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The Epiphany (tr.)

29 December 2023

7 January, Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12


THE birth of Jesus the Messiah in Bethlehem, my commentary on Matthew says, may owe “more to apologetics than history”. Perhaps the Gospel has been adjusted to Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5.2). Bethlehem’s historic link with Ruth and, later, David is attested in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. But Jesus’s birth there leaves both Matthew and Luke with some explaining to do: why and how did the birth happen away from Nazareth, which was Jesus’s home town (Mark 6.1)?

There is also a problem of timing. King Herod (Herod “the Great”, not Herod Antipas, Luke, 23.7) died in 4 BC. Something does not add up. Theories about how to reconcile Matthew and Luke on the timing of the nativity and epiphany are plentiful, but convincing ones are few.

Herod was a tyrant and a murderer. The Jewish historian Josephus, in the generation after Herod, said that he not only plundered the bodies of slaughtered enemies, but he even had a youth, Aristobulus, murdered by drowning, just because the people liked him. So the massacre of the holy innocents has the ring of authentic characterisation.

Josephus explored another characteristic of Herod, which corroborates Matthew’s Gospel: his mistrust of people of talent. Rather than appoint the best men, Herod chose second-raters, for fear that someone of real ability would gain power and overthrow him. So, Josephus condemned him, not only as a multiple murderer, but as a man consumed with suspicion, hostile to anyone who might become a threat.

Herod did not fool the Magi. Even before they met him, they knew enough not to approach Herod asking him for help in their search for this new king of the Jews. It was Herod, with his intelligence network of spies and informants, who must have got wind of the exotic Eastern visitors, and had them brought before him in secret. Perhaps he was afraid of rumours about a new king spreading further. Perhaps he was planning to deal with the Magi as he had with so many others whom he saw as a threat. It is not difficult to come up with names of similar rulers in the world today.

Thank goodness the Magi were indeed “wise” men in the face of such machinations. By giving these characters the label magoi, Matthew has not made the story much clearer to his Greek readers and listeners than it is to us; for it is a word for members of a priestly caste from Persia (but not confined solely to that land: see Acts 8.9). From it, our modern word “magic” is derived. The fact of their journey, and their expectations of what they would find when they arrived in Jerusalem, show that one of their skills was reading the future. The fact that they turned up in Jerusalem, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, shows that even Magi were not infallible in reading the signs.

Two contests for mastery stand side by side in this Gospel. One is between Herod and the Magi: he tries to bend them to his purposes by secrecy and deceit: “When you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and worship him” (NRSV has “pay him homage”, which seems unnecessarily archaic).

The other is between Herod the king of the Jews and Jesus the king of the Jews. There cannot be two kings in one nation. Only one can be the true king. One rules by force, wiles, and ultimately murder; he ferrets out threats to neutralise them. The other, at this time in the Gospel, seems incapable of rule. The frequency with which young children in a dynastic line of succession are expunged from the pages of history points to the fragility of the Magi’s expectation. The rest of Matthew’s Gospel reveals what weakness can achieve.

There is a funny side to the otherwise dark story of Herod. Despite all his efforts to thwart the Magi’s search for the infant king, he actually ends up making the epiphany happen. After all, the Magi had turned up in the wrong city, Jerusalem; and it was Herod himself who sent them on to the right place. He made it possible for them to give their beauty-full, meaning-full gifts, and to worship, and (for their reading of character was better than their orienteering skills) to return to their own country by another road.

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