Matthew 2

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king — Behold! Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to do homage.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes, he inquired of them where the Messiah would be born.

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

And you, oh Bethlehem, in the land of Judah
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah
for from you will come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them into Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and do him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they went on their way; and lo, the star they had seen in the East led them onward, until it showed them clearly where the child was. When they saw where the star had led them, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and did homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother; and flee to Egpyt and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, remaining there until the death of Herod.

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Herod, when he saw that he’d been outsmarted by the wise men, went into a furious rage; so he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem, and all in that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.

This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children
because they were no more.

But when Herod died, behold: An angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

And he rose, and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But hearing that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there; and led by a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he dwelled in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazareen.”

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9 responses

  1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

    So, why is Herod about to search when he clearly is already searching? Why didn’t he go himself in the first place? And why would all Jerusalem be troubled at the announcement? There’s also, I think, an interesting reflection of Rabbinic tradition, that says Sinai was picked to deliver the Torah because it was the most humble of mountains, and the whole thing reminds me of Exodus 1-6.

  2. Herod, that naive, trusting soul, is still waiting for his visitors to come back with the exact street address? & I suppose the dream motif fits right into that Joseph & Moses theme you mention. (Without the warning in a dream, these wise men wouldn’t have figured out that if Herod wasn’t the father of this new prince, he might not be kindly disposed?)

    My old “Old Testament” teacher conjectured that these wise men were Persian nobility of Jewish ancestry, traveling with an armed entourage that would have been more than a match for the local Roman garrison — who would have been really edgy about any such visit from that rival empire. “All Jerusalem” presumably means “the authorities and everyone they were talking to.”

    I’m agreeably surprized to have you back, and also a little surprized you haven’t commented on Matthew’s typically loose use of prophecy. “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” for example, referring to Israel as His son in the original. Which makes me think of the identification — certainly by early Christians — of Jesus with Isreal. NT Wright seems pretty sure that Jesus actually identifies himself with the whole nation, and therefore goes to his death intended to suffer (as a sort of lightning-rod) their fate. What think?

    Is Mt. Sinai as we know it the actual mountain? — or one of those places where later tourists asked the locals, “Isn’t this the place where _____ was?” and were told, “I dunno, would you like a souvenier tee shirt?”

    1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

      Between semesters now, so thought I’d drop in to say hello! Halfway through my Hebrew track (woohoo!). Moving on to more Hebrew and a Tanakh Teaching class in a week. I’m looking forward to it because I’ve really bought into multiple approaches to teaching the material. There is the internal, classic way, that emphasizes packaged historiographies and self-perceptions of the group and subgroups, and there are external ways, that deal with studying these historiographies as phenomena, how things developed over time, how ancient texts produced by ancient cultures relate to modern concepts and sensibilities like nationalism, identity, policy and governance, and the relationships between these groups. I’m not sure how this works, but I know it exists, which is why I’m looking forward to it, especially how things look side by side.

      So I see Matthew’s use of prophecy in multiple ways. There is the classic “promise-fulfillment” paradigm, but I think its important to recognize that the crucial family split occurred by the time this text was written (certainly not to the extent evident in John), Matthew or whatever group of Jewish-Christian disciples wrote this, were writing this text into what they still considered to be Jewish tradition. They weren’t the first to do this; every biblical book is replete with modifications. Tradition says the text is cohesive but must be interpreted. Documentary hypothesis says many hands and many texts contributed to the final draft…and they speak to each other! (Compare Isaiah 56.1 and 56.2) In any event, the statements “this was to fulfill” or “this fulfilled” strike me as commentary, but the larger point is that the Israel out of Egypt imagery was incredibly central to these people, and given nascent Christianity’s growing interest in allegorical interpretation which may have come from Greek disciplines and Philo, this makes Jesus central to the larger narrative of the Jewish people. Would Jewish people-hood narrative have been nearly as important if the Gospels were gentile texts? Or Christians as “verus Israel,” and the old guard neatly and divinely supplanted? I doubt it.

      Another way to think about it is from the perspective of messianology. Whether there was widespread belief or not that Jewish people expected a messiah isn’t the point, but what that messiah was supposed to look like certainly is. Sigmund Mowinckel, who wrote his opus “He That Cometh” (still a classic though parts are discredited…John Collins provides an excellent intro in the new edition) intending to prove from a historical-narrative perspective (not now in fashion academically, but very common on Saturday / Sunday morning) that Jesus fit the bill, ended up admitting that Jesus didn’t fit the bill in all of the royal aspects (royal ideology perpetuated by the Davidic monarchy versus popular kingship motifs), but fulfilled and looked forward to the spiritual and eschatological aspects of messiah-hood read into the the birth and servant songs of prophetic and other texts. This is important to consider because: if Jesus was a popular leader believed to be “King of the Jews,” and the Davidic line is associated with national restoration by divine promise (royal ideology), how are his followers supposed to handle his death? What do you do when the messiah fails?

      I’m not really familiar with NT Wright’s positions enough to make an informed statement, but your wording suggests to me that he would consider that Jesus considered himself the King, both in the divine sense and the earthly sense, with at least partial awareness of his divine nature, and foreknowledge of how things would play out. But how much credence can we give to foreknowledge if Roman policy was to deal with dissidents harshly? Or borrowing a little from a Marcus Borg position, does that strengthen or weaken the story, and the point to be made?

      There’s a debate over the location of the actual Mount Sinai. Whether its Har Karkom or the actual Mt. Sinai on the map today, because of archeological findings, theories about the location of Midian, locations of stations along the way…

      1. Okay, I don’t know everything the experts know about the origins of these texts — but I do know that many of their past conclusions have been based on assumptions & academic fashions. So I feel justified in my own hypothesis as to when the gospels were written, going by when people would find them necessary.

        That would be after Paul, but not long after, as a response to the same situation that motivated his letters: a religious movement growing rapidly into an alien population, a population that didn’t share the same cultural background that had given birth to the movement. In such a situation, interpretations could drift very far very fast, so the leaders of this movement were feeling a strong need to make sure everyone was starting on the same page. Hence, I’d expect to see accounts being written down, where word-of-mouth tradition had previously sufficed among people more familiar with the events in question. But the new members such accounts were being written for — were probably ‘God-fearers’, former pagans who’d been sufficiently intrigued by Judaism to frequent the local synagogues — while holding back from that final snip, finding it easier to affiliate with Judaism-Lite aka ‘Christianity.’

        Such converts would tend to respect Judaism, rather than reject it; but that ‘family split’ you speak of was beginning at roughly the same time, largely because of them. You can find grumbling in ‘Revelation’ about ‘synagogues of Satan’ and ‘people who say they are Jews, but aren’t’ — and Paul’s allusions to getting roughed-up in synagogues may reflect the same phenomena. You would expect rivalry, jealousy of a movement which was rustling the synagogues’ potential converts — but also, far more important: fear that this movement, nominally Jewish, while encouraging uncircumcised goyim to diss the Empire’s customary religious practices — would bring the authorities’ hostility down on everyone.

        That “Israel out of Egypt” motif has been central to a lot of people — including USian slaves, who saw something there which somehow never occurred to their masters. Wright says it was likewise central to what “Kingdom of God” meant to contemporary Jews. They might not know or care much what a “Messiah” would look like, but they sure didn’t want to be slaving for pagan foreigners; as long as that situation persisted they were still ‘in exile.’ Having Jesus forced to flee to Egypt, then return from there… certainly would have rung some symbolic resonances.

  3. I hadn’t really looked at Isaiah 56 (Wow!) but can see that it looks like a bit of a patchwork… [By the way, does “keep the Sabbath” there — for a foreigner — imply traditional observances or something more like keeping to the intent, ala not devoting one’s entire time & attention to secular concerns?]

    This was coming to me as a Message today in Meeting — that ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Promised Land’ are referring to essentially the same dream, that they aren’t just about ‘our turf’ but about having a place where “we” are where God intends us to be, where we can be the people God wants us to be, live in God’s good graces, fit into his choreography as we should and enjoy the natural byproducts of such a life. [Anne today at her Episcopal adult Sunday school, about her experience of being asked to dance by a ‘dancing master’ — that she’d hesitated, saying that she didn’t know how to dance; and he’d said “Just let me lead,” and she’d found it all very easy — and this is how human/Divine relations work best. Not by our personal competence, or by us mechanically ‘obeying’, but by us dancing in accord with the inspiration God provides. (Yes?)]

    This whole question of whether ‘a prophet’ is someone who knows it all already — or someone who reads ‘the signs of the times’ through a (more-or-less) God-influenced intuition… Given that the Roman rulers and their clients frowned on unauthorized ‘kings’ of whatever pedigree, Jesus wouldn’t need prophetic gifts to say that going to Jerusalem as he did was going to get him killed. Which was not a traditional Messianic expectation until he did it (and according to his followers, survived it.) Dead Messiahs don’t rule, right? It seems entirely moot — and irrelevant — whether Jesus was a literal ‘son of David’; one could even make a plausible case that Solomon was the son of Uriah without seriously affecting the question: Did God intend this person to rule Israel?

    [More later, dinner]

  4. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

    Right with you that the Gospels were written by the people who needed them when they needed them, to support their understanding of life, the universe and everything. The questions are, did religion mean the same thing then as now? Was the leadership (aside from Paul) Jewish? Or gentile? Who do these texts mean when they refer to Jews?

    1. Well, these might not have been written to support their understanding in general, but to do so within a rapidly-expanding organization that was in fact drifting out of their hands…

      Religion was political then, as it is now. Despite the claim that we’re more enlightened by the discovery of “Separation of Church and State,” religious organizations by their nature are compelled to try to conform public policy to their worldviews; and political authorities continue to find religious organizations potentially dangerous sources of opposition as well as potentially convenient tools for manipulating public attitudes and behavior.

      Did religion have more to do with God, then or now? I’m inclined to think that overall, religions have become less “Authority”-based, are getting to be more porous interfaces between God and people. “Prophets” — people consciously living in more-or-less direct interaction with God — are probably more common now, assuming that God intends this and must have achieved it to a greater extent than people generally realize. There is also, at the same time, a much larger group of people who consider religion — and even God — to be “a part of life” rather than the core and context of everything….

      Gospel of Thomas: “I found them all drunk; they were none of them athirst. When they shake off their wine, then they will repent.” We have more people who’ve sobered up, but the whole civilization we live in has gotten drunk, drunk, drunk!

      The leadership of the church would have been Jewish until the 70’s, but the weight of the movement was shifting into its Hellenistic tail. Was Paul as Jewish as he said? — I read him as bewilderingly muddled by the mystery religions of his day — but have so much trouble reading the guy at all that I really can’t be sure.

      These texts started being written (to my way of thinking) quite soon after Paul’s letters, probably by Jewish Christians trying to explain their beliefs to a sympathetic, but largely gentile audience. They continued being rewritten — by the necessary process of copying and editing, but also through ongoing “corrections” by copyists — for a significant period of time — a long period with many hands involved, I’m sure.

      So who was considered a “Jew”, and whether that was a good thing, would have varied over that time. By the time we get to ‘John’, it’s come to mean ‘a Judean’ ie a partisan of the officially-sanctioned Temple religion, a hostile opponent of Jesus. Church hostility towards Jews and Judaism itself would be later than that, but seems to be beginning as the rivalry with followers of the Pharisees turns nasty. The tendency to distance “the church” from “the Jews” as such? — I’m told that the first Jewish revolt was a motive for crediting “the Jews” with Jesus’ crucifixion, in that Jews became thought of as ‘dangerous, subversive fanatics’ in Roman public opinion, but I really don’t know.

  5. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

    “Religion was political then, as it is now. Despite the claim that we’re more enlightened by the discovery of “Separation of Church and State,” religious organizations by their nature are compelled to try to conform public policy to their worldviews; and political authorities continue to find religious organizations potentially dangerous sources of opposition as well as potentially convenient tools for manipulating public attitudes and behavior.”

    I meant more in the sense that “religion” back then was a (the) factor in national identity. Nowadays religion transcends national identity. Back then: no such thing as a “Jew” until after the return from the Babylonian Exile, but there were certainly Judeans. Shaye Cohen argues that it wasn’t until the last two centuries before the common era the term “Iudaismos,” the precursor to the term “Jewishness” (actually closer to “Judean-ness”), appears (in Maccabees). This is probably related to the fact that the Hasmoneans were fond of clocking other local nations over the head with the ultimatum “convert or die” which is why you find “Jewish” Edomites like Herod. This is interesting because among the ancient nations Judeans were distinct in adhering to the one God in a time when divinities’ jurisdictions were as porous as national borders (and dependent on those national borders), and in the use of the term “conversion” because ethnic distinctions aside, can we call these “religious” conversions or “national” conversions, if the conversion wasn’t “religious” in the sense of the modern relationship between Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but “national” in the sense of Judean versus Syrian versus Egyptian? National distinctions like this were alive and well until well after Jesus was crucified and the Roman Empire operated on this basis until its conversion to Christianity.

    Point being, early Christianity had to navigate the difference between nation and religion especially after the large influx of gentile believers because as Paul (or someone who loved him) put so eloquently, “Where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free” (Col. 3.11) versus “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” (Gal. 3.28) Modern sensibility insists that Paul and Jesus were discussing religious distinctions, but if we consider the possibility that religious boundaries coincided with but did not transcend national boundaries in certain peoples’ thinking, I think you can read these phrases both ways, or in conversation with one another over exactly what the concept of “religion” means. And if this is the case, the lifting of Judean national literature to reinforce Christian narrative speaks to a national sense as much as to a religious one: Jewish-Christians needed to understand themselves within their national narrative, and Gentile-Christians needed to understand how they could join the literal Kingdom of God which Israel considered itself to be, which of course is the greater sea change, and history took its course and the religious sense won out.

    It begs the question did these people have theology or cosmology.

    1. Okay, gods were localized & ethnocentric, and identifying “our god” with “the real God” was a big step, a difficulty even for many Jews of the time. (Many USians of this time also?) Some people did see it, even centuries beforehand.

      I was a long time thinking about how different religious conceptions of ancient times both were and weren’t. Not sure how much I know or could say. One change still going on, a source of conceptional discord between peoples: for the Greeks and Romans, a city would be founded and the followers of various approved deities would build temples there. In the ancient ancient near-east, the temple of a local god would own the land where a city might be built; and the city (at least initially) and its inhabitants would belong to that god.

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