NEW TESTAMENT CRITICAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part IV (con’t) 09/23/15
In the mean time, we find Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt. According to Dr. John Lightfoot: “…provision was made for the poverty of Joseph and Mary, while they sojourned in Egypt (at Alexandria, probably), partly by selling the presents of the wise men for food and provision by the way; and partly by a supply of victuals from their country-folks in Egypt when they had need.”1 Dr. Lightfoot also suggests that Jesus and His parents were in Egypt no more than three to four months. This was to fulfill what is said in Hosea: “The Lord said, ‘I loved Israel when he was a child, and I called my Son out of Egypt.”2 To this Dr. Lightfoot adds the following commentary:
“Now though it may be granted, that Israel was a type of the Messiah, and is therefore one of the names by which he is called in the Old Testament, particularly in, Isaiah,3 and that there is a very great resemblance between Israel’s going down into, and coming out of Egypt, and that of Christ’s, as also, that the deliverance of the people of Israel out of Egypt might he used proverbially to express any remarkable deliverance from imminent danger, yet I apprehend that the words are to be understood of the Messiah in their first, literal, proper, and obvious sense, and of him only; and so the evangelist Matthew must be supposed to understand them, whose manifest design is to produce direct proofs of Jesus’ Messiahship, out of the Old Testament, which mere allusions, types, allegories, and accommodations of phrases cannot be allowed to be. Now, in order to fix the literal sense of these words, as applicable to the Messiah, let it be observed, that the scope and design of the preceding chapters is to set before the people of Israel their many provoking sins and transgressions, in order to bring them to an acknowledgment of, and repentance for them; and to declare, that upon their non-repentance, divine judgments would be executed upon them, to the utter ruin of their kingdom and nation, which account is continued to the end of the tenth chapter: but God being rich in mercy, in wrath remembers mercy, and for the sake of his own people, which were among them, mitigates this sentence, and in the eleventh chapter declares the yearnings of his heart towards them, and his very great affection for them, not withstanding all their ingratitude to him; the true causes of which kindness of his, are laid together in this first verse, which may stand connected with the latter part of the last verse of the preceding chapter; in a morning shall the king of Israel be utterly cut off,the true reason of which is because Israel is a child, that is, a rebellious and disobedient one, therefore he shall be many days without a king and without a prince; nevertheless I love him; and have therefore determined to call my son out of Egypt, who will be obliged to retire there for some time, and will set him upon the throne of his father David, who shall reign and prosper and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth or else the words may he considered, as giving the reason of God’s merciful dealing with the people of Israel, notwithstanding all their rebellions against him, and the many provocations he had received from them, because Israel is a child,that is, weak, helpless, and cannot govern himself; foolish, ignorant, imprudent, and needs instruction; and I love him, therefore I have determined to call, or I will call, the past tense for the future, which is common in the Hebrew language, especially in the prophetic writings, my son out of Egypt, who, through Herod’s rage and malice, will be obliged to abide there for a while, yet I will bring him from thence into the land of .Judea,where he shall be brought up, and shall help my child, Israel, shall instruct him in the precepts of the law, and in the doctrines of the gospel, and at last, by suffering death, shall procure the pardon of all his transgressions; for notwithstanding all his ingratitude towards me, of which a particular account is given in verses 2-7, yet I cannot but have a regard for him, and show compassion to him, and therefore he says in verse 8, How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. Now this appears to be the natural and unconstrained sense of these words, which sufficiently justifies the evangelist Matthew in his citation of them, on the occasion of Jesus’ going into Egypt and his return from thence; they being a literal prophecy of the Messiah, which had its exact fulfillment in Jesus.”4
In my commentary under verses 18-22 below, I share the various methods that Jewish scholars used to interpret scripture. One of them is Remez, which means: “a hint” — wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the literal sense of the text. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware. I agree with those who believe that Matthew was using this method of interpretation of what the prophet Hosea actually said without being aware of it.5 That’s why its important that we notice how Matthew put it, “This is what the Lord meant when He spoke through the prophet.”
Verse 16: “Herod saw that the Magi had fooled him, and he was very angry. So he gave an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the whole area around Bethlehem. Herod had learned from the Magi the time the baby was born. It was now two years from that time. So he said to kill all the boys who were two years old and younger.”
Herod’s arithmetic gives us a solid clue as to the length of the Magi’s journey and the age of Jesus. We see that Matthew failed to mention the purification of Mary, which takes 40 days,6 nor did he include Jesus’ dedication which is supposed to follow immediately after eight days. Luke does, but only after the ceremony and then skips their flight into Egypt and has them returning to Nazareth not Bethlehem where the Magi found Jesus. The shepherds found Him in a manager; the Magi found Him in a house. Some have mistakenly calculated that the Magi found Jesus sometime between birth and dedication, which was approximately forty days. However, this seems most unlikely. We see that between the dedication and return to Nazareth recorded by Luke, there is a break allowing for the Magi’s visit and then their return flight home. As we have seen, Magi also means “astrologer” and there were many such living in Persia. The distance is approximately 900 to 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. A seasoned traveler can trek this distance easily in six months, even though they traveled by night in order to follow the star. Therefore Jesus, had to be at least between eighteen months to 24 months of age at the time of their visit.
But the big story was how the Magi fooled Herod. This set him off on a vicious campaign to somehow by the luck of the draw be able to catch his so-called new King of the Jews and get rid of him without delay. Dr. John Lightfoot points out that the reason of the tarrying of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem was this: “…that they believed that the Messiah, who, according to the prophet was born there, should have been brought up nowhere but there also; nor dared they to carry him elsewhere, before they had leave to do so by an angel from heaven.”7 This would certainly account for why they had not returned to Nazareth, but stayed with Joseph’s family in Bethlehem. We have already documented what a troubled and immoral man Herod was, even at the beginning of his reign. Some doubting scholars indicate that this slaying of the innocent males was a myth because there is no record of it in Josephus or any other writings of that era. Matthew is quite clear, that the killings took place “only in Bethlehem.” Therefore, we do not know the population of Bethlehem at that time nor how many 2 year old boys were there. But in order for it to become part of secular history, it would have to either be a massacre large enough to get their attention, or in the journal of someone who lived there. Rabbi David Solomon Gans, the Jewish chronicler in his edition on Jewish History, calls Herod: “a bloody and deceitful man” who was capable of such a heinous act. Although most scholars, secular and religious, do not see any hint in Jewish historian Josephus’ writings concerning the killing of these infants, we do see a tendency and trend on Herod’s part that may clearly have involved such action.
Josephus writes about the Pharisees and their opposition to Herod: “They foretold how God decreed that Herod’s government come to an end, and none of his sons would ever sit on the throne…These predictions were not concealed from Salome, but were told to the king; as also how they had perverted some persons about the palace itself; so the king slew such of the Pharisees as were principally accused, and Bagoas the eunuch, and one Carus, who exceeded all men of that time in comeliness, and one that was his catamite.8 He slew also all those of his own family who had consented to what the Pharisees foretold; and for Bagoas, he had been puffed up by them, as though he should be named the father and the benefactor of him who, by the prediction, was foretold to be their appointed king; for that this king would have all things in his power.”9 But even further information can be found in the insights of a Roman grammarian and philosopher who lived in the fifth century AD. We know next to nothing about him, but his works have been incredibly influential in Western thought given that they were some of the most commonly read and cited works by medieval Christian philosophers given their clear and well-presented arguments in favor of neo-Platonism. However one of the things this philosopher is well-known for is being the original source for a particularly cruel anti-Jewish joke that was attributed by him to the Emperor Augustus, which goes as follows: “When Augustus heard that among the boys under two years old in Syria whom Herod the King of the Jews had ordered to be killed, his own son had also been slain, he said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son‘.”10 This suggests that Augustus was appalled at what Herod had done and in order to express his distaste he points out; via implication in the humor, that Herod is a vicious and immoral Jewish tyrant willing to murder even his own son in order to maintain his power. But even more, it shows that the story of the murder of the innocents in Bethlehem was not a well-kept secret, and was known even among Gentile authors. With so much evidence from both sacred and secular resources, it is almost an act of pure denial for anyone to dismiss this part of the story of Jesus as mere myth or made up anecdotes by His followers.
Early Church Father Eusebius, also chronicles what happened later on to Herod and gives additional details in this account:
“The disease then seized his whole body and he was overcome by various torments. For he had a low fever, and the itching of the skin over his whole body was unstoppable. He suffered also from continuous pains in his colon, and there were swellings in his feet like those of a person suffering from dropsy, while his abdomen was inflamed and his privy member so putrefied as to produce worms. Besides this he could only breathe by sitting in an upright position, and then with difficulty, and he had involuntary shaking of all his limbs, so that the astrologers said that his diseases were a punishment. But he, although wrestling with such sufferings, nevertheless clung to life and hoped for recovery, and devised methods of cure. For instance, crossing over the Jordan River he used the warm baths at Callirhoe, which flow into Lake Asphaltites, but are themselves safe enough to drink. His physicians here thought that they could warm his whole body again by means of heated oil. But when they let him down into a tub filled with oil, his eyes became weak and turned up like the eyes of a dead person. But when his attendants raised an outcry, he recovered at the noise, but finally, despairing of a cure, he commanded about 50 drachmas to be distributed among the soldiers, and great sums to be given to his generals and friends. Then he returned to Jericho, where, being seized with grief, he planned to commit an godless deed, as if challenging death itself. After collecting from every town the most talented men of all Judea, he commanded that they be shut up in the so-called hippodrome. And having summoned Salome, his sister and her husband, Alexander, he said: ‘I know that the Jews will rejoice at my death. However, others may have pity on me and give me a splendid funeral if you are willing to perform my commands. As soon as I expire, surround these men who are now under guard, as quickly as possible with soldiers, and kill them, in order that all Judea and every house may weep over me even against their will.’ And again he was so tortured by want of food and by a convulsive cough that, overcome by his pains, he planned to decide his fate. Taking an apple he asked also for a knife, for he was accustomed to cutting apples and eating them. Then looking around to see that there was no one to hinder, he raised his right hand as if to stab himself. In addition to these things, he murdered another of is own sons before his death, the third one killed by his command, and that shortly thereafter he breathed his last, but not without excessive pain.11
What a horrible end to a miserable life and wretched man. But the greatest loss was the grace of God to which he had access to but did not reach for. Now, after studying ancient accounts of Herod’s death, Dr. Jan Hirschmann, a physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, thinks the king probably died of chronic kidney disease, complicated by a particularly nasty case of gangrene. Other physicians also believe he may have been suffering from a case of tertiary syphilis.
1 John Lightfoot Commentary, op. cit., Matthew 2:14
2 Hosea 11:1
3 Isaiah 49:3
4 John Lightfoot, The Prophecies Respecting the Messiah, Ch. VII
5 Hosea 11:1
6 Cf. Leviticus 12:1-4
7 John Lightfoot Commentary, op. cit., Matthew, 2:16
8 Catamite is an archaic English term from the Latin “catamitus” for a young boy kept for homosexual practices
9 Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chap. 2:4
10 Macrobius Saturnalia, 2:4, 11, Translation by Margaret Williams, 1998, “The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diaspora Sourcebook”, 1st Edition, Duckworth: London, p. 57
11 Church Histories, Bk. I, Ch. 8