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Note of the Day – January 5

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.

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