The Story of the “Wise Men/Magi” in the Gospel of Matthew according to Bart Ehrman
My Bible group had a good time yesterday comparing Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Christmas story. One question that came up was why would Matthew relate the story of the Magi?
Ah, it’s a great question and – as it turns out – an important one for understanding the Gospel of Matthew. The story is found only in this Gospel (But this time of year, who can keep ones mind from jumping to: “We Three Kings of Orient Are….”), and it is filled with intriguing conundra.
For example, why would pagan astrologers from the East be interested in knowing where the King of Israel was born and come to worship him? Were they doing this for all babies who were bound to become kings of foreign countries? How does a star lead them to Jerusalem and then disappear and then reappear and lead the Magi not just to Bethlehem but stop over a *house*? How does a star stop over a house? If Herod really sent out the troops to kill all the boys of Bethlehem, two years and under, why is there no report of this in any historical records (e.g., Josephus)? If it’s true that Joseph took Mary and Jesus and whisked them away to Egypt (a rather long walk; it’s 460 miles or so from Bethlehem to Cairo) and waited there till Herod’s death before returning (another rather long walk), how can Luke be right that the family stayed in the Bethlehem/Jerusalem area for a bit over a month and then returned directly home to Nazareth up in Galilee? Etc. etc.
These various points contribute to the common scholarly view that Matthew’s story is almost certainly Matthew’s story is almost certainly legendary. But it’s a *great* story, and really important for setting the stage of how Jesus will be portrayed in this Gospel. Jesus is portrayed here as the one who was born of a virgin in fulfilment of the plan of God, to be the future king (messiah) of God’s people Israel, who nonetheless was rejected by the aristocratic and powerful leaders of the Jews.
You get that basic motif of Jesus’ rejection in Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark. But in many respects, Matthew emphasizes the antagonism between Jesus and Jewish scholars and leaders even more, and the adult Jesus engages in a far more active counterattack, accusing his opponents of placing a higher value on their own traditions than on the Law of God; attacking their wicked motives; and above all charging them with hypocrisy, that is, knowing and teaching the right thing to do but failing to do it.
We do not have to wait long to find Matthew portraying the Jewish leaders as hypocrites, who know the truth but do not follow it. They are presented this way at the outset of the Gospel, while Jesus is still an infant.
The story of the visit of the Magi (2:1–12), found only in Matthew, is one of the most interesting tales of the New Testament. Here we are less interested in the historical problems that the story raises (e.g., how can a star stand over a particular house?) than in the point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel. Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, of course, whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king.
The text never explains why Assyrian scholars would be interested in the birth of a foreign king. Perhaps their worship of him indicates that they understand him to be far greater than a mere mortal, king or otherwise. The reader of this account already realizes this, of course, since the child is said to have no human father. What the Magi evidently do not know is where the child is to be born. The star takes them to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, the capital of Judea. There they make their inquiries. Herod, the reigning king of the Jews, hears of their presence and is naturally distraught. Israel has room for only one king, and he himself sits on the throne. He has a reason of his own, then, to locate the child: not to worship him but to destroy him.
Herod calls in the Jewish chief priests and the scholars trained in the Scriptures for counsel, and here we find the key irony of the account. The Jewish leaders know perfectly well where the messiah is to be born: Bethlehem of Judea. They can even quote the Scriptures in support and do so before Herod, who informs the wise men.
Who, then, goes to worship Jesus? Not those who knew where he was to be born, not the Jewish chief priests or the Jewish Scripture scholars or the Jewish king. They stay away. It is the Gentiles, the non-Jews who originally do not have the Scriptures but who learn the truth from those who do, who go to worship the King of the Jews. The Jewish authorities, on the other hand, as represented by Herod their king, plot to kill the child.
This story functions in Matthew’s Gospel to set the stage for what will happen subsequently. Jesus fulfills the Scriptures and urges his followers to do so as well; he is nonetheless rejected by the leaders of his own people, who plot his death. There are others, however, who will come and worship him. We find this particular Matthean theme played out not only in stories that Matthew has added to his Markan framework but also in the changes that he has made to stories he inherited from Mark. The theme can be seen in the next account of his narrative, in which Jesus meets his forerunner, John the Baptist.