Matthew chapter 2
After they had departed, – See this– a bright messenger of the Lord appeared to Iosef in a dream, saying, Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother by night and went away to Egypt. He was there until Herod died; so that what God had spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Now when Herod saw that the astrologers had mocked him, he was hugely enraged and sent men to kill all the children of the age of two and under, in Bethlehem and throughout its countryside, according to the precise time he had learned from the astrologers. Then what was spoken by Ieremiah the prophet was fulfilled,
A voice was heard in Rama
Weeping and bitter howling
Rachel weeping for her children
And refusing to be comforted
Because they are gone.
Once Herod had died, –See this- a bright messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Iosef in Egypt, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those threatened the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelous was ruling Judaea in place of Herod his father, he was afraid to go there. After being instructed in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. He came and settled in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been said through the prophets was fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
This story is filled with magical elements, both angelic warnings and fulfilments of prophecy. Is it simply constructed out of prophetic materials from the Jewish Bible, as some scholars have suggested? I think it perfectly possible that a story given to Matthew by a source has been edited, perhaps significantly altered by Matthew, to fit prophecy, but the fundamentals of it, namely Herod’s brutality and the holy family’s escape, seem coherent enough to have pre-existed Matthew. That does not mean that they have a historical basis. Obviously Luke did not know them or if he did, he rejected them. The historian Josephus who wrote extensively and not always favourably about Herod, does not have them either. It suits Matthew’s view that Jewish authorities were opposed to Jesus as Messiah, and that his suffering at their hands was within God’s plan, as was his resurrection victory over them. For the same reason, Gentile lands, the ultimate direction of God’s message in his Messiah, are seen by him as safe for Jesus. The historicity of Matthew’s account is not always to be found in the factuality of its details.
It is of course a good story, with a credible villain, and an unexpected hero, Iosef, the father who is not the real father, but is the real protector of his child, ready to act and to accept risks on behalf of him. Iosef, who is a largely passive figure in Luke’s narrative, has a crucial role in Matthew. He, an ordinary Jewish man, acknowledges and protects the Messiah while the ruling classes, of both court and temple try to get rid of him. God, the source of both prophecy and bright messengers, guides those who are prepared to listen.
1 “and went away to Egypt.” This allies the holy family with countless families since who have fled oppression or starvation, seeking safety. If the Egyptians had treated refugees as badly as the UK does currently, Jesus might have fetched up in Ruanda. Of course Jacob and his family went Down into Egypt to escape famine (Genesis) and Israelites believed that God had called them out of Egypt to occupy Canaan. Hosea 11.1 has God saying, “when Israel was a child I loved him and called him out of Egypt to be my son.” Matthew is not denying the Exodus but rather, via Hosea, seeing it as a model for the life of God’s son.
2. “Sent men to kill” Herod’s precise calculation of which children to kill seems a bit precious as instructions to a bunch of killers.,Did they ask mothers the age of their children? The calculation however gives us the assumed age of Jesus when the astrologers came: not two weeks after Christmas but two years.
3. “Rachel weeping for her children” Jeremiah’s terrible poem reminds us that God, according to Matthew, chose to rescue his son and leave his other children to a violent death.
4. “A village called Nazareth” Mark, the first gospel, assumes that Nazareth is Jesus’ home village. Luke follows this, after a detour to Bethlehem. Matthew assumes that Bethlehem is the home town, since it is the birthplace mentioned in prophecy. The prophecy that he “will be called a Nazarene” cannot be found. There is, in fact, only biblical evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus.
What historical.facts does Matthew give the reader?
Jesus was born as the child of Jewish parents Iosef and Mary who lived in Bethlehem.
His parents believed their child to be the promised Messiah of Israel about whom the prophets had spoken.
He was persecuted by Jewish authorities from birth, but reverenced by gentiles.
He came to live in Nazareth in Galilee
He was in the fullest possible sense the son of God, the agent of God’s goodness to Israel and all nations.
We may not accept all of the above as facts, but that can be the case with any history; they can be debated. The magical story in which these facts are embedded is different but not irrelevant. Mark and John, who give no stories of Jesus’ birth, have to provide this information in other ways.