Legends of the Infancy of Jesus Christ

From Matthew’s text, it appears that as much as two years have passed without comment since the nativity of Jesus Christ, six miles south of Jerusalem in the village of Bethlehem. Although otherwise insignificant, Bethlehem was the city of David kings (First Samuel 17:12-15) and Micah’s prophecy (5:2; Second Samuel 5:2).

From 37-4 B.C., the Roman province of Israel was overseen by Herod the Great, a ruthless Idumean who had murdered his own wife and other relatives to sustain his power. The sudden appearance of a Jewish messiah was just another threat, not only to Herod, but to the Jews’ corrupt religious establishment as well. The chief priests oversaw the temple activities, while the scribes were the official interpreters of the Old Testament. Their official yearning for a deliverer had been perverted by the arrogance of position.

Wise men from the East, magi, had used astronomical evidence to deduce the Christ’s birth, but their visit to see the child was highjacked by Herod who hoped to add the young messiah’s death to his crimes. Perhaps aware of prophecy that, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17), the magi followed the supernatural sign in the heavens to the area where Jesus was to be found to worship him.

Unlike the usual nativity scenes around the winter holidays, the magi delivered their gifts – gold, sap, and resin – to Jesus far from the manger and long after his birth. For bloodthirsty King Herod they had no gift, choosing to follow the advice of a dream not to return to him to report the whereabouts of his infant rival.

The little family also relocated at this time, escaping a new and desperate plot by Herod to kill the messiah by exterminating every little boy, aged two and under, in the village (Jeremiah 31:15). Joseph’s brood headed down to the traditional safety of Egypt, ninety miles from Bethlehem, satisfying the prophecy of Hosea (2:15). As many as thirty little boys, perhaps, would not be as fortunate, judging by the size of Bethlehem.

Herod, the master builder and architect of the temple then under constant construction in Jerusalem (John 2:14), succumbed to disease and died in his palace in Jericho, allowing the little family to return to his vacated jurisdiction. Hearing that Archelaus had taken power in his father’s stead, however, Joseph detoured to Nazareth, in the Galilean hills partway between the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee. Becoming a Nazarene subjected Jesus to even more popular rejection (John 1:46, 7:41, 52). Archelaus would reign for a decade, 4 B.C. - A.D. 6 before being banished to Gaul by Caesar Augustus. The reign of his father’s mortal enemy would last forever.

Matthew’s text reveals how much popular mythology has become dross upon the biblical story of Christ’s nativity and infancy.

In a quest to heap tradition upon the Bible story, centuries of believers have compressed, condensed and reshaped the account of Christ’s life and  teaching to fit the vicissitudes of evolving perspective and fickle morality. Even the classic nativity scene, complete with manger-visiting magi, is contrary to the biblical sequence of events, which finds the unnumbered wise men visiting about two years later, and finding Jesus in a real house.

Although the details are scarce, the early life of Jesus Christ reveals him to be part of an almost nomadic family. Even if they were not completely aware of his special purpose, his miraculous birth and legendary childhood were already engulfing them all in a life of intrigue and danger. 

Although but an infant, his acceptance by the foreign magi, coupled with his rejection by his own people, foreshadows the nonpareil reach of his ministry of reconciliation. The Jewish expectation at this time seemed to focus upon the promised coming of a deliverer, who they assumed would rescue them from Roman occupation. Although it was far from ideal, the Jewish elite enjoyed the authority that Rome gave them to conduct religious affairs in the province, reducing their excitement about the coming of any messianic contender. To the Jews of the first century, Jesus of Nazareth was a disappointment because they underestimated God’s goal of freeing them from slavery to a harsher master, sin itself. Even the actions of the Idumean rulers in Judea demonstrate the failures of people who should have been better equipped to recognize fulfillment of prophecy (First Corinthians 2:8).

The magi, operating according to divine astronomy rather than modern superstitious astrology, sought out the messiah with purity and generosity of heart. Although they disappear from the Bible stage very quickly, their heroic rejection of Herod’s edict hints at the role Gentiles would play in the salvation epic. At first, they appear on the edges of the ministry of Christ, but eventually Gentiles press into the kingdom at numbers that dwarf the Jews, who would struggle with problems of pride upon being asked to coexist in God’s favor with people they held in disdain (Romans 14:1-12).

The enduring lesson of this stage of the life of Christ is surely the lengths that some people will go to protect the profitable, comfortable errors they have adopted. Without even giving the messianic prospect a fair hearing, they reflexively moved to shore up their authority, whether it be religious or political. Later apostles would expose the infection of error that produces a false gospel, but already, people are having to make choices about Jesus, and are putting him behind their physical welfare. There emerges from the villainy of this chapter a renewed necessity to judge the gospel objectively (Acts 26:27-28), to be willing to sacrifice tradition and pleasant myths to get back to the truth (Colossians 2:16-23), and to put the redemption of the soul ahead of the promotion of the flesh (Mark 8:36).