Matthew Chapter 2:1-12

Chapter 2: Update 12.26.16

It appears I have provided a sloppy, or even flat wrong translation for <<ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ >>. I rendered this as we have seen his star “in the east”. Then I asked, if they saw his star in the east, why did they then travel west? But the word here, anatole, which is a noun, is not a direction (East/West…) It means “rising”. So this should be rendered more like, we have seen his star on the rise. Since the sun, moon, and stars rise in the east, this word for rising became synonymous with the east; just as “occidens”, which means “setting”, has come to mean the west. So, my apologies for that.

We left off with the newly-born child being named Joshua. Oddly, he has not been born yet, since this appears to be what happens at the beginning of this chapter.

1 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα (2) λέγοντες,  Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ.

Jesus  having been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magoi from the east having journeyed to Jerusalem, saying, (2) “Where is the king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.

We have Jesus’ birth fixed in a particular place, and within a particular time.This has huge historical implications in the sense that, by situating Jesus to that degree, he really increases the likelihood that there was a Jesus.This may sound silly, but that is not a given. Aside from the NT and the (probable/possible) mention by Josephus, we really don’t have any direct evidence for Jesus. Later Roman writers talk about the followers of Jesus, but none of them actually mention Jesus himself. What this does is make Jesus plausibly deniable–at least, to a certain sort of person. I had an ongoing argument on a blog with a blogger who, apparently sincerely, believed that Jesus was a legend just like Herakles. I tried to explain the patent absurdity of this position, how Jesus was fixed in time and space and Herakles was not, but, to no avail. Alas. So let me just say that I am reasonably certain that Jesus did actually live. The analogy I use is that of the astronomical argument for the existence of planets: while they cannot be seen directly, their existence can be detected via their gravitational field. Jesus casts a large gravitational field. 

Anyway, the place is Bethlehem, in Judea, the time somewhere prior to 4 BCE, which is when Herod, who was king of Judea, died. This, of course, is Herod the Great, the last true king of the Jews. Josephus tells us that, after Herod’s death, several would-be successors contended for the crown, leading to a level of civil unrest that went beyond Roman tolerance. To that point the Romans had been content to leave Herod on the throne with a level of nominal independence, with the stipulation that Herod kept the peace and did nothing that the Romans didn’t like. This was the preferred Roman method of governing at this time; or, at least, it had been. By the time Herod died, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, originally known as Octavian, had been the First Citizen in Rome for several decades. He was gradually rationalizing the operation of the Empire. So, the disturbance after Herod’s death was sufficient cause for him to turn Judea and the surrounding environs into a direct province of the Empire, ruled over by a Roman governor (prefect or procurator; the title changed by the time we get to Pilate) sent from the capital.

And those who saw the star were Magoi; it is the root of our word “magic”. “Astrologers” is probably the best term for them, so long as we realize that what we call astrology was based very much on actually scientific astronomy. One thing: they are from the East; if they traveled from the East, following a star, should they not have seen the star in the West from their vantage point? Perhaps this is a great indication of the author of this story not quite thinking it through: they were from the East, the home of astrology/astronomy for a thousand years, and so the star appeared in the East, where they were. Or perhaps this is taking it all too literally. They saw the star, and knew what it meant and so traveled to Bethlehem. Note, they are not kings, nor specified as three; that number is inferred from the three gifts,  gold, frankincense, and myrrh. “Wise men” is sort of a fudge from a time when astrology was disreputable.

Also, let’s look at the overall implication here. Matthew is telling us this is an event of cosmic significance; so significant, in fact, that a new star appeared to announce the birth. That Matthew tells us this demonstrates just how far the story of Jesus had evolved in the period since Mark wrote his much more tentative account, in which Jesus was, or perhaps was not, a divine personage. Here that connection is explicit; there is no doubt. Jesus’s birth is a divine happening. Also, this, I think, provides excellent proof that Matthew wrote after Mark. If one looks at the way legends develop, they do not move backwards. The main character of a legend does not become more humble as time passes. If this happened, the legend would die from lack of interest. Here, the focus of the legend has become more elevated. No doubt that in the first telling, Achilles was not a demi-god. But he was by the time Homer told the story. I bring this up because most of the “who wrote first” controversy focuses on the form of the text, whether one is more “primitive” than another. The actual content, the way the story develops from one evangelist to the next is, if not ignored, then relegated to a minor significance. This, in my opinion, is the key to assessing the temporal priority of which gospel came first. Mark is the shortest. It has the least amount of information. It is uncertain–or at least ambivalent–whether Jesus is divine. Those three factors pretty much indicate that Mark represents the earliest version of the story. He wrote first, IMO.

Because let’s point out one other thing: This story, none of the Nativity story was in Mark. Luke has a different one. What does this tell us? Well, supposedly, the stuff that Matthew and Luke have that Mark doesn’t comes from Q. But Q, supposedly, was a collection of sayings. Funny thing, there are no sayings here. This is stuff that’s not in Mark, and it’s not a saying so it didn’t come from Q, either. Where did it come from? Well, this is the so-called “M” material; stuff that is in Matthew alone. It’s all supposed to be part of a tradition stretching back to Jesus, that Mark was not aware of because of their different locations. Mark supposedly wrote in Rome; Matthew supposedly wrote in Syria. There is another possibility: Matthew made this stuff up. Too often the evangelists are looked upon as scribes, or perhaps secretaries taking down the stories they had collected, when, in fact, the likelihood is that they were all original authors. They wrote something down because they had something to say, something they thought was incredibly important. Yes, stories came down to them. They had heard things said. Mark gave the story shape. Matthew expanded the story, filled in some of the missing pieces, fleshed it all out in various ways.

The most likely situation is that Matthew did inherit a certain amount of material, which he then shaped and augmented as he felt necessary. There is just enough confusion of details here in the Nativity story that I am inclined to believe that Matthew was trying to work some of his inherited material into the narrative framework he was trying to create. Remember, there were probably a lot of competing and downright contradictory stories and traditions about Jesus circulating at the time Matthew wrote. Perhaps he was inspired by all of this that he wanted to set down an authoritative account. Or something like that. Recall that I imputed a similar motivation to Mark. I suspect that Matthew, confronted with a bunch of such stories in addition to Mark, wished to make sense of it all. But–I believe that Matthew thought that he, personally, had a lot to contribute. And I believe that he did so.

Which leads us to the belief that the gospels–the entire Bible–represents the inspired word of God. And I think that that is true; or perhaps Truth. We saw how Paul had no qualms about making judgements and decisions on his own authority, and that his description of how he came to these decisions pretty much resembles what we would call ‘inspired thinking’, in all the ramifications of that word. Remember, the sky hung low in the ancient world, and the traffic was heavy in both directions. It seems hard to doubt that Matthew had a copy of Mark; what would be the point in merely repeating what Mark said? Very little.  Rather, Matthew saw the need to expand on Mark, to complement the earlier evangelist, or perhaps to complete the story. Or, at least, to tell a more complete story. As for where Matthew got his additional information, his more complete information, we’ll come back to that later. And frequently.

One last point. Is Matthew’s star the origin and/or inspiration for Luke’s “heavenly host”?.

1 Cum autem natus esset Iesus in Bethlehem Iudaeae in diebus Herodis regis, ecce Magi ab oriente venerunt Hierosolymam

1 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα (2) λέγοντες,  Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ.

Jesus  having been born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magoi from the east having journeyed to Jerusalem, saying, (2) “Where is the king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.

1 Cum autem natus esset Iesus in Bethlehem Iudaeae in diebus Herodis regis, ecce Magi ab oriente venerunt Hierosolymam (2) dicentes: “ Ubi est, qui natus est, rex Iudaeorum? Vidimus enim stellam eius in oriente et venimus adorare eum”.

Quick point: the penultimate and antepenultimate words are pretty much, “Come let us adore him…”

3 ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἡρῴδης ἐταράχθη καὶ πᾶσα Ἱεροσόλυμα μετ’ αὐτοῦ,

 Hearing this. the king was unsettled, and all of Jerusalem with him.

This is what I mean about writing history. “And all of Jerusalem with him”. Matthew has zero way of knowing that. It’s a perfect example of projecting backwards. The fact is, no one marked the event at the time. But it tells a higher Truth. It’s like the old expression, “if it isn’t true, it ought to be”. It goes along with the “King of the Jews”, that I forgot to comment on in the previous section. Matthew is not telling stories that were told from the time of Jesus. He is recording, or, IMO, making up stories that explain Jesus better than the tradition that Mark received. Remember, Mark was ambivalent; it would be entirely reasonable to infer that one of the reasons–perhaps the chief reason–Matthew wrote may have been to “correct” this ambivalence. So we start with an event of cosmic significance, a new star, one recognised as such by learned men who lived far away and so were not part of the Jewish thought-word, and one that was understood by Herod and “all Jerusalem”. This is meant to drive a stake through the heart of that ambivalence right off the bat. Jesus was divine.

It should at least be mentioned that, of course, part of the reason Herod was disturbed is that he was the King of the Jews. He was the legitimate king, recognised as such by the population of Judea, and by the Romans. If there’s one thing that a king cannot stand, it’s to be told that there is another king. So news such as this is going to disturb him mightily. If he did not know the actual historical circumstances, Matthew certainly understood this historical implication.   

3 Audiens autem Herodes rex turbatus est et omnis Hierosolyma cum illo;

4 καὶ συναγαγὼν πάντας τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ γραμματεῖς τοῦ λαοῦ ἐπυνθάνετο παρ’ αὐτῶν ποῦ ὁ Χριστὸς γεννᾶται.

And gathering all the high priests and scribes of the people, he sought from them where the Anointed was to be born.  

And, just to be clear, Matthew has changed gears, substituting “the Anointed” for “King of the Jews”. We are meant to understand that there was an identity between these two terms. They are synonyms, titles that can be used interchangeably. The Jewish tradition on this is a bit unclear; who was the Messiah to be? But the identification of one with the other is not too strained. The interesting thing is that, for the time anyway, “king” and “kingdom” would be taken here as earthly, political terms rather than spiritual ones. It will be interesting to see how Matthew develops this theme.

4 et congregans omnes principes sacerdotum et scribas populi, sciscitabatur ab eis ubi Christus nasceretur.

5 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας: οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου:

They told him, “in Bethlehem of Judea. For it is written in the prophet

Comment deferred.

5 At illi dixerunt ei: “ In Bethlehem Iudaeae. Sic enim scriptum est per prophetam:

6 Καὶ σύ, Βηθλέεμ γῆ Ἰούδα, οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη εἶ ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα: ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἐξελεύσεται ἡγούμενος, ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ.

(cont’d from prev verse) “And you Bethlehem, will not be the the least in the leaders of Judea. For out from you will come a leader, who will feed my people Israel.”   (lit= ‘feed’; metaphorically, “to lead/rule”, “to shepherd”)

 Who is the prophet cited? Isaiah? Elijah? Jeremiah? No. It’s Micah, one of the later, so-called “minor” prophets. Now, a reference to Bethlehem is not terribly odd; it was, after all, “David’s City”, so it held a place in the Jewish tradition; or perhaps the Judahite position. David was the King of Judah, after all–but I am not at all convinced that he was ever the King of Israel–whose made his capital in Jerusalem, perhaps after conquering it. But the point is that Matthew is rather going out of his way to come up with ways to connect Jesus to David to underscore the idea of being King of the Jews. Or, perhaps we should say, “King of Judea”. Or even, “King of Judah”. Part of the idea was that Herod was not a legitimate king in the eyes of many, being really just a Roman puppet.

Here’s a question that should be asked, but almost never is. For whose benefit is Matthew making this connection? That is, whom is he trying to convince that Jesus is a royal scion? Fellow Jews (assuming Matthew was a Jew, as most consider him to be)? I’m not so sure. Honestly, at this point a full two generations after Jesus’ death, I’m not sure that Matthew was targeting Jews. Almost everyone believes that Matthew wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70. This means that the Jerusalem Community had either been destroyed or scattered, or some of both. According to Josephus, James the Just, the brother of the Lord, was dead, executed in the early 60s. Peter had, traditionally, gone to Rome where he had been martyred. In the meantime, Paul, and probably Mark, had been establishing communities in a number of Gentile cities, such as Corinth. and Paul’s letter to the Romans demonstrates that there was a community in Rome, whether or not Peter ever got there. My suspicion is that, somewhere between Mark and Matthew, the “tipping point” had been reached, and that most new converts were coming from the Gentiles and not the Jews. 

This is important. Recall Paul saying that the cross was an impediment, something that repelled people from Jesus’ message. How better to overcome the notion that Jesus was a common criminal who had been executed by Rome, than by telling new listeners that Jesus was of royal blood? This sort of thing carried a lot of weight back then. A lot of weight. Of course it gave Jesus elevated status; royalty were considered better than regular folk. Perhaps more importantly, though, it gave Jesus a pedigree. Being able to trace your ancestry back a long way was a very important aspect of the upper classes, the nobles of the ancient world. By going back to David, Jesus’ pedigree–theoretically, at least–covered centuries. Even Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus could not trace his lineage back that far. There was perhaps no one in the First Century who could claim an ancestry that was longer.

So I suspect that this royal lineage was more important for a pagan audience than a Jewish one.

 6 “Et tu, Bethlehem terra Iudae, / nequaquam minima es in principibus Iudae; / ex te enim exiet dux, / qui reget populum meum Israel””.

7 Τότε Ἡρῴδης λάθρᾳ καλέσας τοὺς μάγους ἠκρίβωσεν παρ’ αὐτῶν τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος,

 Then Herod privately having called together the magoi, he asked of them the time of the appearance of the star

Comment deferred

7 Tunc Herodes, clam vocatis Magis, diligenter didicit ab eis tempus stellae, quae apparuit eis;

8 καὶ πέμψας αὐτοὺς εἰς Βηθλέεμ εἶπεν, Πορευθέντες ἐξετάσατε ἀκριβῶς περὶ τοῦ παιδίου: ἐπὰν δὲ εὕρητε ἀπαγγείλατέ μοι, ὅπως κἀγὼ ἐλθὼν προσκυνήσω αὐτῷ.

and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Going (there) ask sharply about the child. When you find (him), announce it to me, so that I also coming I will worship him.

First, there is something to be borne in mind here. I owe this to the nun who taught Grade 4 (?) religion. She pointed out that it would take some time for the magoi to travel from afar to reach Bethlehem. This is, of course, recognised by the fact that Epiphany is celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas, but we are likely talking about an interval of months, rather than a dozen days. Hence, Herod has to ask about the time of the appearance. This time lag will come to play again later.

Second, there was a time lag. The implication is that Jesus and his family lived in Bethlehem as full-time residents. There was no traveling there because of the census–more on that when we get to Luke. Some of this goes back to what I said about Jesus’ town of residence when we were discussing Mark. To me, it seems like he most likely lived in Caphernaum, based on the internal evidence of Mark’s text. Here, I suspect we have Jesus situated in Bethlehem for the connection to David and to fulfill the prophecy. And let’s bear in mind that Luke has them travel to Bethlehem from their actual home in Nazareth. What does all of this tell us? That no one actually knew where he was from. As a result, there were a bunch of different stories that got started at some point after Jesus died; a couple of them picked up on prophecies; the one above, and one we will see shortly stating that “he will be called a Nazarene”, so that Jesus had to be from Nazareth. What I would suspect is that the original story had him in Bethlehem, to connect him to David, but the Nazarene part came along later and the two of them were combined by Luke.

8 et mittens illos in Bethlehem dixit: “ Ite et interrogate diligenter de puero; et cum inveneritis, renuntiate mihi, ut et ego veniens adorem eum”.

9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες τοῦ βασιλέως ἐπορεύθησαν, καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἀστὴρ ὃν εἶδον ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ προῆγεν αὐτοὺς ἕως ἐλθὼν ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον.

They having heard the king, went away. And, behold! the star which they had seen in the east went before them until coming it stood over where was the child.

This does imply that the star moved, since it ‘came to rest’. I’m still a little uncertain about them seeing it in the east and then traveling west, but, hey, these are wise men. And all sorts of theories have been put forward about the star: comet, nova/supernova, & c, but this again sort of misses the point. The star is Truth; whether it actually happened in any measurable sense is just beside the point. This was an event with cosmic significance. That is what we are meant to take away from this. We’re not getting an astronomy lesson.

9 Qui cum audissent regem, abierunt. Et ecce stella, quam viderant in oriente, antecedebat eos, usque dum veniens staret supra, ubi erat puer.

10 ἰδόντες δὲ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα.

Seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly a great joy. 

Comment deferred.

10 Videntes autem stellam gavisi sunt gaudio magno valde.

11 καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν εἶδον τὸ παιδίον μετὰ Μαρίας τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ πεσόντες προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἀνοίξαντες τοὺς θησαυροὺς αὐτῶν προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δῶρα, χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν.

And coming into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling, they worshiped him, and opening their treasures they gave him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

11 Et intrantes domum viderunt puerum cum Maria matre eius, et procidentes adoraverunt eum; et apertis thesauris suis, obtulerunt ei munera, aurum et tus et myrrham.

First, note that they come into the house. Not a stable, but a house, presumably where they live. Second, he is with his mother. No mention of Joseph. Why not? Well, perhaps he was out working, making a living for the family. We don’t know what time of day or night it is. And besides, a young child would normally be with his mother. Note that he is not a newborn at this point, given the several months it was likely to take to travel from some place like Persia. We aren’t given an exact point of origin, but the magoi were a fixture at the Persian court; Herodotus mentions them often when talking about the Persian kings.

12 καὶ χρηματισθέντες κατ’ ὄναρ μὴ ἀνακάμψαι πρὸς Ἡρῴδην, δι’ ἄλλης ὁδοῦ ἀνεχώρησαν εἰς τὴν χώραν αὐτῶν.

And having received a response (as a response from an oracle) in a dream not to return to Herod, by another road they departed towards their own country.

12 Et responso accepto in somnis, ne redirent ad Herodem, per aliam viam reversi sunt in regionem suam.

The verb in the first clause that I translated as “received a response (as a response from an oracle)” is rather an odd choice, I would think. The base meaning is ‘to negotiate, as in a business setting’, since the first part of the word is actually “money”. But it does have the sense that I gave it, a response, as from an oracle. And this makes one wonder about how the oracles worked. We suspect there is an undertone of “pay to play” involved here.

But we’re back to dreams here. This is the second of three that we will encounter in the first two chapters of Matthew. What is the significance of this? I think that Matthew is trying to communicate to us that the heavenly hotline is wide open. God is taking a direct interest in the events that are occurring, and he’s providing a lot of direction to make sure the humans involved know what they’re supposed to do. At the very least, God’s inordinate interest in all of this should–does–tell us that these matters occurring on earth are important, and very much worth paying attention to. But I am still a little perplexed about why Matthew chose to use dreams as he did. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is terribly common in the Jewish thought world. Is it a clue that he really is targeting pagans? For them, all of this would be very much within standard practice. “For a dream, too, is from Zeus”. I get to end with that on two successive posts. Score! For whatever reason, I love that line.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 27, 2014, in Chapter 1, Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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