How Long Did the Family Stay in Bethlehem?
Samuel James Andrews
The obvious difficulties connected with the traditional view of the coming of the wise men on the thirteenth day after the Lord's birth have led many to put it after the purification on the fortieth day. Some, holding that Jesus went immediately after that event to Nazareth, suppose that after a short time there He returned to Bethlehem and there was found by the wise men. But most who put the purification upon the fortieth day, make the visit of the Magi to have shortly followed, and prior to any departure to Nazareth. And this order seems best to harmonize the Scripture narratives. The language of Luke 2:22, compared with verse 21 plainly intimates that, as the circumcision took place on the eighth day, so did the presentation on the fortieth. The feast of the Purification is observed by both Eastern and Western churches on February 2. Till this day, the mother was regarded as unclean and was to abide at home, and it is therefore very improbable that the adoration of the Magi, and especially the flight into Egypt, should have previously taken place. Doubtless, in case of necessity, all the legal requirements could have been set aside, but this necessity is not proved in this case to have existed. That the purification was after the return from Egypt is inconsistent with Matthew's statements (Matthew 2:22) that after Joseph had heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judaea, he was afraid to go there. If, then, he dared not even enter the king's territory, how much less would he dare to go to Jerusalem and enter publicly into the temple. The conjecture of some that Archelaus was then absent at Rome, is wholly without historic proof.
That Matthew puts the flight into Egypt in immediate connection with the departure of the Magi (Matthew 2:13), is plain. No interval could have elapsed after their departure, for it is said in Matthew 2:14 that Joseph "took the young child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt." He went soon as the angel appeared to him, apparently the same night. We cannot then place the history of the purification after their departure and before the flight into Egypt. Nor could Herod, after his jealousy had been aroused by the inquiries of the Magi after the new-born King of the Jews, have waited quietly several weeks, till the events of the purification awakened his attention anew. He acted here with that decision that characterized all his movements, and seeing himself mocked by the wise men, took instant measures for the destruction of the child.
The fact that Mary offered the offering of the poor (Luke 2:24), may be mentioned as incidentally confirming this view. If she had received previously the gifts of the Magi, particularly the gold, we may suppose that she would have used it to provide a better offering.
Adapted from The Life of Our Lord upon the Earth by Samuel James Andrews.
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