The Christmas Story (V). Matthew: A Wicked King.

[Part 4 is here. Part 6 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

One of the things about Matthew and the other gospels is their very essential orality. Meaning that, at least in part, they arise out of a naturally fluid oral tradition. Christians were rather late in taking up the pen. It’s useful in dealing with these texts to remember that they developed out of preaching.[1] For example: Herod. A Herod appears at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, and there is a Herod at the end of the Gospel. It seems hard to believe that people who heard the Christian preachers understood that they were two different people. The Herodian family is complicated, mostly because of all the wives. Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Herod Agrippa, people would not have understood the distinctions, and I suspect that most people still don’t who hear or read the accounts.[2] Matthew and Luke have this theme of a Herod as antagonist either to Jesus himself, or to Christians. Matthew has this at the birth of Jesus (Herod the Great), Luke has another Herod at the trial of Jesus, Herod is trying to kill Jesus, and in Acts another Herod kills James the apostle, the brother of John, and another Herod shows up in Paul’s trial.

One other thing about Matthew: he sees the descent from David as Providential and this guides the way that he forms and reports the Gospel. But Jesus doesn’t seem to make much of this. It’s a theological add on or so it seems. The importance of Israelite kingship resurfaces in explicit and fundamental ways in Mormonism. Kings and queens in the house of Israel is a prominent motif in LDS temples, though that usage is certainly parabolic and emblematic.

Geography is important for Matthew. He makes sure to tell us that Jesus and David were born in the same town (he brings Jesus to Nazereth at the end of chapter 2). This is the frame of the chapter.

The Magi, through their esoteric knowledge, their astrological lore, come seeking this king of the Jews. This is symbolic for Matthew—he is saying that the Gentiles are willing to come to Christ, but they cannot find him. They have Google Country, but not Google Maps so to speak. Matthew says that they need the special Revelation that belongs to the Jews, and that’s symbolic. The Gentiles do not have the special knowledge of the Jews, because that is in the scriptures and those are the property of the Jews. The scribes and priests know where the king is to be born, but they don’t come to Jesus. Matthew is telling us something.

And they [scribes] said unto him [Herod], In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

This is from Micah 5:2. Later in the chapter, Matthew uses 2 Samuel, Hosea, Jeremiah, and then other passages whose origin is unclear.[3]

Herod has a plan to use the Magi to find Jesus (it’s not clear why he doesn’t search himself, but maybe there is a subtext of fear, a fear of Mary and Joseph discovering that search and fleeing).

It’s clear that Matthew has Joseph and Mary *belonging* in Bethlehem. They have a house. There is no hint that they have been in Nazereth, it’s only at the end of the chapter that Matthew goes to some trouble to explain why they go to Nazereth. There is nothing of the Lukan cycle here. Matthew doesn’t know anything about Joseph and Mary living in Nazereth before the birth.

The Magi fall down and worship and give gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There are accounts of important figures from the East coming to Roman emperors with exotic gifts like this and Matthew’s audience may resonate with that (it’s hard not to think of that scene from DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” with the tributes to Pharaoh). Probably Matthew has Psalm 72 in mind and Isaiah: “all those from Sheba will bring gold and frankincense.” I mentioned that is where the second century AD idea that the Magi were kings comes from. Matthew slides in the Old Testament all over the place. His Jewish audience will make that connection, though a modern reader probably wouldn’t. It’s worth reading Matthew from a good translation as they will pick up his subtleties. At the same time, there was speculation in pseudepigraphal works about their number and names. These later writers really continue Matthew’s style with his almost continuous Old Testament echoes.

We Three Kings Wizards of Orient Are (Image: Wikipedia)

We Three Kings Wizards of Orient Are (Image: Wikipedia)

Another chain of interpretation that takes place in later centuries involves the meaning applied to the gifts: gold=kingship, frankincense=divinity, myrrh=death/burial/humanity. None of this is in Matthew.

Luke has a similar cast of characters and it’s perhaps useful to observe that they really perform the same function: this great revelation is powerful—it draws people in to itself. We often say similar things about the Book of Mormon: it’s a powerful revelation, almost a holy relic—it removes doubt—it carries almost a holy aura that seemingly without fail draws people into God’s way, repairs faith, repels evil, (if we only use it properly) and carries its own legends of bibliomancy.

But in the case of Jesus, these stories create a problem. You might think that these visitors, Magi, shepherds in the case of Luke, are telling people somewhere all about this great revelation of Jesus, angels, stars, etc. In Nazereth, people can’t believe Jesus is anything other than a bumpkin. He’s just a son of a carpenter or whatever. Matthew and Luke explain the absence of rumor following this knowledge by getting these characters off stage again. They may tell people things, but nothing is going on for 30 years. Whatever noise these people make dies off in the Gospel story.

After the Magi leave, they are warned in a dream not to go to Herod. But there is no impression that the dream was anything more than the star was. Joseph’s dream has an angel, and this is the Jewish conceit. Gentiles and Jews don’t get comparable revelation. Gentiles are Emersons, Jews are Joseph Smiths.[4] That’s the distinction. God teaches the Gentiles through nature if you will. God sends divine beings to the Jews (or at least this is the case after the deportation to Babylon—a named angelic pantheon develops then–and we are familiar with them: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, etc.)—before that it’s largely “the angel of the LORD” which is really just a proxy for God himself.

Matthew shows Joseph as exactly obedient. The Holy Family are Law abiding, faithful to God, obedient, not suspect in any way. Joseph has this dream and away they go to Egypt because Herod is on the hunt. Joseph waits until Herod is dead to return. How they live there is not clear, but there were Jewish communities there. Matthew sees the return to Palestine as a fulfillment of Hosea: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” It doesn’t matter that the original had reference to Moses and the Exodus, in fact that’s the point perhaps, the duality between Jesus and Moses/Israel. For Matthew, there is the suffering in Jeremiah’s time—echoes of deaths in Ramah overlaying Herod’s massacre. [Jer. 31:15]

Here is where we get the wickedness of Herod: he kills the male children of Bethlehem who are two or under. There are not too many probably, the population of Bethlehem is not large, but people use this to date Jesus’ birth. Herod died in 4BC (maybe), so Jesus must have been born around 6BC.[5]

Joseph’s next dream has an angel report that Herod is dead, but it’s plural–those who sought the child’s life—: it quotes Exodus in fact. Moses had to leave Egypt because the Egyptians wanted him dead. Word comes to him that “those who sought your life are dead.” And this is Matthew quoting the Old Testament again. He doesn’t make it clear who, besides Herod, is after Jesus (in fact Herod is rather singularly bad here) but it’s too good to pass up not to echo Moses’s story.

Now Joseph gets another dream after he hears that Herod Archelaus is sitting on Herod the Great’s throne and he’s worried. The angel tells him to go to Galilee (Gentiles) and that solves the problem of Nazereth—and it puts Gentiles in the story—that’s important to Matthew because he knows the future—he’s living in it. And Matthew again sees this as fulfillment of the Prophets.

Almost every noise in the story evokes the Old Testament.

In sum, Matthew does quite a lot with his two chapters, summarizing the Law and Prophets as foundation for the Messiah, and he anticipates the key ideas of the New Testament (as he sees it) as well. He’s got Davidic descent, worshipful witnesses (a portent of the future), excellent Mosaic parallels, and even that the message will go to the Gentiles, and so on and so forth. Finally, in Joseph, Matthew finds a figure who stands for, symbolizes, the Jewish Christians. Joseph, an observant faithful Jew, takes Jesus as his son, protects him from evil men and forces, cares for him, and this enables him to arrive at his mission. The Jewish Christians do the same thing. They were faithful in the Law (largely) but they accept Jesus. By that acceptance they made it possible for Jesus’ name and message and power to go out to the broader world. It’s a beautiful, inspired, enduring, and masterful construction from the tradition that came to Matthew.[6]

So that’s it for Matthew. Next time: Luke.

[1] The evolution of preaching has several somewhat conflicting theories, for one, see Alistair Stewart-Sykes, From Prophecy to Preaching: A Search for the Origins of the Christian Homily (Brill, 2001). I suggest that Joseph Smith moves on a similar trajectory: prophecy became preaching.

[2] Josephus spends a lot in telling the stories of Herod’s outsized and odd enterprises. G. A. Williamson, trans., The Jewish War (New York: Penguin, 1981), 1:203-669. Check out the Wikipedia article on Herod the Great.

[3] See notes at the New English Translation ( Matthew does an interesting thing with his quotations. He uses both Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments, whichever translation serves his purpose best. Matthew the Evangelist has scholarly abilities. Proof-texting is a time-honored tradition. This David-Ridivivus trope was popular in some degree in Mormonism, and Joseph Smith used it here and there. It seems to have largely disappeared there now.

[4] Benjamin Park, “‘I Object to the Names Deism and Infidelity’: Theodore Parker and the Boundaries of Christianity in Antebellum America,” Journal of Religion and Society 15 (January 2013): 1-24. Also, David Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford UP, 2011).

[5] Luke might reinforce this–I’ll come to that. The assignment of calendar dates (when is 1AD?) occurs in the middle ages, and they were apparently mistaken by this Mathean thinking. The story of murder here is not unrealistic. Herod was a very violent man, especially in his last years (Josephus is the main source here). He apparently gave orders that at his death, hundreds should be killed so that there would be mourning at his death. He was a terrible guy by all accounts, though none of the extra-biblical histories mention the massacre of infants.

[6] I think I already said that we don’t know how Matthew comes by the bones of this birth narrative. It’s not in Mark, one of his sources, and it’s not evident elsewhere, but the basis must have been there for Matthew to craft into his Gospel, however much he may read the gospel and his own present back into that birth narrative.


  1. I am really enjoying your spare style, the just what’s there approach, one gospel at a time. So many (i.e., too many) Christmas stories are an attempt to tell the ‘true’ or ‘correlated’ or ‘original’ or ‘combined’ story.

  2. Thanks, christiankimball. They began as separate traditions, texts that were largely ignorant of one another (Matthew and Luke at least). They choose their way based on their purpose. Luke coming up tonight.

  3. Leonard R says:

    This is beyond excellent. Really great work.

  4. Thanks, Leonard.

  5. Cody Hatch says:

    This is one of my favorite series here at BCC. Great stuff.

  6. Thanks, Cody.

  7. I’d wondered from time to time if the journey of the Magi wasn’t the inspiration for the Chinese story “Journey to the West”, but with such an age of sparse surviving records, making unfounded conclusions that “just feel right” can be dangerous. Some people like to run with easy but unfounded conclusions.

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