When the Magi came to Jerusalem, they created a stir throughout the city Notice what Josephus says concerning a very troublesome stir that occurred around the time of a Roman census:
These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; [i]
In the above reference we can determine that a census was taken in Palestine (cp. Luke 2:1-5), whereby all the Jews were to take an oath of allegiance to both Caesar and Herod. In the KJV, Luke 2:1-3 seems to indicate a world tax was called for, but the Greek word used is apographo (G583) and means: ‘to write off, copy, enter in a register or public record, enroll’. Some later versions translate the word to mean a census was to be taken and not a tax levied. The Romans taxed the world every 20 years, but this census was the first of its kind. It had to do with the celebration of Caesar’s silver jubilee in 2 BCE which coincided with the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. The world census was to become part of the celebrations naming Caesar Augustus as the ‘Father of the Country’ (Pater Patria) by the Senate on February 5, 2 BCE. The census was taken in 3 BCE in preparation for that celebration.
A second item to be aware of in the Josephus reference above is that more than 6000 Pharisees refused to take this oath. Unless some sort of census was commanded, how would Josephus know more than 6000 Pharisees refused to swear allegiance to Herod and Rome? Remember, Joseph was in Bethlehem because he was of the royal seed and had to register there. While he was taking the oath, Jesus was born. The shepherds had already alerted the city of what they had seen concerning the Messiah. Then Josephus recorded that these Pharisees refused to pledge their loyalty. Notice what he said further:
…and when the king imposed a fine upon them (the Pharisees refusing to take the oath), Pheroras’s wife (Herod’s sister-in-law) paid their fine for them. In order to requite which kindness of hers, since they were believed to have the foreknowledge of things to come by Divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it; [parenthesis and emphasis mine][ii]
Notice that these Pharisees were saying that Herod’s government would not last, and that it would not go to his son’s. What were these Pharisees implying? Notice what Josephus says further on:
These predictions were not concealed from Salome (Herod’s sister), but were told the king; as also how they had perverted some persons about the palace itself; so the king slew such of the Pharisees as were principally accused, and Bagoas the eunuch, and one Carus, who exceeded all men of that time in comeliness, and one that was his catamite. He slew also all those of his own family who had consented to what the Pharisees foretold; and for Bagoas, he had been puffed up by them, as though he should be named the father and the benefactor of him who, by the prediction, was foretold to be their appointed king; for that THIS KING WOULD HAVE ALL THINGS IN HIS POWER, and would enable Bagoas to marry, and to have children of his own body begotten. [parenthesis and emphasis mine][iii]
We should see here that Josephus recorded an expectation of a very powerful king (Messiah). This king was prophesied to have miraculous powers, even to the point of enabling a eunuch (male virgin?) to marry and have children. Moreover, Herod began slaying many people who were connected with this prophecy and believed this prediction, including members of his own family. This sounds very similar to what occurred in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16-18 where Herod murdered the infant children. All these slayings occurred after the taking of the census and, according to Matthew, after the Magi had stirred up both the king and the city. Therefore what began as a rumor by a few shepherds (Luke 2:18), escalated into a national crisis upon the arrival of a group of very respectable wise men from the east, all within a short period of less than two months.
If, indeed, the Magi had come to Jerusalem seeking the Messiah, because of what they had seen in the heavens while they were in the east, there is absolutely no reason to assume they delayed their departure for two years. They probably started out immediately as the heavens began to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, two to four months before the birth of Jesus. They arrived in Jerusalem and the came into the Temple on the very day that Mary and Joseph were presenting Jesus before the Lord in accordance with what was written in the Law (Luke 2:22-24, 39).
There is absolutely no reason to conclude Matthew and Luke are contradictory. I concluded this study in a later blog found HERE by speaking more about what some consider to be contradictory passages in the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke. May God have mercy upon his people and help us to understand his word is perfect. It is we who need to submit to him, not he to our own logic. God help us!
[i] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews: Book 17; Chapter 2; Paragraph 2.
[ii] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews: Book 17; Chapter 2; Paragraph 2
[iii] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews: Book 17; Chapter 2; Paragraph 2.