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Magi

December 29: Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

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Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

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

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

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

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (cf. the previous day’s note). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

  • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah”—this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
  • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among”—as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
  • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah”—the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
  • “who will shepherd by people Israel”—this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

  • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry. It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
  • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
  • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
  • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
  • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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

December 27: Matthew 2:2, 4

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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. my earlier Christmas season note 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 have discussed the important title [o(] xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in my earlier 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 (cf. Parts 6-8 of “Yeshua the Messiah”), 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).

 

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.