Theology in 3D

The (Re)Visit of the Magi

Layton Talbert | December 7, 2018
New Testament, Theology

Last Christmas I posted about the timing of the visit of the magi. In short, there is no biblical evidence that requires us to conclude that the magi arrived years or months or even weeks after the birth of Christ. It’s entirely feasible that they arrived within a day or so of the nativity. (See Keep the Magi in Christmas.)

This Christmas I want to explore the theology of the visit of the magi. I think Matthew really expected this story to wow his readers. The problem is, the story is so familiar that it has all but lost its shock value.

D. A. Carson wins the award for studied understatement: “The ‘Magi’ are not easily identified with precision” (“Matthew,” in EBC). I’ll say! Tradition tells us that there were three (obviously, because of the three gifts) and that they were kings (“we three kings of Orient are”); we even know their names (at least since the sixth century): Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar (not to be confused with Tolkien characters or friendly ghosts). Scripture itself is considerably less forthcoming about these guys, and other historical sources are inconclusive.

So, over the centuries questions about the magi have popped up like fleas on a camel. (And we know they had camels; my nativity scene shows one of them.) What, exactly, did they do for a living? How many of them came? Were they, in fact, “kings”? (Tertullian seemed to think so, as far back as AD 200.) Did they come from Babylon? Persia? Arabia? How did they know what they knew? Was the nature of the celestial phenomenon that led them providential or miraculous?

If you’re looking for definitive answers to those kinds of questions, you won’t find them. Anywhere.

Instead, I want to raise a biblical-theological question: How does this incident fit into Matthew’s larger literary purpose?

MATTHEW’S THEOLOGY

Matthew has long been recognized as the most intentionally Jewish of the Gospels. Besides beginning with a genealogy identifying Jesus racially (son of Abraham) and royally (son of David), Matthew includes more references to David (17) than the other Gospels (22 combined), and far more explicit OT citations (51; the other three gospels combined have 66).

Likewise, Matthew’s designation as the Gospel of Jesus as King is based on more than mere tradition. Matthew uses the terms “king” and “kingdom” (with direct or parabolic reference to Christ) some 70 times. (The next highest frequency is only 48 times even in Luke’s longer gospel, then Mark with 25, and John with 21.) The first reference to Christ as king is Matthew 2:2.

Another motif that Matthew distinctively emphasizes is worship. The verb proskuneosurfaces 13 times in Matthew, three of which punctuate the magi pericope (Matt 2:2811). (Thirteen occurrences may not sound like much, but the verb shows up only 5 times in Luke and Mark combined.)

Finally, Matthew counter-balances the distinctive Jewishness of his gospel with the most explicit Gentile emphasis of all the gospels; he uses ethnos and ethnikos 18 times (only 17 occurrences in Mk, Lk, and Jn combined) and records numerous incidents featuring Gentile references that are entirely unique to his gospel — like the story of the Gentile magi. This curious counterpoint of Jewish and Gentile emphases forms Matthew’s precursor to Paul’s later refrain, “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentiles.”

THE MAGI IN MATTHEW’S THEOLOGY

You can see these Matthean themes converging in the story of the magi. Or to put it differently, the story of the magi introduces some of the themes that will shape the rest of Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew begins with a bolt out of the Eastern blue. A retinue of foreign dignitaries arrives unexpectedly in the royal court of the Judean capital inquiring the whereabouts of the newly born king of the Jews.* They’ve traveled hundreds of miles with the express purpose of worshiping him (Matt 2:211), having followed a celestial anomaly that they somehow linked to the birth of this unique monarch. Israel’s own royal leaders, religious rulers, and legal scribes have their long-awaited Messiah in their own backyard; it takes the arrival of these distant Gentiles to bring the first rumor of it to their attention. And even when they hear the news they do not rejoice but are “troubled” (Matt 2:3).

[I]t is not always those who have the most religious privileges who give Christ the most honor…. How often the persons who live nearest to the means of grace are those who neglect them most (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew).

Matthew seems to be saying up front: “Your King has come, O Israel; if you will not own him and worship him, others will” (cf. Matt 27:37). Even as the Gospel to the Jews, Matthew’s theology incorporates a global dimension precisely because OT Judaism was originally created with an international intent (Gen 12:1-3Exo 19:5-6Deut 4:5-82 Chron 6:32-33).

SO WHAT?

What does Matthew — and more importantly, the Holy Spirit — intend us to conclude about these mysterious, meteoric visitors? Were they believers? I don’t mean did they understand that this child would die for their sins. But in the context of their culture and the light they possessed, did they believe what they had knowledge and opportunity to believe? I don’t know how we can conclude otherwise.

Consider what they did.

It’s one thing to deduce the birth of a distant king from studying the stars. And presumably prophecy. (Did they know about Num 24:17 or Isa 60:3 from remnants of the Jewish captivity still living among them?) It’s quite another thing to take the time and trouble and expense and danger of a long and arduous journey to bring expensive gifts in order to worship a newborn monarch to whom you have no natural or national obligation.

They knew as well as anyone that Rome ruled, not Israel. So what would prompt them to give this level of recognition to the birth of the reputed king of a tinpot little middle-eastern country under the heel of mighty Rome?

And yet the remarkable fact is that the the first people in the NT to bow their knee to Jesus and call him “King” were not the Jewish religious leaders, or the shepherds, or the disciples, or even his own family; it was the magi.

* As I mentioned above, one of the “Jewish” characteristics of Matthew’s gospel is his heavy citation of OT passages; that includes his frequent use of a “fulfillment formula” (about 15 times, sometimes implied but almost always stated). Many commentators have seen the visit of the magi as a fulfillment of a number of OT passages (Ps 68:2931Ps 72:10-11Isa 39:1-2Isa 49:7Isa 60:1-6). What is most striking is that the one person who does not argue for such fulfillment is the author himself. Matthew, the king of OT corroboration among the gospel writers, never suggests any such linkage, even though he argues expressly that five other incidents connected with Christ’s birth were fulfillments of OT passages (Matt 1:222:5151723). Maybe he intentionally leaves his readers to make the connection for themselves but, if so, it doesn’t fit with his literary-theological modus operandi in the rest of his incarnation account.


3 responses to “The (Re)Visit of the Magi”

  1. Dan Olinger says:

    I suspect that they would have had access to Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks, which would have told them that the timing was about right, and possibly to Balaam’s prophecy of “a star out of Jacob,” which would have directed them to Jerusalem. More thoughts here: https://danolinger.com/2017/12/18/christmas/
    I think the real miracle of all this is that they stopped to ask directions.

    • I suspect they had access to more than we might think.
      …And the other the miracle is that the guys they asked for directions actually went and found out and didn’t just make something up.

  2. […] an easily overlooked thread woven into Luke’s incarnation narrative. My previous post explored Matthew’s use of the magi to illustrate a variety of emphases that color the […]

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