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.

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 2:2, 4

Matthew 2:2, 4

The next section in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. There are two important names, or titles, in this narrative, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (pou=), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

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

Each of these titles will be discussed in turn.

“King of the Jews” ([o(] basileu\$ tw=n  )Ioudai/wn)

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

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

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

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

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

“The Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$)

This was already used as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I discuss the important title [o(] xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Cf. also the recent note on Luke 2:11.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts, esp. CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta±anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Cf. Brown, Birth, p. 195; Collins, Sceptre, pp. 202-3. Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The other Scripture cited in the passage, Micah 5:2ff (+2 Sam 5:2), is quoted in response to Herod’s question. Herod the Great was of Idumean lineage, and so, to a large extent, would have been considered a foreigner by many Jews. He would have felt especially threatened by the Davidic ruler idea; and, indeed, there is a rough parallel to the Matt 2 episode in Josephus’ Antiquities 17.43 (cf. also Ant. 17.174-8; War 1.660; Brown, Birth, pp. 227-8), which, at the very least, illustrates his paranoid and violent character. There is a kind of irony expressed in Matt 2:8, where Herod, under a deceptive guise, declares his intention to give homage to this child, this new ruler.

The star marks both the time and place of the Messiah’s birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), specifically fulfilling the prophecy (or prophecies) mentioned above. For similar ideas and parallels in Greco-Roman myth and literature, see e.g., Aeneid 2.694; Suetonius Augustus 94; and note especially the prophecy mentioned by Josephus in War 6.310ff (cf. also Tacitus, Histories 5:13). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-1.

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

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).