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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Magi and Escape

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Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth with regular references to figures from Israel’s history, such as Moses and Joseph. The magi “from the east” who see a star rising recalls the oracle about the coming of David in Numbers chapter 24.

The infancy narrative also makes numerous links to the passion narrative at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The title, “King of the Jews,” for instance, which was bestowed upon Herod by the Romans when they appointed him monarch in 39 b.c.e. appears in Matthew’s gospel only in reference to Jesus’ birth and to his crucifixion. The Gentile magi, who were Mesopotamian religious leaders, learn of the birth of the “King of the Jews” by observing a rising star, an unusual natural phenomenon. At Jesus’ death, the Gentile Roman executioners see another unusual natural event, an earthquake, and conclude that the crucified “King of the Jews” is God’s Son. In Jerusalem, the magi encounter a ruler (Herod), and the chief priests and  cribes; at the end of the Gospel Jesus in Jerusalem will encounter a ruler (Pontius Pilate), the chief priests, and scribes.

The magi eventually find Jesus in “the house”. This shows that Matthew understands Joseph and Mary originally to have been residents of Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Joseph, descendant of David, resides in a house there. The magi offer gifts of tribute: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all of which have funereal overtones. They are items that can be used at the burial of a king. In this episode, then, Matthew conveys that the significance of the child who has been born will become clear at the time of his death. That death will be important for the Gentile nations as well as for Israel.

The flight from Herod’s wrath down to Egypt recalls the story from the Book of Genesis of Joseph’s narrow escape from the murderous designs of most of his brothers. Jesus’ return from up “out of Egypt” recalls Moses leading Israel back again. Like his namesake in the book of Genesis, Joseph continues to benefit from divine guidance given in his dreams. Herod’s command to slay all male children under two years of age parallels the commands of Pharaoh to kill all newborn Hebrew males in Exodus chapter 1.

All this adds to the impression that Matthew’s story of Jesus is meant to embody and recapitulate Israel’s history. Joseph decides not to return home to Bethlehem, fearing Herod’s son Archelaus, but instead settles in Galilee.