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Matthean Infancy Narrative

December 30: Matthew 2:23

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Matthew 2:23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 4:3 (and Judges 16:17)

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

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

In the Greek LXX it is rendered:

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

Judges 16:17 record the words of Samson:

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 11:1

The Hebrew of this verse is rendered as follows:

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

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

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

Isaiah 42:6 / 49:6

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

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

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

Jeremiah 31:6-7

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).

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 28: Matthew 2:15

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Matthew 2:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
  • The Exile—Jer 31:15
  • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

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

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

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

In the Gospel of Matthew, as in the other Gospels, Jesus essentially never refers to himself by the title “Son of God”; rather, he uses the distinct Semitic expression “Son of Man” (on this title, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). However, Jesus is called the Son of God by others, or at least the title is used by others regarding him (Matt 3:17 [17:5]; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54 and pars). It occurs somewhat more frequently in Matthew. On several occasions, Jesus refers to himself with the absolute “the Son” (11:27; 24:36 par; 28:19), a self-reference which is far more common in the Gospel of John, and virtually always related to (God) the Father. In early Christian tradition, the title “Son of God” came to be regularly applied to Jesus, and was connected with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ). Note, for example, the first verse of the Markan Gospel (Mk 1:1), as well the conjunction of these titles in Acts 9:20-22; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc. This association was influenced, to a large extent, by a uniquely Christian application of the Messianic interpretation for Psalm 2:7—cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and the variant reading in Luke 3:22. Initially, in the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus was identified as God’s Son in connection with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, however, believers came to recognize this Sonship for Jesus in a more fundamental sense, going back to the Transfiguration scene, the Baptism, the Infancy Narratives, and even to the idea of his pre-existent (eternal) relation with the Father (John 1:1ff; Heb 1:2ff). It may be possible to glimpse something of this development in early Christian thought by examining the different versions of Peter’s confession. Mark’s is the simplest (8:29):

“You are the Anointed (One)”

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

“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God

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

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

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

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

There can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) would have understood Jesus as the Son of God even within the context of the Infancy Narrative, just as we see in Luke (cf. the note on Lk 1:32). However, this identification is not made explicit until later in the Gospel (at the Baptism), just as in the main Synoptic tradition. For more on the title “Son of God”, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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

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).

 

December 26: Matthew 1:23

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Matthew 1:23

In the previous note (for Christmas Day) I discussed the structure of the first episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative, 1:18-25—in particular, the actual birth announcement in vv. 20-21 and the declaration (by the Angel) of the child’s name (Yeshua/Jesus). Today, I will be looking at the Scripture cited in vv. 22-23. This is the first such citation formula used by the author (one of at least 11 in the Gospel). Each of the three main sections in the Infancy narrative—1:18-25; 2:1-12, and 2:13-23—contains at least one Scripture quotation (cf. 2:15, 17-18, 23, as well as vv. 5-6) indicating that the events being narrated are a fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy in this section is part of the oracle in Isaiah 7:1-17. The oracle, properly speaking, occurs in verses 3-9. What follows in vv. 10ff is the sign given by God confirming the truth of the message, much as we see in the Lukan annunciation episodes (Lk 1:19-22, 35-37). Here in Matthew, the Scripture citation functions as a different sort of sign—one which confirms the divinely-guided nature of the event as a fulfillment of God’s word (and promises) to his people in ancient times.

The declaration in Isa 7:14 is justly famous, being applied by early Christians to Jesus as a Messianic prophecy. The Greek of Matthew’s version appears to be an (intentional) adaptation of the original text, whether working from the Hebrew or a Greek translation (such as the LXX). Here is a rendering of Matthew’s version, with the Hebrew (in translation) given below:

“See!—the virgin will (come to) have (a child) in (the) womb,
and she will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son, and they will call his name Immanuel”

“See!—the young (maid)en [hm*l=u*h*] will be(come) pregnant [hr*h*] and she will bring forth [i.e. bear] a son,
and she will call his name ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E~l, “God”] (is) with us’ [la@ WnM*u!].”

The main difficulty, and a longstanding point of controversy, is the translation of the Hebrew word am*l=u* (±¹lmâ). It is usually translated in Greek by nea=ni$, literally a “young/youthful woman”. However, this does not quite capture the sense of the Hebrew; the particular root <lu signifies something strong, vigorous, virile, etc, and, when applied to a young female, it often connotes a girl who has just (recently) come into sexual awareness and maturity. In the context of ancient Israelite society, such a young woman, at a marriageable age, would typically be a virgin, though am*l=u* does not mean this specifically; indeed a different word (hl*WtB=, b§¾ûl¹h) is used to emphasize virginity. It is significant, then, that the Septuagint (LXX) translates am*l=u* in Isa 7:14 with parqe/no$, rather than nea=ni$. The word parqe/no$ is of uncertain origin, but it came to mean specifically a virgin (male or female), as in 1 Cor 7:25ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4. In only one other place, does the LXX translate am*l=u* this way—in Gen 24:43 (cf. vv. 14, 16). I have discussed the matter extensively in an earlier Christmas series of notes.

It is likely that the word parqe/no$ was used in Isa 7:14 (as in Gen 24:43) to emphasize the purity of the woman and the sacredness of the scene—the special situation attending the child and his birth. Neither in the original Hebrew, nor in the LXX version, is there any clear sense that this is a miraculous birth, let alone a virginal conception. The significance of this child was as a sign confirming the oracle in vv. 3-9. For the various theories regarding the identity of this child, and an overall interpretation of vv. 10ff, cf. the aforementioned Christmas series above. One conclusion is inescapable: the original historical and literary context does not refer to a (distant) future savior/ruler figure, but to something expected to occur in the general time frame of the prophet—the reign of Ahaz and/or his son Hezekiah. Based on the use of the name ±Immanû °E~l in Isa 8:8-10, and a comparison with the language in 2 Kings 18:7, it seems likely that Hezekiah is the immediate point of reference. This is not to say that a Messianic interpretation by Jews and early Christians should be considered invalid, but that it ought to be regarded as a secondary interpretation or application, pointing to events of a future time (such as the birth of Jesus). I would argue strongly that such a view is perfectly compatible with any reasonable and legitimate doctrine of inspiration, and can be amply documented by many Old Testament passages which the New Testament authors have adapted or taken out of their original context (cf. my earlier article on this aspect of Scriptural prophecy).

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke (cf. below). It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

  • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
    the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
  • “and she will produce a son”
    “and she will produce a son”
  • “and you will call his name…”
    “and they will call his name…”

It is hard to say to what extent a Messianic interpretation of Isa 7:14 was current among Jews in the 1st-century B.C./A.D.; it is not particularly attested as such in the surviving Qumran texts and other literature of the period. It would not have been difficult, however, for Jews and early Christians to recognize the possible Messianic significance of the prophecy (as of that in Isa 9:1-7 [Heb 8:23-9:6]). This would be enhanced by the idea that Jesus’ conception was truly miraculous, and the work of the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35 and the italicized words above).

When we turn to the name ±Immanû °E~l (Greek  )Emmanouh/l), we find a sentence-name or title which includes the divine name-element °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); for more background information and detail, cf. my earlier article on °E~l. The explanation the Gospel writer gives in verse 23 generally matches the actual translation of the name, as used in Isa 8:8, 10—”God [°E~l] (is) with us” or “God (be) with us”. In the original context of the prophecy, it is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

  • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
  • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

December 25: Matthew 1:21

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Matthew 1:21

Having examined the Lukan Infancy narrative in considerable in the articles of this series so far, here on Christmas day I will now turn to the narrative in Matthew. Following the genealogy of Jesus (through Joseph), in Matt 1:1-17, the Infancy narrative proper begins with verse 18 (“Jesus’ coming to be [born] was [i.e. happened] this [way]”) . By comparison with Luke’s account, that in Matthew has a much simpler structure. In place of the inter-cutting John and Jesus narrative, with their rich language and imagery drawn from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, we have a more concise sequence of short dramatic episodes with a single narrative arc. Each episode is inspired by the Old Testament, drawing upon the Scriptures in two ways:

  • The Matthean scene is patterned after one or more passages, by which it acts out and fulfills Scripture dramatically in the narrative
  • Specific verses are quoted, by the author, using a citation formula found throughout the Gospel, stating that the episode (or elements of it) are a fulfillment of prophecy

We can see both of these aspects at work in the first episode in 1:18-25. The relatively simple structure of Matthew’s narrative can be seen by the following outline:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 18-19)—establishes the character of Joseph (parallel to Zechariah/Elizabeth in Luke)
  • The Angelic appearance and announcement (vv. 20-21)
  • Scripture–Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 22-23)
  • Narrative conclusion/summary (vv. 24-25)—the character of Joseph in his response to the message

In verse 19, Joseph is described as “just, right(eous)” (di/kaio$), the same adjective applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:6. There is a definite similarity in the portrait painted by both authors. In this context, di/kaio$ should be understood in traditional religious terms—relating to observance of the commands and regulations of the Torah, such as we see depicted by Luke (1:6ff, 59; 2:21-24, 39, 41ff). Here in Matthew, Joseph’s righteousness is illustrated in his observance of the regulations involving marital infidelity (v. 19, cf. Deut 24:1-4). He sought to be merciful to Mary in his observance of the Law, and to divorce her ‘quietly’ with as little attention as possible (cp. Num 5:11-31; Deut 22:20-21). Quite understandably, he was thinking heavily upon the matter (note the verb e)nqume/omai, meaning to be in deep/passionate thought, etc, about something), and this sets the scene for the Angel’s appearance:

“…see!—(the) Messenger of the Lord shone forth to him according to [i.e. through] a dream, saying: ‘Yoseph, son of Dawid, you should not be afraid to take alongside (of you) Maryam your wife [lit. woman]—for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit!'” (v. 20)

This Angelic (birth) announcement is similar to those in Luke—to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:8-23, 26-38)—and follows a basic pattern from episodes in the Old Testament (cf. the earlier note on 1:26ff, and Brown, Birth, pp. 155-9). Formally, the wording in 1:20-21 is closest to Lk 1:13, and to Gen 17:19 in the Old Testament. The distinct detail here in Matthew—that the Messenger of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream—may well be an allusion to the Joseph narratives in Genesis.

The scene here (involving Joseph) is very much parallel to the Annuciation to Mary in Luke. The Angel’s words in v. 20b are similar to those in Lk 1:35—as a response/sign to confirm the miraculous message:

“for the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennhqe/n] in her is out of the holy Spirit

Compare with Luke 1:35 (for more detail, cf. the earlier note):

“the holy Spirit will come upon you…the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennw/menon] will be called Holy”

Thus we have comparable statements by the Angel of the Lord to Joseph and Mary, respectively. The birth announcement proper occurs in verse 21; there are three elements to the declaration, each of which has a different subject:

  • birth—”she {Mary} will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son”
  • name—”you {Joseph} shall call his name Yeshua”
  • explanation of the name—”he {Jesus} will save his people…”

In contrast to the Lukan narrative, in which the names Yohanan (John) and Yeshua (Jesus) are explained indirectly in the announcement scenes, or through the language and imagery of the hymns, etc, here in Matthew, the significance of the name is stated explicitly by the Angel. In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the importance of names in the Ancient Near East, and how they were understood, especially when utilizing divine names and titles. Many ancient names were phrase- or sentence-names which incorporate a hypocoristic (shortened) form of a divine name. Most commonly in ancient Israel, these involved the names °E~l (cf. the article) and Yahweh (article). The name given by the Angel here is a Yaweh (Yah) name—Hebrew/Aramaic Y¢šûa± (u^Wvy@), a shortened form of Y§hôšûa± (u^Wvohy+), best known in connection with the early Israelite commander and successor to Moses (i.e. Joshua). This name is best translated as the divine name Y¹h(û) and an imperative of the verb šw± (uwv), “(seek, cry for) help”, and would mean something like “Yah(weh) give help!” The context of the cry of a mother during childbirth may be intended (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 347), and, indeed, salvation was often described in terms of the suffering of the human condition as like the pains of a woman in labor. Deliverance and new life comes at the end of a short time of intense pain and trouble.

The explanation by the Angel involves a play on words—the name Y¢šûa± sounds like the word y§šû±¹h (hu*Wvy+), derived from a different root yš± (uvy), “save, deliver, (make) free”, and thus essentially meaning “salvation”. The theme of salvation was prominent in the hymns of the Lukan narrative (1:46-47ff, 68-69ff) and Jesus was called by the title “Savior” (swth/r) in 2:11 (cf. 1:47). Here, however, the association is made more explicit and precise, tied to Jesus’ very name—and, thus, according to the ancient sense of names, to his essential character and identity, i.e. as one who saves:

“…and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21)

A similar (popular) interpretation of the name Yeshua (Jesus/Joshua) is known from the time of the New Testament, in Philo, On the Change of Names §121. Note also the important declaration in Acts 4:12: “there is not salvation in any other (name); for indeed there is no different name under heaven, given among men, in which it is necessary (for) us to be saved”. For early Christians, salvation and protection—including healing from disease and infirmity—were connected closely with the name Jesus/Yeshua. And this is another way of saying that salvation is found and experienced through the person of Jesus, rather than simply by a magical recitation of his name. As in Luke 1:77 (cf. verse 69), here salvation is understood in terms of deliverance/release from sin (and the power of sin). The plural “sins” refers to individual personal misdeeds and failings, but from the standpoint of the people (“his people”) taken collectively. In the Matthean narrative at this point, “people” still refers exclusively, or primarily, to the people of Israel (Israelites and Jews), while in Luke the author is already extending the word to include others (believers) from among the nations. The presence of the Magoi in Matthew 2 may represent a similar widening of God’s revelation into the Gentile world; this is not certain, though it is likely, if one accepts an allusion to Psalm 72:10-11; Isa 60:6 in the passage.

In the annunciation scenes from Matthew and Luke, the command to give the name Yeshua to the child is directed at Joseph and Mary, respectively. While this naturally would fit either or both of the parents, here in Matthew there is special significance to Joseph as the one giving the name. It establishes his legal paternity, thus making Jesus legitimately a “son of David” (v. 20; cf. Lk 1:27; 2:4). The importance of this association is confirmed by the preceding genealogy (vv. 1-17). The Davidic aspect of Jesus’ identity will be discussed further in the upcoming note on Matt 2:2, 4.

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 “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).

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 – December 28

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

Matthew 2:15 (Hosea 11:1b)

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

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

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

Hos 11:1b

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

Matt 2:15b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note of the Day – January 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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