Monday, December 11, 2017

The Historicity Of The Two Years Of Matthew 2:16

Bernard Robinson makes a good point about Matthew 2:16:

"Are we to suppose that the journey took the magi two years; or that their departure was delayed? George M. Soares Prabhu…argues that the reference to the two years suggests 'a reminiscence of some actual event (it is hard to explain it otherwise)'" (in Jeremy Corley, ed., New Perspectives On The Nativity [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2009], n. 44 on 123)

The magi's journey should have taken much less than two years, and Matthew probably knew that. The reference to two years is unnecessary, incidental, unusual, and distracting. It's best explained by historicity.


  1. Jason,
    Why two years? I propose the magi could not immediately interpret the saw a sign. But Daniel had been their leader, and eventually were able to interpret it with Num 24:17, Gen 37:9, and 39:9-10, etc. A second proposal, they knew when the Bright Morning Star/daystar would rise again and they timed their arrival preceding the event. The magi saw 'his star', as it rose with the sun. The rising of His star with the sun in both instances marked a picture telling the gospel story, then proceeded through the day to point the direction and in the second instance linger in the west for 24 minutes after sunset low in the west over the ridge. Their movement up the ridge cancelled the downward motion of the star on the horizon making it appear to wait. They arrived on the evening of Passover. I two articles on the star of Bethlehem. Here is a link to the condensed version Grace and peace, Bruce

    1. Bruce,

      The magi probably came from Arabia, and the star was a supernatural entity, not the sort of astronomical object we usually have in mind when we refer to a star today. On those two points, see here, here, and a lot of other relevant posts in our archives. The magi probably were led more by God's supernatural intervention in their lives, such as the movements of the star and dreams, than by analyzing passages of scripture. Matthew portrays them as having been led in the former manner, and it would have been an easier way for them to have reached their conclusions. To whatever extent scripture influenced them, it probably was to a much lesser extent than the other type of influences I've referred to above, which is what's emphasized by Matthew. There isn't much in the Old Testament that could have given them guidance in their situation. And there's no reason to expect any research they did into the scriptures to have required the length of time in question.

      The time the magi took to arrive in Jerusalem could have been partly a result of studying scripture, but it also could have been something else (e.g., the logistics of preparing for the journey). The relevant point here, in the context of what I was discussing in the original post, is that there's an unexpected amount of time to account for. Hypothesizing that the magi's research into the scriptures took that much time is unverifiable and beside the point.

      Not only would the journey take far less time than Matthew 2:16 refers to, but that amount of time also disrupts Matthew's appeal to Jeremiah 31:15 and his alleged desire (according to many people, including many critics) to parallel the events of Matthew 2 to Pharaoh's execution of the children in Exodus. Neither Jeremiah nor Exodus has a two-year timeframe. There would be a closer parallel to both passages without it.

    2. Jason,
      You did not read my article which I linked or the much longer article linked in that document. Many believe that the star that led to Jesus’ house did things that no star could do, so it was necessary for an angel to guide them. But God designed a very special star, that rarely, but when needed could guide in ways that no other star could guide. I have known what the star of Bethlehem was long before I understood any of the many details of how it worked. If you had read even the short version (only four page I linked earlier) you would have learned there is one natural star with supernatural features that allow it to guide. Attributes you are unaware of that allow it to guide unlike any other star. Except for weather, we can check all those features today, no need to speculate on what it might have been. It is the star of which Jesus says, “I am … the bright morning star.” Rev 22:16. That star is Venus. Venus can rise before and with the sun in a heliacal rising then continue to rise into the day time sky as the daystar be watched all day and in the evening be alone in the west to point the way or sometimes to guide to a specific location. It guided to Jesus’ house on Passover, that is why Joseph was not there. I know nearly the exact location Jesus’ house was located. When it is visible, Venus is always the brightest star in the sky. Venus heliacally rises every 1.6 years and on only some of those risings when there is sufficient separation from the sun, it can be seen during the day. The 1.6 years is the longest period of any planet less that 2 years, is the reason that Herod killed the boys under two. I know the scriptures quite well and it took me a year to connect the sign marked by this star rising and the scriptures. Second, the magi knew when the star would rise again so they timed their visit to be just before that event occurred so they would be certain the king was born.
      The Bible Reveals the Star of Bethlehem
      I am attempting to do the second of three videos on this subject in the next few days, that will show how the star guided to Jesus’ house, how it waited and where Jesus’ house was located and the scriptural support for that location.

    3. Bruce,

      The article you linked me to in your initial post doesn't address most of the Biblical evidence I've cited, doesn't address what I've argued about where the magi came from, doesn't address some of the relevant patristic evidence, etc. I'll give several examples.

      As the articles I linked above and others in our archives explain, Matthew's language is more applicable to a supernatural entity than an astronomical entity like Venus. Matthew uses such language elsewhere to describe the movement of other objects, and those other objects are moving in ways that something like Venus wouldn't. You suggest that the constellation Leo would have been taken as representing the Jews, but you provide no documentation. You refer to "planets forming a scepter between the feet of the lion", but, again, provide no documentation that the planets would have been interpreted as a scepter by the relevant sources, much less that such an interpretation would have led the relevant figures to the conclusions in question. You cite Numbers 24:9-17, taking the reference to a lion in verse 9 and attaching it to the reference to a scepter in verse 17. You provide no justification for making that connection while leaving out other details contained in that portion of Numbers 24 and the nearby context. And since Numbers 24:17 is referring to a person, why are we supposed to think there would be a corresponding birth star with such characteristics? A person isn't the same as a birth star, nor does the former imply the latter. You single out Revelation 22:16, which refers to Jesus as the morning star in question rather than identifying a star that would accompany his birth, but you say nothing of other passages referring to Jesus as other types of lights. The morning star of Revelation 22 is just one image that's used among others, but you single it out without explaining why, and you transfer what the passage says about Jesus to the star of Bethlehem, as if we can assume that what's said of one applies to the other. You have the magi supposedly reaching highly detailed conclusions about astronomy on the basis of passages like Genesis 49 and Numbers 24, yet you also say that they went to Jerusalem to find the newborn king because "one finds kings in palaces". But if the magi were so knowledgeable about passages like Genesis 49 and Numbers 24, if "Daniel had been their leader", as you said earlier, why would they have been so ignorant of or negligent about Micah 5:2? Your 1 A.D. dating for when the magi were still trying to find Jesus is too late for Herod's probable death in 4 B.C. And so on.

      You're rearranging similar arguments that have been made by proponents of other astronomical views of the star of Bethlehem. Colin Nicholl uses some similar arguments to make a case that the star of Bethlehem was a comet, for example. I linked you to one of my responses to him, and you can find others in our archives. You're making some of the same mistakes he made.

      You may want to read a recent book on the star of Bethlehem that was put together by twenty scholars in relevant fields. I disagree with some portions of the book, but one thing it does well is illustrate many of the problems with astronomical views of the star. You can read a couple of posts I wrote about the book here and here.

  2. Jason, I have seen this question come up time after time. I do not see the reason why we should conclude that Herod knew the exact moment of Jesus' birth as being two years prior to the appearance of the Magi. Is it not equally accurate to interpret this action on his part as further evidence of Herod's depravity in his efforts to murder ANY child who may be the prophesied king? The Magi could have arrived just one week after the birth of Jesus, but Herod was not interested in a long-term investigation to ensure that he eliminated the one true king and the only true threat to Herod and his rule and succession. Humorously to me, the fact that three gifts are mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) does not mean for sure that exactly three magi or three wise men (or "We Three Kings") is a valid interpretation and understanding.

    1. Steve,

      I agree that Herod wouldn't have known the "exact moment" when Jesus was born. But he chose a two-year timeframe rather than ordering the execution of every child or some such thing, so we can't just appeal to "Herod's depravity in his efforts to murder ANY child". The issue here isn't how we can possibly read Matthew's account, but rather what the best reading is. Given the factors I've mentioned in this thread, I think the best explanation for the two-year timeframe is that the magi arrived later than would be expected, a fact that disrupts any parallel to Jeremiah and Exodus and would be unlikely to have been fabricated by Matthew.

  3. I interpret the "2 years" in the same way those who sell alcohol are told to "card everyone who looks 40 or younger". It can be hard to determine the exact age of a child, so why not "play it safe" (for Herod, that is) and eliminate too many rather than too few.

    1. Allen,

      To make sure the readers understand what's at stake here, I want to begin by noting that nothing you've said disputes my point about the passages in Jeremiah and Exodus. You're addressing part of my argument, not all of it.

      Even if we were to adopt the view that Herod was casting a far wider net than he needed to, the two-year timeframe would still be unexpected, even though it would be unexpected for a reason different than mine. If Herod was "playing it safe" by such a large margin, the largeness of the margin would be unexpected. If Jesus had just been born something like one or two months earlier, it would be extremely unlikely that he'd look like a two-year-old. We wouldn't expect somebody, or Herod in particular, to allow that much of a margin for error.

      The age range in Matthew 2:16 is better explained if the child was at least several months old. The estimates I've seen of the time taken for the magi's journey to Jerusalem run from about one to three months (e.g., see Colin Nicholl's comments and the sources he cites in The Great Christ Comet [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015], 46). Even if Jesus was just six months old at the time of Matthew 2:16 (I suspect he was older), that apparently would be at least twice as long as the magi should have needed to make the journey.

  4. A lot more can be said about the two years of Matthew 2:16 and related subjects, and I want to address some of those other issues.

    - What are we to make of the lower end of the two-year timeframe? Why execute newborns when it was known upfront that the child in question wasn't a newborn? This is an issue for everybody who thinks Jesus was older than a newborn, whether you think he was one month old or one-and-a-half years old.

    - The use of some sort of figure of speech could explain what's going on. Maybe Herod was using a figure of speech in giving the command to execute those who were two years old and under. Or maybe Matthew or his source was doing so. There was an unstated assumption that newborns wouldn't need to be executed. With that assumption in mind, referring to an execution of those two years old and under would sufficiently summarize what Herod wanted. In other words, the phrase "from two years old and under" carried with it an unstated assumption, so that it was taken as something like "[all of the relevant boys] from two years old and under". Making judgments about which boys qualified and which didn't would be left up to the discretion of the executioners.

    - And that raises another issue. Herod would have wanted to avoid making his orders overly complicated. He includes some parameters - the region of Bethlehem, boys and not girls, and an age limit of two years - but the lower end of the age spectrum may have been a complication he didn't want to say much about. He may have left the lower end of the spectrum somewhat ambiguous and therefore left it in the discretion of the executioners, or he may have decided to include even newborns in order to make his order simpler.

    - Another possibility is that Jesus was somewhere around the middle of the age range, perhaps around six months old to one-and-a-half years old, so that having the range go from newborns to two-year-olds provided the margin for error Herod wanted at both ends. Perhaps adding several months to each end of the spectrum, which was the margin for error Herod wanted, led to the two-year range.

    - Notice how cautious Herod is about the location of the child. He includes boys "in Bethlehem and all its vicinity", not just Bethlehem itself. People often identify a location just outside a city as part of the city. And an individual within a city might relocate nearby for one reason or another. It looks like Herod was aware of such possibilities and took precautions accordingly.

    - Though Herod casts a wide net in that sense, as well as with his broad range of ages for the boy who's to be executed, notice that there are substantial limits to what he's willing to do. He only includes areas close by Bethlehem. He doesn't include every city within a broad area. Rather, he just goes outside the city to a small extent. He probably had the same sort of mindset about the age of the child. He most likely wanted a margin for error, but not one so big that he'd execute two-year-olds if he thought the child was only a week or a month old.

    - Not only does the two-year upper limit on the age range suggest that Jesus was at least several month old, but Luke's material on Jesus' childhood also suggests that Jesus was well past his earliest weeks of life when Matthew 2:16 occurred. The fact that Luke doesn't narrate the events surrounding Matthew 2:16 or even allude to them is best explained if the events occurred after Luke 2:38 and occurred a longer rather than shorter amount of time afterward.