Matthew 2: How Old was Jesus? (John Frye)

creche 2Matthew 2: How Old was Jesus?

I was asked this question by one of my daughters this year about Christmas events, “Was Jesus visited by the Magi at his birth or at a later time?” Despite all the Christmas cards showing shepherds, sheep and cows, Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus in a manger, and three “kings” bearing gifts, I had to do a little review of the texts (Luke 2 and Matthew 2). I read Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi and concluded (again) that Jesus was a toddler, not a new born child. I also discovered that there’s a real conversational mess around the whole Magi visit.

Caveat: I know that there is serious scholarship that questions the historicity of the entire Magi visit. Because I am at the mercy of the competing scholarship about this event, I choose at this point to hold the traditional view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that the Gentile astrologers visited him. With all this in mind, I think the following support a Magi visit when Jesus was a toddler.

First, Matthew chapter 2 opens with: “After Jesus was born” (NIV), the Magi came asking Herod about the place of his birth. The Greek του δε ιησου γεννηθεντος may also be translated “when.” Yet, the verb seems to stress that Jesus was already born. The Magi were not at the stable when Jesus was a newborn. As F. D. Brunner notes: the star brought the Magi to Jerusalem; the Scriptures led them to Bethlehem. Led them to what?

Second, Matthew records that the Magi “on coming to the house,” saw Jesus and worshiped him. The Magi met Jesus in a house, not a stable or cave. This may be countered by the fact that early Palestinian homes actually included the section where animals were kept, including mangers for the food. Yet, one other feature is mentioned.

Third, the Magi met the “child” (το παιδιον) with his mother. The term “child” is mentioned in Matthew 2: 13-14. This is not the word for “baby” (το βρεφος ) used in Luke 2. Again, this in itself does not clinch the matter. The Greek word for “child” can refer at times to an “infant.”

Fourth, Herod, the maniac King, wants to slaughter all children “two years of age and under” (2:16). Note that Herod calculates this age “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (2:16). If Jesus was indeed a newborn, why the outside range of two years old?

With these things in mind, I told my daughter that the Magi’s visit was not on the night of Jesus’s birth. It was sometime later. How long Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem is not exactly known. I told my daughter that too many Christmas cards conflate Luke 2 and Matthew 2.

What do you think? Help me out, Jesus Creeders.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.