6 January 2018Matthew 2:1-12
“Then 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.’ When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (vv. 8-10)
Psalm: Psalm 72
Matthew’s Gospel records the arrival in Bethlehem of “wise men from the East” (v. 1). The word translated ‘wise men’ is ‘magi’; this is a word found originally in ancient Persia, dating back at least to the time of King Darius of Persia (late 6th to early 5th century BC). The term is most closely associated with the priests or religious leaders of Zoroastrianism. ‘The East’ therefore seems most likely to refer to modern-day Iran.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, however, the word is most commonly translated ‘magician’ or ‘sorcerer’ (eg Acts 13:6). In Greek and Roman tradition, the word (and the Zoroastrian religion) became associated more broadly with magic or astrology, so it is possible that we should simply understand the magi to have been astrologers, rather than try to pinpoint their religious or national identity.
The magi – not unreasonably, perhaps, given that they were seeking a king – ended up in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. There, Herod called upon the knowledge and expertise of the Jewish religious leaders, to find out where to locate the child. The word “Messiah” or Christ (v. 4) means ‘anointed one’, and could have been seen as referring either to one unique figure, promised by prophets, or to a king, who would literally be anointed with oil. Either way, this child, announced in the heavens, could pose a threat to an insecure, possibly unpopular, ruler.
The religious experts of Jerusalem appear to have had no hesitation. Bethlehem, an otherwise fairly insignificant village in Judah, was the birthplace of David. According to the prophet Micah 5:2, this was the place to look for an anointed (or messianic) ruler descended from David. In chapter 1, Matthew’s Gospel was at pains to place Jesus in the Davidic line, and now the writer reinforces this by emphasising Jesus’ birthplace. The Gospel wants us to be in no doubt about Jesus’ messianic identity!
We don’t know how many magi there were, despite the attempts of tradition to fill in the gaps. But we are told that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, seen as symbolising kingship, divinity, and death.
- Tradition and Scripture are sometimes hard to disentangle in the Christmas story, partly in order to create the perfect nativity tableau. How old is Jesus, when this visit takes place?
- Verse 3 tells us that King Herod was afraid “and all Jerusalem with him”. Why might this be? Of what do you think were the people (or perhaps the leaders) of Jerusalem afraid?
- What gift would you have brought, if you were making a pilgrimage to visit this extraordinary child?