The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:23

On the day after Epiphany, I will be looking at the Scripture citation which concludes the Infancy Narrative in Matthew (Matt 2:23). Of the five citations in chapters 1-2, this is perhaps the most difficult to analyze, since it is not entirely clear just what passage the author is quoting. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” (Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai) does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

  • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
  • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
  • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
  • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. The argument would run as follows:

1. Isaiah 4:3—an oracle of hope and restoration begins with verses 2-3:

2In that day, the sprout [jm^x#] of YHWH (springing up) will be for beauty and for weight [i.e. glory], and the fruit of the earth will be for exaltation and for splendor, for the escapees of Yi´ra°el {Israel}. 3And it will be (that of) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the one left over in Yerûšalaim {Jerusalem} it will be said “set-apart [vodq* i.e. holy]” for him, every (one) th(at) has been inscribed for (the) “living” (ones) in Yerûšalaim.
[In that day, the sprout of YHWH will be for beauty and glory, and the fruit of the land will be for pride and splendor for the survivors of Israel. And it will be that he who remains in Zion and he who is left in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been inscribed for life in Jerusalem]

2. “Holy” (vodq* and a%gio$)—The key phrase is ol rm#a*y@ vodq* (“‘Holy’ it will be said for him”). In Greek, vodq* would normally be translated by a%gio$; the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 4:3b uses the plural a%gioi klhqh/sontai (“they will be called ‘holy'”), but a literal rendering of the Hebrew (MT) might be a%gio$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called ‘holy’). Compare this with the citation in Matthew Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”).

3. ryz]n` (n¹zîr)—The Greek a%gio$ is also used to translate Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr “[one] dedicated/set-apart”). The Hebrew word is often transliterated in English (as a technical term) “Nazirite”—that is, one dedicated or set apart [rzn] to God by a vow [related word rdn]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21; it could be temporary or a lifetime vow, and most notably involves abstinence from drinking and shaving. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth). The Greek phrase a%gio$ klhqh/setai could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”.

4. ryz]n` and Naziraio$ (Naziraios)—Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr) could also be transliterated in Greek, as in English, by Naziraio$ (Naziraios) or Nazir (Nazir). For instances of the former, especially, in LXX see Judges 13:5, 7; 16:17 (A); Lam 4:7;  also 1 Macc 3:49. The example from Judg 13:5, 7 is particularly noteworthy, as it is part of an angelic announcement related to the birth of Samson; the LXX (A) reads in part: o%ti h(giasme/non nazirai=on e&stai tw=| qew=| to paida/rion e)k th=$ gastro/$ (“for the child will be considered holy [i.e. set apart] as a Nazirite to God out of the womb”). In the context of Matt 2:23, “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]” could have been rendered into Greek as Nazirai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a Nazirite”).

5. Naziraio$ and Nazwraio$ (Nazœraios)—The Greek Nazirai=o$ is quite close to Nazwrai=o$ (difference of a single vowel), and the latter is attested as a variant reading of the former. Nazwrai=o$ occurs elsewhere a dozen times in the New Testament: eleven times (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7, etc) as a designation for Jesus (“the Nazorean”), and once (Acts 4:5) referring to Christians as the ‘sect’ of the “Nazoreans”. It is generally assumed that this designation ultimately refers to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth (and as such is equivalent to Nazarhno/$ cf. Mark 1:24; 10:47, etc). However, this remains a disputed question among scholars and experts in Semitics, related to the technical issue of the original or ‘correct’ form of “Nazareth”. In any case, it is clear that the Gospel writer draws the connection between Nazwrai=o$ and Nazareth.

The wordplay suggested above would require that the author be familiar with the Scriptures in both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, and be capable of moving freely between the two. However, to some extent this seems to have been the case in Palestine-Syria at the time of the New Testament. Early (Jewish) Christians such as Paul clearly had this facility; the same may be said of a Palestinian Christian such as James the Just (particularly if the epistle [of James] and the interpretive citation in Acts 15:15ff come from him verbatim).

Scholars have also drawn a connection between Nazwrai=o$ and the Hebrew rx#n@ (n¢ƒer) “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with jm^x# (see in Isa 4:3 above). Now rx#n@ came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [rx#n@] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”. Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [jm^x#] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

For a good discussion related to many of the points above, along with additional critical detail, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library (1977, 1993), pp. 207-213, 223-225.

There are number of famous (and fanciful) traditions regarding the flight of the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus) into Egypt, which are recorded in ‘apocryphal’ Gospels such as the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and the Gospel of ‘Pseudo-Matthew’. Two stories are particularly striking:
(1) On the journey through the desert, the family was tired and had run out of water. Mary, exhausted from the heat and travel, took shade under a palm tree. The infant Jesus commanded the palm tree to bend itself down and allow Mary to reach its fruit and take refreshment (Pseudo-Matthew §20).
(2) As they passed through a major city (in the region of Hermopolis), the many idols standing in the great temple there all fell to the ground and were shattered (Pseudo-Matthew §22-24, Arabic Infancy Gospel §10).
Pilgrimage sites associated with the journey of the Holy Family can be found along a stretch of some 200+ miles, from Cairo (Abu Serga) down to el-Qusiya (Deir el-Muharraq).

Birth of the Son of God: Epiphany

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:

  1. Jesus as light
  2. Light imagery in the Infancy narratives, principally the star of Matt 2:1-12
  3. 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:

Luke 1:78-79

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.

Luke 2:32

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 [174] frag 1 vv. 8-9; 1QCatena [177] 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])

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:1-12

This is the second of three seasonal notes in celebration of Epiphany (Jan 6): the first looked at the overall structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matthew 2) and the central Scripture verse (Micah 5:2) cited in the first half of the chapter (vv. 1-12). This passage emphasizes the visit of the “Magi” (Magoi)—the origin and nature of these “Wise Men” will be discussed briefly at the end of this article; here I will examine several Old Testament passages which may have helped shape the narrative, or which correspond to certain details in the text as it has come down to us.

1. Numbers 24:17

This is part of Balaam’s (fourth and final) oracle as recorded in Numbers 23-24. There are two aspects of the verse which may relate to the narrative in Matthew 2:1-12: (a) the overall setting of the passage, and (b) the star.

(a) The narrative setting

Numbers 22-24 records several traditions (and oracle poems) connected with Balaam (<u*l=B! Bil±¹m), a somewhat mysterious figure (to us) who was no doubt much better known to Israelites of the late-second/early first millennium B.C. living in Canaan (inscription fragments from Deir ±All¹ [c. 700] refer to him, as a “seer [hzj] of the gods”). There is a certain parallel to details of the Magi narrative in Matthew:

  • A ‘wicked’ king (Balak [ql*B*]) summons the seer Balaam for help against “the children of Israel” (22:5) who had “come out from Egypt” (cf. Matt 2:15 [Hos 11:1])
  • Balaam is a seer who received revelations from God (24:15-16), while the Magi apparently also receive revelatory visions and/or dreams (Matt 2:12). The LXX states that Balaam received his visions “in sleep” [e)n u%pnw|] (24:16, also v. 4).
  • Balaam comes “from the east” (Num 23:7; LXX a)p’ a)natolw=n, the same phrase in Matt 2:1).
  • Balaam prophecies the future of Israel (in four oracles: Num 23:7-10, 18-24; 24:3-9, 15-24); there is also a prophecy [Micah 5:2] in Matthew, cited by the “priests and scribes” (not the Magi).
  • The prophecies mention the coming of a star out of Israel [Jacob] signifying the arrival of a powerful ruler (Num 24:17ff—on this, see below).
  • Balaam is warned by an angel (Num 22:31-35); the Magi are warned in a dream in Matt 2:12 (an angel is not mentioned, but is sometimes assumed according to the pattern in 1:20; 2:13, 19).
  • Balaam departs back to his own place (Num 24:25); the Magi return to their own country (Matt 2:12)

(b) The Star

Numbers 24:17, part of Balaam’s fourth oracle, begins as follows:

I see him, but not now;
I perceive him, but not near;
A star will march [ird] from Ya±¦qœ» {Jacob},
and a staff will rise [<wq] from Yi´ra°¢l {Israel}…

The reference is clearly to a ruler who will crush the enemies of Israel and exercise dominion over the surrounding nations (see esp. verse 19). Many critical scholars would hold that this refers to the Davidic monarchy, and to the person of David (as star and scepter), whether as a genuine or ex eventu prophecy. However, by the time of the New Testament, this passage had come to be understood in a (future) Messianic sense. It is cited numerous times in the Qumran documents (1QSb 5:27; 1QM [War Scroll] 11:6-7; and 4Q175 [Testimonia]), either in a ‘Messianic’ or eschatological context. Most notably it occurs in the related Damascus Document (CD [Cairo MS A]), in 7:19, where the star is the “Interpreter of the Law who shall come” and the staff/scepter is the coming “Prince of the whole congregation”. In some Qumran texts, there are apparent references to two Anointed [Messiah] figures—one “of Israel”, a royal (Davidic) Messiah, presumably identified with the “Branch of David” and the “Prince of the Congregation”; the other “of Aaron”, a priestly Messiah, likely identified (as here) with the “Interpreter of the Law”. Yet there are other texts which seem to recognize only one ‘Messiah’, so the situation in the Community (represented in the texts) is far from certain.

This view of Num 24:17 was aided greatly by the peculiar reading of the Septuagint (LXX): instead of a staff/scepter [fb#v@], it reads “a man [a&nqrwpo$] will rise out of Israel”. This may reflect an interpretive gloss which somehow made its way into the text. We find something similar in the Jewish/Christian (Pseudepigraphic) Testament of Judah 24:1-6, where “a man will rise” is connected with the “scepter” of the kingdom and a “staff of righteousness”. That this Messianic interpretation was relatively widespread by the time the Gospels were written is indicated from its mention by Philo of Alexandria (On Rewards and Punishments §95), an author who otherwise had little interest in Messianic predictions as such. It is also worth noting that it was applied to Simon bar-Kosiba (as bar-Kochba, “son of the Star”), famously by Rabbi Akiba (j.Ta’anit 68d) in the context of the Jewish Revolt of 132-135 A.D.—cf. also b.Sanh. 93b; Justin Martyr, First Apology 31.6; Eusebius, Church History 4.6.1-4, 8.4.

2. Isaiah 60:1-6

Verse 1 of this famous passage begins:

Stand up [i.e. rise], shine! for your light has come,
and the weight [i.e. glory] of YHWH has shot forth [i.e. risen/shined] upon you

Note also verse 2b-3:

…and YHWH will shoot forth [i.e. rise] upon you,
and His weight [i.e. glory] will be seen upon you;
And the nations will walk to your light,
and kings to the brilliance of your rising/shining

Then further on in verses 5b-6:

…for the roaring [i.e. wealth/abundance] of the sea will be turned over upon [i.e. to] you,
(the) strength [i.e. wealth] of the nations will come to you—
an abundance of camels will cover you,
(young) camels of Midyan and ±Ephah;
all of them from Sheba will come,
gold and white-resin [i.e. incense] they will carry,
and praises of YHWH they will bring (as a message)

It is scarcely necessary to comment on the similarities to details in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi. The original oracle in Isaiah prophecies the future greatness of Israel/Judah, with nations bringing their wealth (to Jerusalem) to the house of God (verse 7).

3. Psalm 72:10-11

In Psalm 72 we find a similar theme as in Isaiah 60:1-6, but in the more general context of the ideal (righteous) king—strengthened and supported by God, he will extend the dominion (of Israel) so that kings of the surrounding nations will serve him and offer tribute (vv. 8-11, 15). Note especially verses 10-11:

(Let) the kings of Tarshish and (of) the islands return gift(s),
(let) the kings of Sheba’ and Seba’ bring present(s) near;
(Let) all kings bow (themselves) down to him,
and (let) all nations serve him

See also Psalm 68:29 and Isaiah 49:7. It is no doubt due to these references that the idea of the Magi as kings developed in Christian tradition.

But exactly who were the “Magi” in Matthew’s narrative?

Originally the Magi (magu, Avestan moghu/magauno) were a Medo-Persian tribe (and priestly caste); however, by the time of the New Testament, the word ma/go$ [pl. ma/goi] could refer to a wide range of characters: astronomers, astrologers, magicians and fortune-tellers or diviners of all sorts—i.e. any number of practitioners or dabblers in (pseudo-)science or the occult arts. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word is used of Elymas (bar-Jesus), a (Jewish) ‘prophet’ connected to the proconsul at Cyprus (Acts 13:6-11). Simon of Samaria in Acts 8:9ff would be considered a ma/go$, for he is said to have “practiced ‘magic'” (mageu/w). Most likely, Matthew uses the word in the general (and neutral) sense of “astronomer/astrologer”—the only thing that can be said of the “Magi” for certain is: (1) they observed and took special note of a star “in the rising [a)natolh=|]”, and (2) they were “from the East [lit. risings, a)natolw=n]”.

With regard to the second phrase, one might still speculate as to the possible origin of these “Magi” at the historical level of the narrative. There are two main theories:

  1. They are (Zoroastrian) astronomer/astrologers from somewhere in the Persian (Parthian) Empire. There is an ancient Christian tradition connecting these Magi with a (supposed) prophecy by Zoroaster regarding the coming of the Messiah (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria [Stromateis 1:15; 6:5] and found in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, etc). Some would narrow the location to Babylonia (Babylonians [“Chaldeans”] were typically associated with astronomy/astrology), northwest Mesopotamia, or possibly eastern Asia Minor at the border of the Roman/Persian empires.
  2. They come from “Arabia”—either the (SW) Arabian Peninsula, or more broadly to include the eastern desert region of Syria-Palestine, Nabatea and Sinai, etc. The gifts offered (Matt 2:11) might confirm this general location, particularly if the Gospel writer had Isa 60:5-6 and Psalm 72:10-11 in mind as well (see above), for Midian, Seba, and Sheba point to the eastern desert and western Arabia. Certainly, this association was well-established in Christian tradition by the end of the second century, for it is mentioned by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 78) and Tertullian (Against Marcion 3:13).

The second theory is, I should say, rather more likely. If so, it is still not clear whether these “Magi” were Jews or Gentiles—both are possible, and neither is specified in the text. Christian tradition early on understood them to be non-Jews, and that may well be what the Gospel writer has in mind.

Today one probably tends to view the humble Shepherds of Luke 2 more fondly than the ‘Kings’ of Matthew 2, but in the early and medieval Church, the Magi had the pride of place, for they were thought to prefigure the conversion of the Gentiles. In medieval and Renaissance art images of the Three Kings abound (see detail of the Cologne “Shrine of the Three Kings” by Nicholas of Verdun to the right). The scene appealed especially to European kings and princes who wished to see themselves as pious patrons of the Church (and the arts). Relics purported to be from the Magi also were widespread and highly prized. The number of Magi varied early on, but tradition ultimately settled on three—in the West their names were established by the end of the 6th century—Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:6

In celebration of Epiphany, I will be devoting three successive notes to the Matthean Infancy Narrative (chapter 2)—the first (today) will outline the structure of the passage and look at the Old Testament citation from Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:6), while the second and third (Jan 5 & 6) will examine the background of the two narrative strands (or parts) that make up the passage.

The chapter can be divided several ways:

Into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

  1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
  2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
    • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)
      • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
        “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
    • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
      [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

Into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

  • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
    “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)
    • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
  • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
    “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)
    • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
      [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

Dividing chapter 2 into the two parts of vv. 1-12 and vv. 13-21[23], we can isolate two main interlocking narrative strands:

  1. The visit of Magoi (“Magi”) from the east (emphasized in vv. 1-12)
  2. The journey into (and out of) Egypt to escape the slaughter of children by Herod (in vv. 13-21)

It is possible to separate each of these out into clear and consistent independent narratives, which suggests that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) has likely joined together separate traditions (for a good discussion and illustration of this point, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah Anchor Bible Reference Library [1977, 1993], esp. pp. 104-119, 192-193, 228-229). This can be admitted as a valid theory, even if one accepts without question the historicity of the narrative as it has come down to us.

The Scripture passage in 2:1-12 (Micah 5:2):

First, one may note that, unlike other citations in the Infancy Narrative (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author; however, critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel. Be that as it may, there are a couple of distinct differences between Micah 5:2 and the other passages (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23) cited by the Gospel writer as prophecies related to Jesus:

  1. The original context of the passage is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation (on this, see the discussion below).
  2. It is the only passage which appears to have been independently applied to the Messiah in Judea prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:42. The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well.

On both of these points, it is clear enough that, if one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see earlier articles on this passage]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. Only Isa 7:14 is likely to have been understood in this way, but there is little evidence of such use in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. As I indicated above, the case is somewhat different for Micah 5:2:

  • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
  • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?); there is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also much more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
  • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
  • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
  • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my notes on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]


And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

  • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
  • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
  • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
  • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. Is this a way of identifying the ruler of Micah specifically with (a descendent of) David?

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.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:23

Matthew 2:23

Today’s article in this series will explore the third episode of section 2:13-23 (vv. 19-23), the second of two Angelic dream-appearances to Joseph (vv. 13-15, cf. also 1:18-25). On the pattern of Israel’s entry into Egypt and the Exodus (cf. the earlier article on verse 15), this episode corresponds with the Exodus. This reflects the overall theme of the Moses/Jesus parallel and the Moses Infancy narrative. Indeed, the Angel’s words in verse 20 match closely those in Exod 4:19—the death of Herod corresponding to the death of the Pharaoh. Just as Moses returned to lead his people out of Egypt, so Jesus (with his parents) returns from out of Egypt to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The parallel between the two Angelic appearances is nearly exact, giving great literary (and dramatic) symmetry to the section.

The purpose of the added detail in vv. 22-23 would seem to be to explain how it was that Jesus came to live in Nazareth, a well-established Gospel tradition. Contrary to the scenario in the Lukan Infancy narrative, there is no indication in the Matthean account itself that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth prior to the birth of Jesus. Whether or not this is the understanding of the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew), he is not giving us simple geographical information here; rather, the introduction of this detail, with the Scripture citation, serves another purpose as well—as a foreshadowing of the Messianic associations with which the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is narrated (3:11-12, 17, and, especially, 4:15-16). The next reference to Nazareth is in 4:13, just prior to the quotation from Isa 9:1-2, a (Messianic) passage also interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (vv. 6-7 [Heb vv. 5-6]). It is most improbable that the Scripture (in v. 23) is cited merely as a prophecy that Jesus would live in Nazareth. In all likelihood, there is a play on words involved here, though it is difficult to determine this with precision, as there is considerable uncertainty regarding which Scripture is being quoted. Verse 23b reads:

“…how that [i.e. so that] the (thing) uttered through the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] might be fulfilled, that ‘he will be called a Nazoraean’.”

This declaration does not correspond with anything in the Prophets, nor elsewhere in the Old Testament Scripture. In light of this, there are four main possibilities which need to be considered, and which scholars have addressed in various ways:

  • The author is quoting from a book (or section) which is not part of the Old Testament as it has come down to us
  • He is using a form or version of an existing Scripture which is otherwise unknown to us
  • He is adapting, combining, or otherwise interpreting an existing Scripture (or Scriptures) in light of the context and his purpose
  • It is not a direct quotation; rather, the author is referring indirectly to one or more Scripture passages which would support the interpretation of events which he gives

In my view, only the last two can seriously be considered as viable options. Which Scripture, or Scriptures, is the author quoting (directly) or alluding to (indirectly)? I would highlight four passages which are legitimate candidates (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 211-13). I will discuss them each in turn.

Isaiah 4:3 (and Judges 16:17)

R. E. Brown (Birth, pp. 223-25) makes a strong case for a combination of two verses—Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 16:17. The Hebrew of Isa 4:3a reads (in translation):

“And it will be (that for) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the (one) left over in Yerushalaim it will be said of him ‘(He is) holy [vodq* q¹dôš]'”

In the Greek LXX it is rendered:

“And it will be (that) the (one) left under [i.e. back] in ‚iyyôn and the (one) left down [i.e. behind] in Yerushalaim (they) will be called holy [a%gioi klhqh/setai]”

Judges 16:17 record the words of Samson:

“I (have been one) consecrated [ryz!n` n¹zîr] of [i.e. by/to] God from the belly of my mother”

There are two variations in the Greek LXX (MSS A and B):

“I am a Nazîr [nazirai=o$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (A)
“I am a holy (one) [a%gio$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (B)

There is thus known at least one instance where the Hebrew word for a Nazirite (n¹zîr) is both transliterated as Naziraíos and translated as “Holy (One)”. A similar substitution may have been made in Isa 4:3, whereby “he will be called (a) holy (one)” is modified to read “he will be called a Nazir”. In Greek Nazirai=o$ (Naziraíos) is close enough to Nazwrai=o$ (Nazœraíos) to make the wordplay possible.

Isaiah 11:1

The Hebrew of this verse is rendered as follows:

“And a (fresh) twig [rf#j) µœ‰er] will come up from the stump of Yishay {Jesse},
a (green) branch [rx#n@ n¢ƒer] from his roots will (grow and) bear fruit”

The wordplay would be between the noun n¢ƒer and the proper name Naƒra¾ or N¹ƒr¹y¹, etc (i.e. “Nazareth”). Isaiah 11:1-9 was an influential Messianic passage at the time of Jesus, though it is not used directly in early Christian tradition as recorded in the New Testament (cf. Rom 15:12 [citing Isa 11:10]); note Rev 22:16, and somewhat later, Justin’s Dialogue 126:1. Tree imagery, and the use of words such as µœ‰er, n¢ƒer, and ƒemaµ—all of which refer to a new/fresh growth (i.e. branch, shoot, bud, etc)—were often applied in a royal context, to a new or coming ruler (cf. Collins, Scepter, pp. 25-6). The word ƒemaµ (jm^x#) had clearer Messianic associations, due mainly to the prophecies in Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-16—the Qumran community, for example, refers to the Messiah-figure of the Davidic ruler type as the “Branch of David”.

There was definite use of Isa 11:1-4ff in a Messianic sense, by the mid-1st century B.C., as evidenced by quotations or allusions to it in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25ff; 18:6-8, and the Qumran texts 4QpIsa[Commentary on Isaiah]a frag. 7; 4Q285 frag. 5; 1QSb 5:21; from the 1st century B.C., cf. also 1 Enoch 49:3-4; 62:2-3; and 2/4 Esdras 13:10. At Qumran, the word n¢ƒer was used, not only of a Messiah figure, but for the Community itself, the “holy ones” (1QH xiv.15; xv.19; xvi.6, 8, 10; cf. Isa 60:21). In a similar way, perhaps, Christians came to be known as Nôƒ®rîm (“Nazoreans”)—cf. Acts 24:5; b. Sanh 43a.

Isaiah 42:6 / 49:6

A different root nƒr is found in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, both passages being among the so-called “Servant Songs”, oracles which lend themselves well for interpretation as Messianic prophecies. The verb n¹ƒar has the meaning “keep, protect, preserve, watch”. Compare the two verses in translation:

“I YHWH have called you…and I will keep you, and I will give you to (be) a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (42:6)
“…for you to be (called) my Servant, to cause the staffs [i.e. tribes] of Jacob to stand (again), and to make the (one)s kept/preserved [n§ƒûrê] of Israel to (re)turn, and I will give you to (be) a light for the nations” (49:6)

From the standpoint of Israelites and Jews in the post-exilic period, this would be interpreted in many circles as a prophecy of the Messianic Age and the restoration of Israel. The ones who are kept/preserved are the “holy ones” (cf. above), the faithful remnant, as in Isa 4:3. The expression “light to/for the nations” occurs in the Lukan Infancy narrative, in the Song of Simeon (Lk 2:32), where there is an allusion to one or both of these passages.

Jeremiah 31:6-7

The verb nƒr also is found in Jer 31:6, where the remnant motif is even clearer:

“For there (is indeed) a day (when the one)s keeping (watch) [nœƒ®rîm] will call (out) in the mount(ains) of Ephraim, ‘Stand (up)! and let us go up Zion to YHWH our God!'”

The remnant of Israel is introduced in vv. 7b and following. Note the interesting parallel with Matt 1:21:

“and (you shall) say, “YHWH save your people, the (ones) left behind [i.e. the remnant] in Israel!'” (Jer 31:7)
“and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people…” (Matt 1:21)


The problem with the last three options above is that the wordplay involves the underlying Hebrew text, and would have been lost on many, if not most, of the readers of the Greek Gospel. The first option is the only one which is at all feasible as a wordplay in Greek. On the other hand, Isa 11:1 would be much more appropriate as a Messianic prophecy applied to Jesus. Jerome, at least, was a Christian who had no difficulty making the connection between Hebrew n¢ƒer and “Nazorean” in the verse, and claims that it is the Scripture cited in Matt 2:23, “from his root will grow a Nazorean” (Letter 57.7, to Pammachius). Isaiah 11:1 also has the advantage of the overall context in the book, the parallels with 7:14; 9:1-7, which were interpreted as (Messianic) prophecies applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. If any, or all, of the passages suggested above are in the mind of the Gospel writer, it is possible to recognize two primary aspects which are likely at work:

  • Salvation for the remnant of God’s people, the holy ones, which the Messiah will bring
  • The Messiah (Christ) as the Holy One of God, chosen to bring about the salvation of his people

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). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

By all accounts, the tradition that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem stems from an interpretation of Micah 5:2ff, just as we see in the Matthean Infancy narrative. In the text, Herod brings together the leading religious officials (priests) and scribes (those learned in the Scriptures) and inquires of them “Where (is) the Anointed (One) [i.e. Messiah] to be born?” (Matt 2:4). Their answer (“in Bethlehem of Judea”), as presented in the narrative, is followed by a modified citation of Micah 5:2 [Heb v. 1]:

“And you, Bethlehem, (in) the land of Yehudah {Judah},
are not (in) one thing least among the leaders of Yehudah;
for (one) who leads [i.e. a leader] shall come out of you
who will shepherd my people Yisrael {Israel}.” (v. 6)

The portions in italics indicate points where the citation in Matthew differs from both the Hebrew (Masoretic) text and the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The last line is the result of joining 2 Sam 5:2 to the quotation from Micah. The differences otherwise are relatively slight, except for the first half of line 2, which alters entirely the sense of the original. It is hard to know whether this reflects a variant reading or an intentional change by the author; certainly, an early Christian such as the Gospel writer would be inclined here to emphasize the importance 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 (cf. the previous article). 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 6-8 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed” (soon to be posted here).

That Joseph was a descendant of David should be considered completely reliable on objective grounds. If early Christians had been inclined to accept or “invent” a fictitious (Davidic) origin for Jesus, for doctrinal reasons, they likely would have made Mary a descendant of David. And, indeed, this is precisely what happened subsequently in Christian tradition (cf. already in Ignatius Trallians 9:1; also Smyrneans 1:1; Ephesians 18:2; 20:2). The distinction of a genealogy based on legal, rather than biological, paternity was soon lost for Christians, especially as the faith spread out into the wider Greco-Roman world. Quite contrary to later developments, there is no indication in the Gospels whatever that Mary was herself a descendant of David. If the information in Lk 1:5, 36 is regarded as historically accurate, then it is more likely that Mary came from the line of Levi, rather than Judah. The only New Testament reference which might suggest otherwise is Romans 1:3, especially when compared with Gal 4:4. It has been popular in traditional-conservative circles, as a way to harmonize the apparent discrepancies between the two lists, to treat the genealogies in Matthew and Luke as being that of Joseph and Mary, respectively. However, such a solution is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).

Birth of the Son of God: Matthew 2:15

December 28th traditionally commemorates the “Massacre of the Innocents” as narrated in Matthew 2:13-23. In the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” I examined the use and influence of the Old Testament in this passage, especially the citation of Jeremiah 31:15 in verse 18. Today I will be looking specifically at the citation of Hosea 11:1 in verse 15, according to the theme for this Christmas season of “The Birth of the Son of God“.

Matthew 2:15 (Hosea 11:1b)

The citation of Hos 11:1b punctuates the flight into Egypt (vv. 14-15a), following the angelic appearance in a dream to Joseph, warning him (v. 13). The citation-formula follows in verse 15b:

“…(so) that it might be (ful)filled, the (thing) uttered by (the) Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son'”

The Gospel writer cites Hos 11:1b in a form closer to the Aquila version rather than the Septuagint (LXX), and is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

Hos 11:1b

yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* <y]r^x=M!m!W
“and from Egypt I called ‘My Son'”

Matt 2:15b

e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou
“out of Egypt I called my Son”

The Hebrew verb ar*q*, like the Greek kale/w, can mean “call” either in the sense of summoning a person or giving a name to someone; it is possible that both meanings of arq are played on in Hosea 11:1, as I indicate above with the use of quote marks.

In considering the expression “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=), as well as the plural “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), in the New Testament, early Christians appear to have drawn upon the three primary ways it is used in the Old Testament and ancient tradition:

  1. Of divine/heavenly beings, especially in the plural (“Sons of God”)
  2. Of the king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense
  3. Of the people of Israel (collectively) as God’s “son”

The first two uses will be discussed further in upcoming notes; here I focus on the third—Israel as the “son of God”. There are several passages in the Old Testament where Israel is referred to (collectively) as God’s son, most notably in Exod 4:22, but see also Isa 1:2f; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6, and here in Hos 11:1. Admittedly the title “son of God” does not appear in the Hebrew Old Testament in such a context, but the Greek ui(o\$ qeou= is used of Israel in the deutero-canonical Book of Wisdom (Wis 18:13, for more on this passage cf. below). Interestingly, the Prophetic references above draw upon a basic thematic construct:

  • Israel as a disobedient son
    • Disobedience brings punishment (i.e. exile)
      • God ultimately will restore his son, bringing him (repentant/obedient) back out of exile

This is very much the context of Hos 11. A number of the oracles in Hosea are messages of judgment couched in brief and evocative summaries of Israelite history, such as we see in chapter 11:

  • Israel/Ephraim as a disobedient child (vv. 1-4), with disobedience understood primarily in terms of idolatry, involving elements of pagan Canaanite religion
  • Disobedience leads to punishment (vv. 5-7), understood as a return to “Egypt”, i.e. conquest and exile into Assyria
  • (verses 8-9, in colorful anthropomorphic terms, depict God as being torn between whether or not to proceed with the judgment)
  • God ultimately will bring his son back out of exile (vv. 10-11)

All of this, of course, is foreign to the Gospel writer’s use of the passage, except in terms of the general framework of Exodus and Return from Exile. Certainly, he would not have seen Jesus as a disobedient son, though he may well have in mind a connection with Jesus (as Savior) and the sin of disobedient Israel (Matt 1:21). It would seem that the author (and/or the tradition he has inherited) really only has first verse of Hosea 11 in view, taking it more or less out of context and applying it to Jesus. There are four elements in the verse which might lead to it being used this way:

  • Israel as a child—Jesus is a child (infant)
  • The context of the Exodus narrative, especially the birth and rescue of Moses (Exod 1:15-2:10), for which there is a clear historical/literary correspondence and synchronicity with Matt 2:13-23
  • The mention of Egypt—coming out of “Egypt” is symbolic of both the Exodus and a Return from exile (in Assyria); note the exile context of Jer 31:15 as well—these themes have been applied in Matt 2:13-23 and influenced the shaping of the narrative
  • Israel as God’s son (“My Son”)

It is also possible that the birth of Israel (as God’s people, i.e. his “son”) is implied in Hos 11:1b. If we consider v. 1a as a kind of setting for the oracle—literally, “For Israel (was) a youth [ru^n~] and I loved him”, however the force of the syntax is best understood as a temporal clause: “When Israel was a youth/child, I loved him…” The context of vv. 2-4, as in Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9, suggests a child being raised (by God), who comes to be disobedient, unwilling to heed the guidance and authority of his Father. If so, then v. 1b could indicate the initial stages of life, i.e. the birth and naming of the child, in a metaphorical sense. Israel was “born” in Egypt (cf. Exod 4:22 and the death of the firstborn motif), passing through the waters (i.e. crossing the Sea), into life (the Exodus), being “raised” during the wilderness period and thereafter. It is in just such a context that God calls Israel “My Son”. Consider, in this regard, the naming associated with the conception/birth of Jesus in the angel’s announcement to Mary:

  • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest’ [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai]” (Lk 1:32)
  • “(the child)…will be called…’Son of God’ [klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=]” (Lk 1:35)
  • “I called (him) ‘My Son’ [yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou]” (Hos 11:1 / Matt 2:15)

There is an interesting connection here with the reference to Israel as “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=) in Wisdom 18:13, mentioned above. There, too, the setting is the Exodus, and specifically the death of the firstborn motif—beginning with the rescue of Moses (v. 5a), which is set in parallel with the tenth plague, involving the Passover celebration and the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which directly precedes and initiates the Exodus (cf. Exod 11-12). This is narrated in Wisdom 18:5b-12, after which we find the statement in verse 13b:

“upon the destruction of their first(born) offspring, as one [i.e. together] they counted (your) people to be (the) son of God”

The death of the firstborn is narrated again, even more powerfully, in vv. 14-19. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, verses 14-15 came to be associated with the incarnation and birth of Jesus, the Latin (Vulgate) rendering of Wis 18:14f becoming part of the Roman Catholic liturgy (Introit for the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas). On the one hand, this may be the ultimate example of Christians taking a Scriptural passage out of context, since, originally these verses referred to the coming of the (Messenger of) Death out of heaven (cf. Exod 11:4; 12:29). In the Exodus narrative, it is YHWH himself who comes bringing death, traditionally understood as taking place through a Messenger (“Angel”) of Death. In Wis 18:14-15, it is the personified “Word” (lo/go$) of God that comes out of heaven, and this is certainly the main reason for its application to the person of Christ. The highly evocative midnight setting was doubtless what caused it to be associated specifically with the night-time birth of Jesus. More properly, of course, Wisdom 18:5-19 would be better applied to the episode narrated in Matt 2:13-23—the “Slaughter of the Innocents”—but only insofar as both passages deal with the “death of the firstborn” motif from Exodus. In any event, it is striking that there are three different passages which combine: (a) the Exodus setting, (b) the death of the firstborn motif, and (c) Israel as “son of God”—Exodus 4:22; Wisdom 18:13; and Hosea 11:1 (as used by Matthew).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:15

Matthew 2:15

Today’s note looks at the third section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprising three episodes:

  • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
    —Joseph’s Response
    —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
  • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
    —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
  • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
    —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
    —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25 (cf. the prior note on 1:21). As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f). Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances really relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

  • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
  • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
  • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

In considering the main scripture cited in the first episode (Hosea 11:1; v. 15), it is interesting to note that the quotation matches the underlying Hebrew, instead of the LXX; as cited by Matthew it is:

“Out of Egypt I called my Son”
e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou

This quotation serves as a guiding theme for all three episodes, including the interpretation of them as scenes/periods of Israel’s history (cf. above):

In the Gospel of Matthew, as in the other Gospels, Jesus essentially never refers to himself by the title “Son of God”; rather, he uses the distinct Semitic expression “Son of Man”. However, Jesus is called the Son of God by others, or at least the title is used by others regarding him (Matt 3:17 [17:5]; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54 and pars). It occurs somewhat more frequently in Matthew. On several occasions, Jesus refers to himself with the absolute “the Son” (11:27; 24:36 par; 28:19), a self-reference which is far more common in the Gospel of John, and virtually always related to (God) the Father. In early Christian tradition, the title “Son of God” came to be regularly applied to Jesus, and was connected with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ). Note, for example, the first verse of the Markan Gospel (Mk 1:1), as well the conjunction of these titles in Acts 9:20-22; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc. This association was influenced, to a large extent, by a uniquely Christian application of the Messianic interpretation for Psalm 2:7—cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and the variant reading in Luke 3:22. Initially, in the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus was identified as God’s Son in connection with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, however, believers came to recognize this Sonship for Jesus in a more fundamental sense, going back to the Transfiguration scene, the Baptism, the Infancy Narratives, and even to the idea of his pre-existent (eternal) relation with the Father (John 1:1ff; Heb 1:2ff). It may be possible to glimpse something of this development in early Christian thought by examining the different versions of Peter’s confession. Mark’s is the simplest (8:29):

“You are the Anointed (One)”

In Luke (9:20) it is a bit longer:

“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God

Matthew’s version (16:16), however, is the most extensive:

“You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God

Interestingly, in the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the question of the High Priest, as recorded in Matthew (26:63), is nearly identical to Peter’s confession:

“according to the living God…(tell us) if you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God

There can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) would have understood Jesus as the Son of God even within the context of the Infancy Narrative, just as we see in Luke (cf. the note on Lk 1:32). However, this identification is not made explicit until later in the Gospel (at the Baptism), just as in the main Synoptic tradition. The title “Son of God”, is discussed in more detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

December 28 is the traditional date in the West commemorating the killing of the children in Bethlehem (The Slaughter/Massacre of the Innocents) as narrated in Matt 2:16-18. In Christian tradition they came to be regarded as the first Martyrs, those put to death for their faith in Christ. Their numbers increased considerably over the years, from 14,000 (in Greek Orthodox tradition) to 64,000, and even higher. However, if we accept the basic historicity of the narrative, then, at the historical level, the number of male children at the ages indicated may not have been more than two or three dozen. For the Old Testament background of this passage and the Scripture (Jer 31:15) cited in verse 18, cf. the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:16-18

The ‘fourth’ Day of Christmas (December 28) is associated in the Church Calendar with the “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2:16-18. I will be discussing this passage in more detail in a subsequent note for Epiphany; here I will look specifically at the Old Testament passage quoted in v. 18: Jeremiah 31:15 [LXX 38:15].

This is one of many “formula-citations” in the Gospel of Matthew, and the third of five used in the Infancy narrative: the first, Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23) I have already discussed in a series of Advent notes; the second, Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:5-6) will be treated prior to Epiphany. The setting for the Scripture passage is the “massacre” of the newborn children, narrated briefly in v. 16:

“Then Herod, seeing that he was (being) played with by the Magoi, was provoked (to anger) exceedingly, and setting forth (men) from (him), he took away [i.e. killed] all the children th(at were) in Beth-lehem and in all her borders, from two-years (old) and down [i.e. under], according to the time he (sought to) know precisely from [lit. alongside] the Magoi.”

Then the citation is introducted (v. 17): “then was fulfilled the utterance through Yirmeyah {Jeremiah} the foreteller, saying…” Jeremiah 31:15 exists in four principal forms: the Hebrew MT, the LXX A (Alexandrinus) text, the LXX B (Vaticanus) text, and the version in Matthew. The version in LXX A and Matthew is fairly close to the MT, although there is some indication, at least in this instance, that Matthew may reflect a more accurate Hebrew original. Here are the three versions side-by-side:

Hebrew (MT)

Thus says YHWH:
“A voice in Ramah was heard, mourning and weeping of bitterness [i.e. bitter weeping];
Rachel, weeping over her sons refused to be comforted [over her sons],
for he is no (more)”

LXX A [38:15]

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice in the height [B Ramah] was heard, of wailing and weeping and mourning,
Rachel, weeping (aloud) over her sons, and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
Ou%tw$ ei@pen ku/rio$
fwnh\ e)n th u(yhlh [B Rama] h)kousqh qrh/nou kai\ klauqmou= kai\ o)durmou=:
Raxhl a)poklaiome/nh$ e)pi\ tw=n ui(w=n au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

Matthew 2:18

“A voice in Ramah was heard, weeping and much mourning;
Rachel, weeping (for) her children [te/kna], and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
qwnh\ e)n  (Rama\ h)kou/sqh klauqmo\$ kai\ o)durmo\$ polu/$:  (Raxh\l klai/ousa ta\ te/kna au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

It is possible that the repeated phrase “over her sons” in the MT is a scribal error or addition, as well as the curious singular suffix in the last line “he is no (more)”; if so, then Matthew (and LXX A) may reflect a more accurate underlying Hebrew text than the MT. Unfortunately, verse 15 is not preserved among the six (highly fragmentary) Jeremiah scrolls from Qumran.

In applying Jer 31:15 to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christians both saw themselves related to this “new covenant” with God.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). The town Ramah (lit. “height”, so translated by LXX A) was in the territory of Benjamin, on the border of Ephraim and not far from Bethel; it may be the same as Ramah/Ramathaim the hometown of Samuel’s father, and is usually identified with modern er-Râm. According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem. However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (see Matt 2:14-15, 19-21). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus (cf. my earlier Advent season note).

At the historical level, given the likely population of a relatively small town like Bethlehem, the number of male infants slaughtered would probably have been fewer than one hundred (perhaps even less than fifty). However, as the tradition developed, and legendary or fabulous details were added, the number expanded considerably—most commonly 14,000, as in Greek Orthodox tradition, but occasionally even higher. These “Holy Innocents” came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs.