Today, January 6, traditionally called Epiphany, was the date associated with Jesus’ birth in the Eastern Church by the late-3rd century, corresponding to December 25th in the West. During the 4th century, a kind of ‘cultural exchange’ took place, whereby each Tradition adopted the date of the other—in the West, Jan 6 came to be associated with the visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12), and with Jesus’ baptism in the East. The Greek word e)pifa/neia (epipháneia) is derived from e)pifai/nw (epiphaínœ)—”shine forth upon”, i.e., upon earth (or upon us)—often in the sense of the manifestation or (sudden) appearance of someone (in Greek usage, this could include the appearance of a deity). The root meaning clearly relates to the shining of light; and, it is in this context that I wish to examine light associated with the “Birth of the Son of God”—briefly, according to three aspects:
- Jesus as light
- Light imagery in the Infancy narratives, principally the star of Matt 2:1-12
- Believers as light (“sons of light”)
1. Jesus as Light
In Old Testament tradition, God (YHWH) is often associated with light; of the many references, see Gen 1:3ff; Psalm 13:3; 18:28; 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; 56:13; 89:15; 90:8; 97:11; 104:2; 112:4; 118:27; Prov 29:13; Isa 2:5; 9:2; 42:6; 51:4; 58:8; 60:1, 19-20; Mic 7:8-9; Hab 3:4; Dan 2:22; as well as light as a component of various theophanies (e.g., Exod 13:21; 24:9-10ff; Ezek 1:4ff; Dan 7:9-10). It can also appear in an eschatological context, of the “Day of YHWH” (Zech 14:6-7, also Isa 10:17; 30:26).
Sometimes it is specifically the word or message of God that brings light (Psalm 119:105, 130; Prov 6:23; Hos 6:5), or connected in terms of salvation God brings (Psalm 27:1; 43:3; 44:3; Isa 9:2; 58:8ff, etc). There are several important (Deutero-)Isaian references which came to be understood in a Messianic sense: Isa 9:2; 42:6; 49:6; 60:1ff, including within the New Testament (Matt 4:15-16), and even the Lukan Infancy narrative itself (connected with Jesus’ birth)—Lk 1:78-79; 2:32 (below).
Apart from the narrative scenes involving light (such as the Transfiguration and Resurrection [Matt 17:2; 28:3 par], Acts 9:3 etc, which parallel OT theophany accounts, cf. above), Jesus himself is identified with light in the New Testament, primarily in the Gospel and Letters of John—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 2:8ff. On the eschatological imagery in Rev 21:23-24; 22:5, see below.
2. Light in the Infancy narrative—the Star of Matt 2:1-12
The main image of light associated with the birth of Jesus, is the famous “Star of Bethlehem” in Matt 2:1-12 (see vv. 2, 7, 9-10). The wording of these references is worth noting:
V. 2: “Where is the (one) produced [i.e. born] (as) King of the Jews? For we saw [ei&domen] his star [au)tou= to\n a)ste/ra] in the rising up [e)n th=| a)natolh=|] and came to kiss toward him [i.e. worship, give homage to him]”
V. 7: “Then Herod, calling the Magoi privately, sought (to know) exactly alongside [i.e. from] them the time of the star’s shining (forth) [tou= fainome/nou a)ste/ro$]”
V. 9: “…and see [i)dou/]!—the star [o( a)sth/r] which they saw [ei@don] in the rising up [e)n th=| a)natolh=|] led (the way) before them until, coming, it stood [e)sta/qh] over above where the child was”
V. 10: “And seeing [i)do/nte$] the star [to\n a)ste/ra], they were extremely glad (with) great gladness”
As discussed in a previous note, in the ancient world, according to tradition (and/or superstition) a star or other celestial phenomena were often thought to accompany (and mark) the birth of great persons, such as a king or ruler. For a 1st-century A.D. belief that a world-ruler would arise from the Jews, cf. Josephus, Jewish War VI.310-12, and Tacitus, Histories V.13. In all likelihood, this latter idea stems from Messianic expectation of the period—that is, for an end-time king from the line of David who would restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6ff; Luke 2:25, 38, etc). For the 1st-century B.C.—prior to the time of Jesus himself—our best information comes from the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Among the Old Testament passages which were given a Messianic interpretation, one of the most prominent was Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 24:15-19, especially the parallel couplet of verse 17:
la@r*c=Y]m! fb#v@ <q*w+ / bq)u&Y~m! bk*oK Er^D*
“a star will march from Ya’aqob / and a staff/branch will stand up from Yisrael”
Both the verbs Er^D* (“walk, tread”) and <Wq (“stand, rise”) in context would seem to indicate dominion or rule. The noun fb#v@ is the branch or stick (i.e. “staff, scepter”) which a ruler wields. In the Greek (the LXX) this verse is rendered as:
a)natalei= a&stron e)c Iakwb / kai\ a)nasth/setai a&nqrwpo$ e)c Israhl
“a star will rise up out of Ya’aqob / and a man will stand up out of Yisrael”
The peculiar use of “man” (a&nqrwpo$) in place of fb#v@ (“staff”) in the LXX could conceivably be an interpretive gloss, i.e. on the “star”, to specify that a (human) ruler is meant, as in the Aramaic Targums. We find a quasi-Messianic interpretation of Num 24:17 in the Damascus Document (CD 7 [MS A]), where the “star” and “staff” seem to refer to separate figures. There is a relatively clear “Messianic” allusion (connected to Isa 11:1-5) in 1QSb 5:27, and it is also cited in an eschatological context in 4Q175 and 1QM 11:6-7. That Num 24:17 was understood in a definite Messianic sense by the early 2nd-century is indicated by its use in the Testament of Judah 24:1-6 and by the revolutionary leader Simeon bar-Kosiba who was called bar-Kokhba (“son of the Star”).
Interestingly, Num 24:17 is not used in reference to Jesus in the New Testament, apart from a possible allusion to it here in Matt 2:1-12. I have discussed this possibility in a note last Christmas season. Apart from the common reference to a star, consider the linguistic parallels (marked by italics in the quotations of vv. 2, 7, 9-10 above):
- Repeated references to seeing (Greek ei&dw) the star—Num 24:17 beings by Balaam declaring “I see him…” (LXX “I will show/point [to] him”); Balaam was a seer whose “eyes were open” (vv. 15, 16)
- In Num 24:17, the star “will rise up” (a)natalei=, from a)nate/llw); the Magi saw the star in the “rising up” (related noun a)natolh/), which sometimes is meant in the directional sense of “east” (i.e. the sun’s rising), but here probably should be rendered literally—they followed the star from the time of its rising.
- There is (perhaps) a faint echo in the star standing (“it stood” [e)sta/qh]) where the child was (v. 9); in Num 24:17, the staff (or man in LXX) stands (up) (Greek a)nasth/setai).
- In both Matt 2 and the LXX, the star is identified specifically with a man (or a male child)—”his star” (Mat 2:2, cf. also v. 9 “…where the child was”)
- It should also be pointed out that, in Jewish tradition at least as early as Philo (Life of Moses I.276), and thus contemporary with the New Testament, Balaam was referred to as a magos (ma/go$, plur. ma/goi [“Magi”]).
There are two other passages, in the Lukan Infancy narratives, which utilize similar light imagery:
These are the last lines of the “Song of Zechariah” (the Benedictus); to preserve the immediate context, I include verse 77:
“…77to give knowledge of salvation to his people,
in (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins
78through the inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God,
in which a rising-up [a)natolh/] out of (the) height will look upon us,
79to shine (forth) upon [e)pifa=nai] the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death,
to put our feet down straight into (the) way of peace”
Note the use of a)natolh/ (“rising up”) and the verb e)pifai/nw (“shine [forth]”), similar to that in Matt 2:2, 7 (above) and Isa 60:1-2 LXX (also mentioned above). The specific meaning of a)natolh/ here is not entirely certain, but it would seem to refer to the sun or a great light generally. Though verses 76ff relate primarily to the child John (uttered by his father), vv. 78-79 evince a Messianic application or interpretation of the (Deutero-)Isaian verses Isa 60:1-2; 42:6-7; 9:2 (also perhaps Mal 4:2 [3:20]), and, in context, clearly refer to Jesus.
This is the concluding couplet of the brief “Song of Simeon” (the Nunc Dimittis, vv. 29-32). As with Lk 1:78-79, the canticle draws upon the language and imagery of several (Deutero-)Isaian passages—namely, Isa 40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9-10 (cf. above). Simeon’s prophetic oracle identifies the child Jesus with salvation—”my eyes saw [ei@don] your salvation, which you [i.e. God] prepared according to the face [i.e. before] all the peoples” (vv. 30-31). On the use of ei&dw (“see”) in Matt 2:2ff and Balaam seeing the future figure (Num 24:15-17), cf. above. At the start of v. 32, this salvation is described as light (fw=$), followed (and qualified) by two purpose phrases governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”):
- “uncovering [a)poka/luyin] of the nations” [i.e. Gentiles]
- “esteem [do/can] of your people Israel”
The light does two things: (1) it shines upon the people (from the nations) who are in darkness (cf. Lk 1:79), and (2) it gives glory to God’s people Israel. In the Lukan context, this esteem/glory (do/ca) involves the joining of the Gentiles with the people (lao/$, sing.) of God to form “the peoples” (laoi/, plur.), v. 31. For a similar idea in Luke-Acts, see esp. Acts 26:18, 23.
3. Believers as light (“sons of light”)
Already in the Old Testament, light is associated with the righteous: Psalm 37:6; 97:11; 112:4; Prov 4:18; 13:9; Isa 10:17; 60:3; Est 8:16; Job 33:30, including also the idea of walking in light (Psalm 56:13; 89:15; Isa 2:5; 50:10-11; Job 22:28; 29:3). This symbolism carries over into the New Testament and early Christian tradition, where believers in Christ as identified with light—cf. Matt 5:14-16; 6:22-23 [par Lk 8:16-17; 11:33-36]; Acts 13:47 (citing Isa 49:6); Rom 13:12; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 2:15; Col 1:12; Eph 5:8-9; 1 Pet 2:9, sometimes as part of an ethical (dualistic) contrast between light and darkness (2 Cor 6:14, etc). Believers are urged (and expected) to walk in the light (Jn 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35; Rom 13:13; Eph 5:8; 1 Jn 1:6-7; cf. 2:11)—compare the Pauline idea of walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).
Four times in the New Testament, believers are described as “sons of light” (including once “children of light”):
- Luke 16:8—”…the sons of this Age are intelligent/thoughtful over [i.e. more than] the sons of light [tou\$ ui(ou\$ tou= fw=to$]…”
- John 12:36—”as you hold the light, trust into the light, so that you might come to be sons of light [ui(oi\ fwto/$]”
- 1 Thess 5:5—”for you are all sons of light [ui(oi\ fwto/$] and sons of (the) day [ui(oi\ h(me/ra$]; we are not of (the) night and not of darkness”
- Eph 5:8—”for then (previously) you were darkness, but now light—(so) walk about as offspring [i.e. children] of light [te/kna fwto/$]”
The expression “sons of light” (Heb. roa yn@B= b§nê °ôr, Aram. ar*hon+ yn@B= b§nê n§hôr¹°) is known from the Qumran texts (1QS 1:9; 2:16; 3:13, 24-25; 1QM 1:1, 3, 9, 11, 13; 1QFlor  frag 1 vv. 8-9; 1QCatena  frag 11-10 v. 7, 12-13 v. 11; 4Q544 frag 3 v. 1; 4Q548 frag 1 vv. 9-10ff), and so was presumably already part of traditional Jewish religious language adopted by the New Testament writers. In Semitic idiom, “sons of…” often indicates belonging to a particular group, especially among those who possess a certain attribute or characteristic. In the Qumran texts, strong dualistic imagery is used—the contrast with “sons of darkness, sons of Belial”—and it was the faithful Community that saw itself as “sons of light” (par. “sons of justice”, ” sons of truth”, “sons of heaven”, etc), just as for early Christians the expression would relate to faithful believers. Within the New Testament, sonship for believers is metaphorical and spiritual, depending on our union with Christ (through the Spirit)—I have already discussed the idea of believers as “sons of God” in prior notes, and will do so again, in more detail, in an upcoming note.
It is in the Gospel of John that we find the (reciprocal) relationship between Christ (the Son) and believers (the “sons”) defined and described in terms of light:
- John 1:4-9—Jesus as the true (Divine) Light (cf. 1 Jn 1:5) coming into the world [e)rxo/menon ei)$ to\n ko/smon] (v. 9)
- John 3:19-21—Light has come into the world [e)lh/luqen ei)$ to\n ko/smon], but people love darkness rather than light (contrast of light vs. darkness established, cf. John 1:5)
- John 8:12 (and 9:5)—Jesus: “I am the Light of the world [tou= ko/smou]”—believers following Jesus will walk in light, not darkness (1 Jn 1:7; 2:8-10), and will have “the light of life”
- John 11:9-10; 12:35-36—the emphasis is on believers walking in light, with the contrast between light vs. darkness; note the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection/exaltation: the Son (of Man) being lifted high
Jn 12:36 is the climactic reference: “that you may come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of light”—see the similar use of gi/nomai in Jn 1:12-13 (“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring/children of God”)
- In John 12:46 Jesus again identifies himself as the Light that has come into the world
In Revelation 21:23-24; 22:5, we see is a final (Johannine) image of believers in the Holy City, with allusions to Isa 60:3, 5, 11, 19-20—”the Lord God gives light upon them” (22:5).
Conclusion: The Baptism of Jesus
In Eastern Tradition, the baptism of Jesus (commemorated Jan 6) involves an interesting (and beautiful) light motif:
According to at least one strand of early tradition, when Jesus was in the river, at the descent of the Spirit, a great light appeared in the water. This detail was part of the 2nd-century Diatessaron (Gospel harmony) of Tatian, according to commentators Isho’dad and Dionysius Barsalibi (9th and 12th centuries), and is found in two Latin manuscripts (at Matt 3:15), as well as being mentioned by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho §88) in the mid/late-2nd century (cf. also Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.13.7). The baptismal tradition of the Eastern (Syrian) Churches expresses the idea that, during Jesus’ baptism, he left something of his glory and presence in the water—at the spiritual/mystical level—which believers then receive when they are baptized. Even though he does not mention it in his Commentary on the Diatessaron, Ephrem the Syrian makes much of this image, drawing upon the parallel between the glory lost by Adam that is restored to humankind through Christ. He mentions it several times in his Hymns on the Nativity, in connection with Jesus’ birth (e.g. Hymn 1.43, 16.11, 22.39, 23.13, also the Ps-Ephrem Epiphany Hymn 4.19-20, 12.1, etc). In stanzas 21-22 of Nativity Hymn 6, Ephrem juxtaposes the light of the star at Jesus’ birth (cf. above) with the light at Jesus’ baptism:
…the star of light cried out in the air, “Behold the King’s Son!”
The sky was opened, the water sparkled;
the dove hovered over; the voice of the Father,
more weighty than thunder said,
“This is My Beloved”…
(translation Kathleen E. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns [Paulist Press:1989])