In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,* and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.Translation: And Jesus, after being born in Bethlehem of Judea in (the) days of Herod the King: Behold, magi from the east came into Jerusalem saying, "Where is the one born king of the Judeans? For we saw his star in the east and came to worship him." When King Herod heard, he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. And calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was asking from them where the Christ was being born. And they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judah, for just as it was written through the prophet, "and you Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by now means least in the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel."Then Herod secretly called the magi, diligently questioning from them the time of the appearing star, and he sent them into Bethlehem (and) said, "Go (and) scrutinize diligently concerning the young child, and when you have found (him), bring word to me that I myself may come and worship him."And when they heard the king, they went, and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, was going before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. And seeing the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And coming into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, they fell down (and) worshipped him. And they opened their treasures, (and) gave him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned from a dream not to return to Herod, they departed by another way into their country.
Visit of the magi: The "magi" originated in the Persian priestly class. They were sorcerers, fortune-tellers, astrologers. They represent the "wisdom of the east"--such as it was.
Judaism didn't care that much for fortune-tellers. Indeed, Matthew presents them as a bit bone-headed. They seem naive about Herod, and, though they followed generally the proper trajectory--east to west--they wind up nine miles off. They come to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.
The magi tell Herod about the birth of a "king of the Jews"--a title which technically belonged to Herod. (In just a bit, Herod will refer to the child as "messiah," not--pointedly--"king of the Jews.") The magi have seen his star in the east, or perhaps better, "at its rising"--en te anatole.
Matthew is alluding to the story of Balaam--another "magi" from the east--who was called by Israel's ancient foe, Balak, to bring a curse on Israel, but brought blessings instead. Matthew is recalling Numbers 24: 17-18: "a star shall come out of Jacob...Edom shall become a possession." (This may have been a subtle slam on Herod. Herod was from Idumea, or Edom.)
People of the day would not have been surprised at the mention of a natal star. The births of Pliny and Alexander the Great had supposedly been attended by astral events. Virgil notes that a star led Aeneas to the place where the city of Rome was to be founded. What is distinctive and interesting about this star is that it leads not to some famous personage, but rather to the child of a peasant couple living in a hick town.
Herod was etaraxthe--agitated, troubled, disquieted, filled with inner turmoil--"and all Jerusalem with him." Jerusalem was a "company town," dominated by the Temple bureaucracy and their overseers, the Romans. A "king of the Jews" other than Herod could be upsetting for business. To paraphrase a popular saying, "Better the devil you know than the messiah you don't."
Herod calls all the experts together--"all the chief priests and scribes." These will later turn out to be Jesus' primary opponents. Matthew does not credit them with an authoritative scriptural interpretation. He does not say "as it is written," or "this was to fulfill," as is customary for Matthew when he is citing scripture as scripture. He says only "just as it was written through the prophet."
The "chief priests and scribes" do manage, however, to cobble together an appropriate citation. The central text appears to be Micah 5: 2: "And you Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by now means least in the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel."
Matthew makes two modifications to Micah, one minor and one major. The minor one is that he adds "by no means" to the opening phrase of Micah, an addition of emphasis.
Then he takes the phrase "shepherd my people Israel" and puts that in place of Micah's simple "rule in Israel." The phrase, "shepherd my people Israel" appears in 2 Samuel, and refers to Saul, the founder of the monarchy. Saul was subsequently overthrown by the one who would become the great Shepherd-King of Judah, David. Jesus, whom even Herod refers to as "messiah," will be the "new David."
Herod quizzes the magi on the time the star appeared. This establishes a range of age that will set the stage for Herod's slaughter of the innocents, which follows immediately upon this lection. All born within two years of this "exact time" will be killed.
The word for time here is chronon--chronological "business as usual" time, and not kairos, which is God's time. In chronos time--"business as usual" time, you might say--extreme brutality and arbitrary violence is standard operating procedure.
Chronos time is attended by lies. Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem on a covert mission to supply him with information about the child. He wants to "worship" him, he says, but, of course, he really wants to eliminate this rival "king of the Jews." Lying and violence go together. They are "business as usual."
The magi seem to go along with this. They "hear" Herod and do what he says. As they go out, however, the star reappears, and guides them to the child. Literally, verse 10 reads: "Seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly great joy greatly"--four words in Greek, which pile superlative upon superlative. Contrast this with the defensive and fearful reaction of Herod, whose system was wracked by agitation and inner turmoil.
The magi see the child--Mary is mentioned via preposition, and Joseph not at all--and they worship. Indeed, this is the fourth use of the word prosekunasan--"worship in an especially reverential manner"--in this brief lection. For Jews of that day, worship was due only to God. Matthew, as he will do later in his gospel, is saying that worship of Jesus is the same as worshiping God.
Gifts were always presented to kings. The magi bring gold and frankincense, which recalls Isaiah 60:6, which is an oracle of hope for returning exiles from Babylon. Matthew, like Mark and Luke, sees Jesus in light of the prophetic tradition.
The gifts also include myrrh, a very expensive perfume used by the Romans to mask the smell of burning corpses. Nero had reportedly burned a massive amount at the funeral of his wife Poppaea. What is Matthew saying with this inclusion of myrrh? Is it a signal that Jesus will be done in by the Romans?
The magi receive a dream from God which tells them to avoid Herod, and they go home "by a different way"--di' allys idou. The magi, rather clueless throughout, are nonetheless led and instructed by God onto a new path, not the "business as usual" path of lying and violence, but the different "way"--as Christianity was known in the time of Matthew's writing--of Christ the Lord.
Image: Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna