I recommend a reading of Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 2, as an introduction to today's post.
All four of the Gospels describe the adult Jesus as beginning his public ministry as a “Nazorean,” so it is safe to assume that the oral strand of belief received by Matthew in the 80’s A.D. included a common agreement that Jesus was a Galilean from the town of Nazareth. One can easily recall the Passion accounts where a crowd gathered in the courtyard and quickly identified Peter as a disciple of Jesus. Mark 14: 70 captures the scene well, as onlookers comment that “even your speech betrays you.” Nazoreans, in the region of Galilee, were removed from the more “metropolitan” Jerusalem by distance [about 100 miles], dialect, and sophistication. And while I have the Atlas open on my desk, Nazareth is also about 100 miles from Bethlehem.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Matthew has gone against the grain by depicting the home and residence of Jesus in Bethlehem at the time of his birth, and for about two years after that by his internal reckoning [Matthew 2:1]. By departing from common belief, Matthew has set the stage for the next scene in his introduction of Jesus as the New Moses. For Chapter 2 of his Gospel introduces new players and new information—this new “King of the Jews” would in fact be worshipped as a universal savior by Jew and pagan alike, while at the same become the object of rejection, persecution, and death. The future Gentiles who would be saved by Jesus’ cross are embodied in the beloved Christmas characters, the Three Kings.
The Gospel does not tell us that they were kings, nor even that there were three of them. It does tell us that there were three presents. The Paulist Biblical Commentary admits that we look back to Matthew’s text through the eyes of later devotion and storytelling. The term magi “comes from the Greek magos, meaning “people possessed of superior knowledge, experts in some field, especially—as would appear to be the case here—astronomy/astrology.” [PBC, p. 912] The most important contribution to the story of these visitors is their non-Jewish identity. They are seekers of universal truth, and the unusual appearance of a star in the direction of Israel leads them to deduce that a new king has been born there. Kings and royalty came and went in the ancient world, so the interest of these magi in the destiny of Israel is rather remarkable.
Matthew has created this account to demonstrate how all the nations of the world will come streaming to the New Jerusalem at the end time to worship the Lord. The Matthean text is inspired by the apocalyptic Isaiah 60, which happens to be the first reading of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Roman Catholic calendar. Matthew, in view of his Jewish-Christian audience, expands the definition of a “coming messiah” far beyond the restoration of a throne or a national revival; the New Jerusalem, of whom Jesus is its divine fulfillment, will bring God’s deliverance to all persons seeking truth and the way. There is no need to alter your home Christmas Nativity creche so long as we remember that the kings or wisemen were Gentile kings and wise men, or magi. The relationship of the future Jesus mission and the Gentiles is key to the text.
If Matthew is unclear about how many magi actually stopped in Jerusalem on their quest, he is emphatic in his narrative of the danger they have stepped into, personified in King Herod the Great [73 B.C.-4 A.D.] Herod’s entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica makes for interesting reading. He had been a “player” in the famous Octavian-Marc Antony-Cleopatra drama and though he bet on Antony, the victor Octavian established Herod as king of all Judea and supported him until Herod’s final years, when paranoia and probable atherosclerosis created a dangerous and murderous tyrant. The Roman Emperor Augustus himself observed that “It’s better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.” In Matthew’s account, the magi approached the Jerusalem court at about the worst possible time to inquire where this newborn king could be found.
The presence of the magi led the court and the temple to search what Scripture had predicted about the birthplace of the messiah, understood to be a Davidic future king. Matthew quotes the prophet Micah [Micah 5:2], though the PBC notes that Micah 5:6-7 is more likely a prediction of a new David, all the worse from Herod’s neurotic state of mind. Mindful of David’s own ruthlessness, Herod was determined not to become the new Saul, and he sends the magi on their way to Bethlehem, primarily to identify the child. Herod expresses enthusiasm in venerating the new young king, but his intent is to kill him.
The magi follow the star “to the place where the child was.” i.e., at his home in Bethlehem. A key phrase in this narrative is the visitors’ prostrating themselves and doing homage.” [Matthew 2:11] It cannot be emphasized enough that these sincere seekers have come from Gentile lands, not to satisfy their curiosity but to adore God’s presence on earth. It is unlikely that these visitors understood Catholic incarnational or trinitarian theology, but their gifts give a splendid insight into what they did believe. Their gifts of gold and frankincense are inspired by Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60:6. Matthew’s inclusion of myrrh, an embalming ointment, does not have a direct reference in the Hebrew Scripture. It is a unique and inspired inclusion by Matthew, whose entire Infancy narrative is intended as an introduction to the new understanding of the messiah as “the suffering servant” whose body will need myrrh after the crucifixion.
The magi were indeed wise men, for they returned to their country “by another way,” under the guidance of an angel, traveling nowhere near the Jerusalem court. Similarly, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and advised him of the dangers posed by Herod. The angel advised Joseph to take his family into Egypt [the journey from Bethlehem to Alexandria, Egypt is about 200 miles.] The “flight into Egypt” is a well-known staple of Catholic catechetics, but the parallel between Jesus and Moses has come into greater appreciation in modern times. The narrative is arranged to highlight the dual flights of Moses and Jesus from an Egyptian pharaoh and a Jewish king respectively, both children finding refuge in Egypt in divinely influenced fashion. A review of Exodus [1, 2] is helpful here.
The Exodus narrative describes a frustrated pharaoh who is witnessing a dramatic demographic shift in which a healthy Hebrew fertility is threatening to override the native Egyptian population. After several measures to refract this population trend have failed, pharaoh is reduced to desperate genocide, ordering the execution of all young Hebrew boys on sight. King Herod is focused on the birth of just one young boy; the other youngsters of Bethlehem are collateral damage, and the Church has remembered them as victims of Herod’s search for Jesus in the December 28 Feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs associated with the New Moses. Their deaths reinforce one of Matthew’s entire Infancy themes, that Jesus and his followers can expect persecution and death. Commentators also look to Jeremiah 31:15 as an indication that the loss of these children was foreseen by God.
An an established Christmas devotion, the story of the massacre of the Innocents nonetheless cannot be verified by historical sources. Most commentators agree that, based on records we do have regarding Herod the Great, he was certainly capable of such a thing [he murdered his own family], but the massacre cannot be independently verified. The best historian of Herod’s time, Flavius Josephus, does not record the Bethlehem tragedy in his history of the Jewish people. In the Matthean narrative, this tragedy made it impossible for Joseph’s family to return to their home and given that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning in Judea, Joseph took them to the safety of the rural town of Nazareth. The next time we encounter Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, he will be an adult known as a Nazorean when he presents for baptism from John the Baptist.