Sufficient for them, and for us: they had been authoritatively directed to Bethlehem; as they had set out for it, the sidereal phenomenon had once more appeared; and it had seemed to go before them, till it actually stood over Bethlehem. And, since in ancient times such extraordinary 'guidance' by a 'star' was matter of belief and expectancy, the Magi would, from their standpoint, regard it as the fullest confirmation that they had been rightly directed to Bethlehem, and 'they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.'
It could not be difficult to learn in Bethlehem, where the Infant, around Whose Birth marvels had gathered, might be found. It appears that the temporary shelter of the 'stable' had been exchanged by the Holy Family for the more permanent abode of a 'house;' and there the Magi found the Infant-Savior with His Mother. With exquisite tact and reverence the narrative attempts not the faintest description of the scene.
And thus it should ever be. It is the great fact of the manifestation of Christ - not its outward surroundings, however precious or touching they might be in connection with any ordinary earthly being - to which our gaze must be directed. The externals may, indeed, attract our sensuous nature; but they detract from the unmatched glory of the great supersensuous Reality. Around the Person of the God-Man, in the hour when the homage of the heathen world was first offered Him, we need not, and want not, the drapery of outward circumstances. That scene is best realized, not by description, but by silently joining in the silent homage and the silent offerings of 'the wise men from the East.'
Only two things are recorded of this visit of the Magi to Bethlehem: their humblest Eastern homage, and their offerings. Viewed as gifts, the incense and the myrrh would, indeed, have been strangely inappropriate. But their offerings were evidently intended as specimens of the products of their country, and their presentation was, even as in our own days, expressive of the homage of their country to the new-found King. In this sense, then, the Magi may truly be regarded as the representatives of the Gentile world; their homage as the first and typical acknowledgment of Christ by those who hitherto had been 'far off;' and their offerings as symbolic of the world's tribute. This deeper significance the ancient Church has rightly apprehended, though, perhaps, mistaking its grounds. Its symbolism, twining, like the convolvulus, around the Divine Plant, has traced in the gold the emblem of His Royalty; in the myrrh, of His Humanity, and that in the fullest evidence of it, in His burying; and in the incense, that of His Divinity.
Jesus' family flees to Egypt
"Now after they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise and take the little child and His mother, and escape into Egypt, and remain there until I shall tell you; for Herod is about to seek the little child to destroy Him." And he arose by night and took the little child and His mother, and went into Egypt, And was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Hosea 11:1), saying, "Out of Egypt I have called My Son."
"Then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the Magi, was filled with rage; and he sent and put to death all the boys who were in Bethlehem and in the area all around, from two years old and under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the Magi. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "A voice was heard in Rama, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they were not."
"Now when Herod had died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in Egypt in a dream, Saying, "Arise and take the little child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who were seeking the life of the little child have died." And he arose and took the little child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. (verses 13-21)
As always in the history of Christ, so here also, glory and suffering appear in juxtaposition. It could not be, that these Magi should become the innocent instruments of Herod's murderous designs; nor yet that the Infant-Savior should fall a victim to the tyrant. Warned of God in a dream, the 'wise men' returned 'into their own country another way;' and, warned by the angel of the Lord in a dream, the Holy Family sought temporary shelter in Egypt. Baffled in the hope of attaining his object through the Magi, the reckless tyrant sought to secure it by an indiscriminate slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem and its immediate neighborhood, from two years and under. True, considering the population of Bethlehem, their number could only have been small, probably twenty at most.
But the deed was none the less atrocious; and these infants may justly be regarded as the 'protomartyrs,' the first witnesses, of Christ, 'the blossom of martyrdom' ('flores martyrum,' as Prudentius calls them). The slaughter was entirely in accordance with the character and former measures of Herod. Nor do we wonder, that it remained unrecorded by Josephus, since on other occasions also he has omitted events which to us seem important. The murder of a few infants in an insignificant village might appear scarcely worth notice in a reign stained by so much bloodshed. Besides, he had, perhaps, a special motive for this silence. Josephus always carefully suppresses, so far as possible, all that refers to the Christ - probably not only in accordance with his own religious views, but because mention of a Christ might have been dangerous, certainly would have been inconvenient, in a work written by an intense self-seeker, mainly for readers in Rome.
Those who have attentively followed the course of Jewish thinking, and marked how the ancient Synagogue, and that rightly, read the Old Testament in its unity, as ever pointing to the Messiah as the fulfilment of Israel's history, will not wonder at, but fully accord with, Matthew's retrospective view. The words of Hosea were in the highest sense 'fulfilled' in the flight to, and return of, the Savior from Egypt.
Jesus' childhood in Nazareth
The stay of the Holy Family in Egypt must have been of brief duration. The cup of Herod's misdeeds, but also of his misery, was full. During the whole latter part of his life, the dread of a rival to the throne had haunted him, and he had sacrificed thousands, among them those nearest and dearest to him, to lay that Spirit. And still the tyrant was not at rest. A more terrible scene is not presented in history than that of the closing days of Herod. Tormented by nameless fears; ever and again a prey to vain remorse, when he would frantically call for his passionately-loved, murdered wife Mariamme, and her sons; even making attempts on his own life; the delirium of tyranny, the passion for blood, drove him to the verge of madness. The most loathsome disease, such as can scarcely be described, had fastened on his body, and his sufferings were at times agonizing.
By the advice of his physicians, he had himself carried to the baths of Callirhoe (east of the Jordan), trying all remedies with the determination of one who will do hard battle for life. It was in vain. The namelessly horrible distemper, which had seized the old man of seventy, held him fast in its grasp, and, so to speak, played death on the living. He knew it, that his hour was come, and had himself conveyed back to his palace under the palm-trees of Jericho. They had known it also in Jerusalem, and, even before the last stage of his disease, two of the most honored and loved Rabbis - Judas and Matthias - had headed the wild band, which would sweep away all traces of Herod's idolatrous rule. They began by pulling down the immense golden eagle, which hung over the great gate of the Temple. The two ringleaders, and forty of their followers, allowed themselves to be taken by Herod's guards. A mock public trial in the theatre at Jericho followed. Herod, carried out on a couch, was both accuser and judge. The zealots, who had made noble answer to the tyrant, were burnt alive; and the High-Priest, who was suspected of connivance, deposed.
After that the end came rapidly. On his return from Callirhoe, feeling his death approaching, the King had summoned the noblest of Israel throughout the land of Jericho, and shut them up in the Hippodrome, with orders to his sister to have them slain immediately upon his death, in the grim hope that the joy of the people at his decease would thus be changed into mourning. Five days before his death one ray of passing joy lighted his couch. Terrible to say, it was caused by a letter from Augustus allowing Herod to execute his son Antipater - the false accuser and real murderer of his half-brothers Alexander and Aristobulus. The death of the wretched prince was hastened by his attempt to bribe the jailer, as the noise in the palace, caused by an attempted suicide of Herod, led him to suppose his father was actually dead. And now the terrible drama was hastening to a close. The fresh access of rage shortened the life which was already running out. Five days more, and the terror of Judea lay dead. He had reigned thirty-seven years - thirty-four since his conquest of Jerusalem. Soon the rule for which he had so long plotted, striven, and stained himself with untold crimes, passed from his descendants. A century more, and the whole race of Herod had been swept away.
It need scarcely be said, that Salome (Herod's sister) and her husband were too wise to execute Herod's direction in regard to the noble Jews shut up in the Hippodrome. Their liberation, and the death of Herod, were marked by the leaders of the people as joyous events in the so-called Megillath Taanith, or Roll of Fasts, although the date is not exactly marked. Henceforth this was to be a Yom Tobh (feast-day), on which mourning was interdicted.
Herod had three times before changed his testament. By the first will Antipater, the successful calumniator of Alexander and Aristobulus, had been appointed his successor, while the latter two were named kings, though we know not of what districts. After the execution of the two sons of Mariamme, Antipater was named king, and, in case of his death, Herod, the son of Mariamme II. When the treachery of Antipater was proved, Herod made a third will, in which Antipas (the Herod Antipas of the New Testament) was named his successor. But a few days before his death he made yet another disposition, by which Archelaus, the elder brother of Antipas (both sons of Malthake, a Samaritan), was appointed king; Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Perea; and Philip (the son of Cleopatra, of Jerusalem ), tetrarch of the territory east of the Jordan. These testaments reflected the varying phases of suspicion and family-hatred through which Herod had passed.
Although the Emperor seems to have authorized him to appoint his successor, Herod wisely made his disposition dependent on the approval of Augustus. But the latter was not by any means to be taken for granted. Archelaus had, indeed, been immediately proclaimed King by the army; but he prudently declined the title, till it had been confirmed by the Emperor. The night of his father's death, and those that followed, were characteristically spent by Archelaus in rioting with his friends. But the people of Jerusalem were not easily satisfied. At first liberal promises of amnesty and reforms had assuaged the populace. But the indignation excited by the late murder of the Rabbis soon burst into a storm of lamentation, and then of rebellion, which Archelaus silenced by the slaughter of not less than three thousand, and that within the sacred precincts of the Temple itself.
Other and more serious difficulties awaited him in Rome, whither he went in company with his mother, his aunt Salome, and other relatives. These, however, presently deserted him to espouse the claims of Antipas, who likewise appeared before Augustus to plead for the royal succession, assigned to him in a former testament. The Herodian family, while intriguing and clamoring each on his own account, were, for reasons easily understood, agreed that they would rather not have a king at all, but be under the suzerainty of Rome; though, if king there must be, they preferred Antipas to Archelaus. Meanwhile, fresh troubles broke out in Palestine, which were suppressed by fire, sword, and crucifixions. And now two other deputations arrived in the Imperial City. Philip, the step-brother of Archelaus, to whom the latter had left the administration of his kingdom, came to look after his own interests, as well as to support Archelaus. At the same time, a Jewish deputation of fifty, from Palestine, accompanied by eight thousand Roman Jews, clamored for the deposition of the entire Herodian race, on account of their crimes, and the incorporation of Palestine with Syria - no doubt in hope of the same semi-independence under their own authorities, enjoyed by their fellow-religionists in the Grecian cities.
Augustus decided to confirm the last testament of Herod, with certain slight modifications, of which the most important was that Archelaus should bear the title of Ethnarch, which, if he deserved it, would by-and-by be exchanged for that of King. His dominions were to be Judea, Idumaea, and Samaria, with a revenue of 600 talents. It is needless to follow the fortunes of the new Ethnarch. He began his rule by crushing all resistance by the wholesale slaughter of his opponents. Of the High-Priestly office he disposed after the manner of his father. But he far surpassed him in cruelty, oppression, luxury, the grossest egotism, and the lowest sensuality, and that, without possessing the talent or the energy of Herod.
It must have been soon after the accession of Archelaus, but before tidings of it had actually reached Joseph in Egypt, that the Holy Family returned to Palestine. The first intention of Joseph seems to have been to settle in Bethlehem, where he had lived since the birth of Jesus. Obvious reasons would incline him to choose this, and, if possible, to avoid Nazareth as the place of his residence. His trade, even had he been unknown in Bethlehem, would have easily supplied the modest wants of his household. But when, on reaching Palestine, he learned who the successor of Herod was, and also, no doubt, in what manner he had inaugurated his reign, common prudence would have dictated the withdrawal of the Infant-Savior from the dominions of Archelaus. But it needed Divine direction to determine his return to Nazareth.
Of the many years spent in Nazareth, during which Jesus passed from infancy to childhood, from childhood to youth, and from youth to manhood, the narrative has left us but briefest notice. Of His childhood that
'He grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him; '
of His youth: besides the account of His questioning the Rabbis in the Temple, the year before he attained Jewish majority - that 'He was subject to His parents,' and that 'He increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.' Considering what loving care watched over Jewish child-life, tenderly marking by not fewer than eight designations the various stages of its development, and the deep interest naturally attaching to the early life of the Messiah, that silence, in contrast to the almost blasphemous absurdities of the Apocryphal Gospels, teaches us once more, and most impressively, that the Gospels furnish a history of the Savior, not a biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew, indeed, summarizes the whole outward history of the life in Nazareth in one sentence. Henceforth Jesus would stand out before the Jews of His time - and, as we know, of all times, by the distinctive designation: 'of Nazareth,' or 'the Nazarene.' In the mind of a Palestinian a peculiar significance would attach to the by-Name of the Messiah, especially in its connection with the general teaching of prophetic Scripture. And here we must remember, that Matthew primarily addressed his Gospel to Palestinian readers, and that it is the Jewish presentation of the Messiah as meeting Jewish expectancy. In this there is nothing derogatory to the character of the Gospel, no accommodation in the sense of adaptation, since Jesus was not only the Savior of the world, but especially also the King of the Jews, and we are now considering how He would stand out before the Jewish mind. On one point all were agreed: His Name was Notsri (of Nazareth). Matthew proceeds to point out, how entirely this accorded with prophetic Scripture - not, indeed, with any single prediction, but with the whole language of the prophets.
From this the Jews derived not fewer than eight designations or Names by which the Messiah was to be called. The most prominent among them was that of Tsemach, or 'Branch.' We call it the most prominent, not only because it is based upon the clearest Scripture-testimony, but because it evidently occupied the foremost rank in Jewish thinking, being embodied in this earliest portion of their daily liturgy: 'The Branch of David, Thy Servant, speedily make to shoot forth, and His Horn exalt Thou by Thy Salvation . . . Blessed art Thou Jehovah, Who causeth to spring forth (literally: to branch forth) the Horn of Salvation' (15th Eulogy). Now, what is expressed by the word Tsemach is also conveyed by the term Netser, 'Branch,' in such passages as Isaiah xi,1, which was likewise applied to the Messiah. Thus, starting from Isaiah 11:1, Netser being equivalent to Tsemach, Jesus would, as Notsri or Ben Netser, bear in popular parlance, and that on the ground of prophetic Scriptures, the exact equivalent of the best-known designation of the Messiah. The more significant this, that it was not a self-chosen nor man-given name, but arose, in the providence of God, from what otherwise might have been called the accident of His residence. We admit that this is a Jewish view; but then this Gospel is the Jewish view of the Jewish Messiah.
But, taking this Jewish title in its Jewish significance, it has also a deeper meaning, and that not only to Jews, but to all men. The idea of Christ as the Divinely placed 'Branch' (symbolized by His Divinely-appointed early residence), small and despised in its forthshooting, or then visible appearance (like Nazareth and the Nazarenes), but destined to grow as the Branch sprung out of Jesse's roots, is most marvellously true to the whole history of the Christ, alike as sketched 'by the prophets,' and as exhibited in reality. And thus to us all, Jews or Gentiles, the Divine guidance to Nazareth and the name Nazarene present the truest fulfilment of the prophecies of His history.
Greater contrast could scarcely be imagined than between the intricate scholastic studies of the Judeans, and the active pursuits that engaged men in Galilee. It was a common saying: 'If a person wishes to be rich, let him go north; if he wants to be wise, let him come south' - and to Judea, accordingly, flocked, from ploughshare and workshop, whoever wished to become 'learned in the Law.' The very neighborhood of the Gentile world, the contact with the great commercial centers close by, and the constant intercourse with foreigners, who passed through Galilee along one of the world's great highways, would render the narrow exclusiveness of the Southerners impossible. Galilee was to Judaism 'the Court of the Gentiles' - the Rabbinic Schools of Judea its innermost Sanctuary.
The Talmud mentions several points in which the religious practices of the Galileans differed from that of Judea - all either in the direction of more practical earnestness, or of alleviation of Rabbinic rigorism. On the other hand, they were looked down upon as neglecting traditionalism, unable to rise to its speculative heights, and preferring the attractions of the Haggadah to the logical subtleties of the Halakhah. There was a general contempt in Rabbinic circles for all that was Galilean. Although the Judean or Jerusalem dialect was far from pure, the people of Galilee were especially blamed for neglecting the study of their language, charged with error in grammar, and especially with absurd malpronunciation, sometimes leading to ridiculous mistakes. 'Galilean - Fool!' was so common an expression, that a learned lady turned with it upon so great a man as R. José, the Galilean, because he had used two needless words in asking her the road to Lydda. Indeed, this R. José had considerable prejudices to overcome, before his remarkable talents and learning were fully acknowledged.
Among such a people, and in that country, Jesus spent by far the longest part of His life upon earth. Generally, this period may be described as that of His true and full Human Development - physical, intellectual, spiritual - of outward submission to man, and inward submission to God, with the attendant results of 'wisdom,' 'favor,' and 'grace.' Necessary, therefore, as this period was, if the Christ was to be TRUE MAN, it cannot be said that it was lost, even so far as His Work as Savior was concerned. It was more than the preparation for that work; it was the commencement of it: subjectively (and passively), the self-abnegation of humiliation in His willing submission; and objectively (and actively), the fulfilment of all righteousness through it. But into this 'mystery of piety' we may only look afar off - simply remarking, that it almost needed for us also these thirty years of Human Life, that the overpowering thought of His Divinity might not overshadow that of His Humanity. But if He was subject to such conditions, they must, in the nature of things, have affected His development. It is therefore not presumption when, without breaking the silence of Holy Scripture, we follow the various stages of the Nazareth life, as each is, so to speak, initialled by the brief but emphatic summaries of the third Gospel.
These conditions were, indeed, for that time, the happiest conceivable, and such as only centuries of Old Testament life-training could have made them. The Gentile world here presented terrible contrast, alike in regard to the relation of parents and children, and the character and moral object of their upbringing. Education begins in the home, and there were not homes like those in Israel; it is imparted by influence and example, before it comes by teaching; it is acquired by what is seen and heard, before it is laboriously learned from books; its real object becomes instinctively felt, before its goal is consciously sought. What Jewish fathers and mothers were; what they felt towards their children; and with what reverence, affection, and care the latter returned what they had received, is known to every reader of the Old Testament. The relationship of father has its highest sanction and embodiment in that of God towards Israel; the tenderness and care of a mother in that of the watchfulness and pity of the Lord over His people. The semi-Divine relationship between children and parents appears in the location, the far more than outward duties which it implies in the wording, of the Fifth Commandment. No punishment more prompt than that of its breach; no description more terribly realistic than that of the vengeance which overtakes such sin.
From the first days of its existence, a religious atmosphere surrounded the child of Jewish parents. Admitted in the number of God's chosen people by the deeply significant rite of circumcision, when its name was first spoken in the accents of prayer, it was henceforth separated unto God. Whether or not it accepted the privileges and obligations implied in this dedication, they came to him directly from God, as much as the circumstances of his birth. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, the God of the promises, claimed him, with all of blessing which this conveyed, and of responsibility which resulted from it. And the first wish expressed for him was that, 'as he had been joined to the covenant,' so it might also be to him in regard to the 'Torah' (Law), to 'the Chuppah' (the marriage-baldachino), and 'to good works;' in other words, that he might live 'godly, soberly, and righteously in this present world' - a holy, happy, and God-devoted life. And what this was, could not for a moment be in doubt.
Putting aside the overlying Rabbinic interpretations, the ideal of life was presented to the mind of the Jew in a hundred different forms - in none perhaps more popularly than in the words, 'These are the things of which a man enjoys the fruit in this world, but their possession continueth for the next: to honor father and mother, pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of the Law, which is equivalent to them all.' This devotion to the Law was, indeed, to the Jew the all in all - the sum of intellectual pursuits, the aim of life. What better thing could a father seek for his child than this inestimable boon?
The first education was necessarily the mother's. Even the Talmud owns this, when, among the memorable sayings of the sages, it records one of the School of Rabbi Jannai, to the effect that knowledge of the Law may be looked for in those, who have sucked it in at their mother's breast. And what the true mothers in Israel were, is known not only from instances in the Old Testament, from the praise of woman in the Book of Proverbs, and from the sayings of the son of Sirach (Ecclus.3: ), but from the Jewish women of the New Testament. If, according to a somewhat curious traditional principle, women were dispensed from all such positive obligations as were incumbent at fixed periods of time (such as putting on phylacteries), other religious duties devolved exclusively upon them. The Sabbath meal, the kindling of the Sabbath lamp, and the setting apart a portion of the dough from the bread for the household, these are but instances, with which every 'Taph,' as he clung to his mother's skirts, must have been familiar. Even before he could follow her in such religious household duties, his eyes must have been attracted by the Mezuzah attached to the door-post, as the name of the Most High on the outside of the little folded parchment was reverently touched by each who came or went, and then the fingers kissed that had come in contact with the Holy Name.
There could not be national history, nor even romance, to compare with that by which a Jewish mother might hold her child entranced. And it was his own history - that of his tribe, clan, perhaps family; of the past, indeed, but yet of the present, and still more of the glorious future. Long before he could go to school, or even Synagogue, the private and united prayers and the domestic rites, whether of the weekly Sabbath or of festive seasons, would indelibly impress themselves upon his mind. In mid-winter there was the festive illumination in each home. In most houses, the first night only one candle was lit, the next two, and so on to the eighth day; and the child would learn that this was symbolic, and commemorative of the Dedication of the Temple, its purgation, and the restoration of its services by the lion-hearted Judas the Maccabee. Next came, in earliest spring, the merry time of Purim, the Feast of Esther and of Israel's deliverance through her, with its good cheer and boisterous enjoyments.
Although the Passover might call the rest of the family to Jerusalem, the rigid exclusion of all leaven during the whole week could not pass without its impressions. Then, after the Feast of Weeks, came bright summer. But its golden harvest and its rich fruits would remind of the early dedication of the first and best to the Lord, and of those solemn processions in which it was carried up to Jerusalem. As autumn seared the leaves, the Feast of the New Year spoke of the casting up of man's accounts in the great Book of Judgment, and the fixing of destiny for good or for evil. Then followed the Fast of the Day of Atonement, with its tremendous solemnities, the memory of which could never fade from mind or imagination; and, last of all, in the week of the Feast of Tabernacles, there were the strange leafy booths in which they lived and joyed, keeping their harvest-thanksgiving; and praying and longing for the better harvest of a renewed world.
But it was not only through sight and hearing that, from its very inception, life in Israel became religious. There was also from the first positive teaching, of which the commencement would necessarily devolve on the mother. It needed not the extravagant laudations, nor the promises held out by the Rabbis, to incite Jewish women to this duty. If they were true to their descent, it would come almost naturally to them. Scripture set before them a continuous succession of noble Hebrew mothers. How well they followed their example, we learn from the instance of her, whose son, the child of a Gentile father, and reared far away, where there was not even a Synagogue to sustain religious life, had 'from an infant known the Holy Scriptures,' and that in their life-moulding influence.
It was, indeed, no idle boast that the Jews 'were from their swaddling-clothes trained to recognize God as their Father, and as the Maker of the world;' that, 'having been taught the knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their souls the image of the commandments;' that 'from their earliest consciousness they learned the laws, so as to have them, as it were, engraven upon the soul;' and that they were 'brought up in learning,' 'exercised in the laws,' 'and made acquainted with the acts of their predecessors in order to their imitation of them.'
But while the earliest religious teaching would, of necessity, come from the lips of the mother, it was the father who was 'bound to teach his son.' To impart to the child knowledge of the Torah conferred as great spiritual distinction, as if a man had received the Law itself on Mount Horeb. Every other engagement, even the necessary meal, should give place to this paramount duty; nor should it be forgotten that, while here real labor was necessary, it would never prove fruitless. That man was of the profane vulgar (an Am ha-arets), who had sons, but failed to bring them up in knowledge of the Law. Directly the child learned to speak, his religious instruction was to begin - no doubt, with such verses of Holy Scripture as composed that part of the Jewish liturgy, which answers to our Creed. Then would follow other passages from the Bible, short prayers, and select sayings of the sages. Special attention was given to the culture of the memory, since forgetfulness might prove as fatal in its consequences as ignorance or neglect of the Law. Very early the child must have been taught what might be called his birthday-text - some verse of Scripture beginning, or ending with, or at least containing, the same letters as his Hebrew name. This guardian-promise the child would insert in its daily prayers. The earliest hymns taught would be the Psalms for the days of the week, or festive Psalms, such as the Hallel, or those connected with the festive pilgrimages to Zion.
The regular instruction commenced with the fifth or sixth year (according to strength), when every child was sent to school. There can be no reasonable doubt that at that time such schools existed throughout the land. We find references to them at almost every period; indeed, the existence of higher schools and Academies would not have been possible without such primary instruction. Two Rabbis of Jerusalem, specially distinguished and beloved on account of their educational labors, were among the last victims of Herod's cruelty. Later on, tradition ascribes to Joshua the son of Gamla the introduction of schools in every town, and the compulsory education in them of all children above the age of six. Such was the transcendent merit attaching to this act, that it seemed to blot out the guilt of the purchase for him of the High-Priestly office by his wife Martha, shortly before the commencement of the great Jewish war. To pass over the fabulous number of schools supposed to have existed in Jerusalem, tradition had it that, despite of this, the City only fell because of the neglect of the education of children. It was even deemed unlawful to live in a place where there was no school. Such a city deserved to be either destroyed or excommunicated.
It would lead too far to give details about the appointment of, and provision for, teachers, the arrangements of the schools, the method of teaching, or the subjects of study, the more so as many of these regulations date from a period later than that under review. Suffice it that, from the teaching of the alphabet or of writing, onwards to the farthest limit of instruction in the most advanced Academies of the Rabbis, all is marked by extreme care, wisdom, accuracy, and a moral and religious purpose as the ultimate object. For a long time it was not uncommon to teach in the open air; but this must have been chiefly in connection with theological discussions, and the instruction of youths. But the children were gathered in the Synagogues, or in School-houses, where at first they either stood, teacher and pupils alike, or else sat on the ground in a semicircle, facing the teacher.
The introduction of benches or chairs was of later date; but the principle was always the same, that in respect of accommodation there was no distinction between teacher and taught. Thus, encircled by his pupils, as by a crown of glory (to use the language of Maimonides), the teacher - generally the Chazzan, or Officer of the Synagogue - should impart to them the precious knowledge of the Law, with constant adaptation to their capacity, with unwearied patience, intense earnestness, strictness tempered by kindness, but, above all, with the highest object of their training ever in view. To keep children from all contact with vice; to train them to gentleness, even when bitterest wrong had been received; to show sin in its repulsiveness, rather than to terrify by its consequences; to train to strict truthfulness; to avoid all that might lead to disagreeable or indelicate thoughts; and to do all this without showing partiality, without either undue severity, or laxity of discipline, with judicious increase of study and work, with careful attention to thoroughness in acquiring knowledge - all this and more constituted the ideal set before the teacher, and made his office of such high esteem in Israel.
Roughly classifying the subjects of study, it was held, that, up to ten years of age, the Bible exclusively should be the text-book; from ten to fifteen, the Mishnah, or traditional law; after that age, the student should enter on those theological discussions which occupied time and attention in the higher Academies of the Rabbis. Not that this progression would always be made. For, if after three, or, at most, five years of tuition - that is, after having fairly entered on Mishnic studies - the child had not shown decided aptitude, little hope was to be entertained of his future. The study of the Bible commenced with that of the Book of Leviticus. Thence it passed to the other parts of the Pentateuch; then to the Prophets; and, finally, to the Hagiographa. What now constitutes the Gemara or Talmud was taught in the Academies, to which access could not be gained till after the age of fifteen. Care was taken not to send a child too early to school, nor to overwork him when there. For this purpose the school-hours were fixed, and attendance shortened during the summer-months.
The teaching in school would, of course, be greatly aided by the services of the Synagogue, and the deeper influences of home-life. We know that, even in the troublous times which preceded the rising of the Maccabees, the possession of parts or the whole of the Old Testament (whether in the original or the Septuagint rendering) was so common, that during the great persecutions a regular search was made throughout the land for every copy of the Holy Scriptures, and those punished who possessed them. After the triumph of the Maccabees, these copies of the Bible would, of course, be greatly multiplied. And, although perhaps only the wealthy could have purchased a MS. of the whole Old Testament in Hebrew, yet some portion or portions of the Word of God, in the original, would form the most cherished treasure of every pious household. Besides, a school for Bible-study was attached to every academy, in which copies of the Holy Scripture would be kept. From anxious care to preserve the integrity of the text, it was deemed unlawful to make copies of small portions of a book of Scripture. But exception was made of certain sections which were copied for the instruction of children. Among them, the history of the Creation to that of the Flood; Leviticus 1:9.; and Numbers 1:10. 35, are specially mentioned.
It was in such circumstances, and under such influences, that the early years of Jesus passed. To go beyond this, and to attempt lifting the veil which lies over His Child-History, would not only be presumptuous, but involve us in anachronisms. Fain would we know it, whether the Child Jesus frequented the Synagogue School; who was His teacher, and who those who sat beside Him on the ground, earnestly gazing on the face of Him Who repeated the sacrificial ordinances in the Book of Leviticus, that were all to be fulfilled in Him. But it is all 'a mystery of Godliness.' We do not even know quite certainly whether the school-system had, at that time, extended to far-off Nazareth; nor whether the order and method which have been described were universally observed at that time. In all probability, however, there was such a school in Nazareth, and, if so, the Child-Savior would conform to the general practice of attendance.
We may thus, still with deepest reverence, think of Him as learning His earliest earthly lesson from the Book of Leviticus. Learned Rabbis there were not in Nazareth - either then or afterwards. He would attend the services of the Synagogue, where Moses and the prophets were read, and, as afterwards by Himself, occasional addresses delivered. That His was pre-eminently a pious home in the highest sense, it seems almost irreverent to say. From His intimate familiarity with Holy Scripture, in its every detail, we may be allowed to infer that the home of Nazareth, however humble, possessed a precious copy of the Sacred Volume in its entirety. At any rate, we know that from earliest childhood it must have formed the meat and drink of the God-Man.
The words of the Lord, as recorded by Matthew and Luke, also imply that the Holy Scriptures which He read were in the original Hebrew, and that they were written in the square, or Assyrian, characters. Indeed, as the Pharisees and Sadducees always appealed to the Scriptures in the original, Jesus could not have met them on any other ground, and it was this which gave such point to His frequent expostulations with them: 'Have ye not read?'
But far other thoughts than theirs gathered around His study of the Old Testament Scriptures. When comparing their long discussions on the letter and law of Scripture with His references to the Word of God, it seems as if it were quite another book which was handled. As we gaze into the vast glory of meaning which He opens to us; follow the shining track of heavenward living to which He points; behold the lines of symbol, type, and prediction converging in the grand unity of that Kingdom which became reality in Him; or listen as, alternately, some question of His seems to rive the darkness, as with flash of sudden light, or some sweet promise of old to lull the storm, some earnest lesson to quiet the tossing waves - we catch faint, it may be far-off, glimpses of how, in that early Child-life, when the Holy Scriptures were His special study, He must have read them, and what thoughts must have been kindled by their light. And thus better than before can we understand it: 'And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him.'