In last week’s column I started a look at the bible’s stories of the birth of Jesus by saying that while it’s common to combine the two distinct stories into one, there are really quite different accounts of the birth of Jesus as told by Matthew’s gospel and by Luke’s gospel in the New Testament. This week we’ll look at Matthew’s account.
Do you remember the story in the Old Testament of how Pharaoh — king of Egypt — tried to have all the newborn babies killed — yet Moses was spared and eventually led the Israelites to freedom? Matthew’s gospel tells of how Herod — king of Israel — tries to have all the newborn babies of Bethlehem killed. But Jesus’ parents escape with him to (of all places) Egypt, and Jesus lives to save his people.
The Old Testament also recounts how the birth of different notable leaders were foretold — and Matthew tells how an angel appears to Joseph (not Mary) and this story follows the same pattern as the prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures.
One of the predictions of King David’s birth comes from one of the ancient non-Israelite magi who describes King David’s birth as a “rising star”. Matthew shows how Jesus is in the line of King David.
Are these parallels coincidences? Not really. Matthew’s gospel picks images that are very familiar to the Jews living in Palestine at his time. He wants them to know that Jesus is the Messiah so he uses the indicators that mean something to his hearers. He is writing to a very heavily Jewish community and when they hear his version of the birth of Jesus, they can get excited over the idea that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah. Tales of shepherds and mangers would only muddy Matthew’s clear vision of Jesus as being someone who God has sent, so there is no mention of these.
The big deal in Matthew’s story is the arrival of the Magi from the east to the house where they were living. This visit has huge implications for the newly developing Christian community. You see, the earliest Christians were Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. And they were becoming increasingly disturbed that non-Jews were being accepted as Christians without first becoming Jewish. The apostles had already decided that it wasn’t necessary for gentiles to convert to Judaism before accepting Jesus, but that did not sit well with many Jewish-Christians.
So Matthew announces that the first people to recognize Jesus as the “new born king of the Jews” were not Jewish, but rather pagan astrologer-magicians: the Magi. This is a clear rebuke to those who were claiming that Jesus came only for the Jewish people. Yet Matthew points out that even though the Magi followed the star from their land in the east, it did not lead directly to Bethlehem. Instead the Magi stop off in Jerusalem and it is the chief priests and scribes who consult the bible to determine where the Messiah was to be born. Clever Matthew has not only paid homage to the fact that the Jewish faith contained the revelation of the mystery of the Messiah’s birth, but he’s again pointing to the Old Testament to reinforce that Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy!
The Magi who follow the star are also significant for the gentile population. In their culture, a star in the sky was an indication of the birth of a significant person. So when they hear Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus, they are more easily convinced that Jesus is someone to follow. After all, there was this star! And that their “representatives” (the pagan Magi) prostrated themselves and did homage to this newborn, just sealed the image for them.
Matthew was masterful in using the images of his day to paint a convincing argument that Jesus was the promised Messiah — the argument wasn’t made through logical proofs, but rather by appealing to his hearers through convincing symbols.
Next week, we’ll see how Luke takes a different approach to make the same claim for Jesus as the Messiah.
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