SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The second episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. We examined the first episode (1:18-25) in the initial study of this series. The source-critical question was considered, regarding the nature and origin of the Matthean material—whether or not one or more source documents were used. In my view, dependence on written documents is highly questionable. However, a number of commentators have put forth more (or less) plausible theories regarding a ‘pre-Matthean’ narrative that the Gospel writer has developed (see Brown, Birth, pp. 96-119).

I am more inclined to see the Matthean narrative as an original composition, drawing upon several key lines of historical and narrative tradition. There are a range of historical traditions that may be isolated, especially here in the episode of 2:1-12, all of which have been subject to penetrating historical criticism by scholars over the years. We may note:

    • The Star (vv. 2, 7, 9-10). Various attempts have been made to identify this detail which an actual, observable astronomical phenomenon (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-3); one possibility, which would well fit the timeframe of the narrative (i.e., the end of Herod’s reign), is a planetary conjunction (of Jupiter and Saturn), in 7-6 B.C., which may have appeared even brighter to due the passing of a third planet (Mars)
    • The Magi (mágoi). Who are they, and from whence did they come? Again, there have been a number of theories, which I discuss briefly in an earlier article. Many commentators have questioned the historicity of the Magi, but there is nothing particularly implausible in the scene of oriental dignitaries visiting a king such as Herod (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 167-70).
    • The Role of Herod. The historical veracity of both episodes in chapter 2, in terms of Herod’s presence and role in these events, has been questioned/doubted by commentators. Josephus writes extensively on Herod’s reign, but gives no hint of such notable events in chapter 2 as having occurred. However, as scholars have pointed out, the events here in the Matthean narrative do represent things that easily could have taken place during Herod’s reign, given what we know of his rule and his personal conduct/behavior as king.
    • The reason why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. Contrary to the Lukan narrative, Joseph and Mary, it seems, were already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and only came to reside in Nazareth after their return from Egypt. This apparent discrepancy is only significant for those who wish to harmonize the Matthean and Lukan accounts.

While these historical-critical issues are of genuine interest, of far greater importance for an understanding of the passage is a study of how the particular historical traditions have been developed by the Gospel writer. This is the literary-critical aspect at the heart of our study.

We begin with the two primary features that define the structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The Angelic appearances to Joseph
    • The Scripture citations that punctuate each scene

A simple outline shows how these two elements structure the narrative:

Two episodes involving king Herod are interwoven between a series of three Angelic appearances to Joseph. A featured Scripture citation follows each scene, demonstrating how the (historical) events were foretold by the Old Testament Prophets, and now find their (true) fulfillment in Jesus. Joseph responds in perfect obedience each time the Angel appears to him (in a dream), a fact indicated by the way that the narration (describing Joseph’s action) very nearly repeats verbatim the words of the Angel.

The theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (that is, the royal Messiah from the line of David) runs through the entire narrative, but it takes on special prominence in the two Herod scenes, of which the first occurs here in 2:1-12. As king of Judea, Herod would naturally feel threatened by the idea of another royal figure (called by the title “King of the Jews,” see below), one whose coming had been prophesied in the sacred Writings, and who might very well come to supplant his rule. This point of conflict gives to the narrative its literary power and strength, and has resulted in a pair of truly memorable scenes, read and visualized every Christmas season.

The Messianic motif is expressed through two important names, or titles, in this episode, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (poú), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

    • By the Magoi: “Where is the one brought forth (as) king of the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews]?” (v. 2)
    • By Herod: “Where (is) the Anointed (one) coming to be (born)?” (v. 4)

“King of the Jews” —In the historical-cultural context of Greek and Roman control over Syria-Palestine, there was a strong nationalistic aspect and significance to the use of this title—as, for example, by the Hasmonean rulers (priest-kings) of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 14.36, etc). As a semi-independent ruler, under Roman oversight, Herod himself was known by this title (Antiquities 16.311, etc). By the time of Jesus, the Messianic sense of this title would have been recognized and emphasized; consider these two basic elements of its meaning:

    • David‘s kingdom centered in Judah (Jerusalem)
    • The Jewish character of the Messianic king/ruler figure-type—rule centered in Judah/Jerusalem, and spreading/extending to all of Israel and the surrounding nations

This conceptual framework is central to the narrative (in Luke-Acts) of the early Christian mission (cf. Luke 24:46-49ff; Acts 1:4, 8, 12ff; 2:1-12ff, and the overall structure of the book of Acts). There are two passages quoted (or alluded to) in this section (Matt 2:1-12) which were unquestionably given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

    • Micah 5:2ff—cited within the action of the narrative (cf. my earlier article for more detail); three main points are brought out in this passage:
      • a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem
      • he will rule over (all) Judah
      • he will shepherd the people of Israel (cf. 2 Sam 5:2)
    • Numbers 24:17—the image of the star and the rod/sceptre (of rule) that will come out of Jacob/Israel. For the use of the star image in Matt 2:1-12 (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), see my detailed discussion in the earlier series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and also below. It is interesting that Philo (Life of Moses I.276) refers to Balaam as a Magos (mágos).

The presence of the Magoi offering gifts and coming to Jerusalem to find the “King” may also reflect Psalm 72:10f and Isa 60:6, whereby the wealth of the nations comes to Jerusalem as homage to God (and his Anointed Ruler).

“The Anointed (One)” —This was already featured as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I discuss the important title [ho] Christós (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. See also on Luke 2:11 in the prior study.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts (CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, etc), but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta’anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The two titles— “King of the Jews” and “Anointed (One)” —are combined again, at the end of Jesus’ life, during the episodes of his “trial” and death. In the Gospel of Matthew, the references are Matt 26:63; 27:11, 17, 22, 29, 37 (also 42), but there are parallels in all of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Gospel of John. These titles, taken together, identify Jesus in no uncertain terms as the Davidic-ruler figure type, otherwise expressed in Gospel tradition by the separate title “Son of David” (cf. Matt 1:1, 20, also 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42, etc & par).

The Setting of Bethlehem

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (to be discussed in the next study). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

    • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah” —this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
    • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among” —as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
    • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah” —the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
    • “who will shepherd by people Israel” —this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry.
      It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
    • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
    • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
    • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
    • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).

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