MAGICAL MATTHEW 3

MATTHEW CHAPTER 2: TRANSLATION

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of King Herod, – see this- astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the child born King of the Judaeans, for we saw his star at its rising and have come to kneel before him?

When he heard this, King Herod was disturbed, and all his officials along with him. He assembled all the chief priests and interpreters of the Law of God and asked them where the Messiah would be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judaea, for this is the scripture, through the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah,

You are by no means negligible among the rulers of Judah;

For out of you will come the ruler

Who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod, having secretly summoned the astrologers, determined precisely from them the time that the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search keenly for the child; and when you have found him, report back to me, so that I too may come and kneel to him.

When they had heard the King, they departed and –see this- the star, which they had seen in its rising, went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw it, they cried out with happiness. And when they came into the house and saw the child with his mother Maria, they fell down on their knees before him, opening up their caskets of treasure to offer him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Since they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

…………………………….

It is unlikely that Matthew invented the whole thing, but probable that he edited existing folk tales of Jesus’ birth to show how his Messianic status was honoured by gentile astrologers while subject to vicious persecution by a Judaean King. The gentiles being open and Judaeans being closed to Messiah Jesus is one of the themes of his gospel.

Matthew received this story from a source which is unknown to us. It is very different from the story used by Luke. The concept of the birth of an important person being marked in the heavens is of course common to all astrology in the ancient world. It is combined here with the story of Herod the Great, a monarch notoriously jealous for his throne and inheritance. He was also known as cruel, so the story told here is possible, although the massacre of the children is not confirmed by any other source; and the use of foreign astrologers as the source of his suspicion of is very suspect.

Is there any factual truth is these folk tales? I think not much. It is possible that Jesus was born into a family whose women had messianic expectations ( compare Mary and Elizabeth in Luke); and who may for that reason have been threatened by Herod and his acolytes. Matthew uses the two stories like a ballad writer might, weaving them together and emphasising the supernatural bits. He wants to present Jesus and the gentile astrologers as linked by the purposes of God and the enmity of a worldly king.

Notes

1. The so-called Magi were especially associated with Iran and with Zoroastrianism, but here their importance is in their reading of the stars and provision of a celestial sign for Jesus’ birth and kingly status.

2. Herod the Great was not a nice man nor a kindly king. Many stories are witness to his cruelty, while a friendship with Casar Augustus preserved his throne. If it is not factual, Matthew’ s attribution to him of a brutal massacre of children is a lie and a criminal libel.

3. The Messiah is an anointed king of the Davidic line who in God’s power will restore Israel. There were always different interpretations of the messianic prophecies in the Jewish Bible. For example, the failed rebellions against Rome in 70 and 135 CE, were led by Messiahs. It is possible that particular families in Judaea believed that they would produce the Messiah.

4. Jesus lived and worked in Nazareth, according to all the Gospels. But the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem! Luke uses a story about taxation to get Jesus into the right place; while Matthew presents a journey to and a return from Egypt.

5. The quoted prophecy is from Micah chapter 5, which dates from the 8th century BCE, and was meant to apply to a soon-to be-born Davidic monarch. Matthew changes Micah’s phrase “ clans of Judah” to “rulers”of Judah, to emphasise the status of Jesus as Messiah.

6. The reader,though perhaps not the astrologers, is aware of Herod’s motives. This is a traditional folk story device.

7. The actual source of the astrologer story is probably Isaiah chapter 60 which prophecies that “gentiles will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” For Matthew, this provides a literal description of Jesus’ birth.

8. Generations of scholars have tried to assign meaning to the gifts of the astrologers. None are particularly convincing, but the number of them has convinced Christendom that there were “three wise men.”

9. God protects his newborn by warning the astrologers against Herod.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: