Sunday Edition: Magi from the East (Matthew II)


Rachel reads scriptures with the boys every morning–usually when I’m not there–but on Sundays I’m going to try to do a more in-depth study: one chapter in the New Testament with commentary. Because I inject the commentary as we read, I’m going to organize this lesson around the text that we’ll be reading, with my own commentary italicized. This week we are on Matthew II, which is the only account of the visit of the wise men to the child Jesus. Once again, commentary is drawn from the New Oxford Annotated Bible and Wikipedia (which is more accurate than most people realize–another blogpost for another day) under “Biblical Magi” and “Adoration of the Magi.”

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

We know about when Jesus was born because we know when Herod was the ruler–during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.  

Usually people assume that there were three wise men, because they brought three types of gifts, but we don’t know. Many of the Middle Eastern Christians believe that there were 12 of them. The word in Greek they used for “wise men” referred to wise, learned men from empires to the East of Israel that knew a lot about astronomy. Sometimes people refer to them as “kings,” but likewise we really don’t know. 

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Traditionally, when there was a new king, rulers would send representatives to pay homage to the new king. This is a form of that, and again conflicts with Herod’s claim of kingship. 

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

This was a threat to King Herod because he was the King that the Romans appointed. To say that they were looking for another King would be to dismiss the power of Rome and Herod. This theme of Christ as the rightful king of Israel that threatens the current rulers will come up many times in Christ’s life. 

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Here the scripture scholars are quoting Micah 5:2, which says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. 

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

Here “worship” is better translated as “kneeled down and worshipped.” During this era one kneeled down before kings, and this is another example of the Christ-as-king motif. This may have been the start of kneeling in Christian worship. 

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Frankincense and myrrh are very expensive perfumes. 

Also, a lot of people think that they worshipped Jesus the night he was born (and a lot of artists pain that into their scenery), but again it doesn’t say. In fact, they probably didn’t visit him the night of his birth because it says that they came into a house, when he was born in a stable. 

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

In a lot of cases in the Book of Matthew God communicates with people through dreams. 

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Here the Book of Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 in the Old Testament. In Hosea God is talking about Israel as his son, but here it has a double meaning, with Christ as Israel. 

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Again, the fact that he killed all the children two years and younger probably means that Jesus was about two when the wise men visited him, so that’s more evidence that they wouldn’t have been at his birth. 

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,

18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Rachel, who was the wife of Jacob and the mother of the Jewish people, was buried in Rama, but again here there is a double meaning; Rachel in this case represents Israelite mothers whose children were killed. 

19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

Again, Joseph and others receive a lot of messages from God in their dreams. 

20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.

21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judæa in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

After Herod died his kingdom was split up among his sons. Herod Antipas was put in charge of the northern part of Israel and he was nicer, so Joseph moved there. 

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Unlike a lot of the other quotations in the New Testament, we don’t know where this came from. There are many books of scriptures that have been lost, and this might be from one of those books. 



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