Matthew 2: 1-12 – Epiphany of Jesus

Before we proceed to second chapter of Gospel of Matthew’s infancy narrative let us also note the difference here. Chapter one of Gospel of Matthew contained personal names whereas chapter two contains many place names and the episodes in this chapter are connected with places: Bethlehem, Egypt, Ramah, and Nazareth. Related to these place names is also the theme of the fulfilment of Scripture. The main theme, however, of this chapter is the positive and negative response to Jesus at his birth.

The first episode in this chapter (Mt 2: 1-12) is the coming of the wise men from the East to pay homage to Jesus. The opening verse (Mt 2: 1) mentions the place and time of Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the magi (translated as ‘wise men’) in Jerusalem. Matthew says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. The addition “of Judea” may be to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in Galilee (in the territory of Zebulun – cf. Josh 19: 15). But more likely, with the addition “of Judea” Matthew is preparing for the quotation in Matthew 2: 6. The place, Bethlehem, of course, is the city of David, and Jesus, the Son of David was born in Bethlehem. The time of Jesus’ birth is indicated by the phrase “in the days of Herod the king” (cf. Lk 1: 5). Herod the Great reigned in Palestine (Judea included) between 37 BCE and 4 BCE. Jesus was born probably about two years before Herod’s death in 4 BCE. The date of Jesus’ birth in 6 BCE would agree with the chronological data in Luke’s gospel about Jesus being “about thirty years of age” (Lk 3: 23) in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Lk 3: 1).

After describing the place and time of Jesus’ birth Matthew introduces wise men from the East. Who were these wise men? The Greek word which is translated as ‘wise men’ is “magoi,” from which is derived the term “magi.” It is not easy to identify these visitors from the East. Possibly the magi were a priestly caste in Persia. They were also thought to possess certain secret knowledge and occult powers to interpret dreams and visions. The term “magi” came to be used eventually also in reference to ‘magicians,’ ‘fortune tellers,’ ‘astronomers,’ ‘astrologers’ etc., probably without any pejorative nuance attached to the word. We may consider them as astrologers or star gazers who interpreted a celestial phenomenon as a sign of the birth of a new king (Mt 2: 2). The magi come from the East, the Orient. It is idle to speculate on the exact country from which they came. Similarly, a precise understanding of miraculous star and its extraordinary actions are rather elusive. Three explanations can be offered here: 1) From certain luminous phenomenon in the sky the magi may have guessed that an important event has occurred; 2) Perhaps a popular tradition associated Jesus’ birth with some extraordinary celestial phenomenon and Matthew may have formulated this tradition in terms of a miraculous star; 3) Most probably Matthew is using the prophecy of Balaam, a ‘magus’ from the East, in Numbers 24: 17: “a star will rise from Jacob and sceptre will come forth from Israel.” In later interpretations of Numbers 24; 17, the star and the sceptre were personified and understood as Messianic. But drawing the star motif from Numbers 24: 17 Matthew uses the oracle of Balaam in a non-messianic sense. Evidently, the star is not the Messiah in Matthew but that which leads to the Messiah.

The magi were non-Jews, Gentiles. As Gentiles they speak about the “King of the Jews” (cf. Mt 27: 11, 29, 37). The wise men came to Jerusalem looking for the “King of the Jews” in order to worship him (Mt 2: 2). Now the word “worship” is almost a thematic word in Matthew 2: 1-12; it occurs also in verses 8 and 11. In Matthew 28: 17 it is said that the disciples worshipped the risen Jesus. The wise men came to worship, pay divine homage to the king of the Jews. The evangelist draws a sharp contrast between the faith of the Gentiles, the wise men, and the murderous intent of Herod and the Jews. Herod calls together the chief priests and the scribes to ascertain where the Messiah would be born. Although the Jewish nation, especially its religious leaders, hated Herod, here the chief priests and the scribes cooperated with him. Matthew thus presents the Jewish nation (Herod the King, all Jerusalem and the leaders of the people) as already united against Jesus at his birth, foreshadowing the ultimate destiny of Jesus.

The chief priests and the scribes identify Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah was to be born. The prophet spoken of in Matthew 6: 5 is the prophet Micah, but the text cited is a combination of Micah 5: 1, 3 and 2 Samuel 5: 2. Here again Matthew emphasizes the Davidic descent of Jesus. David who was a shepherd and ruler was a Bethlehemite and this is true of Jesus too who is both shepherd and ruler descended from David and born in the city of David. The last line of Matthew 2: 6 should read not: “who will govern my people Israel” but “who will shepherd my people Israel.”

As the wise men leave for Bethlehem with certain definite instructions from Herod, the star appears again to guide them (Mt 2: 7-9). Why should there be a guiding star now that the magi know where the King of the Jews is born? Probably, the evangelist sees a deeper meaning in the function of the star here. Matthew says that the star went before them till it came to rest over the place … (Mt 2: 9). This verse has points of contact with the description of the divine guidance of the people of Israel after they came out of Egypt. During their journey in the wilderness Yahweh went before them in the form of cloud by day and in the form of pillar of fire by night. It is also mentioned that in the place where the cloud came to rest (settles down) there the people of Israel encamped (cf. Ex 13: 21-22; 40: 37-38; Num 9: 17). As God guided the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the star now guides the Gentiles and leads them to the promised Messiah. Matthew thus seems to regard the function of the star as symbolic of the divine guidance of the wise men. The great joy which magi – “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2: 10) – reminds us of the messianic joy which pervades the Lukan infancy narrative.

In Matthew 2: 11 the evangelist says that magi went into the house, saw the child with Mary his mother and fell down and worshipped him. In this story Joseph is not mentioned, but all attention is focused on the child and his mother. The same expression, “the child and his mother” is repeated again in Matthew 2: 13, 14, 20, 21. The magi did pay divine honours to the child; they worshipped him. The term “worship” is a characteristically Matthean word and he uses the verb 13 times in his gospel as compared with its 2 occurrences in gospel of  Mark and 3 instances in gospel of Luke. Matthew, who is careful to stress the divinity of Jesus, considers the magi as the representatives of the Gentiles who will come to believe in Jesus and worship him. The magi offered three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Probably these gifts are to be interpreted symbolically, and they seem to allude to certain Old Testament text just as the star and its guidance of the magi appears to contain Old Testament motifs. Gold and myrrh (an aromatic substance like incense) would indicat tribute paid to a king (cf. 1Kgs 10: 2, 10; Ps 72: 10, 15; 45: 8); gold is also mentioned in the Old Testament among the votive gifts offered in the temple/shrine (cf. 2Sam 8: 11; 1Kgs 15: 15; Is 60: 6). Frankincense suggests cult and cultic purpose (cf. Ex 30: 34-38; Lev 2: 1, 15-16). The gifts of the magi thus seem to point to the royal and divine nature of Jesus. Just as their arrival, the departure of the magi too was guided by divine providence (Mt 2: 12).

It may be noted here that Matthew does not say that there were three magi or that they were kings. From the three gifts the magi offered it was later deduced that there were three magi who were also thought to be kings. At a still later stage they were also given specific names: Kaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. Whatever may be the truth about these later traditions, for the evangelist the magi episode already points to the destiny of Jesus, namely, his rejection and persecution by his own people and acceptance by the Gentiles.


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