Monday, December 31, 2018

The Child King Messiah Shepherd Child

What follows is a rough translation and some exegetical comments on the story of the Magi, from Matthew 2:1-12. Below that is a brief article that I wrote for the journal Interpretation in 2003.

1Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦβασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα 
Yet Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of the Judeans, in the days of Herod the king, Magi from the east arrived into Jerusalem  
γεννηθέντος  APPart gsm, γεννάω to beget, of the father; to bring forth, of the mother. (a) passive be born.
παρεγένοντο  AMI 3p, παραγίνομαι (γίνομαι with παρά beside, prefixed) to become near, to become present, that is to say to come, to approach, to arrive.
1. The conjunction δὲ is common in the Gospels, and used differently, depending on the context. It can mean “and,” but καὶ is more typically used for that. I can be “but,” but ἀλλά is stronger and more typically used to introduce a strong antithesis. Sometimes it seems to be connective tissue from one scene to the next, warranting “then,” as its translation. I tend to use “yet,” which is – to me – equally ambiguous in English. I see it as introducing something different, maybe but not necessarily something oppositional to what has been said before. (Geez, I feel like Derrida here!) One concordance says that it can introduce ‘concealed antithesis,’ as opposed to absolute antithesis. I think that is often true.
2. The interesting thing about this story beginning with the word δὲ is that it is connected to the end of chapter 1, when Jesus is born. The timing of the star’s appearance (see below) suggests that this arrival could be as much as 2 years after the birth of Jesus, but the connection between c.1 and c.2, as well as the present tense for “is being born” (see v.4 below) makes a strong argument for keeping this story as part of the birth narrative and not as a separate infancy narrative.
3. The adjective, ἀνατολή, is typically translated “of the east” (here, with the preposition ‘from’). However, ἀνατολή can also be interpreted “at the rising,” since in a geocentric world, the east is the direction from which the sun (and perhaps the stars) were observed to “rise.” That is why ἀνατολή is usually “east” in v.1, but can be translated “in its rising” in v.2 and passim.
4. JESUS IDENTITY SIGHTING #1: Matthew uses his name Jesus here. Stay tuned.

2 λέγοντες, Ποῦ ἐστιν  τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ 
τὸν ἀστέραἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. 
Saying, “Where is the one having been born King of the Judeans?  For we saw his star in the east/the rising and we came to worship him.
λέγοντες PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
τεχθεὶς: APPart nsm, τίκτω, 1) to bring forth, bear, produce (fruit from the seed)  1a) of a woman giving birth  
εἴδομεν AAI 1p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
ἤλθομεν AAI 1p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
προσκυνῆσαι  PAInf, προσκυνέω  worship  to crouch, crawl, or fawn, like a dog at his master's feet; hence, to prostrate one's self, after the eastern custom, to do reverence or homage to any one, by kneeling or prostrating one's self before him;
1. JESUS IDENTITY SIGHTING #2: The one having been born (ὁ τεχθεὶς) king of the Judeans (βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The same word for king βασιλεὺς is likewise used for Herod. It could also be translated “emperor,” but that’s just a bit much to handle, isn’t it?

3 ἀκούσας δὲ  βασιλεὺς Ἡρῴδης ἐταράχθη καὶ πᾶσα Ἱεροσόλυμα μετ' 
Yet having heard, the King Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him,
ἀκούσας  AAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐταράχθη  API 3s, ταράσσω trouble, to stir up, to agitate, as water in a pool; of the mind, to stir up, trouble, disturb with various emotions.
1. Here, Herod is disturbed (ἐταράχθη). In v.16, after he realizes that the Magi have not complied with his command, he will be infuriated (ἐθυμώθη).
2. “And all of Jerusalem with him.” What a disturbing indictment from Matthew. As the story will clearly imply, there was warrant for faithful Jews to understand this astral sign as corresponding with the promises of their own scriptural tradition. (See my article copied below.) By adding this phrase, “and all of Jerusalem with him,” Matthew argues that the city of Jerusalem had cast its lot with the Roman Empire, as represented by Herod. In the next chapter (3:5) Matthew will say that Jerusalem goes out to be baptized by John in the Jordan. I don’t know how strongly to take the sweeping language of either verse.

4 καὶ συναγαγὼν πάντας τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ γραμματεῖς τοῦ λαοῦ 
ἐπυνθάνετο παρ' αὐτῶν ποῦ  Χριστὸς γεννᾶται. 
And having gathered all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was inquiring from them where the Christ is being born.
συναγαγὼν AAPart nsm, συνάγω 1. gather, to lead together, gather together, generally to bring together, join in one.
ἐπυνθάνετο  IMI 3s, πυνθάνομαι 1. ask to ask for information, to inquire; to learn by asking or inquiry; to hear, learn, understand. 2. demand –ed to ask, enquire, learn by asking or inquiring, to ask for information.
γεννᾶται PPI 3s, γεννάω 1. born (be) to beget, of the father; to bring forth, of the mother. (a) passive be born.
1. The verb, γεννᾶται, is a present passive indicative. Most translations make it subjunctive (“would/might/could/should be born”) or – in one case – a present form of ‘to be’ with an infinite (“is to be born”).  I think “is being born” is the most obvious translation and I’m curious why most translations go a different direction.
2. This is a unique turn in this story. Hearing that a “child king of the Jews” is being born, Herod inquires among the religious scholars where “the Christ” is being born. It is Herod, in this story, who makes the connection between a child king and the Christ.
3. Herod inquires ‘where’ the child is being born from the chief priests and scribes. He’ll consult the Magi in v.7 about ‘when.’
4. JESUS IDENTITY SIGHTING #3: The Christ (ὁ Χριστὸς).

5οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας: οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ 
Yet they said to him, “In Bethlehem of the Judeans; for as it has been written through the prophet:
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
γέγραπται: PerfPI 3s, γράφω, 1) to write, with reference to the form of the letters

6 Καὶ σύ, Βηθλέεμ γῆ Ἰούδα, οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη εἶ ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα: ἐκ 
σοῦ γὰρ ἐξελεύσεται ἡγούμενος, ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ. 
‘And you, Bethlehem land of Judea, by no means are you least among the leaders of Judea; for out of you shall emerge one who leads, who shall shepherd my people Israel.’”
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξελεύσεται: FMI 3s, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  
ἡγούμενος PMPart nsm, ἡγέομαι 1.  to lead, that is to say to lead the way, go before, hence, to be a leader or chief;
ποιμανεῖ  FAI 3s, ποιμαίνω, 1) to feed, to tend a flock, keep sheep  1a) to rule, govern. Related to the noune ποιμήν, a shepherd.
1. The word “hegemon”, used as a noun and then a verb in this sentence, means “leader” or “to lead.” Luke uses it when describing Roman leaders in his birth narrative. It can carry the connotation of harsh, imposing leadership, but here it is a hopeful form of leadership, like a shepherd, which was a much more endearing understanding of leadership in Israel’s history.
2. It is curious that only in the birth narratives does Bethlehem of Judea seem significant to the story of Jesus. By the end of this chapter, he is established as a child of Nazareth of Galilee, the identity that he will keep throughout his life.
3. The quote from Micah 5:2-5 is worth reading in its entirety and keeping in mind throughout this story. One can only wonder how – if they knew this text – the temple leadership could be included among that number of “all of Jerusalem” who were disturbed with Herod.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace. 
4. Randall J. Pannell argues that Micah is in heated dispute with others in his time about whether Israel should try – with their own power – to raise military leaders (called “The Seven Shepherds”) or to wait on God to raise up a nonviolent shepherd. See “The Politics of the Messiah: A New Reading of Micah 4:14-5:5,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 1988.
5. JESUS IDENTITY SIGHTING #4: One who leads, who shall shepherd.

7 Τότε Ἡρῴδης λάθρᾳ καλέσας τοὺς μάγους ἠκρίβωσεν παρ' αὐτῶν τὸν 
χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος, 
Then Herod, having secretly called the Magi inquired diligently from them the time of the appearing star,
καλέσας  AAPart nsm, καλέω to call; with personal object, to call any one, invite, summon; 
ἠκρίβωσεν  AAI 3s, ἀκριβόω enquire diligently to know or do anything accurately; to enquire accurately or assiduously.
1. Ah, secrecy, the dear old friend of tyranny. There you are.
2. It is curious that Herod is inquiring diligently about the timing of the star. What we don’t know is whether the appearance of the star marks the birth or portends the birth. Herod orders the slaughter of children 2 and under, raising the question of the relationship between the ‘exact time’ that he extracted from the Magi and the slaughter that he orders. The Magi’s journey from the east, the timing of the Magi leaving Herod and then Herod realizing that they were not returning to him as ordered, etc., makes the relationship between the star’s appearance and the birth hard to pin down.
3. Here and in 2:16 are the only uses of ἀκριβόω (diligently inquired) as a verb in the NT, acc. to However, it is used as an adjective in the next verse. One wonders if Herod’s exactness of this inquiry might have been an early warning to the Magi that he was up to no good.

8 καὶ πέμψας αὐτοὺς εἰς Βηθλέεμ εἶπεν, Πορευθέντες ἐξετάσατε ἀκριβῶς 
περὶ τοῦ παιδίου: ἐπὰν δὲ εὕρητε ἀπαγγείλατέ μοι, ὅπως κἀγὼ ἐλθὼν προσκυνήσω αὐτῷ. 
And having sent them into Bethlehem, he said, “Having gone, inquire diligently about the child; yet when you find [him], tell me, that I too having come may worship him.” 
πέμψας  AAPart nms, πέμπω to send, simply let go, as well of persons or things; to send forth or away, especially to send home; to send or transmit, as presents.
Πορευθέντες  APPart npm, πορεύω to cause to pass over by land or water transport. In NT only passive, to transport one's self, that is to say, pass from one place to another, to pass, to go
ἐξετάσατε  AAImpv 2p, ἐξετάζω to examine well or closely, to scrutinize, review of persons, hence, to question; of things, to inquire into or sift.
εὕρητε  AASubj 2p, εὑρίσκω to find, as without seeking, meet with, light upon. Also, to find as by search, hence, find out, discover.
ἀπαγγείλατέ  AAImpv 2p, ἀπαγγέλλω 1. tell, told to give intelligence, bring word from any person or place, to relate, inform of, to tell what had occurred.
ἐλθὼν AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι to come or go, used of persons or of things. It denotes the act of coming or going,
προσκυνήσω  AASubj 1s, προσκυνέω to crouch, crawl, or fawn, like a dog at his master's feet; hence, to prostrate one's self, after the eastern custom, to do reverence or homage to any one, by kneeling or prostrating one's self before him
1. There is an interesting interplay between the verbs and participles in this verse. Many translations simply fold the participle into the verb that follows, making “having gone, inquire” into “go and inquire,” or “having come may worship” into “may come and worship.” (That happens with Matthew’s commission in 28:19 as well).
2. The word ἀκριβῶς  reappears in this verse from v.7. There, it was a verb; here it is an adjective, “diligently.” The next time I hear someone use the phrase “due diligence,” I’m going to mutter under my breath, “Herod!”  

9οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες τοῦ βασιλέως ἐπορεύθησαν, καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἀστὴρ ὃν εἶδον 
ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ προῆγεν αὐτοὺς ἕως ἐλθὼν ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον. 
Yet having heard the King, they went and behold the star which they saw in the east/its rising was leading them, having gone until it stood still over where the child was. 
ἀκούσαντες  AAPart nmp, ἀκούω to hear, intransitive, to have the faculty of hearing; 
ἐπορεύθησαν API 3p, πορεύω to cause to pass over by land or water transport. In NT only passive, to transport one's self, that is to say, pass from one place to another, to pass, to go
εἶδον  AAI 3p, εἴδω to see
προῆγεν  IAI 3s, προάγω go, with πρό before prefixed, hence to lead forth,
ἐλθὼν  AAPart nms, ἔρχομαι to come or go, used of persons or of things. It denotes the act of coming or going
ἐστάθη  API 3s, ἵστημι (a) transitive, in the present, imperative and Aorist 1 of the active, to cause to stand, to set, to place; (b) Aorist and future passive, and future middle; and (c) intransitive, perfect, pluperfect, and Aorist 2, to stand, as opposite to falling; stand fast, stand still.
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Perhaps it is just me, but here is a wonderful conjunction between Herod’s instruction to go to Bethlehem, which he had learned from the chief priests and scribes via the prophet Micah, and the star, which is not a typical player in Jewish or Christian piety. See my article below on how I see this text as potentially a place for conversation between people of faith and others.
2. JESUS IDENTITY SIGHTING #6: The child (this time in Matthew’s words, not Herod’s)

10 ἰδόντες δὲ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα.
Yet having seen the star they were overjoyed [with] exceedingly great joy.
ἰδόντες AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
ἐχάρησαν  API 3p, χαίρω to rejoice, be delighted or pleased, to be glad.
1. The verb ἐχάρησαν is passive. Some translations make it active, “they rejoiced.”

11 καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν εἶδον τὸ παιδίον μετὰ Μαρίας τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ πεσόντες προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἀνοίξαντες τοὺς θησαυροὺςαὐτῶν προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δῶρα, χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν. 
And having come into the house and they saw the child with Mary his mother, and having fallen down they worshipped him, and having opened their treasures presented to him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 
ἐλθόντες  AAPart npm, ἔρχομαι to come or go, used of persons or of things. It denotes the act of coming or going
εἶδον : AAI 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
πεσόντες  AAPart npm, πίπτω to fall, as from a higher to a lower place, fall down
προσεκύνησαν  AAI 3p, προσκυνέω
ἀνοίξαντες  AAPart npm, ἀνοίγω open [adjective] to open. Here, participle, open.
προσήνεγκαν  AAI 3p, προσφέρω to bear or bring to or towards any place or person, bring near to; hence, to offer, present.
1. Again, the interplay between participles and verbs in this verse are consistent – aorist active participles, followed by aorist verbs.

12καὶ χρηματισθέντες κατ' ὄναρ μὴ ἀνακάμψαι πρὸς Ἡρῴδην, δι' ἄλλης 
ὁδοῦ ἀνεχώρησαν εἰς τὴν χώραν αὐτῶν.
And having been ordered according to a dream not to go back to Herod, by another way they returned into their own country.
χρηματισθέντες  APPart nmp, to do or carry on business, have dealings, especially in money matters, to negotiate, transact business; of kings and magistrates, to do business publicly, that is to give audience and answer as to ambassadors or petitioners, to give response or decision. Then, spoken of a divine response, to give response, to speak as an oracle, speak or warn from God
ἀνακάμψαι  AAInf, ἀνακάμπτω to bend or turn up back 
ἀνεχώρησαν  AAI 3p, ἀναχωρέω to go back, recede (spoken of those who flee. In NT simply to retire, withdraw (from ἀνά up or back, and χωρέω  to make room for, give place to)

D. Mark Davis
Heartland Presbyterian Church Clive, Iowa
Originally published in “Between Text and Sermon,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, October 2003
IT IS DIFFICULT TO READ THE STORY OF THE MAGI'S visit to the Christ child without picturing nervous children in sequined costumes and large headdresses carrying gifts of faux gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and pretending to be oriental sages. In a more surreal fashion, it is hard for me to read this story without picturing the adult members of the Monty Python troop pretending to be children pretending to be oriental sages. Nonetheless, underneath the layers of carols, pageants, folklore, and costumes, the story of the magi is ultimately a tragic story of ruthless power and infanticide that is part of the context of the incarnation. What is often lost in both the cuteness and the tragedy of this story is the simple fact that Matthew has these visitors finding the Christ child by way of astrology! As the first speaking humans in Matthew's gospel, the magi ask, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage" (v. 2). This unusual route from the stars to the Christ is unique to this story in Matthew and quite unexpected, given the numerous occasions in the Hebrew Bible where astral cults are strongly condemned. Even the creation story of the first chapter of Genesis can be read as a defiant myth of God's sovereignty, embraced by the oppressed Hebrews against the astral cults of their Babylonian oppressors. And yet here are Matthew's astrologists looking to the stars and finding the Christ.
The audacity of Matthew's story makes the visit of the magi, among other things, an excellent occasion for considering possibilities for evangelism in a time of heightened interest in alternative spirituality. It seems that the church's automatic response to alternative spirituality is reactionary, vacillating between feeling threatened by Christianity's loss of assumed authority and a determination to refute such deceptions with "the truth." Matthew's story of the magi gives the church an occasion to resist those impulsive reactions and to consider the possibility that one might come to faith in Jesus Christ through means that are, in themselves, insufficient. It is hard to imagine that Matthew could have included this portion of the story of Christ without some feeling that God is able to work in and through a very alien form of faith.
While the story of the magi is a familiar one for church attendees, the precise meaning of the story is difficult to pinpoint. Partly because of the "cameo" nature of the magi's appearance, there is considerable confusion regarding who they are. The KJV translation of magoi as "wise men" has made an indelible mark on the English-speaking consciousness, but seems to avoid some of the more obvious but troubling possibilities, such as the cognate "magicians." The 1857 hymn by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., "We Three Kings of Orient Are," makes the hermeneutical connection between the magi and the declarations from Isaiah that "[n]ations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isa 60:3). It is a connection that Matthew, at best, makes subtly with the reference to gold and frankincense, which are also mentioned in the passage from Isaiah (60:6). Nonetheless, it is a tenuous reference, especially from a gospel writer who repeatedly introduces Hebrew Bible connections with the phrase "as it is written." Given the plot of the story, with its emphasis on the appearance and significance of a star, the most obvious identification of the magi would seem to be that they were astrologers. It might be, however, that such a blatant pagan identification is too much to bear for some translators.
Beyond the issue of astrology, commentators do not agree on whether the magi were Gentiles. Eugene Boring says, "The magi are Gentiles in the extreme, characters who could not be more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in heritage and worldview" (E. Boring, Matthew, NIB, vol. VIII [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 145). Douglas Hare agrees, drawing his conclusion based on the origin, occupation, and question of the magi (D. Hare, Matthew, IBC [Louisville: John Knox, 1993] 13). However, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann argue that there is "no indication in the story that we were meant to identify the magi as Gentiles" (W. E Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew, AB 26 [Garden City: Doubleday, 1971] 16).
Likewise, there is a little agreement on how to understand the personae of the magi. Eduard Schweizer argues, "As in 1:18-25, we have here a stratum of tradition that emphasized the parallels between Moses and Jesus" (E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew [Atlanta: John Knox, 1975] 36). For Schweizer, Herod is a pharaoh figure, Jesus is a Moses figure, and the magi represent the nations that are now part of the exodus story. Albright and Mann, however, dispute that interpretation entirely: "What seems to us to be wholly inadmissible is the suggestion that Matthew was so anxious to represent Jesus as the new Moses ... that the evangelist has constructed an allegory which includes Gentiles (the magi)" (Albright and Mann, Matthew, 15).
The plain reading of this story is that the magi found the Christ by way of a star. With that simple story line, Matthew makes one declaration clearly and leaves another set of questions unanswered. The child Jesus is the one who is born king of the Jews. How that kingship is inaugurated and exercised is answered in the next twenty-seven chapters, but this initial story proclaims the message of Jesus as the promised one. What is not answered, either in this story or in the next twenty-seven chapters, is whether the magi, as a result of finding the Christ, forsook their astrology. What is not answered is whether astrology is true, whether it has a "point of contact" with the Christian faith, or whether it is simply the devil's tool of deception. In this sense, Matthew's epiphany story is instructive for the church's call to evangelism. It raises the possibility that alternative spirituality can be one means of arriving at the Christ, without having to answer the larger questions of the ultimate truth or falsity of alternative spirituality. What Matthew's story suggests, in what it says and leaves unsaid, is that such penultimate questions might be left at rest in the activity of evangelism. They might be appropriate for another occasion, but need not be answered definitively in the activity of coming to faith. Eugene Boring summarizes Matthew's point nicely:
Even this "most Jewish" of the Gospels is aware, from its first page onward, that it is not necessary first to have the biblical and Jewish hope, before one can come to the Messiah and accept him as Lord. In following the light they have, the magi find the goal of their quest in bowing before the Jewish Messiah. The task of the church is often to discern the ultimate quest that is expressed in non-biblical and non-theistic ways in contemporary life, and continue Matthew's witness that the yearnings even of those who do not know fully what they seek are met in the act of God at Bethlehem. "The hopes and fears of all the years...." (Boring, Matthew, 144)


  1. really helpful- given the quick turnaround time I have for a sermon this Sunday!

  2. Much food for thought! I've been thinking about stars from a scientific perspective and how our current knowledge of the universe connects with Christian faith.

  3. I'd never encountered that idea, that the fact of the Wise Men studied the stars meant that Jesus can be found through astrology! However, I do believe that an infinite God must be able to be approached by infinite ways, so I appreciate your also, if not espousing, at least admitting, this idea.

    1. Hi Caryn,
      I think I'm espousing more than admitting. I've come to embrace God in a way that is fully and fabulously made known in Christ, but still larger than our narratives, theologies, or imaginations can conceive. So I am increasingly uneasy with doctrines that seem to limit how God can reveal Godself.
      I think the very fact that Matthew has this story in it should make us stop and marvel.


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