Friday, January 1, 2010


Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi reads more like a parable than history or a legend. As can be seen immediately, it is completely irreconcilable with Luke’s rendering the aftermath of the birth of Jesus. Yet, like Luke's narrative, this section of Matthew's narrative is highly dependent on an OT source. The message of the parable is to state unequivocally, if in a concealed manner, that Jesus is Lord for Gentiles as well as Jews. This claim was in contrast to the contemporary belief that the Roman emperors were the lords of all people. The earliest Christian creed simply stated, "Jesus is Lord."

R. E. Brown presented a strong case for an OT parallel in the story of Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. While the details of that story are not relevant, the essential issues do lend force to Brown’s thesis: Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balak, a seer from the east near the Euphrates River, seeking his help is destroying the Israelites on their way through Moab to Canaan. Instead Balak saw the Israelites as blessed by God. Num. 24:17 has a significant reference to a star and a scepter rising out of Jacob.

Brown claimed that this led to a further conclusion that the flight of the Holy Family to and return from Egypt set up parallels with Joseph bringing his family to Egypt during a famine and Moses leading the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. He also believed that Matthew created these incidents like three scenes in a drama from the earlier traditions of apostolic teaching. By searching and adapting elements of the Hebrew scriptures, those early teachers undergirded their gospel message that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord.

Without question Christian piety and imagination through the centuries have done much to embellish the visit of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt. Countless presentations of the conflated story have been made in drama, art, poetry and song. Portraying the story in a creche in public places as well as private homes has gone a long way to replace the cross as the most meaningful symbol of Christian faith.

In a secular age those symbols have also promoted strong debate about the appropriateness of such public displays of religious symbols. Music with its ability to cross cultural boundaries has done much to make the story known in renditions as far removed from each other as mediaeval miracle plays, Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and popular songs such as We Three Kings of Orient Are.

In the 20th century the story has generated attempts to identify the star as a supernova, a comet or a triple conjunction of planets. Where the Magi came from, their respective names and the significance of their gifts generated many imaginative assumptions too. The best referent for the basic elements of the Magi story may be the prophetic vision of Israel’s return from exile in Isaiah 60:1-7. In that passage all nations acclaim the historic redemption of Israel by bringing their gifts from afar in praise of God.

Thus in his narrative of the Nativity Matthew made exceptional use of his knowledge of Hebrew scriptures to reinterpret God’s redemptive activity. His quotations from Micah 5:2 and Jeremiah 31:15 placed the story in Bethlehem in Judea. He also used historical references to two very cruel subordinate kings of the time, Herod the Great and his son, Archelaus. They had been appointed by the Romans to keep the Jews under control.

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