The Nativity Scene
Amidst the folklore of Christmas is the nativity scene, and none would be complete without the three wise men giving their gifts to the Christ-child. Yet, the events of Matthew 2 and the manger were never meant to be combined. Misperceptions propagated by popular representations of the manger scene include:
- The number of wise men-the actual number is not known (the number three presumably comes from the number of gifts offered),
- The timing of their visit-they actually visited the Child almost 2 years after his birth,
- The location of their visit-probably at Mary and Joseph's Bethlehem home,
- The presence of the star over the manger-the star led the wise men to the residence of the Christ-child, not over his birthplace.
All of these misconceptions can be easily cleared up with a careful reading of Matthew's record. The key can be found in verses 9 and 16. Herod had ordered the slaughter of the Bethlehem children based on the timing of the appearance of the star, information which he had previously 'diligently enquired' (v. 16) of the wise men. The need to kill all infants less than two indicates that Jesus was likely between the age of 12-24 months old when visited by the wise men. Hence, Matthew refers to Christ as 'the young child' (v. 9) rather than the babe or infant. If the visit of the wise men took place immediately after His birth, Herod would only have needed to kill those infants less than 1-2 months old.
Matt 2:1 there came wise men from the east
"The concept of the worldwide mission and activity of Jesus, as God of all mankind, gives us some insight into the role of the wise men spoken of in Matthew chapter 2. Their mission was unique. They could not be ordinary men. They were no doubt special emissaries, prophets, if you will, coming from a land east of Palestine, to carry back to their own people a firsthand, personal knowledge of the birth of their Lord, Jesus Christ. They were spiritual men, with a mission, who knew what they were looking for. They were indeed wise men from the East-not astrologers or magicians, but prophets or seers, which is the wisest class of all men. And theirs was the greatest of all quests, as they sought the Son of God, the fount of all wisdom." (Robert J. Matthews, The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture, edited by Paul R. Cheesman, p. 27.)
Bruce R. McConkie
"To suppose they were members of the apostate religious cult of the Magi of ancient Media and Persia is probably false. Rather, it would appear they were true prophets, righteous persons like Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds, to whom Deity revealed that the promised Messiah had been born among men. Obviously they were in possession of ancient prophecies telling of the rise of a new star at his birth. That they did receive revelation for their personal guidance is seen from the inspired dream in which they were warned not to return to Herod after they had found and worshiped the Son of Mary." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:103.)
Matt 2:2 for we have seen his star in the east
With the possible exception of Numb 24:17, the Old Testament does not record a prophecy about a new star in the eastern sky. Probably, the wise men were familiar with another Hebrew prophecy, "A star shall come out of Jacob...and the star shall shine forth from the East, and this is the Star of the Messiah." (Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, p. 147) Possibly, the wise men had their own prophetic tradition, for the Lord has said, 'I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth' (2 Ne 29:7). Certainly, this new sign was both foretold and witnessed in the New World (Hel 14:5, 3 Ne 1:21). The famous astronomer, Kepler, proposed a theory as to what may have caused the appearance of this new heavenly manifestation:
"Kepler, who was led to the discovery by observing a similar conjunction in 1603-4, also noticed, that when the three planets came into conjunction (alignment), a new, extraordinary, brilliant, and peculiarly colored evanescent star was visible between Jupiter and Saturn, and he suggested that a similar star had appeared under the same circumstances in the conjunction preceding the Nativity. Of this, of course, there is not, and cannot be, absolute certainty. But, if so, this would be 'the star' of the Magi, 'in its rising.'" (Edersheim, Alfred, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 148)
Thus, the First Coming of Christ was heralded by a star in the eastern sky, and an even more brilliant light in the east will herald His Second Coming, 'For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be'...'And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice as like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory.' (Matt 24:27, Ezek 43:2)
Matt 2:3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled
The historian Josephus recorded the malice, paranoia, and carnage that characterized the reign of Herod the Great. In order to understand why Herod was so threatened by the news of this infant requires some background.
Herod the Great was a descendant of the Maccabean family which had broken the yoke of Syrian oppression in the year 166 BC. Years of infighting had made him suspicious of his own family members both before and after taking the throne in about 34 BC. It was only by killing those who were a threat to his power, that Herod was able to retain his kingdom. His power-hungry paranoia seemed to have no end, nor did his cruelty to those who were a threat to him. He "never left off avenging and punishing every day those that had chosen to be of the party of his enemies" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, 1:1) Accordingly, Herod had his brother-in-law, his uncle, his mother-in-law, and her father killed. Once, he even considered murdering Cleopatra. In his paranoia, he became suspicious of those who had been his most intimate friends and therefore had them killed. Based on false rumors, he had his once-beloved wife killed. He later regretted this rash decision, spending the rest of his life mourning her loss. Yet, he never learned his lesson, executing all around him until "there were...none at all left of the kindred of Hyrcanus [his mother-in-law's father]; and the kingdom was entirely in Herod's power, and there was nobody remaining of such dignity as could put a stop to [him]." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, 7:10)
Of his sons, Herod was perpetually suspicious. Concerned that one of his sons was guilty of sedition, he had his son's friends tortured in order to extract information from them. This torture resulted not in confession but in the death of many of the young men. (Ibid, Book XVI, 8:4). Josephus writes, "he was...overrun with suspicion and hatred against all about him...in order to his preservation, he continued to suspect those that were guiltless: nor did he set any bounds to himself; but supposing that those who stayed with him had the most power to hurt him, they were to him very frightful." This mentality lead to mental illness with paranoid delusions, "because he could trust nobody, he was sorely punished by the expectation of further misery; for he often fancied in his imagination, that his son had fallen upon him, or stood by him with a sword in his hand; and thus was his mind night and day intent upon this thing, and revolved it over and over...And this was the sad condition Herod was now in." (Ibid, Book XVI, 8:5) Predictably, Herod had three of his own sons killed: Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater.
"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 ghost. 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." (Edersheim, Alfred, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 151)
The news of a new king, heralded by prophecy, accompanied by foreign dignitaries, and pronounced by a new star in the heavens must have struck a familiar, paranoid chord in Herod. While a rational person would have seen no threat in the birth of the infant, Herod was near the end of his reign, in failing health, and well beyond reason. Still, he managed some shrewdness in his devious plan to destroy the potential rival, obtaining the two pieces of information he most needed: the location and timing of His birth.
Matt 2:5 In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written
Remarkably, the chief priests and scribes correctly interpreted this prophecy of Micah. In contrast, the next generation of chief priests and scribes could not see in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfillment of a myriad of Messianic prophecies. They never asked him where he was born. Rather, they assumed he was born in Nazareth and asked, 'Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?' (John 7:41-42.)
Matt 2:6 Bethlehem...out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people
"[The word] ruler in the Micah text is rendered governor in the Matthean account. The Greek word being translated, governor, means 'to lead, i.e., a. to go before; b. to be a leader; to rule, command; to have authority over' (Thayer, The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 276a). Thus a number of modern translations have chosen to have the phrase 'shall rule my people' rendered 'shall be shepherd of my people.' This shifts the meaning of the text from Christ's millennial rule when he will reign in power to that of his mortal ministry, which centered in his role of guiding, guarding, folding, and feeding the Lord's flock.
"That Christ will indeed reign in power as a governor over the Lord's people there can be no doubt. 'The government,' Isaiah said, 'shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.' (Isa. 6:1-7)" (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Donald W. Parry, A Guide to Scriptural Symbols, p. 129-30)
Matt 2:9 the star, which they saw in the east, went before them
The new star in the eastern sky was first given as a sign of Christ's birth. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, they had apparently lost sight of the star, but it appeared before them again. This time it appeared not as a sign but as a guiding light, moving before them to show them to the Christ-child. In effect, it became their Liahona.
Matt 2:11 they saw the young child with Mary his mother
Bruce R. McConkie
"When did the wise men come to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and how old was the child Jesus when they bowed before him?...It is worthy of note that the wise men found Jesus in a house, not a stable, inn, or temporary abiding place; that he is called a 'young child,' not a baby, a total of seven times in the course of fourteen consecutive verses; that Matthew makes two pointed references to the diligent nature of Herod's inquiry as to the actual time of the birth; and that a child is two years of age until the time of his third birthday. Now assuming that Herod would order the massacre of all young children in the general age bracket involved, still the presumption arises that a number of months or even one or two years may have elapsed before the arrival of the eastern visitors." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary,1:107)
Matt 2:11 they...fell down, and worshipped him
"It will be observed that the testimonies concerning the birth of the Messiah are from two extremes, the lowly shepherds in the Judean field, and the learned magi from the far east. We cannot think this is the result of mere chance, but that in it may be discerned the purpose and wisdom of God...God had raised up to Himself witnesses among the people to testify that Messiah was born, that the hope of Israel was fulfilled. But there were classes of people among the Jews whom these lowly shepherd witnesses could not reach...Hence God raised up another class of witnesses-the 'wise men from the east'-witnesses that could enter the royal palace of proud King Herod and boldly ask: 'Where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him'; a testimony that startled Herod and troubled all Jerusalem. So that indeed God raised up witnesses for Himself to meet all classes and conditions of men-the testimony of angels for the poor and the lowly; the testimony of wise men for the haughty king and proud priests of Judea. So that of the things concerning the birth of Messiah, no less than of the things of His death and resurrection from the dead, His disciples could say, 'these things were not done in a corner.'" (Men's MIA Manual, 1897-8, as taken from Jesus the Christ, p. 102)
Matt 2:11 they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh
James E. Talmage
"It is worthy of note that we have no record of these men from the east offering gifts to Herod in his palace; they did, however, impart of their treasure to the lowly Infant, in whom they recognized the King they had come to seek. The tendency to ascribe significance to even trifling details mentioned in scripture, and particularly as regards the life of Christ, has led to many fanciful suggestions concerning the gold and frankincense and myrrh specified in this incident. Some have supposed a half-hidden symbolism therein-gold a tribute to His royal estate, frankincense an offering in recognition of His priesthood, and myrrh for His burial. The sacred record offers no basis for such conjecture. Myrrh and frankincense are aromatic resins derived from plants indigenous to eastern lands, and they have been used from very early times in medicine and in the preparation of perfumes and incense mixtures. They were presumably among the natural productions of the lands from which the magi came, though probably even there they were costly and highly esteemed. Such, together with gold, which is of value among all nations, were most appropriate as gifts for a king." (Jesus the Christ, p. 101)
Thomas S. Monson
"Since that time, the spirit of giving gifts has been present in the mind of each Christian as he commemorates the Christmas season. I wonder if we might profit today by asking ourselves, 'What gift would God have me give to Him or to others at this precious season of the year?'
"I feel that I might answer that question and declare in all solemnity that our Heavenly Father would want each one of His children to render unto Him a gift of obedience so that we would actually love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Then, I am sure, He would expect us to love our neighbors as ourselves." (Be Your Best Self, p. 187.)
Neal A. Maxwell
"The submission of one's will is placing on God's altar the only uniquely personal thing one has to place there. The many other things we 'give' are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. However, when we finally submit ourselves by letting our individual wills be swallowed up in God's will, we will really be giving something to Him! It is the only possession which is truly ours to give. Consecration thus constitutes the only unconditional surrender which is also a total victory." (If Thou Endure It Well, p. 54)
Matt 2:14-15 he took the young child and his mother...and departed into Egypt...until the death of Herod
Bruce R. McConkie
"As Egypt had been a land of refuge for the house of Jacob anciently, so now it became a convenient and natural refuge for Jacob's King. It was a nearby Roman province, outside the jurisdiction of Herod, where more than a million Jews already dwelt. And as Israel anciently had been called out of Egypt, so now her King was to return to the Canaan of promise to perform his earthly ministry. Since Herod is believed to have died when Jesus was two or three years old, our Lord's sojourn in that land may have been as short as a few months. Presumptively it was the plan for him to spend his childhood, youth, and young manhood in Nazareth.
"Hosea's prophecy, 'When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt' (Hos. 11:1), though having seeming reference to the house of Israel itself, is one of the many illustrations of prophetic utterances having dual meaning and fulfillment." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary,1:104)
Matt 2:16 Herod...was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children
Josephus goes to great lengths to describe the reign of wickedness of Herod the Great. Yet, this episode of infanticide is not included in his famous history, presumably because it was so typical of Herod's behavior as not to require special mention. "The murder of a few infants in an insignificant village might appear scarcely worth notice in a reign stained by so much bloodshed." (Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, p. 149)
Marvin O. Ashton
"And this is only one black chapter in the thousands of stories of bloodshed in history-the result of jealousy and envy. Thousands of innocent babies were butchered like cattle in the streets because of the selfishness of one soul.
"I ask you, dear reader, are you free from this venom that has curdled the blood of the inhabitants of the world since history began? Are you pleased to rejoice at the accomplishments of your friends, or are you envious? When you hear of a relative or friend going places in the world, is there gladness in your soul or does the reptile of envy entwine around your throat and choke the virtue within you? Putting it frankly, are you made happy or are you full of hate because another is up a little higher on the ladder than you?...
Thou ugliest fiend of hell! Thy deadly venom
Preys on my vitals, turns the healthful hue
Of my fresh cheek to haggard sallowness,
And drinks my spirit up.
-Hannah Moore' (Improvement Era, 1946, Vol. Xlix. August, 1946. No. 8)
Matt 2:16 How did John the Baptist survive the wrath of Herod?
There is an apocryphal account of Elizabeth and Zacharias' attempts to save John from being slain by Herod. Joseph Smith acknowledged this account, teaching, "When Herod's edict went forth to destroy the young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zacharias caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey. When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, was slain by Herod's order between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said." (Teachings, p. 261) The apocryphal account is as follows:
"But Elizabeth, when she heard that John was sought for, took him and went up into the hill-country. . . .
"Now Herod was searching for John, and sent officers to Zacharias at the altar to ask him: 'Where have you hidden your son?' And he answered and said to them: 'I am a minister of God and attend continually upon his temple. How should I know where my son is?' And the officers departed and told all this to Herod. Then Herod was angry and said: 'Is his son to be king over Israel?' And he sent the officers to him again with the command: 'Tell the truth. Where is your son? You know that your blood is under my hand.' And the officers departed and told him all this. And Zacharias said: 'I am a martyr of God. Take my blood! But my spirit the Lord will receive, for you shed innocent blood in the forecourt of the temple of the Lord.' And about the dawning of the day Zacharias was slain. And the children of Israel did not know that he had been slain." ("The Protevangelium of James," as taken from Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5: The Gospels, p. 151)
Matt 2:22 when he heard that Archelaus did reign...he was afraid
"At his death Herod [the Great] left a will according to which his kingdom was to be divided among his three sons. Archelaus was to have Judea, Idumea, and Samaria, with the title of king (Matt. 2:22). Herod Antipas was to receive Galilee and Perea, with the title of tetrarch; Philip was to come into possession of the trans-Jordan territory with the title of tetrarch (Luke 3:1). This will was ratified by Augustus with the exception of the title given to Archelaus. Archelaus, after the ratification of Herod's will by Augustus, succeeded to the rule of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, having the title of ethnarch, with the understanding that, if he ruled well, he was to become king. He was, however, highly unpopular with the people, and his reign was marked by disturbances and acts of oppression. The situation became finally so intolerable that the Jews appealed to Augustus, and Archelaus was removed and sent into exile. This accounts for the statement in Matt. 2:22..." (Standard Bible Dictionary, Funk and Wagnalls Co., article "Herod," as found in Jesus the Christ, p. 111)
Matt 2:22 being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee
"We know quite a bit about Joseph, Jesus' stepfather, during the early years of his marriage. Matthew tells us that he was of the lineage of King David, that he was a just and considerate man, that in a dream an angel told him who Jesus would be, that he was obedient, and that he gave Jesus his name, which means savior (see Matt. 1). We know that he took Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born (see Luke 2:4-6). Less than two years later, Joseph took his family into Egypt to escape Herod, after being warned in a dream. In Egypt, a dream again told him when to return, and another dream told him to go to Galilee (see Matt. 2:13-15, Matt. 2:19-22). Four dreams from God! Joseph must have been an exceptionally visionary and spiritually sensitive man." (Selected Writings of Gerald N. Lund: Gospel Scholars Series, p. 155.)
"The story is remarkably interesting, first, because Mary, the mother of the Christ child, and thus the most honored of all women, a woman capable of dreaming dreams and entertaining angels, was not the recipient of the heavenly manifestations. As marvelous a woman as she was, it was not her stewardship to preside over or protect the family; the angels obviously respected Joseph's province. Second, it is interesting because of the piecemeal manner in which Joseph's instructions came. It was as though the Lord were saying to him 'Proceed in faith, prove yourself, and when additional instructions are necessary I will give them to you.'" (Joseph Fielding McConkie, Seeking the Spirit, p. 62)
Matt 2:23 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, he shall be called a Nazarene
True to form, Matthew has demonstrated how the birth of Jesus was according to Old Testament prophecies. We can imagine him reading his scriptures, noting and marking each passage which referred to the Lord's earthly ministry, and then including them all in his Gospel. The prophecy that Christ would be a "Nazarene" is the fourth Old Testament reference in this chapter alone. But the "Nazarene" prophecy is not found in our Old Testament. Apparently, Matthew's Old Testament was more comprehensive than ours. Just as the brass plates of the Nephites included many prophecies of Christ which are now lost, so did Matthew's scriptures.
Bruce R. McConkie
"An interesting sidelight on Matthew's quotation that Jesus would be called a Nazarene because he dwelt in Nazareth (Matt. 2:23) is that Nazarene (Netzer in Hebrew) has the same root word as Branch. The Nazarene was the promised Branch. (Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8.)" (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 3:144)
Along this vein, Edersheim notes:
"The idea of Christ as the Divinely placed 'Branch' (symbolized by His Divinely-appointed early residence), small and despised in its forth-shooting...but destined to grow as the Branch sprung out of Jesse's roots, is most marvelously true to the whole history of Christ...And thus to us all, Jews or Gentiles, the Divine guidance to Nazareth and the name Nazarene present the truest fulfillment of the prophecies of His history." (Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, p. 155)
JST Matt 2:24-26 And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren
The gospel writers gives us glorious details of Christ's birth and priceless particulars of His ministry, but leave us wondering about his childhood, boyhood, and young adulthood. "With hallowed silence do the inspired scribes honor the boyhood of their Lord." (Talmage, JTC, p. 105) "...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 Saviour, not a biography of Jesus of Nazareth." (Edersheim, JTM, p. 154)
Only a prophet could break such a sacred silence, and Joseph Smith did just that, giving us a priceless nugget of truth in his inspired version:
'And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.
And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.
And after many years, the hour of his ministry drew nigh.' (JST Matt 3:24-26)
"Who taught Jesus what he knew? His Father, God the Father, taught him. That he was taught by wiser than mortal men is evident, and that he learned his lessons well, for the Prophet Joseph Smith said of him: 'When still a boy, He had all the intelligence necessary to enable Him to rule and govern the kingdom of the Jews, and could reason with the wisest and most profound doctors of law and divinity, and make their theories and practice to appear like folly compared with the wisdom He possessed; but He was a boy only, and lacked physical strength even to defend His own person; and was subject to cold, to hunger, and to death.' (LTJA, p. 24.)" (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, 2:123)
Neal A. Maxwell
"With these words underscoring the source of Jesus' unparalleled tutoring, no wonder His teaching in the temple while yet a youth 'astonished' His audience. In the Joseph Smith translation of these verses, we learn that the learned doctors 'were hearing [Jesus], and asking him questions.' (JST Luke 2:46-47.) Still later in His ministry, it is no wonder that those who sought to interrogate Him finally reached the point where no man 'durst ask him any question.' (Mark 12:34.) Had He been merely a brilliant mortal-taught solely by mere mortals, however bright-such contemporaries could have expected to engage Him and to interrogate Him successfully. However, Jesus received special tutoring. He told some, 'The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.' (John 5:19.)" (Plain and Precious Things [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 46.)