Birth of the Son of God: Matthew 2:2

Matthew 2:2

Today, for the eve of Epiphany, I will be looking at one phrase in the narrative of Matthew 2:1-12—in verse 2, where the child Jesus is described as “the one produced/brought-forth (as) King of the Jews” (o( texqei\$ basileu\$ tw=n  )Ioudai=wn). The Magi ask the question “Where is [pou= e)stin] (this child)…?” This is glossed by Herod’s similar question in verse 4:

“Where is the Anointed (One) coming to be (born)?”
pou= o( xristo\$ genna=tai

Here “King of the Jews” is generally synonymous with “Anointed” (Messiah/Christ). We should note the setting in verse 1, of Jesus’ coming to be born in Bethlehem (the city of David, cf. Luke 2:4, 11). The association with David is stronger in the Lukan Infancy narrative (Lk 1:27, 32, 69; 2:4, 11), but the citation of Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:5-6 does include a reference (or allusion) to 2 Sam 5:2. Also there is a connection to David in the traditional image of the king as a shepherd over his people (v. 6).

By Jesus’ time—following the exile and during Greek/Roman rule—there was a strong nationalistic connotation to the title “king of the Jews”, as indicated in its early use by the Hasmoneans (Josephus, Antiquities XIV.36) and by Herod (Antiquities XVI.311). In all likelihood, early Christians would also have understood the star (Matt 2:2, 7, 9-10) in a “Messianic” sense; at the very least, there were ancient and well-established traditions (and/or superstitions) of stars (and other celestial phenomena) marking the birth (or death) of a great person—such as a king or ruler. Of many references from the Greco-Roman world, see Pliny, Natural History II.6.28; Virgil, Aeneid II.694; Cicero, De Divinat. I.23.47; Suetonius, Augustus §94, Nero §36. Within a specific Jewish context, see Josephus, Jewish War VI.310-12, and also Tacitus, Histories V.13. Cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] 1993, p. 170. Within the narrative, clearly the Magi pay homage to Jesus as to a king (v. 11).

“King of the Jews” appears in (older) Gospel tradition in the Passion narratives, in two main locations:

The Triumphal Entry

  • Zechariah 9 (cited by Matthew and John)—the oracle declares to Jerusalem: “see! your king comes to you!”
  • The similar context of Psalm 118—entry of the victorious king into Jerusalem (v. 26, cited by all four Gospel [cf. the earlier note])

Each Gospel adds a detail to the citation of Ps 118:26:

  • Mark 11:10—”the coming kingdom of our father David
  • Luke 19:38—”the one coming, the king…”
  • John 12:13—”…the king of Israel
  • Matt 21:9—”Hosanna to the Son of David!” (no specific mention of “king/kingdom”, but see verse 15)

The crowd’s greeting expresses Messianic expectation—that is, for a king who will restore the Davidic kingdom of Jerusalem (cf. Luke 2:25, 38; Acts 1:6ff).

The ‘Trial’ and Crucifixion

First we have the scene (in the Synoptics) where the High Priest in the Council (Sanhedrin) questions Jesus:

Second, the scene (in all four Gospels) where Pilate questions Jesus:

And note also:

Most notable, of course, is the use of the title “King of the Jews” in the sign attached to the cross overhead, which likewise is present in all four Gospel accounts (with slight variation):

  • Mark 15:26: “The King of the Jews”—this is the simplest form
  • Luke 23:38: “This (is) the King of the Jews”
  • Matt 27:37: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”
  • John 19:19: “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews”

There is an important connection between the titles “King of the Jews” and “Son of God”, as indicated above. The first of these is central to the Roman scene (before Pilate), the second to the Jewish scene (before the Sanhedrin). As already noted, “King of the Jews” is primarily a political title, “Son of God” a religious/theological title. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they both come together in a unique way in the Gospel of John; indeed, within the fourth Gospel, Jesus as the “Son of God” (or “the Son”) has a special place and function, as well as Christological significance. Consider here the two episodes where Pilate speaks with Jesus:

  • John 18:33-38—specifically related to the title “King of the Jews” (v. 33)
  • John 19:9-11—the context of the title “Son of God” (v. 7), dealing with the question of power and (divine) authority

It is Pilate’s question to Jesus—”are you the king of the Jews?” (v. 33, repeated in v. 37 “are you not then a king?”)—which brings forth Jesus’ response, referring to his birth:

“unto this have I come to be (born), and unto this have I come into the world: that I should witness to the truth—every one being out of [i.e. who is of] the truth hears my voice”

See the earlier note and previous discussion on this remarkable saying, which brings together so beautifully the birth and the death of the Son of God.

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