The Christmas Stories 3     William Loader




Leaving the genealogy we find Matthew goes on to recount two main stories, the birth (1:18-25) and the visit of the magi with its sequel (2:1-23). Before considering each in detail it is important that we notice certain features they have in common. We shall then consider first the scenes of the second chapter and finally return to the centre piece of Matthew’s birth stories, 1:18-25. 

Special features linking Matthew’s stories

One special feature is the use of Old Testament quotations, each with a very similar introductory formula: “This is to fulfil that which was spoken by the prophet saying:”. They appear in 1:23 (Isaiah 7:14); 2:6 (Micah 5:1); 2:15 (Hosea 11:1); 2:18 (Jeremiah 31:15); and 2:23 (Isaiah 4:3). The practice of introducing Old Testament quotations continues in Matthew 3 and 4 (3:3; 4:14) and seems to be Matthew’s own way of underlining fulfilment of scripture. Sometimes he may have found an allusion to the Old Testament passage already contained in the story handed down to him, such as in 1:23. Sometimes he seems to be the first to introduce the link. 

The introduction of these set pieces throughout the stories confirms Matthew’s concern already expressed in the genealogy. He is showing that Jesus fulfils the hopes of old and brings to its climax God’s story with his people. Another noteworthy feature of Matthew’s stories is the pattern of dreams and visions which are described in very similar terms throughout. The formulation “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying” is repeated with minor variants three times (1:20; 2:13,19). “Being warned in a dream” occurs twice (2: 12,22). 

It is all the more striking that such formulations occur mainly here in Matthew. Perhaps this suggests that they derive not from Matthew himself but from a source he has used. It was a common practice in the ancient world to underline God’s involvement in events by introducing angels and visions or dreams into stories. This has happened in the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb. The number of angels, what they do, and where they appear, differs considerably from account to account. This is not to be seen as historical contradiction. Use of angels in such stories is not historical in the first place. It is the way writers gave colouring to the events they describe. Such colouring indicated to the reader that in the event God was present. It was, we might say, a form of devotional artistry. 

The angels, dreams and visions, tell the reader that the event of Jesus’ birth is one in which God is deeply involved. But in Matthew probably a little more is intended because it would hardly escape the reader’s attention that Joseph’s name-sake in the Old Testament was famous for his dreams. The genealogy tells us that his father, too, was called Jacob! By portraying Joseph in a way that echoed Joseph of old the author forges another link between the old accepted sacred story and the new one. Such links function as pointers. They point to the fact that God is involved in the story of Jesus.

Careful examination of other parts of the stories show that this method of echoing Old Testament stories has had a major impact on the material in Matthew. This is especially so in chapter two. And it is made even more probable by legends we know existed at the time. We shall turn first, therefore, to a detailed consideration of chapter two.

Matthew 2

(1) After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi made their way from the east to Jerusalem, (2) asking: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to pay him honour”. (3) On hearing this, king Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem along with him. (4) He brought all the chief priests and scribes of the people together and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.(5) They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written through the prophet:

(6) And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are not at all the least among the rulers of Judah; for from you there will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel”  (Micah 5:1,3).

(7) Then Herod secretly called the magi and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearing. (8) And he sent them to Bethlehem with the words: “Go and get precise information about the child. If you find him, tell me so that I can come and pay him honour, too”.
(9) After listening to the king they went and, lo and behold, the star, which they had seen at its rising, went on ahead of them, until it came and stopped still over the place where the child was. (10) They were really glad to see the star. (11) And they went into the house, saw the child with Mary his mother, fell down and paid him honour, opening their treasures and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (12) And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their country by another route.
(13) After they had gone, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child to kill it”. (14) He got up and took the child and his mother by night and went down to Egypt. (15) He stayed there until the death of Herod. This was so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: it said,

“Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).

(16) Then Herod, realising that he had been made a fool of by the magi, was absolutely furious. He commissioned that all the children in Bethlehem and in the surrounding areas who were two years of age and under be killed, corresponding to the dating he had worked out from the information he received from the magi. (17) Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: it said,

(18) “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and much wailing: Rachel weeping for her children, and she refused to be comforted, because they were dead” (Jeremiah 31:15)

(19) After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt (20) and said: “Get up and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. For those who were after the child’s life are dead”. (21) He got up and took the child and his mother and entered the land of Israel. (22) But when he heard that Archelaus had replaced his father as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. And being warned in a dream, he went down to the Galilean district (23) and arriving, took up residence in a place called Nazareth, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: it said,

“He shall be called a Nazarene” (possibly Isaiah 11:1; possibly Isaiah 4:3 with Judges 13:5).

Jesus, Moses and Israel

Apart from the similarities in general between Joseph, husband of Mary, and Joseph the dreamer of Genesis, there is a major link made in chapter 2 between Jesus and Moses and between Jesus and Israel. At Moses’ birth Pharaoh had ordered the slaughter of the male children. At Jesus’ birth Herod orders the slaughter of the infants. A Jewish legend tells of Pharaoh being warned miraculously of Moses’ birth as a threat to his reign. It also tells of Pharaoh becoming alarmed and all of Egypt with him. The same legend tells how God appeared to Moses’ father telling him not to fear for Moses would deliver Israel. Quite possibly this legend was in mind when the writer told of Herod’s response and all Jerusalem with him, and of the dream warning to Joseph. 

Much of the actual wording in 2:13-23 contains allusions to the stories of Moses in the Exodus. The instruction of the angel to Joseph in the light of Herod’s death echoes God’s words to Moses in Exodus 4:19-20,

“Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.’ So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them upon an ass and went back to the land of Egypt.”

Matthew 2:13-14,19-21 is very similar:

(13) “After they had gone, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: ‘Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child to kill it”. (14) He got up and took the child and his mother by night and went down to Egypt. (19) After Herod died an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt (20) and said: “Get up and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. For those who were after the child’s life are dead”. (21) He got up and took the child and his mother and entered the land of Israel.

The effect of these parallels is to liken Jesus to Moses. Jesus is the new Moses. He is the saviour of his people. God’s history is repeating itself as it comes to its climax. The story of liberation is the backdrop for the story of the ministry of Jesus.

The entry into Egypt and re-entry into the Promised Land would also not be lost on Matthew’s readers as an echo of Israel’s own stay in Egypt and the exodus. Jesus travels the same path. He is not only Israel’s star and Messiah; and he is not only a new Moses; he also represents Israel itself.

The “magi” and the story of Balaam

The earlier part of chapter 2 also echoes the Old Testament. The book of Numbers 22 to 24 tells of a foreign “magus” (plural: “magi” as in Matthew) who came from the east to foil an evil king’s plans against Israel as it journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. “Magi” were not primarily “magicians”, as the name may suggest, but were considered to be people with special skills of perception, often linked with astrology. The “magus”, Balaam, sees visions and prophesies a rising star from Jacob (24:17),

A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall arise out of Israel.

He then returns to his place. Similarly in the Matthew story, “magi” come from the east, foil the evil plans of King Herod against God’s chosen one, and return to their place. They, however, actually see a star rising and follow it. And the link with Egypt is different in both stories. 

However there can be little doubt that the Balaam story has influenced the way the story of the magi is told. Balaam’s prophecy of a star arising out of Jacob was understood later in first century Judaism as a prophecy of the Messiah to come. In the second revolt of the Jews against the Romans in the early second century, the leader was hailed in messianic terms; and the name given him, “Bar Kochba”, means “Son of the Star”, clearly alluding to Numbers 24:17.

The story of the magi is portraying Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and, in that sense, as the representative of true Israel. The vision of Balaam has come true. The star has appeared. The Messiah has been born.

Possibly other Old Testament passages have influenced this story as well. The gifts of gold and frankincense recall Isaiah 60:6 which promises that Gentile peoples will come to Jerusalem bearing such gifts.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

The magi represent Gentile peoples coming to the Messiah and so foreshadow the response of Gentiles to the gospel of Christ. The wisest of the Gentile world are seen hailing him as Lord. This symbol would not be lost on Matthew’s readers. God’s love knows no barriers of race or culture. The appropriate response to Jesus is signalled from the beginning. 

Another passage has often come to mind when Matthew’s story has been read: Psalm 72: l0-11,15. It looks forward to the day when kings will come from far away lands and bow before the king of Israel and bring him gold.

(10) May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba bring gifts!
(11) May all kings fall down before him, and all nations serve him!
(15) Long may he live, may the gold of Sheba be given to him!

This psalm has certainly played a part in the later legends based on Matthew’s story: for instance, the identification of the magi as kings. The three gifts (Matthew 2:11) led then to the idea of three kings. Legend then gave them names and origins. Probably none of this is intended in Matthew’s story, who portrays them only as magi and does not tell us how many or who they were. 

For all peoples 

Although Matthew probably did not consider the magi to be kings, it is possible that he had Psalm 72 in mind where it spoke of the nations coming and bringing gold. And it is very likely that Matthew would have understood the coming of the magi as echoing the great dream of the prophets which came to be so important for Jesus and the church.

The great vision of the early prophets saw nations coming to Jerusalem, beating their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks (Micah 4:1-8; Isaiah 2:1-4). This is a variant of the great hope that one day all peoples would come and worship God in his temple on Mount Zion. In later writings the gathering becomes a great feast for all peoples (Isaiah 25:6-9). This is a powerful and inspiring image of salvation.

Jesus used the image of the feast widely in his parables when he wanted to hold before people a vision of the kingdom of God. He, too, spoke of a time when many would come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God (Matthew 8:11). It is likely that he saw the meals he shared with the outcasts and the hated of his day as foretastes of that great feast. On the night of his arrest he gave particular attention to sharing such a meal with his disciples and from this the church’s eucharist was born. In it we celebrate the life offered in Christ and the vision of the kingdom for all people. His clearing the Gentile court of the temple may well have been a prophetic symbol, pointing to the dream of the nations coming to worship God.

The earliest church seems also to have understood its mission to the Gentiles in the setting of this great vision. Through the apostles God was bringing the Gentiles to himself. Paul, in particular, saw himself having a special role. The collection made among the Gentile converts was to symbolise the fulfilment of the vision. When most Jews rejected the Christian gospel, Paul even made innovations to the vision, suggesting that perhaps the order would be reversed: first the Gentiles would come to God and then the Jews.

Matthew also seems conversant with the great vision. In the story of the magi he symbolises its fulfilment and invites all nations to join the story, kneeling and acknowledging the king, presenting our most precious gifts and rejoicing in his light.

The Christmas star

The star has been a fascinating symbol in the Christmas story. Its primary meaning is as a pointer to Jesus the Messiah of Israel in fulfilment of Balaam’s prophecy. In the story it is an extraordinary event. A star rises. The time of its rising is noted. It moves across the sky, then stations itself over the birth-place of Jesus. If taken as a literal event it is extraordinary that Luke omits it. Nowhere else is it mentioned. But a literalistic understanding poses pseudo-problems. In the star we do not have a contradiction or anomaly among the birth stories; we have a powerful symbol.

Nevertheless many have wondered whether, beyond the symbolic meaning, there may be some astronomical phenomena which lie behind the story. Fortunately we are well equipped with records of stars and planets from the period. Astrology was widely practised and careful observations made and recorded. The appearance of a supernova, which might explain a bright new star, is not recorded for that time. A comet appeared on 26 August 12 B.C.E. and was seen through into 11 B.C.E. It appeared in the Gemini region of the zodiac with its head pointing to Leo (a symbol of Judea). In 10 B.C.E. some foreign ambassadors (magi?) came to hail Herod the Great on the completion of Caesarea. This, at least, shows the credibility of a story depicting such conclusions and undertakings in response to astrological observation. But the comet is too early to have relevance for the Christmas story.

A more obscure but astrologically relevant phenomenon was the conjunction of planets which occurred near the end of Herod’s reign. Jupiter and Saturn were aligned in May 7 B.C.E. in the east, in October 7 B.C.E. in the south, in December 7 B.C.E. in the west and Mars joined them in a triple alignment in February 6 B.C.E. This happened in Pisces, traditionally associated with the Hebrews. Jupiter was a symbol of world rulership, Saturn of Syria and Palestine. Parthian astrology would read this combination of events as indicating that a world ruler was to be born among the Hebrews in Palestine!

The date fits well because Herod decides to slaughter two year olds and under and shortly after dies himself. It is possible to see this as indicating that Jesus was born around two years before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E., namely 6 B.C.E. The triple conjunction would fit this dating. The term magi could also mean astrologer so that this detail also fits the theory, as does the presence of astrological terminology and practice in the account. They saw the star “at its rising” (2:2) and Herod enquires about the precise timing of the appearance (2:7).

Some problems remain. We are dealing in this theory with astrological observation and speculation, not with a star which moves across the sky and settles over a birth-place. Nevertheless, beside the messianic interpretation of the star, it is at least feasible that the tradition came to know of and used astrological observations from the period, even though New Testament writers otherwise show disdain for astrology.

As a statement of faith in the world of popular astrology, the story would be proclaiming that the universe of cosmic powers here recognises its Lord and Master. Ultimately not even the mysterious powers and unknown forces of the cosmos can separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. The story affirms that in Christ we discover the centre and meaning of the creation. 

Legends of stars appearing at the birth of famous people or of stars leading them on their great adventures were relatively widespread. Aenas was led by a star on his way to Rome. Legends tell of appearances of stars at the births of Abraham, Pliny, Alexander the Great, Mithras and many others. We know of magi coming to hail Nero as world ruler in 66 C.E. Mostly the stories of star appearances are purely legendary and symbolic. The star in the Christmas story may well belong in this category.

Some may see the answer as a mixture of symbol and history, preferring to allow at least the possibility that the conjunction of planets played a role, even if the star did not perform quite as dramatically as the story suggests. The difficulty with any such theory is that it assumes an open declaration of Jesus’ messiahship at his birth, whereas many other ancient traditions show the realisation of Jesus’ messiahship coming much later, either in the context of his death or after his resurrection. If, however, we see the story as written from this later perspective, we can recognise here the work of the narrative artist, who paints the truth about Jesus not as an historical photograph, but as a richly textured proclamation in art which enables us to take a wider and deeper view.

Matthew and the story

Remaining with the story told in chapter 2, we are now in the position to look at the narrative as a whole and to explore its possible background. As it stands it is unified with chapter 1 by the scripture fulfilment formulations and the vision and dream motifs. It is also unified in itself by a single story-line. We have noticed, too, the way that the Israel/Egypt memories are strongly present in the background of the story, especially the story of Moses and of Balaam.

But some difficulties arise when we follow the story-line. If Herod had wanted to find Jesus, why did he not send troops with the magi or at least trail them? And if the magi were led by the star in the first place and, after Herod, were led by the star to the place where Jesus lay, why did they need to go to Herod to ask the location? One response to these difficulties is that we should not press such details. Perhaps events have been run together and Herod’s decision to find Jesus may have arisen after reflection. Maybe the star functioned in different ways at different stages.

Another response is to see these slight difficulties in the present story as indications of the way originally separate elements have been joined. According to this explanation the magi story originally had nothing to do with Herod and the slaughter of the infants. It told of a visit by the magi in response to a star. The prophecy of Balaam about the star and perhaps astrological speculation about the conjunction of planets lay behind it. The Herod story told of the slaughter of infants. It belonged with the story of Jesus’ flight into Egypt with his parents and portrayed Jesus as being, like Moses, endangered by the evil ruler.

The two different Old Testament backgrounds are still evident in the story’s two parts. Joining the two stories would have been natural. The Balaam prophecy recalled its setting where an evil king plotted against Israel. Herod now represents not only Pharaoh, but also the evil king of Balaam’s story. The result is a complex symbolism according to which Jesus represents the Messiah (star), Israel, and Moses.

But the merging is generally successful. Warnings and instructions through angels and dreams make the combination easier. This, in turn, means that probably the combination took place at the time when the story was also linked with 1:18-25 which is also marked by these features. It seems to me very likely that a development such as this did take place before the material came into Matthew’s Gospel.

As Matthew has composed chapter 2 for his Gospel, he has both incorporated this material and supplemented it. It is likely that he had quite independent information, partly already reflected in the stories before him, partly independent of them. He would have known of the birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod the Great, a tradition known also to Luke (1:5). He doubtless also knew of the tradition of the birthplace, Bethlehem, and the place of his upbringing, Nazareth. Into this chapter he has incorporated the fulfilment quotations of Micah 5:1,3 about Bethlehem (2:8-9), of Hosea 11:1 about the return from Egypt in 2:15, and of Jeremiah 31:15 about the slaughter of the infants in 2:17-18. The complicated allusion in 2:23 is hard to trace anywhere as a direct quotation. It may be a play on the Hebrew nezer, the word for “root” in Isaiah 11:1 or it may refer to Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 13:5 in combination.

By and large Matthew has left the original material intact so that its powerful message remains. Jesus is the Messiah. The nations will come to him, the wisest offering their gifts. The universe acknowledges its Lord through the star. The prophecy of Balaam is fulfilled. The star has risen. The sacred story of Israel and of Moses is echoed. Here is the new and greater Moses, the true son of Abraham. And Matthew, by introducing the fulfilment quotations, underlines further that all this is in accordance with God’s will and plan and is to be seen as his story.


The dark side

The story also has a dark side. The high priests and scribes of the people know about the Messiah’s birth. They are consulted by Herod, the fearsome and threatened politician. This fits well the information the Jewish historian Josephus gives us of Herod. Because of his fear of rivals he murdered many of his opponents, including members of his own family.

Herod and all Jerusalem are profoundly disturbed by the news of the “King of the Jews”. He employs cunning and then violence, slaughtering the innocent. The traditional patterns are reversed: God’s chosen ones flee from Israel to Egypt. And on return there is no room in Israel. In Nazareth, in Galilee of the Gentiles, there is a place.

Within the Gospel the story prefigures the passion of Jesus. High priests and scribes consulting with the fearsome threatened politician, Pilate, crucify the “King of the Jews”. The bloody slaughter of the innocent now reaches its climax on the cross. Its aftermath is the rejection of the gospel by Jerusalem and the movement of the gospel to the Gentiles.

It is as though Matthew means us to hear the cries of the children still in the anguish of the cross and see the brokenness of the crucified in all human brokenness and cruelty. Already in Matthew 2 the Messiah is a figure associated with rejection and humiliation. And Matthew’s community would have known the pain and bitterness of collusion, when those who were entrusted with the tradition of God’s work became instruments in its suppression. Established powers in state or church which become engrossed in their own survival unleash destructive dynamics against the good and the new in every age.

Christmas 4
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