Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.Ch. Luke 2:1-7. The Birth of Jesus Christ
1. there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed] Rather, that there should be an enrolment of the habitable world. The verb apographesthai is here probably passive, though we have the aorist middle apograpsasthai ‘to enroll himself’ in Luke 2:5. The registration (apographç) did not necessarily involve a taxing (apotimçsis), though it was frequently the first step in that direction. Two objections have been made to the historic credibility of the decree, and both have been fully met.
1. It is said ‘that there is no trace of such a decree in secular history.’ The answer is that (α) the argumentum e silentio is here specially invalid because there happens to be a singular deficiency of minute records respecting this epoch in the ‘profane’ historians. The history of Nicolaus of Damascus, the flatterer of Herod, is not extant. Tacitus barely touches on this period (Ann. i. 1, “pauca de Augusto”). There is a hiatus in Dion Cassius from a.u.c. 748–752. Josephus does not enter upon the history of these years. (β) There are distinct traces that such a census took place. Augustus with his own hand drew up a Rationarium of the Empire (a sort of Roman Doomsday Book, afterwards epitomised into a Breviarium), which included the allied kingdoms (Tac. Ann. i. 11; Suet. Aug. 28), and appointed twenty Commissioners to draw up the necessary lists (Suidas s. v. ἀπογραφή).
2. It is said ‘that in any case Herod, being a rex socius (for Judaea was not annexed to the Province of Syria till the death of Archelaus, a. d. 6), would have been exempt from such a registration.’ The answer is that (α) the Clitae were obliged to furnish such a census though they were under an independent prince, Archelaus (Tac. Ann. vi. 41; cf. I. ii, regna). (β) That Herod, a mere creature of the Emperor, would have been the last person to resist his wishes (Jos. Antt. xiv. 14. 4; xv. 6. 7; xvi. 9. 3). (γ) That this Census, enforced by Herod, was so distasteful to the Jews that it probably caused the unexplained tumults which occurred at this very period (Jos. Antt. xvii. 2. 4; B. J. i. 33, § 2). This is rendered more probable by the Targum of Jonathan on Habakkuk 3:17, which has, “the Romans shall be rooted out; they shall collect no more tribute (Kesooma=census) from Jerusalem” (Gfrörer, Jahrh. d. Heils, i. 42). That the Emperor could issue such a decree for Palestine shews that the fulfilment of the old Messianic promises was near at hand. The sceptre had departed from Judah; the Lawgiver from between his feet.
As regards both objections, we may say (i) that St Luke, a writer of proved carefulness and accuracy, writing for Gentiles who could at once have detected and exposed an error of this kind, is very unlikely (taking the lowest grounds) to have been guilty of such carelessness. (ii) That Justin Martyr, a native of Palestine, writing in the middle of the second century, three times appeals to the census-lists (ἀπογραφαὶ) made by Quirinus when he was first Procurator, bidding the Romans search their own archives as to the fact (Apol. i. 34, 46; Dial. c. Tryph. 78), as also does Tertullian (Adv. Marc. iv. 7. 19). (iii) If St Luke had made a mistake it would certainly have been challenged by such able critics as Celsus and Porphyry;—but they never impugn his statement. On every ground therefore we have reason to trust the statement of St Luke, and in this as in many other instances (see my Life of St Paul, i. 113) what have been treated as his ‘manifest errors’ have turned out to be interesting historic facts which he alone preserves for us.
all the world] Rather, the habitable world, i. e. the Roman Empire, the orbis terrarum (Acts 11:28, &c.; Polyb. vi. 50).
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)2. this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria] Rather, this first enrolment took place (literally ‘took place as the first’) when Quirinus was governor of Syria. We are here met by an apparent error on which whole volumes have been written. Quirinus (or Quirinius, for the form of his name is not absolutely certain) was governor (Praeses, Legatus) of Syria in a. d. 6, ten years after this time, and he then carried out a census which led to the revolt of Judas of Galilee, as St Luke himself was aware (Acts 5:37). Hence it is asserted that St Luke made an error of ten years in the governorship of Quirinus, and the date of the census, which vitiates his historic authority. Two ways of obviating this difficulty may finally be rejected.
(α) One is to render the words ‘took place before (protç) Quirinus was governor.’ The translation is entirely untenable, and is not supported by protos mou ‘before me’ in John 1:30. And if this were the meaning the remark would be most unnecessary.
(β) Others would render the verb egeneto by ‘took effect:’—this enrolment was begun at this period (b. c. 4 of our vulgar era) by P. Sentius Saturninus, but not completed till the Procuratorship of Quirinus a. d. 6. But this is to give a strained meaning to the verb, as well as to take the ordinal (protç) as though it were an adverb (proton).
(γ) A third, and more tenable, view is to extend the meaning of hegemoneuontos ‘was governor’ to imply that Quirinus, though not actually Governor of Syria, yet might be called hegemon, either (i) as one of the twenty taxers or commissioners of Augustus, or (ii) as holding some procuratorial office (as Epitropos or joint Epitropos with Herod; comp. Jos. Antt. xv. 10. 3; B. J. i. 20. 4). It is, however, a strong objection to solution (i) that the commissioners were ἄριστοι, optimates or nobles, whereas Quirinus was a novus homo: and to (ii) that St Luke is remarkably accurate in his use of titles.
(δ) A fourth view, and one which I still hold to be the right solution, is that first developed by A. W. Zumpt (Das Geburtsjahr Christi, 1870), and never seriously refuted though often sneered at. It is that Quirinus was twice Governor of Syria, once in b. c. 4 when he began the census (which may have been ordered, as Tertullian says, by Varus, or by P. Sentius Saturninus); and once in a. d. 6 when he carried it to completion. It is certain that in a.u.c. 753 Quirinus conquered the Homonadenses in Cilicia, and was rector to Gaius Caesar. Now it is highly probable that these Homonadenses were at that time under the jurisdiction of the propraetor of the Imperial Province of Syria, an office which must in that case have been held by Quirinus between b. c. 4–b. c. 1. The indolence of Varus and his friendship with Archelaus may have furnished strong reasons for superseding him, and putting the diligent and trustworthy Quirinus in his place. Whichever of these latter views be accepted, one thing is certain, that no error is demonstrable, and that on independent historical grounds, as well as by his own proved accuracy in other instances, we have the strongest reason to admit the probability of St Luke’s reference.
Cyrenius] This is the Greek form of the name Quirinus, Orelli ad Tac. Ann. ii. 30. All that we know of him is that he was of obscure and provincial origin, and rose to the consulship by activity and military skill, afterwards earning a triumph for his successes in Cilicia. He was harsh, and avaricious, but a loyal soldier; and he was honoured with a public funeral in a. d. 21 (Tac. Ann. ii. 30, iii. 22, 48; Suet. Tib. 49, &c.).
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.3. every one into his own city] This method of enrolment was a concession to Jewish prejudices. The Roman method was to enrol each person at his own place of residence. Incidentally this unexplained notice proves that St Luke is dealing with an historical enrolment.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)4. the city of David] 1 Samuel 17:12, “David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem-Judah whose name was Jesse.”
Bethlehem] Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of Micah 5:2, “Thou, Bethlehem-Ephratah … out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.” Cf. Luke 4:8, “And thou, O tower of the flock” (Migdol Eder, Genesis 35:21), “unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion.”
Bethlehem (‘House of Bread,’ to which the mystical method of Scriptural interpretation refers such passages as Isaiah 33:16, LXX.; John 6:51; John 6:58) is the very ancient Ephrath (‘fruitful’) of Genesis 35:16; Genesis 48:7; Psalm 132:6. It is a small town six miles from Jerusalem. It was the scene of the death of Rachel (Genesis 35:19); of the story of Ruth, and of the early years of the life of David (1 Samuel 16:1; 2 Samuel 23:15). The name is now corrupted into Beitlahm, ‘house of flesh.’
of the house and lineage (rather, family) of David] The humble condition of Joseph as a provincial carpenter in no way militates against this. Hillel, the great contemporary Rabbi, who also claimed to be a descendant of David, began life as a half-starved porter; and numbers of beggars in the East wear the green turban which shews them to be undisputed descendants of Mohammed.
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.5. to be taxed] Rather, to enrol himself.
with Mary] It is uncertain whether her presence was obligatory (Dion. Hal. iv. 5; Lact. De Mort. Persec. 23) or voluntary; but it is obvious that at so trying a time, and after what she had suffered (Matthew 1:19), she would cling to the presence and protection of her husband. Nor is it wholly impossible that she saw in the providential circumstances a fulfilment of prophecy.
his espoused wife] Or, who was betrothed to him; ‘wife’ is omitted in B, D, L.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.6. the days were accomplished] There is a reasonable certainty that our Lord was born b. c. 4 of our era, and it is probable that He was born (according to the unanimous tradition of the Christian Church) in winter. There is nothing to guide us as to the actual day of His birth. It was unknown to the ancient Christians (Clem. Alex. Strom. i. 21), Some thought that it took place on May 20 or April 20. There is no trace of the date Dec. 25 earlier than the fourth century, but it is accepted by Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, &c.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.7. firstborn] The word has no bearing on the controversy as to the ‘brethren of Jesus,’ as it does not necessarily imply that the Virgin had other children. See Hebrews 1:6, where first-born=only-begotten.
wrapped him in swaddling clothes] Ezekiel 16:4. In her poverty she had none to help her, but (in the common fashion of the East) wound the babe round and round with swathes with her own hands.
in a manger] If the Received Text were correct it would be ‘in the manger,’ but the article is omitted by A, B, D, L. Phatnç is sometimes rendered ‘stall’ (as in Luke 13:15; 2 Chronicles 32:28, LXX.); but ‘manger’ is probably right here. It is derived from pateomai, ‘I eat’ (Curtius, Griech. Et. ii. 84), and is used by the LXX. for the Hebrew. אֵבוּם ‘crib,’ in Proverbs 14:4. Mangers are very ancient, and are to this day sometimes used as cradles in the East (Thomson, Land and Book, ii. 533). The ox and the ass which are traditionally represented in pictures are only mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Matthew , 14, and were suggested by Isaiah 1:3, and Habakkuk 3:2, which in the LXX. and the ancient Latin Version (Vetus Itala) was mistranslated “Between two animals thou shalt be made known.”
there was no room for them in the inn] Kataluma may also mean guest-chamber as in Luke 22:11, but inn seems to be here the right rendering. There is another word for inn, pandocheion (Luke 10:34), which implies an inn with a host. Bethlehem was a poor place, and its inn was probably a mere khan or caravanserai, which is an enclosed space surrounded by open recesses of which the paved floor (leewan) is raised a little above the ground. There is often no host, and the use of any vacant leewan is free, but the traveller pays a trifle for food, water, &c. If the khan be crowded the traveller must be content with a corner of the courtyard or enclosed place among the cattle, or else in the stable. The stable is often a limestone cave or grotto, and there is a very ancient tradition that this was the case in the khan of Bethlehem. (Just. Martyr, Dial. c. Tryph. c. 78, and the Apocryphal Gospels, Protev. xix., Evang. Infant. iii. &c.) If, as is most probable, the traditional site of the Nativity is the real one, it took place in one of the caves where St Jerome spent so many years (Ep. 24, ad Marcell.) as a hermit, and translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate). The khan perhaps dated back as far as the days of David under the name of the House or Hotel (Gêrooth) of Chimham (2 Samuel 19:37-38; Jeremiah 41:17).
The tender grace and perfect simplicity of the narrative is one of the marks of its truthfulness, and is again in striking contrast with the endlessly multiplied miracles of the Apocryphal Gospels. “The unfathomable depths of the divine counsels were moved; the fountains of the great deep were broken up; the healing of the nations was issuing forth; but nothing was seen on the surface of human society but this slight rippling of the water.” Isaac Williams, The Nativity.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.8–20. The Angels to the Shepherds
8. in the same country] Tradition says that they were natives of the little village Beth-zur (Joshua 15:58; Nehemiah 3:16). They were feeding their flocks in the same fields from which David had been summoned to feed Jacob, God’s people, and Israel His inheritance.
shepherds] Why these were the first to whom was revealed the birth of Him who was called the Lamb of God, we are not told. The sheep used for the daily sacrifice were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem.
abiding in the field] This does not prove, as some have supposed, that the Nativity took place in spring, for in some pastures of Palestine the shepherds to this day bivouac with their flocks in winter.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.9. And lo] The phrase often introduces some strange or memorable event.
the angel] Rather, an Angel.
came upon them] Epestê—a common word in St Luke, who uses it eighteen times, Luke 24:4; Acts 12:7, &c. It may mean stood by them.
the glory of the Lord] The Shechinah, or cloud of brightness which symbolised the Divine Presence, as in Exodus 24:16; 1 Kings 8:10; Isaiah 6:1-3; Acts 7:55. See on Luke 1:35. The presence of the Shechinah was reckoned as one of the most precious blessings of Israel, Romans 9:4.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.10. good tidings] the rendering of the verb euangelizomai (see on Luke 1:19).
of great joy] See Isaiah 52:7; Isaiah 61:1; Romans 5:11; 1 Peter 1:8. The contrast of the condition of despair and sorrow into which the heathen world had sunk and the joy of Christians even in the deepest adversity—as when we find “joy” to be the key-note of the letter written to Philippi by the suffering prisoner St Paul—is a striking comment on this promise. Even the pictures and epitaphs of the gloomy catacombs are rail of joy and brightness.
to all people] Rather, to all the people, i. e. of Israel.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.11. a Saviour] It is a curious fact that ‘Saviour’ and ‘Salvation,’ so common in St Luke and St Paul (in whose writings they occur forty-four times), are comparatively rare in the rest of the New Testament. ‘Saviour’ only occurs in John 4:42; 1 John 4:14; and six times in 2 Pet. and Jude; ‘salvation’ only in John 4:22, and thirteen times in the rest of the N. T.
Christ the Lord] “God hath made that same Jesus whom ye crucified both Lord and Christ,” Acts 2:36; Php 2:11. ‘Christ’ or ‘Anointed’ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. In the Gospels it is almost invariably an appellative, ‘the Christ.’ But as time advanced it was more and more used without the article as a proper name. Our Lord was ‘anointed’ with the Holy Spirit as Prophet, Priest and King.
the Lord] In the lower sense the word is used as a mere title of distinction; in the higher sense it is (as in the LXX.) the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Jehovah’—the ineffable name. “We preach Christ Jesus the Lord,” 2 Corinthians 4:5 (see Php 2:11; Romans 14:9; 1 Corinthians 8:6; “No one can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost,” 1 Corinthians 12:3).
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.12. a sign] Rather, the sign.
the babe] Rather, a babe.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,13. a multitude of the heavenly host] The Sabaoth; Romans 9:29; James 5:4. “Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him,” Daniel 7:10; Revelation 5:11-12. The word is also used of the stars as objects of heathen worship, Acts 7:42.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.14. in the highest] i. e., in highest heaven, Job 16:19; Psalm 148:1; comp. “the heavenlies” in Ephesians 1:3, &c.; Sir 43:9.
on earth peace]
“No war or battle’s sound
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung:
The hookèd chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood,
The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And kings sat still with awful eye
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.”
Milton, Ode on the Nativity.
This however is only an ideal aspect of affairs, and the closing at this time of the Temple of Janus had little or no meaning. It was not in this sense that the birth of Christ brought Peace. If we understood the expression thus we might well say with Coleridge:
“Strange Prophecy! if all the screams
Of all the men that since have died
To realize war’s kingly dreams
Had risen at once in one vast tide,
The choral song of that vast multitude
Had been o’erpowered and lost amid the uproar rude.”
The Angels sang indeed of such an ultimate Peace; but also of “the peace which passeth understanding;” of that peace whereof Christ said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you.” See Proverbs 3:17, on which the Book of Zohar remarks that it means peace in heaven and on earth, and in this world and the next. As regards earthly peace He himself said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword,” Matthew 10:34; Luke 12:51. See this contrast magnificently shadowed forth in Isaiah 9:5-6.
Good will towards men] The reading eudokia, ‘goodwill,’ is found in B, but א, A, D read eudokias, and if this be the right reading the meaning is “on earth peace among men of good will” (hominibus bonae voluntatis, Vulg.), i. e. those with whom God is well pleased. “The Lord taketh pleasure in them that hope in His mercy,” Psalm 147:11; comp. Luke 12:32, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The construction “men of good will” would be rare in this sense, but the triple parallelism of the verse,
in the highest
to men whom God loves
seems to favour it. In either case the verse implies that “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 5:1. In any case the “towards” is wrong, and must be altered into “among” (ἐν).
“Glory to God on high, on earth be peace,
And love towards men of love—salvation and release.”—Keble.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.15. Let us now go] Rather, Come now! let us go.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.16. found] The word is not merely εὗρον but ἀνεῦρον, discovered after search. The lamp hung from the centre of a rope would guide them to the khan, but among a crowd it would not be easy to find the new-born babe of the humble travellers.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.17. made known abroad] Thus they were the first Christian preachers.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.19. all these things] or ‘words.’
pondered] Literally, “casting together,” i. e. comparing and considering; like our ‘casting in mind.’ Comp. Genesis 37:11, “his father observed the saying.” She did not at once understand the full significance of all these events.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.21. The Circumcision
21. for the circumcising of the child] Genesis 17:12. Doubtless the rite was performed by Joseph. “Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision” (i. e. went to the Jew first) “for the truth of God to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Romans 15:8. Thus it became him ‘to be made like unto His brethren, and to fulfil all righteousness,’ Matthew 3:15. Christ suffered pain thus early for our sake to teach us that, though He ordained for us the painless rite of baptism, we must practise the spiritual circumcision—the circumcision of the heart. He came “not to destroy the Law but to fulfil,” Matthew 5:17—
“He, who with all heaven’s heraldry whilere
Entered the world, now bleeds to give us ease.
Alas, how soon our sin
Sore doth begin
His infancy to seize!”
Milton, The Circumcision.
his name was called JESUS] See on Luke 1:31. The name of the child was bestowed at circumcision, as with us at baptism. Among Greeks and Romans also the genethlia and nominalia were on the eighth or ninth day. Observe the brief notice of Christ’s circumcision compared with the fuller and more elaborate account of John’s. “In the person of John the rite of circumcision solemnised its last glories.”
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;22–24. The Presentation in the Temple
22. her purification] Rather, their purification. The reading αὐτῆς, ‘her’, of the Received Text is almost unsupported. All the Uncials read αὐτῶν, ‘their,’ except D, which probably by an oversight reads αὐτοῦ, ‘His.’ Strictly speaking, the child was never purified, but only the mother. The purification took place on the fortieth day after the Nativity, and till then a mother was not permitted to leave her house. The feast of the Presentation was known in the Eastern Church as the Hypapantê.
according to the law of Moses] See this Law in Leviticus 12:2-4. Jesus was “made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem those that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons,” Galatians 4:4-5.
(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)23. as it is written in the law of the Lord] The tribe of Levi were sanctified to the Lord in lieu of the firstborn, and originally all the firstborn in excess of the number of the Levites had to be redeemed with five shekels of the sanctuary (about 15 shillings), a rule afterwards extended to all the firstborn. Exodus 13:2; Exodus 22:29; Exodus 34:19; Numbers 3:13; Numbers 18:15-16.
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.24. A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons] The offering appointed was a yearling lamb for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin-offering, which were to be brought to the door of the tabernacle and with which “the priest made an atonement for her and she shall be clean.” But the Law of Moses, with that thoughtful tenderness which characterises many of its provisions, allowed a poor mother to bring two turtledoves instead; and since turtledoves (being migratory) are not always procurable, and old pigeons are not easily caught, offered the alternative of “two young pigeons.” Leviticus 12:6-8. (Tristram.)
And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.25–35. Simeon and the Nunc Dimittis
25. a man … whose name was Simeon] This cannot be Rabban Shimeon the son of Hillel (whom the Talmud is on this account supposed to pass over almost unnoticed), because he would hardly have been spoken of so slightly as “anthropos,” ‘a person.’ The Apocryphal Gospels call him “the great teacher” (James xxvi., Nicod. xvi.).
waiting for the consolation of Israel] See Genesis 49:18. “They shall not be ashamed that wait for me,” Isaiah 49:23. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” Isaiah 40:1. Joseph of Arimathea is also described as one who “waited for the Kingdom of God,” Mark 15:43. “May I see the consolation of Israel!” was a common Jewish formula, and a prayer for the Advent of the Messiah was daily used.
And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.26. it was revealed unto him] Christian legend says that he had stumbled at Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” and had received a divine intimation that he should not die till he had seen it fulfilled (Nicephorus, a. d. 1450). The notion of his extreme age is not derived from Scripture but from the ‘Gospel of the Nativity of Mary,’ which says that he was 113.
the Lord’s Christ] The Anointed of Jehovah.
And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,27. by the Spirit] Rather, in the Spirit.
brought in the child] The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy (vi.) says that he saw Him shining like a pillar of light in His mother’s arms, which is probably derived from Luke 2:32.
Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,28. in his arms] Hence he is sometimes called Theodokos, ‘the receiver of God,’ as Ignatius is sometimes called Theophoros, ‘borne of God,’ from the fancy that he was one of the children whom Christ took in His arms (see on Luke 9:47).
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:29. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace] Rather, Now art Thou setting free Thy slave, O Master, according to Thy word, in peace. This rapturous Psalm—the Nunc Dimittis—has formed a part of Christian evening worship certainly since the fifth century. Despotes is not often used of God (Acts 4:24; Revelation 6:10).
In peace] On leaving a dying person the Jews said, ‘Go in peace’ (Be shalôm), Genesis 15:15. Otherwise they said, ‘Go to peace’ (Le shalôm) as Jethro did to Moses. See on Luke 7:50.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,30. thy salvation] Not τὴν σωτηρίαν but τὸ σωτήριον which seems to have a wider meaning.
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.32. to lighten the Gentiles] Rather, for revelation to. A memorable prophecy, considering that even the Apostles found it hard to grasp the full admission of the Gentiles, clearly as it had been indicated in older prophecy, as in Psalm 98:2-3. “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God,” Isaiah 52:10. “I will give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles,” Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6.
And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.33. Joseph] The undoubted reading is “His father,” א, B, D, L, &c.
of him] Rather, about Him.
And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;34. is set] Literally, “lies.” The metaphor is taken from a stone which may either become ‘a stone of stumbling’ and ‘a rock of offence’ (Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Corinthians 1:23), or ‘a precious cornerstone’ (1 Peter 2:7-8; Acts 4:11; 1 Corinthians 3:11).
for the fall and rising again of many in Israel] Rather, for the falling and rising. For the fall of many Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, Nazarenes, Gadarenes; and for the rising—a savour of life unto life—of all that believed on Him. In some cases—as that of Peter and the dying robber—they who fell afterwards rose.
which shall be spoken against] Rather, which is spoken against. “As concerning this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against,” Acts 28:22. Jesus was called “this deceiver,” “a Samaritan,” “a demoniac,” and in the Talmud he is only alluded to as ‘So and So’ (Peloni), ‘that man’ (Otho haîsh), ‘Absalom,’ ‘the hung’ (Thalooi), ‘the son of Pandera,’ &c. To this day Nuzrâni, ‘Christian,’ is—after ‘Jew’—the most stinging term of reproach throughout Palestine. Among Pagans the Christians were charged with cannibalism, incest, and every conceivable atrocity, and Suetonius, Pliny, Tacitus have no gentler words for Christianity than ‘an execrable, extravagant, or malefic superstition.’ To holy men like Zacharias and Simeon God had revealed that the Glory of the Messiah was to be perfected by suffering (Hebrews 2:10). They, at least, did not expect an earthly conqueror—
“Armed in flame, all glorious from afar,
Of hosts the captain, and the Lord of War.”
(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.35. a sword] The word rhomphaia, probably a broad Thracian sword, only occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in Revelation 1:16, &c., but it is used in the LXX., as in Zechariah 13:7, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd.” Almost from the very birth of Christ the sword began to pierce the soul of the ‘Mater Dolorosa;’ and what tongue can describe the weight of mysterious anguish which she felt as she watched the hatred and persecution which followed Jesus and saw Him die in anguish on the cross amid the execrations of all classes of those whom He came to save!
that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed] Rather, that the reasonings out of many hearts may be revealed. The word dialogismoi generally has a bad sense as in Luke 5:22; Matthew 15:19; Romans 1:21. By way of comment see the reasonings of the Jews in John 9:16; 1 Corinthians 11:19; 1 John 2:19.
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;36–40. Anna the Prophetess. The Return to Nazareth
36. Anna] The same name as Hannah (1 Samuel 1:20), from the root Chânan, ‘he was gracious.’
a prophetess] like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22).
Phanuel] ‘The Face of God;’ the same word as Peniel, Genesis 32:30.
Aser] Though the Ten Tribes were lost, individual Jews who belonged to them had preserved their genealogies. Thus Tobit was of the tribe of Naphthali (Tob 1:1). Comp. “our twelve tribes,” Acts 26:7; James 1:1.
from her virginity] I.e. she had been married only seven years, and was now 84 years old. א, A, B, L read ἔως (for ὡς) which is best taken with “of great age,” the intervening words being parenthetic, a widow even unto fourscore years.
And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.37. departed not] She was present (that is) at all the stated hours of prayer; unless we suppose that her position as a Prophetess had secured her the right of living in one of the Temple chambers, and perhaps of doing some work for it like trimming the lamps (as is the Rabbinic notion about Deborah, derived from the word Lapidoth ‘splendours’).
fastings] The Law of Moses had only appointed one yearly fast, on the Great Day of Atonement. But the Pharisees had adopted the practice of ‘fasting twice in the week,’ viz. on Monday and Thursday, when Moses is supposed to have ascended, and descended from, Sinai (see on Luke 18:12), and had otherwise multiplied and extended the simple original injunction (v. 33).
prayers] Rather, supplications (a more special word).
night and day] ‘Night’ is put first by the ordinary Hebrew idiom (as in the Greek word νυχθήμερον) which arose from their notion that ‘God made the world in six days and seven nights.’ Comp. Acts 26:7, “unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God night and day (Greek), hope to come.” 1 Timothy 5:5, “she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.”
And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.38. that looked for redemption] See Luke 24:21; Mark 15:43; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 9:28. See Excursus VII.
in Jerusalem] The readings vary. Perhaps it should be for the redemption of Jerusalem.
And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.39. Between this verse and the last come the events narrated by St Matthew only—namely the Visit of the Magi; the Flight into Egypt; and the massacre of the Innocents. It is difficult to believe that either of the Evangelists had seen the narrative of the other, because the primâ facie inference from either singly would be imperfectly correct. They supplement each other, because they each narrate the truth, though probably neither of them was aware of all that has been delivered to us.
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.40. filled] Rather, being filled. The growth of our Lord is here described as a natural human growth. The nature of the ‘Hypostatic Union’ of His Divine and Human nature—what is called the Perichoresis or Communicatio idiomatum—is one of the subtlest and least practical of mysteries. The attempt to define and enter into it was only forced upon the Church by the speculations of Oriental heretics who vainly tried “to soar into the secrets of the Deity on the waxen wings of the senses.” This verse (and still more Luke 2:52) is a stronghold against the Apollinarian heresy which held that in Jesus the Divine Logos took the place of the human soul. Against the four conflicting heresies of Anus, Apollinarius, Nestorius and Eutyches, which respectively denied the true Godhead, the perfect manhood, the indivisible union, and the entire distinctness of the Godhead and manhood in Christ, the Church, in the four great Councils of Nice (a. d. 325), Constantinople (a. d. 381), Ephesus (a. d. 431), and Chalcedon (a. d. 451), established the four words which declare her view of the nature of Christ—alethôs, teleôs, adiairetôs, asunchutôs—‘truly’ God; ‘perfectly’ Man; ‘indivisibly’ God-Man, ‘distinctly’ God and Man. See Hooker, Eccl. Pol. v. Leviticus 10.
the grace of God was upon him] Isaiah 11:2-3. “Full of grace and truth,” John 1:14. “Take notice here that His doing nothing wonderful was itself a kind of wonder … As there was power in His actions, so is there power in His silence, in His inactivity, in His retirement.” Bonaventura. The worthless legends and inventions of many of the Apocryphal Gospels deal almost exclusively with the details of the Virginity of Mary, and the Infancy of Christ, which are passed over in the Gospels in these few words.
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.41–52. The Passover Visit to the Temple
41. his parents] The great Rabbi Hillel had recommended women to attend the Passover. It was not enjoined by the Law, but the Jews admired it as a pious practice. (Mechilta, f. 17. 2 in Schöttgen.)
at the feast of the passover] Exodus 23:15-17; Deuteronomy 16:1-16. The custom of going up three times a year seems long to have fallen into abeyance with most Jews. 1 Samuel 1:21, “the yearly sacrifice.”
And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.42. when he was twelve years old] No single word breaks the silence of the Gospels respecting the childhood of Jesus from the return to Nazareth till this time. We infer indeed from scattered hints in Scripture that He “began to do” His work before He “began to teach,” and being “tempted in all points like as we are” won the victory from His earliest years, alike over positive and negative temptations. (Hebrews 5:8. See Ullmann, Sinlessness of Jesus, E. Tr. p. 140.) Up to this time He had grown as other children grow, only in a childhood of stainless and sinless beauty—“as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, and as lilies by the waters,” Sir 39:13-14. This incident of His ‘confirmation,’ as in modern language we might call it, is “the solitary flowret out of the wonderful enclosed garden of the thirty years, plucked precisely there where the swollen bud at a distinctive crisis bursts into flower.” Stier, Words of Jesus, i. 18.
This silence of the Evangelists is a proof of their simple faithfulness, and is in striking contrast with the blaze of foolish and dishonouring miracles with which the Apocryphal Gospels degrade the Divine Boyhood. See my Life of Christ, 1. 58–66. Meanwhile we are permitted to see (i) That our Lord never attended the schools of the Rabbis (Mark 6:2; John 6:42; John 7:15), and therefore that His teaching was absolutely original, and that He would therefore be regarded by the Rabbis as a ‘man of the people,’ or ‘unlearned person.’ (See Acts 4:13; T. B. Berachôth, f. 47. 2; Sir 38:24 fg.) (ii) That He had learnt to write (John 8:6). (iii) That He was acquainted not only with Aramaic, but with Hebrew, Greek, and perhaps Latin (Life of Christ, i. 91); and (iv) That he had been deeply impressed by the lessons of nature (id. i. 93).
twelve years old] Up to this age a Jewish boy was called ‘little,’ afterwards he was called ‘grown up,’ and became a ‘Son of the Law,’ or ‘Son of the Precepts.’ At this age he was presented on the Sabbath called the ‘Sabbath of Phylacteries’ in the Synagogue, and began to wear the phylacteries with which his father presented him. According to the Jews twelve was the age at which Moses left the house of Pharaoh’s daughter, and Samuel was called, and Solomon gave his judgment, and Josiah carried out his reform. (Jos. Antt. ii. 9. 6, v. 10. 4.)
And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.43. fulfilled the days] Exodus 12:15.
the child Jesus] Rather, “the boy Jesus” (ὁ παῖς). St Luke seems purposely to have narrated something about the Saviour at every stage of His earthly existence as babe (Luke 2:16), little child (Luke 2:40), boy, and man.
tarried behind] Among the countless throngs of Jews who flocked to the Passover—nearly three millions according to Josephus (Antt. VI. 9. 3)—nothing would be easier than to lose sight of one young boy in the thronged streets, or among the thousands of booths outside the city walls. Indeed it is an incident which to this day often occurs at Jerusalem in similar cases. It should be also remembered that at the age of 12 an Eastern boy is far more mature than is the case with Northern nations, and that at that age a far wider liberty was allowed him.
Joseph and his mother] The true reading is probably His parents, א, B, D, L.
knew not of it] The fact is very interesting as shewing the naturalness and unconstraint in which our Lord was trained.
But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.44. went a day’s journey] Probably to Beeroth, six miles north of Jerusalem. In the numerous and rejoicing caravans of kinsmen and fellow-countrymen relations are often separated without feeling any anxiety.
sought him] The word implies anxious and careful search.
And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.46. after three days] This, in the Jewish idiom, probably means ‘on the third day.’ One day was occupied by the journey to Beeroth; on the second, they sought him in the caravans and at Jerusalem; the next day they found him in the Temple. The unsettled state of the country would add to their alarm.
in the temple] Probably in one of the numerous chambers which ran round the Court, and abutted on the actual building.
sitting] Doubtless at the feet of the Rabbis, as was the custom of Jewish boys when sitting began to be permitted.
in the midst of the doctors] Rather, teachers. The most eminent Rabbis of this period—some of whom may have been present—were Hillel, his rival Shammai, and his son Rabban Shimeon, Babha ben Butah, Nicodemus, Jochanan ben Zakkai, &c.
hearing them, and asking them questions] Obviously with all modest humility. The Apocryphal Gospels characteristically degrade this scene, and represent the boy Christ as behaving with a forwardness which most flagrantly contradicts the whole tenor of the narrative, and would have been specially displeasing to Jewish elders (Pirke Abhôth, V. 12. 15).
And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.47. were astonished] Similar incidents are narrated of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah; of Rabbi Ashi, the compiler of the Babylonian Talmud; and (by himself) of Josephus (Vit. 2). See Excursus VII.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.48. they were amazed] The “people of the land,” such as were the simple peasants of Galilee, held their great teachers in the deepest awe, and hitherto the silent, sweet, obedient childhood of Jesus had not prepared them for such a scene.
Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?] Rather, My child, why didst thou treat us thus?
have sought thee sorrowing] Rather, were searching for thee with aching hearts.
And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?49. about my Father’s business] Rather, in my Father’s house. See Excursus I. These words are very memorable as being the first recorded words of Jesus. They bear with them the stamp of authenticity in their half-vexed astonishment, and perfect mixture of dignity and humility. It is remarkable too, that He does not accept the phrase “Thy father” which Mary had employed. “Did ye not know?” recalls their fading memory of Who He was; and the “I must” lays down the law of devotion to His Father by which He was to walk even to the Cross. Psalm 40:7-9. “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me and to finish His work,” John 4:34. For His last recorded words, see Acts 1:7-8.
my Father’s] it is remarkable that Christ always says ὁ πατήρ μου (with the article) but teaches us to say πατὴρ ἡμῶν (without the article): e. g. in John 20:17 it is, “I ascend unto the Father of me and Father of you.” God is His Father in a different way from that in which He is ours. He is our Father only because He is His Father. See Pearson On the Creed, Art. i.
And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.50. they understood not] Words which might stand as the epitome of much of His ministry, Luke 9:45, Luke 18:34; Mark 9:32; John 10:6; John 1:10-11. The meaning however is not that they had any doubt as to what the grammatical construction of His words implied; but only as to their bearing and appropriateness to the circumstances of so young a child.
And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.51. with them] We may infer from the subsequent omission of Joseph’s name, and from the traditional belief of his age, that he died shortly after this event, as the Apocryphal Gospels assert.
to Nazareth] In many respects there was a divine fitness in this spot for the human growth of Jesus—“as a tender plant and a root out of the dry ground.” Apart from the obscurity and evil fame of Nazareth which were meant to teach lessons similar to those of which we have just spoken, we may notice (i) its seclusion. It lies in a narrow cleft in the limestone hills which form the boundary of Zabulon entirely out of the ordinary roads of commerce, so that none could say that our Lord had learnt either from Gentiles or from Rabbis. (ii) Its beauty and peacefulness. The flowers of Nazareth are famous, and the appearance of its inhabitants shews its healthiness. It was a home of humble peace and plenty. The fields of its green valley are fruitful, and the view from the hill which overshadows it is one of the loveliest and most historically striking in all Palestine.
was subject unto them] “He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant,” Php 2:7; Isaiah 53:2. With the exception of these two verses, the Gospels preserve but one single word to throw light on the Life of our Lord, between His infancy and His baptism. That word is “the carpenter” in Mark 6:3, altered in some MSS. out of irreverent and mistaken reverence into “the son of the carpenter.” They shew that (i) our Lord’s life was spent in poverty but not in pauperism; (ii) that He sanctified labour as a pure and noble thing; (iii) that God looks on the heart, and that the dignity or humility, the fame or obscurity, of the outer lot is of no moment in His eyes. Romans 14:17-18.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.52. increased] Rather, advanced. The word is derived from pioneers cutting down trees in the path of an advancing army. Comp. 1 Samuel 2:26, and the description of an ideal youth in Proverbs 3:3-4.
stature] Rather, age (as in Luke 12:25), though the word sometimes means stature (Luke 19:3).
favour with God and man] Rather, men. Proverbs 3:4, “So shalt thou find favour and good success (marg.) in the sight of God and man.” Pirke Abhôth, III. 10, “In whomsoever the mind of men delights, in him also the Spirit of God delights.”