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This is HARDLY a comprehensive New Testament blog, though that is something I would like to do some day. But inasmuch as the LDS Gospel Doctrine course of study is New Testament this year, I wanted to at least have a venue where I could post some links, resources, excerpts from other things I have written, and, as the title suggest, "thoughts."

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Story of the Wise Men

See Good Tidings of Great Joy, 98108. 



Matthew’s earlier account of the annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18–21) and his brief account of the birth and naming of Jesus (Matthew 1:24–25) did not provide any information about the timing or location of these events.  Only with the opening of the second chapter of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative do we learn that Jesus “was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (Matthew 2:1a).  The mention of both Bethlehem and Herod the Great (ruled 37–4 B.C.), however, does more than establish date and place.  Because Bethlehem was the city of David and the place that Matthew understood would be the home of the Messiah, the True King is placed in opposition to Herod, a usurper whom many Jews saw as an outsider who had taken the position of king of the Jews with the approval and support of the Romans.  In addition to providing political tension, Herod’s status as a half-Jewish Idumean, perhaps only superficially converted to Judaism, also highlighted the dichotomy that existed between the House of Israel and the Gentiles. 

This context is important for understanding the role of the Magi, or Wise Men, who are also introduced as this chapter opens: “behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1b).  Matthew provides no other details about these enigmatic characters, not giving their number, names, nationality, or clear place of origin.  All he says is that they came from east of the Holy Land, and he describes them by using the Greek term magoi.  While this word was used specifically for the priestly caste of religious experts in Persia, it was also used broadly in Greek to describe any who had special knowledge, whether it was spiritual, astronomical, or revelatory.  Although the term came to be pejorative when it came into Latin (the Romans saw magi as frequently being charlatans at best or dark magicians at worst), there is no indication that Matthew uses the word that way. [1]  The fact that they had come to Jerusalem asking “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east” (Matthew 2:2), seems at first to support the idea that these wise men might have been the type of astrologers that magoi were often reputed to be. 

Early Christian speculation soon began to suggest various places of origin and, later, even names for the Magi, but from the earliest periods they were assumed to have been Gentiles.  Hence, while much of Matthew 1 focuses on Jesus’ Davidic heritage and hence his position as a Jew and a member of the House of Israel, the Magi in Matthew 2 can be seen as reflecting Jesus’ role in being a blessing to all peoples.  “Gentiles” in English comes from the Latin word for “nations,” and hence is a translation of the Greek term ethnē and the Hebrew word goyim.  Whereas only some of the House of Israel would recognize and accept Jesus, if the Magi were, in fact, Gentiles, then their coming to find the newborn King suggests that people outside of Israel might actively seek Jesus.  In this case, the Wise Men anticipated the Gentiles who would later come into the New Testament Church.  Thus, just as the women in the genealogy of Jesus indicated that outsiders had a part in the coming forth of Jesus, so the Magi illustrate how God will accept all people who will hearken to Christ.

On the other hand, some Latter-day Saint authors have noted that the Magi were not brought to Jerusalem necessarily because of astronomical observation and certainly not because of superstition or the learning of false religions.  Because the JST changes “King of the Jews” to “the Messiah of the Jews,” the Magi appear to have been familiar with Jewish prophecy and scripture.  The Jewish Diaspora, or scattering, had distributed Jews throughout the Near East, making it possible that the wise men were themselves Jewish, or that they were at least religious men who had familiarized themselves with Jewish texts.  Another possibility is that they were from among the scattered tribes of Israel.  In this case they might have had some understanding of their identity, but they may also have been assimilated and lost among their gentile neighbors.  Nevertheless, whether Gentile, Jew, or from the lost tribes of Israel, what is certain is that these men, who had the privilege of being witnesses of the newborn Jesus, were no doubt good men moved upon by the Spirit of God.[2]

Regardless of their actual identity and background, in Matthew’s narrative the Magi appear as outsiders who are brought by the direct intervention of God.  In their case, God’s revelation occurred in the form of an astronomical phenomenon: while the Jews had the Law and the Prophets to bring them to Christ, the Wise Men were brought by the sight of the star “in the east” (Greek en tē anatolē).  Rather than suggesting where the Magi were when they saw the star, the Greek word order makes it likely that the phrase en tē anatolē modifies star.  Further, “in the east” can be better translated “at its rising,” indicating that it was a morning star that appeared before the sun’s own rising.[3]  Since antiquity, many efforts have been made to identify or explain what this star was.  Suggestions include the appearance of a comet, a striking planetary conjunction, or a supernova, all of which might create the impression of a new, different, or unusually bright star.[4]  Others propose that the star cannot be explained scientifically, making it simply a miraculous occurrence or sign, perhaps even a representation of angelic ministers. [5]   Indeed, in the ancient world stars and other heavenly bodies were often considered to be celestial beings, in which case the star may have represented a heavenly messenger or guide to the Wise Men, much as the angel of the Lord had served the shepherds in Luke 2:9–15.

Harmonizing the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke often leads us to assume that this star could have been seen by everyone, an impulse perhaps encouraged by the fact that the celestial signs of Jesus’ birth in the New World, including a “new” star, were seen by many there (Helaman 14:3–6; 3 Nephi 1:15, 19–21; see chapter 5).  Luke, however, never mentions the “star of Bethlehem,” nor does he suggest that the shepherds saw it.  Likewise, there is not any indication in Matthew’s text that Herod, his scribes, or the general populace in Judea had seen or noticed the star.[6]  As a result, it is possible that in the Old World the sign of the star was one intended for those who knew what to look for,[7] unlike the western hemisphere where it was intended as a sign for all.  Also, Matthew’s narrative does not indicate that the star was constantly visible even to the Magi.  He simply states that the Wise Men had seen the star “at its rising,” and later, only after they had visited Herod in Jerusalem, did it return and seemingly lead them to Bethlehem, where it marked the place where Jesus was (Matthew 2:2, 9–10).
Tissot, Magi Journeying
Whatever the star might have been, its symbolism had been anticipated in Old Testament prophecy, particularly Number 24:7.  There Balaam, a “prophet” engaged by the king of Moab to curse Israel, instead repeatedly blessed God’s people, ultimately prophesying that “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”  This prophecy had taken on strong messianic implications both before and after the New Testament.[8] That Jesus could be described as a “star at its rising” is clear from Revelation 22:16, where the resurrected and glorified Jesus describes himself as “the bright and morning star.”  Likewise, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee” (Isaiah 60:1, emphases added).  But the light of the star did not come only for the House of Israel. As two biblical scholars have observed, “The story of the star does not make a statement about astronomical phenomenon, but a statement about Jesus: his birth is the coming of the light that draws wise men of the Gentiles to its radiance.”[9]  While the Magi represent those who recognize and seek this light, in contrast Herod and his priestly and scribal ministers fail either to see the star or realize its significance.[10]  

Knowing through revelation, confirmed by the sign of the star, that the True King of the Jews had been born, the Wise Men travel to Jerusalem, which is where they expected to find the new King. When they announce the purpose of their visit to the current king, Herod is troubled “and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).  Obviously, Herod would be disturbed by the prospect of a new king’s replacing him, but the concern of the establishment in Jerusalem also anticipates the opposition of the chief priests, scribes, and other leadership to Jesus later in the Passion Narratives.[11] When Herod asks the chief priests and scribes where Christ, or the Messiah, should be born, their response provides Matthew with his second explicitly fulfilled prophecy: “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6; JST Matthew 3:6 changes “Governor” to “prince” to emphasize Jesus’ royal status).  This passage mostly echoes Micah 5:2, but it also echoes 2 Samuel 5:2, where David was anointed king of all Israel.[12] John 7:42 confirms that Bethlehem was known at the time of Jesus to be the place from which the Messiah would come.  In this passage, those opposing the adult Jesus as he spoke in the temple during the feast of Tabernacles ask themselves, “Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?”  This reference to Bethlehem not only corroborates Jesus’ Davidic heritage, it also underscores that Herod, the current king in Jerusalem, is illegitimate.  While David had come from Bethlehem, he and his successors had ruled from Jerusalem.  Because Herod, the current king in Jerusalem, had no real right to rule, a new king needed to come from the place where David himself had been born.

Giotto di Bondone, Adoration of the Magi
Under the pretense of wanting to honor the child himself, Herod sends the Wise Men ahead to Bethlehem to find the new king.  But it is not the direction provided by Herod and his priests that brings the Magi to Jesus.  Instead, as soon as they leave Jerusalem, the miraculous star reappears and guides them to Jesus.  Significantly, upon seeing it return, “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (Greek charan megalēn; Matthew 2:10, emphasis added).  Luke uses these same words when reporting the angel’s “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10), effectively equating the star with the angel of the Lord, each being a celestial messenger bringing good news to those prepared or chosen to receive it.  While most scholars maintain that Matthew would not have known Luke’s text, the fact that they use the same Greek words for “great joy” suggests the importance of the theme of joy to the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth even before they were written down.

In Bethlehem the Wise Men find the child Jesus and Mary not in a cave, stable, some other animal quarters, or some temporary accommodations.  Instead, they find him in a house (Matthew 2:11), indicating that they have arrived much later than the shepherds did when they found the baby in the manger.  In fact, their arrival may have been as much as two years later, because this is the age that Herod uses as his upper limit when he orders the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.  In a scene known in art as the Adoration of the Magi, upon their arrival the Wise Men fall before the child and worship him, honoring him even more explicitly than Luke had recorded that the shepherds had done.  They then present him three treasures—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which were symbolic as well as valuable.  Gold, of course, was fit for a king.  Frankincense was used in worship, and it alludes to Jesus’ future priestly role as both the sacrificer and sacrifice.  Myrrh, often used to anoint bodies for burial, foreshadows his future sacrificial death.[13] Warned by the angel of the Lord in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi then return home by another route, disappearing from history but not from our Christmas imagination.


[1]Bauer, “magos,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 608–609.  See the discussion of Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 167–68; Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, 108–109. 
[2] McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 1.358; Millet, “Birth and Childhood,” 149; Gaskill, The Nativity, 34–35. Ogden and Skinner, Verse by Verse, 61, are more guarded, but Joseph McConkie, Witnesses of the Birth of Christ, 94–96, is perhaps the strongest on this point: “It is of prophets of God [that we speak]! Men who held the Melchizedek Priesthood, knew the spirit of revelation, had studied holy writ, conversed with angels, dreamed dreams, and prophesied as did their counterparts among the Nephites . . . These special witnesses of the birth of Christ did not come to satisfy their own longings, as did Simeon; they came as representatives of their nations—part of scattered Israel.”
[3] When anatolē is used for a cardinal direction, it usually appears without the definite article (see BDF §253.5, 133).  Because anatolē originally means “rising” (and hence “east” because the sun and stars arose in that direction), in this passage the wise men may have meant that they saw the star when it first arose or appeared.  See Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 173; Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, 1047–110; Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 87.
[4] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 171–73; Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 73–165; Molnar, Star of Bethlehem, 15–31.
[5] Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 22–23; Gaskill, The Nativity, 42.
[6] Molnar, Star of Bethlehem, 85.
[7] Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 253–266, actually concludes that the star, a supernova in March of 5 B.C. was actually the fourth in a series of astronomical signs that began in 7 B.C., each of which had prepared the Magi to look for the nova that others might have missed.
[8] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 187–88, 190–96; Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, 111; Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 13–16.
[9] Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 182.
[10] Gaskill, The Nativity, 43–44.
[11] Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, 112–113.
[12] This particular formula quotation does not include the standard “and thus it was fulfilled” formula, perhaps because it is put in the mouth of the priests and scribes rather than in Matthew’s own voice.  Matthew has also either used a version of Micah 5:2 that differs from either the Hebrew or Greek text in several details or altered the wording to fit his purposes.  See Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 184–87.
[13] Ogden and Skinner, Verse by Verse, 63; Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 174–175.

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