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Note of the Day – January 6

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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])



Note of the Day – January 5

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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:

  • Mark 14:61—”Anointed” | “Son of the Blessed One” (cf. also 15:32)
  • Matt 26:63—”Anointed” | “Son of God” (also v. 68; 27:17, 22, 40,43)
  • Lk 22:67, 70—”Anointed” | “Son of God” (also 23:35, 39)
  • John—no such episode (cf. Jn 18:19ff), but there is perhaps an echo of it in 19:7 (“Son of God”)

Second, the scene (in all four Gospels) where Pilate questions Jesus:

  • “King of the Jews”—Mark 15:2 / Matt 27:11 / Lk 23:3 / Jn 18:33
    —and repeated in Mk 15:12, 18; Lk 23:37; Jn 18:39; 19:3, also vv. 12, 14-15

And note also:

  • the soldiers’ actions mocking Jesus (Mark 15:17-20 par)
  • the juxtaposition of “Anointed” and “King of Israel” in Mark 15:32 (cf. also Matt 27:42)
  • the special reference of Jesus’ kingdom in Luke 23:42

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 previous notes for more on this remarkable saying, which brings together so beautifully the birth and the death of the Son of God.

Note of the Day – January 6

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This is the last of three notes in celebration of Epiphany: the first explored the structure of the Matthean Infancy Narrative (Matt 2) and the central Scripture (Micah 5:2) quoted in vv. 1-12, the second examined the main narrative of vv. 1-12 (the Visit of the Magi), and today’s will explore the principal narrative in vv. 13-23 (the Flight to Egypt). Of these two narrative strands, the latter is the dominant one, for it extends back into the beginning of chapter 2. I discussed the central Scripture of vv. 13-23 (Jeremiah 31:15) in an earlier note; today the focus will be on the Old Testament background for the passage.

There are two main parallels at work, each of which will be examined in relation to Matthew 2:13-23:

  1. The Birth and early Life of Moses
  2. The theme of the Exodus

1. The Birth and early Life of Moses

Three elements from the narratives in Exodus 1-4 (and related Jewish tradition) can be isolated, each of which relates to the three sections in Matt 2:13-23 and help to define the structure of the passage:

  • A wicked king who seeks to destroy a divine/chosen child who is prophecied to become ruler/savior, and the rescue/escape of the child (vv. 13-15, also vv. 1-9)
  • Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)
  • Death of the wicked king, which allows the chosen child to return (vv. 19-21[23])

As should be clear from the points above, this narrative structure not only draws from the Exodus stories but reflects an archetypal narrative found in traditional tales (myth/folklore) around the world. This has caused many commentators naturally to question the historicity of the narrative in Matthew. In passing, it may be helpful here to summarize the basic positions which have been taken (in relation to the Exodus/Matthew parallels):

1) They reflect a special historical synchronicity between (entirely factual) events
2) Historical events (in general) have been shaped (by the author or earlier tradition) under the influence of the Exodus stories (in literary detail)
3) The Gospel writer records/adapts an original tradition (of uncertain/questionable historicity) which draws from the Exodus stories
4) The Gospel writer has essentially created an episode of historical fiction, in imitation of the Exodus stories (and related traditions)

Many traditional-conservative scholars would opt for #1, while at least some critical scholars suspect #4; the majority of moderate commentators (on all sides) probably would adopt some form of #2 or 3. On purely objective grounds, #2 would seem the most plausible, but I will leave it to thoughtful and informed readers (believers) in humility to judge the matter for themselves.

a. The Wicked King and Chosen Child (Matt 2:13-15, and vv. 1-9)

Exodus 1:8-22 records that the new Pharaoh feared the increasing Israelite population and eventually sought to cut down their numbers by killing the newborn males (attempts are made by two different means, vv. 15-19 and 20-22). On the face of it, this does not seem to be an especially close parallel to Matthew’s narrative; however, at the time of the New Testament, several details had been added to the Exodus story within Jewish tradition (attested earliest by Josephus):

  • Pharaoh is warned by his “(sacred) scribes” that a child was about to be born who would deliver Israel and bring low the kingdom of Egypt (see Josephus Antiquities II.205)—in subsequent Rabbinic tradition, astrologers advise Pharaoh to drown the Hebrew children (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.18, cf. also b.Sanh. 101a); also in some versions of the story, the warning/prophecy is foreseen by Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ (see b.Sotah 12b), or in a dream which they interpret.
  • The prophecy of this child caused fear and dread for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jos. Ant. II.206, 215), a possible parallel to Matt. 2:3. See a second attempt to kill the child Moses, instigated by Pharaoh’s scribes in Ant. II.234ff (cf. also II.255).
  • There is also a legend of a light which appeared at Moses’ birth (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.20), and that the stars above gave homage to the ‘light’ of Moses’ birth (cf. Sefer ha-Yashar [67]).

These details bring the Exodus story closer to Matthew’s narrative, and may have been familiar to the Gospel writer and/or its original audience.

The escape/rescue of the child (vv. 13-15)

This is narrated in Exodus 2:1-4ff, but note the version as recorded in Josephus (Ant. II.212-216, 219ff), whereby Moses’ father (Amram) is warned and encouraged by God in a dream, after which he takes steps to protect the child (in Ex 2:2-3, Moses’ mother initiates the hiding); all of this, again, brings the story closer to Matthew. In passing, one may also note the unusual/miraculous nature of Moses’ birth in early Jewish tradition, that it was painless (Jos. Ant. II.218, cf. also b.Sotah 12a, Midrash Rabbah on Ex. I.20)—which serves as a correlation to the ‘curse’ of Eve (a similar Mary-Eve parallel related to Jesus’ birth became commonplace in Christian tradition).

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [e)zh/tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [zhtei=n] the child to destroy it” (v. 13). Again Josephus’ narrative is a bit closer overall to that of Matthew, cf. Ant. II.255-256.

b. Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)

There is here only a general parallel between v. 16 and Exodus 2:22; the lack of corresponding detail could be seen as confirmation of the historicity of vv. 16-18. There is conceivably a faint correspondence between Pharaoh being ‘tricked’ as it were by the midwives (Ex 2:17ff) and Herod provoked to anger at being ‘tricked’ [lit. played with] by the Magi (v. 16). The narrative here is so brief (a single verse) that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison.

c. Death of the wicked king (vv. 19-21[23])

This provides perhaps the closest parallel between the Exodus and Matthean narratives (precise or close verbal and syntactical parallels are indicated with italics):

Exodus 4:19-20 (LXX)

19But with [i.e. after] these many days the king of Egypt was finished [e)teleu/thsen], and (the) Lord said to Moses in Midan: “Walk! Go from (here) into Egypt! For all the (ones) seeking your soul have died“.

Matthew 2:19-21

19But (at) Herod’s being finished [teleuth/santo$ i.e. having died], see—a Messenger of the Lord shone forth [i.e. appeared] by a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20saying: “Rising, take along the child and his mother and travel into (the) land of Israel, for the (ones) seeking the soul of the child have died.”

20And taking up the woman and the child, Moses put them up upon a (beast) under-yoke [i.e. beast-of-burden] and turned about [i.e. returned] into Egypt…

21And rising, the (man) [i.e. Joseph] took along the child and his mother and came into (the) land of Israel.

Especially noteworthy is the virtually identical Greek phrase in Ex 4:19/Matt 2:20: ga\r oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n (“for the ones seeking the soul”)… teqnh/kasin (“have died”).

2. The theme of the Exodus

This is applied very simply to the narrative of Matt 2:13-23, interwoven through the Moses/Pharaoh paradigm, as can be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

  • The wicked king seeks to destroy the chosen child (divine announcement [in a dream]), and the rescue/escape of the child—v. 13
    • Entrance into Egypt—v. 14-15
      • Newborn children killed by the wicked king—v. 16-18
    • Return (Exodus) from Egypt—v. 21ff
  • Death of the wicked king (divine announcement [in a dream]), allowing the return of the child—v. 19-20

To emphasize the symmetry here, I have taken the liberty of reversing vv. 19-20 and 21ff above.

It should be noted, of course, that the Exodus theme appears specifically in the Scripture citation in verse 15; indeed, the original context of Hosea 11:1 is simply a reference to the Exodus, with Israel as God’s “son” (in a symbolic/covenantal sense). A common idiom for the Israelites (people of Israel) is “sons of Israel”—almost certainly we should understand a correspondence here between the child Jesus and the sons [children] of Israel (as much as between Jesus and Moses) in the Gospel narrative.

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, January 6 was the date originally established for the birth of Jesus, just as December 25 was in the West (at about the same time, late-3rd century). In the East, Jesus’ birth was referred to as “Epiphany [e)pifa/neia]” (later “Theophany”)—the manifestation/appearing [shining, fai/nw] of God [qeo/$] upon [e)pi] us. Through a ‘cultural-exchange’ of sorts, Jan. 6 was adopted in the West (associated primarily with the Visitation of the Magi), while Dec. 25 became the date commemorating Jesus’ birth (with Jan. 6 now devoted especially to the Baptism of Jesus). Baptism had already been an important theme of Christmas/Epiphany, for it was on such holy Feast days that catechumens often were brought forward to be baptized. For more on the connection between the birth and baptism of Jesus in Eastern tradition, see a prior article posted last January for Epiphany.

Note of the Day – January 5

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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.

Note of the Day – January 4

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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’:

  • Birth of Jesus (1:18-25) [dream/visitation to Joseph]—OT: Isaiah 7:14
  • Visit of the Magi (2:1-12) [dream/warning to the Magi, v. 12] —OT: Micah 5:2
  • Flight to Egypt (2:13-21[23]) [two-fold dream/visitation to Joseph, v. 13, 20]—OT: Jeremiah 31:15

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 notes]; 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 note 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?

January 6 — Epiphany

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January 6 is the traditional date celebrating Christ’s Epiphany (e)pifa/neia, “appearing upon [earth]”). By the third century, the Eastern Church celebrated the birth of Jesus on this date. Only late in the century, in the West, was a similar date adopted—December 25, presumably to combat the pagan festival of the Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the Sun-god, signifying the victorious return of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. Certainly the return of the sun conquering the darkness fit just as well the Birth of Jesus, and the seasonal imagery was widespread in early Christian hymns and commentary. A kind of cultural exchange seems to have ensued—Dec. 25 was adopted in the East, and Jan. 6 in the West—a transfer which must have taken place by the mid-fourth century, since both feast days are mentioned in context by Ephrem the Syrian (cf. his Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 13). In the West the celebration came to focus on the Visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12), while in the East the emphasis was on the Baptism of Jesus—an association no doubt unfamiliar to most Western Christians today.

The Eastern Churches developed an exceptionally rich Baptismal tradition—far surpassing that of the West—and which can best be seen in the hymns and liturgy of the Syrian Church. The principal motif was the robe of glory—the glory with which Adam was originally clothed; this glory was lost (at the Fall), and then restored by Christ. This image seems to derive primarily from a variant reading of Genesis 3:21: instead of rou tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ ±ôr, “garments of skin”) is read roa tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ °ôr, “garments of light”)—nearly identical in sound and spelling. From this came the idea of “clothing of glory”, which passed through the Aramaic Targum and wider Jewish tradition, into the early Syrian Church. Ephrem the Syrian draws upon the image many times in his hymns. Here are a few examples (translations from S. P. Brock, The Luminous Eye, 1992 [Cistercian Publications], pp. 85-97):

Christ came to find Adam who had gone astray,
He came to return him to Eden in the garment of light. (Hymn 16 on Virginity, st. 9)

and it was Christ who was able to reclothe them
in the glory they had stripped off, thus replacing the leaves (Hymn 1 on the Nativity, st. 43)

The glory was restored specifically through the Incarnation, at two points: (1) by Christ taking on the ruined flesh of Adam (and Eve) in the womb of Mary, and Mary in turn being clothed with the glory of Christ (the ‘new Adam’)—

Eve in her virginity put on leaves of shame,
but Your mother, Lord, in her virginity
has put on a robe of glory
that encompasses all people,
while to Him who covers all,
she gives a body as a tiny garment. (Hymn 17 on the Nativity, st. 4)

In Bethlehem did king David put on fine linen,
but David’s Lord and Son
hid his glory there in His swaddling clothes.
These same swaddling clothes
provided a robe of glory for humankind. (Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 4)

And (2) when Christ was baptized, he ‘returned’ this glory within the waters, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit—

In baptism did Adam find
that glory which had been his among the trees of Paradise;
he went down and took it from the water,
put it on, went up and was held in honour in it.
(Ps.-Ephrem, Hymn 12 on Epiphany, st. 1)

As the daystar in the river,
the bright One in the tomb,
He shone forth on the mountain top
and gave brightness too in the womb;
He dazzled as He went up from the river,
gave illumination at His ascent.  (Hymn 36 on the Church, st. 5)

All sorts of related images come together in the Syrian baptismal tradition—primeval light/glory, washing/cleansing, the brightness of oil for chrism/anointing, the Holy Spirit hovering over the water, the Spirit as fire hidden in the water, the Pauline motif of ‘putting on’ Christ (cf. Gal. 3:27: “for as many of you as have been dipped [i.e. baptized] into Christ, you have put [yourselves] in [i.e. put on] Christ”), and so forth. Especially noteworthy is the image of the Holy Spirit as light/oil/fire in the water—”In fire is the symbol of the Spirit, it is a type of the Holy Spirit who is mixed in the baptismal water”(Ephrem’s Hymn 40 on the Faith, st. 10); “…the Father rejoices, the Son exults, the Spirit hovers; the baptismal water is set aflame with fire and the Spirit” (Syrian Orthodox/Maronite service, cf. S. P. Brock, The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, p. 12); “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore You, see, Fire and Spirit in the river in which You were baptized; Fire and Spirit in our Baptism…” (Ephrem, Hymn 10 on the Faith, st. 17). This is a powerful echo of the words of John regarding Jesus: “…he will dip [i.e. baptize] you in the Holy Spirit and Fire”.

Interestingly, it is possible that this baptismal imagery has crept into the narrative of Jesus’ baptism: in the Old Latin MS (a) and one Vulgate MS, the following appears between Matthew 3:15 and 16—”And when Jesus was being baptized a great/tremendous light flashed from/around the water, so that all who had gathered there were afraid” (translation from Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on  the Greek NT, 2d ed., p. 8). Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88), and Epiphanius (Panarion 30.13.7) have similar references. Not surprisingly, the baptism of Jesus was also graphically described along these lines in the Diatessaron of Tatian, an early Gospel Harmony which was immensely popular and influential, especially in the Syrian Church (cf. the Commentaries of Ephrem [IV. §5] and Ish‘odad of Merv).

So, in the Eastern tradition, when the individual believer undergoes baptism, he/she puts on the same glory which Jesus left in the waters at His baptism, mystically, through the residing power of the Spirit. How many Christians being baptized today envision anything of the sort?