King of the Jews

Scripture Readings: Mt. 2:1-23

The word "epiphany" comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation. The celebration of Epiphany on January 6th began in the third century in the Eastern Church, where the Alexandrian calendar was in use and January 6th was the winter solstice. When the Church in Rome adopted Epiphany in the fourth century, it was using the Julian calendar and celebrating Christmas on December 25th because this day marked the winter solstice. The result in the Western Christian tradition is twelve days of Christmas, which celebrate the coming of the shepherds on December 25th and the coming of the wise men on January 6th.

The story of the wise men is only in the gospel of Matthew. It begins by announcing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod’s rule. Wise men from the East, following a star, arrive in Jerusalem asking about the birth of a new king of the Jews. When Herod hears of this, he asks for an interpretation from Jewish scripture and is told that Micah 5:2 tells of the birth of a king in Bethlehem. Herod then sends the wise men to Bethlehem and instructs them to report back to him after they have found the new king. The star leads the wise men to a "house" where they "saw the child with Mary his mother." (Mt. 2:11) The wise men then give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but warned in a dream they do not report back to Herod before returning to their own country.

In this story Jesus and not Herod, who was appointed ruler of Israel by the Roman Emperor, is the true king of Jewish prophecy. Unlike the gospel of Luke, which proclaims the birth of "a Savior," the gospel of Matthew announces the birth of a new "king of the Jews." (Lk. 2:11, Mt. 2:2) In the gospel of Luke poor shepherds hear "good news" and find the "Savior" in a manger. (Lk. 2:10,11,16) In the gospel of Matthew, however, rich and learned men bring lavish gifts into the house of a new king. 

From the fourth century, the church will see the coming of these wise men as foretold in Psalm 72:10, which says: "May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts." Psalm 72 refers to Solomon, but the church applies this verse to Jesus and thereafter the church refers to the wise men in the gospel of Matthew’s story as "kings."

The gospel of Matthew does not say how many men followed the star to Bethlehem, but the church concluded that because three gifts were given there must have been three kings. By the ninth century these kings were known by name as Gaspar, who gave the gold, and Balthazar, who offered the frankincense, and Melchior, who brought the myrrh. The kings were thought to represent the three races of the world, and also the three stages of life ― youth, manhood and old age. (Look for these characteristics the next time you see a painting of the baby Jesus and the wise men.)

In the gospel of Matthew, there is nothing in the story of the wise men that poses a threat to Roman rule, for the antagonist is clearly King Herod. An angel warns Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt, because when Herod realizes the wise men have escaped rather than reveal the identity of the child, Herod kills all the children "in and around Bethlehem" two years or younger. (Mt. 2:16) The gospel of Matthew says that this slaughter fulfills a prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15, which refers to Rachel, weeping and wailing in Ramah for her children. This interpretation is hardly obvious, as Jeremiah 31:17 promises the children will "come back to their own country." Furthermore, Ramah, the place from which Judeans were sent into exile in Babylon (Jer. 40:1), is about five miles north of Jerusalem rather than south of the city near Bethlehem.

After Herod dies Joseph is told in a dream to take his family to Galilee, where he settles in Nazareth. The gospel of Matthew says this is to fulfill the prophecy that Jesus be called "a Nazorean." (Mt. 2:23) The gospel of Mark calls Jesus a "Nazarene," apparently meaning a resident of Nazareth, (Mk. 1:24) but the gospel of Matthew may refer to the Greek Septuagint word for "Nazarite," which means "consecrated" and in Judges 13:5 and 16:17 identifies men dedicated to God who never cut their hair.

The gospel of Matthew relates that Herod killed children 2 years old and younger "in and around Bethlehem" in his attempt to destroy the newborn king of the Jews. (Mt. 2:16) Because Herod died in 4 BCE, the birth of Jesus is assumed to be between 6 and 4 BCE. However, Luke 2:2 says Jesus is born while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Quirinius only held that position from 6 to 7 CE. This factual contradiction between the gospels is irreconcilable, and there is no independent means of dating the birth of Jesus. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that Herod slaughtered children just before his death. After his death, however, Jews rebelled against Roman rule and thousands of Jews including women and children were slaughtered and crucified by Roman legions.

In the gospel of Luke, the story begins by identifying Jesus as "the prophet of the Most High," as "a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord," and as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles." Moreover, the story begins with scenes of praise, poverty and proclamation. (Lk. 1:76, 2:11, 2:32) In contrast, the story in the gospel of Matthew begins by identifying Jesus as "Emmanuel" (meaning "God with us"), who as "king of the Jews" will "save his people from their sins." (Mt. 1:21, 1:23, 2:2) In the gospel of Matthew a heavenly star marks the birth and guides wise men bearing gifts for the child of Jewish prophecy. This is cause for rejoicing, but the story ends with ghastly violence by an earthly king rather than joyous voices of a heavenly host.

Reading only the gospel of Luke, we do not know at the beginning that the story of Jesus concludes with his violent death at the hands of a Roman ruler. Reading only the gospel of Matthew, we do know at the beginning that this newborn "king of the Jews" is in danger and will be violently resisted. In the gospel of Matthew there are no angels telling the shepherds near Jerusalem not to be afraid, for these poor men have every reason to be afraid. In the gospel of Matthew, the battle of kings begins with the birth of Jesus, and children of shepherds in Ramah are the first victims.

The gospel of Matthew was written to persuade Jews that Jesus was their Messiah. This gospel was written for those who remembered that in 587 BCE Jerusalem was conquered, the temple destroyed, and the survivors sent from Ramah into exile in Babylon. The gospel of Matthew was written for those who remembered the rebellion and slaughter of Jews after Herod’s death in 4 BCE, and who knew of the Jewish revolt in 66 CE, the destruction of the temple by Roman armies four years later, and then the crucifixion of thousands of Jews outside Jerusalem.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus fulfills Israelite prophecy, travels to Egypt because the ancient Israelites went to Egypt, and at the beginning of his ministry ascends a mountain (like Moses) to teach his disciples a new understanding of the commandments of the law of Moses. Yet, his death on a cross outside Jerusalem does not mark the end of his story, but rather the beginning of his reign as Messiah (Mt. 16:16, 20) and king of the Jews. The gospel of Matthew appeals to Jews to accept Jesus as king of the Jews, and condemns Jews who refuse to do so. It is good news for some Jews and very bad news for others.

Today, Christians do not think of Jesus Christ as "king of the Jews." So, we read the story of the wise men as a children’s story of the one called Emmanuel, who we know as "God with us." © Robert Traer 2016