Matthew 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The First Star Trek

As early as the second century, Bethlehemites believed they could identify the exact cave where, following Luke's account of the manger, Jesus had been born (Stauffer 1960:21; Finegan 1969:20-23; for echoes of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in early rabbinic disputes, see Herford 1966:253-55).

A microcosm of Matthew's Gospel as a whole, this passage reminds us that we must preach the gospel to all people because we cannot always predict who will hear the message and who will not. Those we least expect to honor Jesus may worship him, and those we least expect to oppose him may seek his death. This passage confronts Matthew's readers with a summons to personal decision by contrasting the main characters (contrasting characters was a standard ancient literary device; see, for example, Schuler 1982:50). The Magi worship Jesus; Herod seeks his death; Jerusalem's religious elite-forerunners of the opponents of Matthew's audience-take Jesus for granted. The reader must identify with the pagan Magi rather than with Herod or Jerusalem's religious elite, and hence are compelled to recognize God's interest in the mission to the Gentiles. The God who sought servants like the Roman centurion (8:5-13) from the pagan west also sought previously pagan servants from the east (2:1; compare Is 2:6) like the Magi (see 8:11).

Matthew challenges prejudice against pagans. The first story after Jesus' birth opens with Magi who have traveled a long distance to offer homage to a new king born in Judea. They enter Jerusalem with a large enough caravan to attract the city's attention (2:3); they must have assumed that they would find the newborn king in Herod's palace in Jerusalem.

Magi were astrologers from the royal court of the king of Persia. Part of their job description was to make the king of Persia look good, but here they come to promote another king. Kings would often send congratulations to new rulers in other realms, but the king of Persia called himself "king of kings," that is, the highest of kings (compare, for example, Ezra 7:12; Dan 2:37). We might not expect the Magi to worship Jesus, especially if they found him not in the royal palace but in a cave.

More unexpectedly, these Magi are astrologers, which is why they noticed the star to begin with. Many sources from this period report the skill of Magi in divination, but Matthew's audience would probably recall first the Magi of their Greek translation of the Old Testament: Daniel's enemies, whom Daniel's narratives portray in a negative light as selfish, incompetent and brutal pagans (Dan 2:2, 10). (Their identity is even clearer in some later Greek versions of the Old Testament. In this period the Magi probably would have been Zoroastrian, but Matthew's readers would think more of Daniel's pagan accusers.)

Although the Bible forbade divination (Deut 18:9-13), which includes astrology (Is 47:13; see also Deut 4:19), for one special event in history the God who rules the heavens chose to reveal himself where the pagans were looking (compare Acts 19:12, 15-20). Without condoning astrology, Matthew's narrative challenges our prejudice against outsiders to our faith (see also 8:5-13; 15:21-28): even the most pagan of pagans may respond to Jesus if given the opportunity (compare Jon 1:13-16; 3:6-10). What a resounding call for the church today to pursue a culturally sensitive yet uncompromising commitment to missions!

Yet even supernatural guidance like the star can take the astrologers only so far; for more specific direction they must ask the leaders in Jerusalem where the king is to be born (2:2). That is, their celestial revelation was only partial; they must finally submit to God's revelation in the Scriptures, preserved by the Jewish people (see Meier 1980:11).

Matthew challenges prejudice that favors political power. Another central character in this narrative is Herod (2:3, 7-8). That Herod is dismayed by the Magi's announcement is not surprising (2:3); in this period most Greeks, Romans and even Jews respected astrological predictions. Further, a cosmic signal of another ruler would necessarily indicate the end of the current ruler's reign (as in Suet. Vespasian 23; Artem. 2.36). Other rulers also proved paranoid about astrologers (see MacMullen 1966:133; Kee 1980:71), and some had been ready to kill their own descendants to keep the throne (Herod. Hist. 1.107-10). But as many incidents during Herod's reign illustrate, he was more paranoid than most other rulers (see comment on 2:16). For Herod, little room existed for two kings in his realm: although he was Idumean by birth (Jos. War 1.123, 313; see Deut 17:15), he considered himself king of the Jews (compare 2:2). Here the one who reigns as king of God's people acts just like the oppressors of old: in Jewish tradition, both Pharaoh and his people feared when they learned in advance of the coming of Israel's deliverer (Jos. Ant. 2.206; Allison 1993b:146).

Herod's brutal power, played out in the following narrative, contrasts starkly with the human defenselessness of the Child and his mother (2:11, 19, 21). Whereas pagan Magi act like God's people (v. 11), the king of God's people acts like a notorious pagan king of old (v. 16; compare Ex 1:16). When we side with the politically powerful to seek human help against common foes, we could actually find ourselves fighting God's agendas (compare Is 30:1-5; 31:1-3). Jesus came and served among the weakest, depending solely on God's vindication (Mt 11:29; 12:19-21; 18:3-4; 19:14).

Matthew challenges the prejudice that respects spiritually complacent religion. Not knowing himself where the king would be born, Herod gathers the religious experts, the chief priests and scribes (2:4), most of whom in this period were loyal to his agendas (compare Jos. Ant. 15.2, 5). These experts immediately identify the place where the Messiah will be born on the basis of Micah 5:2 (Mt 2:5-6). But while the religious leaders know where the Messiah will be born, they do not join the Magi in their quest. These are the religious leaders, but they fail to act on all their Bible knowledge. Jesus is just a baby, and they take him for granted.

Although these authorities did not desire to kill Jesus as Herod did, their successors a generation later-when Jesus could no longer be taken for granted-did seek his death (26:57, 59). One is tempted to note that the line between taking Jesus for granted and wanting him out of the way may remain very thin today as well. And we must not forget that the sin of taking Jesus for granted is the sin not of pagans who know little about him, but of religious folk and Bible teachers.

Matthew reinforces these points by reminding us that it is the pagans who worshiped Jesus. After the Magi have left Jerusalem, they come and worship Jesus (2:9-11). A road led south to Bethlehem, which was about six miles from Jerusalem, so the rest of the Magi's journey probably did not take very long. That they offer Jesus both homage and standard gifts from the East (2:11) fits Eastern practices; for instance, royal courts there used frankincense and myrrh (though these spices also had many other uses). The Magi's homage to Jesus may reflect biblical language alluding to the pilgrimage and homage of nations in Psalm 72:10 or Isaiah 60:6, or to the queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13), or to all three texts; a late midrash on the queen of Sheba story includes a miraculous star (Bruns 1961). If Matthew has Psalm 72 or 1 Kings 10 in mind, he expects us to recognize Jesus as King Solomon's greatest son (compare Mt 1:6-7; 12:42).

At any rate, the threefold repetition of homage (2:2, 8, 11) reinforces the point of the narrative: if God's people will not honor Jesus, former pagans will (Harrington 1982:17). Throughout this Gospel, homage to Jesus reflects some degree of recognition of his identity (as in 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25), climaxing in the ultimate homage of 28:9, 17, a context that declares Jesus' royal authority equivalent to the Father's (28:18-20). But such a hint may be present even in this Gospel's first example of homage: Matthew's audience may have expected Persians like the Magi to have intended more than merely human respect when they offered homage (compare Esther 3:2).

That the Magi needed a supernatural revelation to warn them not to return by way of Jerusalem (2:12) suggests their innocent naivet). Even without Herod's unadmirable character (see comment on 2:16), few kings would be ready to surrender their own rule to a nonrelative some foreigners hailed as king! (For that matter, not only powerful people in society but many others today seem reluctant to acknowledge Jesus' right to direct their lives.) The Magi's innocence compared to Herod's murderous shrewdness again reminds Matthew's readers not to prejudge the appropriate recipients of the gospel (compare 13:3-23). Jesus is for all who will receive him, and God may provide Jesus' servants with allies in unexpected places if we have the wisdom to recognize them.

Next commentary:
The Persecuted Child

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