The Christmas Story (IV). Matthew: Sex and Wise Men.

[Part 3 is here. Part 5 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew: “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” It’s difficult to know where Matthew might get such detail, but it may be a nod to some kind of purification. Possibly this is Matthew seeing Jesus as divine and therefore holy and so the discharge of semen in Mary meant that Joseph was defiled and should not come near the holy child–thus, no sex. Rabbinic rules varied, but in the end, sex during pregnancy was the decision of the wife (according to the male rule makers in the writings at least). But who knows?[1]

Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem (and this is important for the Davidic theme):

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

Some translations put wise men, some put “astrologers.” The term wise men probably reflects something of the notion of “cunning” persons, those who had some connection with the other world, or an esoteric knowledge. It may have meant all that. There are other magi who appear in the New Testament but they are normally given the title magician: Simon Magus in Samaria who gives Peter a hard time, and evil magicians oppose Paul. The term can be pejorative, but in the birth story of Matthew, it’s clearly a positive thing. The Magi have this esoteric knowledge that allows them to divine the birth of a king, and of course the text doesn’t bat an eye at this sort of thing, just as the earliest Mormons didn’t worry much over seer stones. It was a part of the culture. The Magi find that a certain star in the night sky has signaled the birth of the king of Jews.

Magi. Tissot (Image: Wikipedia)

Magi. Tissot (Image: Wikipedia)

All kinds of weird speculation about the star exists, but nearly all of it fails to account for what the Magi were. As cunning folk, they discern something about the sky. The speculation ranges from Haley’s Comet, conjunctions of planets, supernovas, and so on. Conjunctions of planets had astrological meanings, but no astrologer would confuse it with a star, and comets were generally signs of disaster. None of the speculation seems to match up with when Jesus was likely born (I’ll say more about that when I get to Luke’s story). In other words, the star is something only an “educated eye” would see as special, for any number of reasons.

Why does Matthew bring up the Magi? Aside from any symbolism Matthew may see in what plays out, it seems obvious that he’s drawing a parallel for his Jewish audience, and that parallel is in the life of Moses. When Israel is wandering, they encounter the wicked king of Moab who wants to invoke the powers to destroy Israel. He calls for a magus from the East (Philo calls him a magus)—Balaam. Balaam shows up with his two friends and spies Israel in the plain below. But Balaam couldn’t do the deed because he saw far off a star rising. This becomes the star of the house of David–the six pointed star on the Israeli flag–the star of the Messiah. So instead of cursing Israel, he predicts their future success:

There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. And it shall crush the forehead of Moab [RSV Numbers 24:17]

Matthew’s point is that where the Gentile wise man from the East saw this star as a portent of a future king, these Magi see the star as fulfillment. This, along with the wicked king are symbols of the Moses story and Matthew sees these links as vital supports for Jesus’ mission (see part III for this interpretive pattern).[2]

By the 2nd century AD, an enhanced Christian literature had arisen. In the case of the Magi, these texts go beyond Matthew, the Magi become “kings” probably because people compared the Mathean story to the psalm that talks of kings bearing gifts (Psalms 72). Three kings because of the gifts they bring, and they even get names—none of this is canonical (see the next part). Jesus’ birth-spot changed to a cave in the 2nd century. Animals are added, etc. Eventually, St. Francis created the “Christmas Crib” and things snowballed (think of the business of Creche making and displays, it’s huge, the characters have multiplied).

Next: Wicked Kings
[1] First and second trimester sex was mildly frowned upon. Third trimester was encouraged. Etan Levine, Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism (Berlin, 2009), 230, 232.

[2] The Book of Mormon has its own astrology and astronomical events. While the Book of Mormon text gives the impression of some sort of universal phenomena at the birth and death of Jesus, it’s clearly a very local one, just as the day, night, and day without a night, both predicted by Samuel the Lamanite (Heleman 14).


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I always kind of thought maybe the text gave the detail about no sex as a way of avoiding even the slightest possibility that Joseph could be construed as the actual father.

    Many years ago I got a call at home. It was a young man from the ward. At school their teacher had given them an extra credit assignment, to see if they could come up with the (traditional) names of the wise men. (This was pre-google.) So he figured “Bro. Barney will know this.” And he figured right. My dad was a fan of Mario Lanza, and I knew the names from his version of We Three Kings.

  2. Great story Kevin. And yeah, it seems to work against the second century accusations about second rate God (compared to the pagan traditions of sired demigods, etc.?).

  3. I love the connection between Balaam’s vision and the star. Very cool. Thanks!

  4. Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, wasn’t it?

    The Magi, of course, were the priests of Zoroaster, and played an extremely important role in the Persian Empire. Which raises some interesting possibilities about the Wise Man narrative. Of course, it’s possible that Matthew is simply using Magi to mean Wise Man in a generic sense–but maybe not. A recognition of Jesus’ divinity by priests of Zoroaster would be a powerful symbolic message to those familiar with the religion.

  5. Leonard R says:

    Never encountered the Balaam connection. Beautiful.

    I also noted the lack of reference to Persia and Zoroastrianism. Was this purely editorial (length, detail, etc. – the piece is excellent as written), or do you not think there is a connection?

  6. Leonard R, I think maybe there is a better chance of a Babylonian connection, but who knows.

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