Read Matthew 2:1-12.
We had an Advent visitation at our house last week. It wasn’t the shepherds or the magi. It was a solid week of RSV. That curtailed most of our activities for several days. That’s largely in the rearview at this point, so I hope to get back to work.
I have chosen during this Advent season to read and preach straight through the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel. This Sunday, we come to the Visit of the Magi. If you are pursuing the Revised Common Lectionary or other scheduled readings, you might use the reflections as you prepare for the Epiphany of Our Lord in January.
This text is completely entangled with Jewish history and Roman politics. The story of Herod the Great and the astrologers from “the East” – (likely Parthia, about the same as modern day Iran) – shudders with echoes of intrigue and overthrow. It’s worth remembering a bit of that history to appreciate the text more fully. I’m sure my little summary will be filled with inaccuracies and holes. But I think it will be close enough for us to get the gist of what’s going on in our text.
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the greater Syrian region (which included Palestine) came under the control of the Greek general Seleucus and his political heirs. That regime was relatively uneventful until the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Antiochus forced the crisis described, for example, in the Book of Daniel (metaphorically) in in 1 and 2 Maccabees (more literally). The Maccabean Jews were victorious and established what came to be known as the Hasmonean regime.
The Hasmoneans ruled Palestine from about 140 to 37 BCE, with a few hiccups during that century. There was a relative power vacuum in greater Syria during this period. The Seleucids were under attack by the growing Roman republic from the south (and the sea) and from the Parthian empire in the north and east. While the big powers sorted things out, the Hasmoneans exercised authority and power in Palestine. Sometimes the Hasmoneans were allied with Rome. At other times they sought the support of the Parthians.
This is a very rough and ready review of a century of factional intrigue. It’s important to note that a growing player in this power game was the Idumean regime, people we would know in the Hebrew Scriptures (at least loosely) as Edomites. This matters, in part, because Herod the Great had an Idumean princess for a mother and was not regarded, as a result, as authentically and legitimately Jewish. The Idumean desire to rule Palestine certainly precedes the reign of Herod the Great.
The Romans bring the situation into focus beginning 63 BCE. General Pompey defeats the Seleucids. Judea becomes a Roman protectorate. The Romans install a provincial governor. But they also allow the Judeans to have a king – “the King of the Jews.” Not quite ten years later, the Romans split Palestine into five districts, each with its own administration. Judea is now ruled by an Idumean king.
Once the Romans were in charge, Roman politics began to determine local politics. The next big crisis came with the war between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Forces of the Jewish king came to the aid of Julius Caesar and found themselves on the winning team. That connection came to a bloody end in 44 BCE when Julius Caesar was assassinated. The “king of the Jews” had to figure out once again how to align with the winning side. This time, that was not so easy.
At this point, the Parthians (Persians) get more directly involved. The Parthians invaded Palestine as allies of the anti-Antony forces. They removed the Idumean king and installed a semblance of the former Hasmonean regime. By this time, Herod is on the scene, connected to that former Idumean regime. He is on the outside looking in and flees into exile. He looks for support from Antony, and he gets it. In 40 BCE, the Roman senate designates Herod “the King of the Jews.” Antony and Augustus were still allied at this time. They defeated the Parthians and installed Herod on the throne. There were a few more wrinkles before the dust settled, but Herod the Great was the Roman-backed “King of the Jews” from 37 BCE to 4 CE, when he died.
Given all that history, let’s try to experience the political earthquakes in the Matthean account. I intend the reference to “earthquakes” because of the verb the Matthean author uses in verse three. The NRSV suggests that Herod was “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…” However, the Greek verb here is tarasso. The literal meaning is to shake together or stir up something – especially water, that is agitated and troubled.
“But when King Herod heard [the question of the Magi], he was shook up,” the Matthean author tells us, “and all of Jerusalem [was shook up] with him” (my translation). Herod’s rule was an autocracy with a very efficient state police and intelligence apparatus. It was quite true that if Herod sneezed, all of Jerusalem “got pneumonia” (at least in political terms). Why was Herod “all shook up”?
These Magi come “from the East.” They likely come from Parthia/Persia. In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Diane Chen reminds us that the word “magi” can refer to members of a priestly caste in Persia. These were likely Zoroastrian astrologers. I don’t say that disparagingly. The distinction between astrology and astronomy is a modern one, and we shouldn’t anachronistically disparage their education and scholarship. These visitors were scientists in the ancient world.
They were also probably in some conversation with the Jewish Diaspora community that remained in what was once ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. The various deportations had seeded the “East” with vibrant Jewish communities that continued to maintain and develop their faith traditions, memories, theologies, documents, and practices.
The Magi probably come from the place that helped to give Herod and his cohort the boot a generation earlier. Could it be that the great Parthian Empire was once again on the move, preparing to end the Herodian regime and regain control of greater Syria? Had the Magi been sent as a shrewd military and political tactic to begin to destabilize Herod’s reign from within and below? These would have been questions roiling in the Herodian halls as soon as the Magi raised their inquiry.
This material is unique to the Matthean account. I don’t think it’s necessary to assert that all of this is factual reporting of events on the ground. The points I’m making stand within the logic of the story whether one regards the story as “history” or not. The Matthean author wants us as readers to see the contrast between the fake king of the Jews and the real King of the Jews.
That being said, I’m not willing to completely dismiss this account from the pages of history. Why would the Matthean author pick these particular folks for this purpose? If I were making something up, I think I would have made other choices. I might have brought three Greek philosophers to town. Or perhaps a group of Roman historians or legal scholars. Or, even better, a cadre of Egyptian and Ethiopian spiritual savants. Any of these groups would have served the Matthean purposes at least as well.
I’m inclined to think that the Matthean author knew about something that happened to shake up the Herodian court. The description that follows fits very well with the political realities on the ground and the historical context leading to the events. The story of Herod’s tactics and response is an accurate representation of how the bloodthirsty old tyrant dealt with even a whiff of potential competition. The Matthean author has a clear sense of how things were working at the time.
Given this history, Herod is not being paranoid. Rather, he’s being prudent. If Herod was anything, he was a political survivor. He had switched sides at least three times on his path to power. He had left a trail of bodies along that path, several of them members of his own family. Perhaps it was time to test the political wind again. Decisive action was probably required.
The language of the Magi was shocking and surgical in its impact. “Where is the one who is born the King of the Jews?” they ask. Remember, Herod was not “born” the King of the Jews. He was not born a Jew. He was installed by the Romans and kept in place by their power and at their pleasure. Herod was not born either a son of David or a son of Abraham. The Matthean author has used chapter one to set up this stark contrast between the old guy on the throne in Jerusalem and the baby boy in a house in Bethlehem.
In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Diane Chen notes that this story contrasts the imposter, King Herod, and the real King of the Jews, Jesus. This will be a consistent theme in the Matthean account. We will discover how hard it is to see the real King among us without the eyes of faith. Over and over, it is those outside of normal channels who have those eyes and who see that King.