painting by Rembrandt showing Magi adoring infant Christ
“The Adoration of the Magi”

The text we’re studying this week is Matthew 2:1-12 – “the story of the wise men.” It is one of those texts that we think we already know. In fact, some of us might think we know it so well that we’re wondering “How can there be anything new in this?” since we’ve heard it every year of our lives. [This is when the Bible is at its most amazing. Just when we think we know it all … there’s more.] Here are my notes and comments:

Historical context: The “King Herod” in v 3 seems to be Herod the Great, who ruled under the Romans 40 BCE – 4 BCE.

The star might not have been what today’s astronomers would call a star. It might have been the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces, which occurred in 7 BCE, and would have been a very bright cosmic event. According to my Harper Collins Bible Dictionary this is “the prevailing consensus” of scholars.

The magi or wise men would presumably have noticed that event, because they were the kind of people who observed stars, namely astrologers. They might have come from Arabia or Mesopotamia (east of Judea), or even farther. The Greek word Matthew uses, “magoi,” would fit the “astrologer” conclusion. But. We might want to remember that we have (a) run into magoi recently in Acts, where we were encouraged to think of them as magicians; and (b) if we want to think of these travelers as “wise men” it wouldn’t be a big stretch to call them wizards, which connotes men who know nature’s secret and magical ways and which comes from the English word for “wise” man. So, thinking magoi –> astrologers-magicians-wise men –-> wizards doesn’t seem that crazy. And since our family is in the middle of its annual Christmas season Harry Potter marathon right now, I rather like the idea of someone like Dumbledore making the trip to visit Baby Jesus

Bethlehem is a small town mostly south of the city of Jerusalem, and in those days not on the other side of a security checkpoint. It is the location of Rachel’s tomb, the setting for the story of Ruth & Naomi, and the home town of the Great King, David. The prophet Samuel goes there to anoint David king (in 1 Samuel 16), which all of Matthew’s readers would probably have known immediately. The text of the gospel of Matthew probably dates from late first century, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, arguably after Luke, and possibly addressed to a better-off group of Christians familiar enough with Jewish customs and texts to need little explanation.

Literary context: The story of the wise men is part of a series of stories that seem to function as a prelude to the gospel proper, which starts in chapter 3. In the prelude, it is the clearest ray of light, and it foreshadows the kind of conflict that is going to animate the gospel as a whole: the conflict between worshipful recognition and fearful rejection of the Messiah. This prelude includes: genealogy that recapitulates the history of Israel from the patriarch Abraham to the “present;” the story of how Joseph goes through with marrying Jesus’ pregnant mother, thanks to divine communication from an angel in a dream; our story of the wise men; the holy family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod, and Herod’s massacre of the innocents; Herod’s death and the family’s return from Egypt to settle down in Nazareth, where Jesus grows up in obscurity (a little like Arthur before he pulls the sword out of the stone).

It seems significant that there is a lot of divine communication in this whole section, but … it takes the form of dreams (which people have at night), a star (which people observed at night), and the history and prophecy recorded in Hebrew Scripture (which comes “before” anyone sees the Messiah). All of it is something like those intimations of sunrise, when it’s still mostly dark. The story of the wise men really emphasizes “the east” – the direction of dawning or rising. The wise men come from there, and they have seen the star “in the east” (or “at its rising” – in Greek it’s the same word), which the text repeats (v2, v9). So the text keeps pointing us toward something that is about to happen but hasn’t quite “dawned” yet. (From a literary standpoint, the sun really comes up in Mt. 3:16, when “the heavens were opened to him …” and the Holy Spirit identifies Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved.”)

Characters & Actions: The main actors in the text are the wise men and King Herod. The star and the chief priests and scribes play key supporting roles.

The wise men “arrive” or “suddenly show up” in v1 and set things in motion by asking, in a long and ominous, but completely innocent (today we might say, “science-based”) speech, where the newly-born and cosmically-announced King of the Jews is. They have come to “pay him homage,” using a word that is elsewhere translated “worship,” and that refers to a physical posture like kneeling or bowing low. They are back in v9, when they hear King Herod, set out, and see the star stop over the location of the infant they are seeking. They have an extreme emotional reaction (in Greek it’s something like “they rejoiced joyfully with great joy massively”). Then they see the child and his mother Mary, and they kneel down and do homage and open treasure chests and offer gifts. (And we all know: “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” expensive, kingly, frankincense related to incense and sacrifice and worship, myrrh related to embalming, everything symbolizing the triple role of the anointed one who is king, priest, and prophet, and who is destined to be the crucified-and-risen-one, etc. etc.) Then, they are warned, and leave for home by “another road.”

King Herod hears the wise men’s words, has his own extreme emotional reaction, and gets his whole court riled up. (“Court” is my reading of what “all Jerusalem” means here – because seriously, would it really have been the whole city? Including the shop keepers and street sweepers? But the court folk might well have acted like they were “all Jerusalem,” or at least all of Jerusalem that counted.) Herod’s emotional reaction here is identical to the emotional reaction of Jesus’ disciples when they first see him walking across the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mt. 14:26). There, they are described as “terrified.” [This may tell us that, seen from a particular angle, Jesus is scary.] Herod “calls together” (in Greek, the word that gives us “synagogue”) the counterparts to the wise men: the chief priests and scribes. Then come some terms that put us in mind of intelligence gathering: Herod “inquires” (literally, searches for precise information) about the birthplace of the Messiah; then he “learns” from the wise men the “exact” time of the cosmic event they saw; then, giving them very precise instructions, he tells them to “search diligently” (literally the same verb translated “inquires” when Herod did it; here meaning something like “find out his precise location”) for the infant. We might not be crazy to have the notion of a contemplated “surgical strike” in mind at this point. He also tells the wise men to bring him a report – using the same word we might use for a message from an angel or an apostle. It might be a good thing to report about Baby Jesus, but not when we can guess that Herod is lying about his motive and has no intention of “paying homage” to the future King of the Jews. Even if we haven’t already read vv16-18, Herod’s having this conversation with the wise men “secretly” (v7) should probably make us suspicious.

[Vv7-8 are the stuff of spy drama. Do we really believe real-life King Herod wouldn’t have had the wise men followed by his own spies? If so, do we need to imagine vv13-15 taking place right away, and embodying some hair-raising suspense? “Will Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus get out of Bethlehem before Herod’s spies get back to Jerusalem with their intel? Will the Holy Family make it to Egypt before Herod’s assassins catch up with them? Stay tuned …”]

The star and the chief priests and scribes play the vital supporting role of divine communicators. The star communicates directly with the wise men, announcing the birth of the Messiah, and then leading them to their destination. [I confess, I have always wondered how they saw the star “stop.” When I was little, it always seemed to me the moon followed us, and that it was impossible to tell what it was “over.” Someone has probably come up with a theory about this that does not involve the sextant, which does not seem to have been invented until the 18th century.] The Scripture scholars point the wise men to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah by informing them, through Herod, of Micah 5:2.

A Little More Reflection: This story compresses a contrast between two attitudes towards the Christ into these twelve verses. The wise men – they’re wise, after all – recognize the signs of something important, a “once in a lifetime” opportunity that is worth making an investment of time and energy to seize. This won’t be the last time Matthew tells us something like this. [e.g., compare Matthew 13:44-46]. They acknowledge the Messiah as a king, and as a proper object of reverence and self-giving, and they are overjoyed to find him. King Herod, on the other hand, is afraid of the possibility represented by the Messiah. He doesn’t go to meet him, he does everything he can to destroy him, and his main concern is to minimize his impact on his life; apparently, his concern is for his position, which the new “King of the Jews” threatens. This same contrast will play out in the gospel proper, the contrast between those who receive the adult Jesus with joy, and those who work to destroy him.

It might be significant (although it’s outside our text) that Herod’s effort to destroy Jesus escalates, and harms many innocent others. It’s objectively, visibly violent, villainous, and destructive. That is, it’s not just a benign personal choice; it has larger socio-political consequences.

It also seems significant that the wise men return to their own country “by another road.” Significant, that is, beyond the fact that they want to avoid Herod. The idea of “another road” brings with it the idea of changing course, alteration, new or at least different experiences and sights – so, the idea that the encounter with the Christ child has made some difference in their lives. That would fit, wouldn’t it?