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AragornVirtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ.  But as Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The various descriptions in this paragraph of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of Second Temple literature. In fact, this Rider is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.

The Rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12).  Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12).   In the Greco Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.

Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has “many” crowns, perhaps so many that they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13).  Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here.  The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3. Finally, a sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a).  This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21).

4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.

The rider has several names. First, he is named “Faithful and True,” titles used for Jesus in Rev 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b).  Divine beings sometimes have a “secret name” or are not willing to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked.  Third, His name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word.  Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (16).   There are a number of ancient references to names being inscribed on the thigh of statues,

The Rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b).  That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a).  He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b).  That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.

Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.  Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.

John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.

The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.

 

 

 

The person of Jesus frames the book of Revelation. In a previous post I argued that the major theme of Revelation is worship, so it is no surprise that the object of this worship is often Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God.

The book begins with John’s vision describing Christ in terms of a Theophany (1:12-18). Chapter 19 Christ returns to this world as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16). The most common description of Jesus in the book of Revelation is as a “Lamb,” appearing some 28 times in the book (Rev 5:6, 12-13). This is a natural extension of the theology of the Gospel of John, which clearly describes Jesus Christ as the perfect Sacrificial Lamb to save the world from its sins (John 1:29, 36).

Obviously the image of a Lamb was intended to evoke a sacrificed animal. When no one is found worthy to open the scroll in Revelation 5, John weeps bitterly. And angel tells him that the “Lion of Judah” has triumphed and his worthy to open the scroll. But when John looks to see the Lion of Judah, he sees the “Lamb that was slain.” This lamb is on the throne of God ready to receive the scroll.

The description of the Lamb is somewhat unexpected – seven horns and seven eyes. There is no “lamb” imagery associated with the Messiah in Judaism, but it is an important them for the gospel of John. The seven eyes may allude to the number of times Christ says that he “sees” in the letters to the seven churches (Rev 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). That the Lamb was slain may allude to imagery of the messiah as a lamb “lead to the slaughter” in Isa 53:7.

While this Lamb brings salvation to the world, he is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He returns as a judge over the nations that oppose God (Rev 5:5, 19:15). This is intentionally ironic since a lamb is not a good symbol for judgment. But the Christ is both a sacrifice and a judge. Taking the Johannine literature as a while, Jesus as the Lamb of God is the subject of the gospel of John, while the image of Jesus as a conquering king is the subject of Revelation. Both roles are important in John’s theology of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus is equal to God and equally worthy of the praise of all creation. John intentionally equates the “one who sits on the throne” and the Lamb by using the same words applied to God in 4:11 to the Lamb in 5:12-13. In 7:10-12, the worshipers declare that salvation belongs to “Our God, who sits on the throne” and to the Lamb. Both God and the Lamb are “worthy of praise.

Bibliography. David Aune has an excursus on Christ as Lamb of God (Revelation 1:367ff ). See also C. K. Barrett, “The Lamb of God” NTS 1 (1954-55) 210-18; N. Hillyer, “‘The Lamb’ in the Apocalypse.” EvQ 39 (1967) 228-36.

In 1 Peter 2:24, Peter alludes to Isaiah 53:5 when he declares that Christ’s death provides “healing.”  He is clearly referring to the death of Jesus on the cross (“he bore our sins on the tree”).  But Peter adjusts the wording of Isaiah 53 slightly. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions, the line reads “we are healed,” Peter has “you (plural) are healed.”  This may simply be a case of a pastor inserting his congregation into a text for rhetorical purposes.

On the other hand, it is not clear in Isaiah who the suffering servant benefits – who is the “we” in this verse?  A common first-century answer was “Israel.” The nation as a whole suffers in order to bring redemption to the world.   This could be an example of Peter re-using a text from the Hebrew Bible and applying it more specifically to the Church. It is not the nation of Israel who is healed by the death of the messiah, but rather the ones who follow Jesus.

The verb translated “healed” (ἰάομαι) can easily be misunderstood. While it is often used for physical healing, it is also used for being delivered from spiritual blindness. What is more, it is used in Isaiah 6:10 to describe what might happen if the people of Isaiah’s day turned their hearts to the Lord and really understood the message of the prophet – “they would be healed.” This text from Isaiah is used several times in the New Testament to describe the spiritual blindness of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry. They were spiritually insensitive and therefore rejected the Suffering Servant when he revealed himself.

John 12:37-44 is a remarkable combination of Isaiah 6:10 and 53:1. This is John’s summary of the ministry of Jesus. No one heard the message of the Suffering Servant, so no one turned as was healed! Like John, Peter is saying that those who follow Christ are healed of their spiritual blindness in a way which separates them from those who heard the teaching of Jesus and failed to respond.

Isaiah 53 forms a foundation for Peter’s Christology, and probably for the Christology of the earliest apostolic preaching. Based on the suffering of Jesus Christ, his followers experience redemption.  But there is a pastoral application of Peter’s theology of salvation.  If Jesus suffered so intensely so that you can have salvation, then those who follow Jesus ought to suffer in the same way.  Look back a few verses:  1 Peter: 2:20 is an ethical statement about servants who are unjustly suffering at the  hands of their masters.

In fact, Peter’s point is that how you follow Jesus ought to be based on the way in which Jesus lived, suffered and died.  This is not some sort of sugary “WWJD” pep-talk.  Peter bases his ethical teachings on the suffering of Jesus, not his “good life” or other moral teachings.  It is remarkable that Peter does not say, “Love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his neighbors.” I am sure that is true and that Peter would agree with that sort of a statement.   But Peter says, “suffering in silence, the way Jesus suffered.”

My guess is that most people who wore the WWJD bracelets were not thinking about being silent while they were beaten unjustly for their commitment to their Lord and Savior.

If Jesus is the cornerstone, then the believers are the stones that are laid on the stone in order to build up a Temple. Peter compares the people of God to the stones that make up a “spiritual house.” If Jesus is like the chief cornerstone (in some ways like the foundation and in other ways like the capstone), then those who are in Christ are the other components of that building. This is not too far from Paul’s “body of Christ” metaphor, in which Christ is the head and believers are the members of the body.

Temple StonesPeter describes God’s people with Temple language in verse five. The people of God are a “spiritual house.” The text does not say “temple of the Holy Spirit,” the metaphor Paul used in 1 Corinthians, but it is not quite the same. Any Jewish person hearing the phrase “spiritual house” in the first century would have immediately thought of the Temple in Jerusalem, and even in the Diaspora there was a certain pride in the Temple as God’s dwelling place. Buy not all would agree that the Temple was a real, spiritual house.

There are several well-known critiques of the Temple, including the Temple Action by Jesus just before his crucifixion. Jesus called the activity around the Temple as a “den of thieves” and threatened to tear the Temple down and rebuild it in three days. We know now that he was talking about his body and the coming resurrection, but there were many who saw this as an attack on the Temple itself.

Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 is often seen as critical of the Temple and the aristocratic priesthood. Stephen claimed that there is simple no need for a “spiritual house” in the present age, and he was lynched for this attack! The Qumran community in particular considered the activity of the Temple to be corrupt.  The community seems to have considered their activity near the Dead Sea as a kind of replacement for Temple worship until the Temple was cleansed by the coming messiah.

In the same way, the original readers would have understood “holy priesthood” in the light of the Temple. In fact, the priests were the only ones who permitted to offer sacrifices at the temple.  Peter describes all believers as a “holy priesthood,: not just those members of the tribe of Levi or the family of Aaron.  The high priest was to come from the line of Zadok, but after the Maccabean Revolt the Hasmoneans served as priest-kings, despite only being from the tribe of Levi. Since they were not Zadokites, the Qumran community rejected them proper high priests.

At the time this letter was written, the high priests were appointed to the office by the Sanhedrin.  The high priest Ananus son of Ananus was removed from office in A.D. 63 because he executed James the brother of Jesus (Josephus,  Antiq., 20.9.1).  The high priest Joshua ben Gamla obtained the office in 64 after his wealthy wife bribed the right people; the final high priest, Phannias ben Samuel, was not even in the priestly line, but was appointed by the Zealots. Josephus said that he was a “mere rustic “and “a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but that did not well know what the high priesthood was.” (Josephus, JW, 4.151-158).

The believer is superior to the Temple priest because they are able to bring “acceptable sacrifice to God” because they are offering them “through Jesus.”  Again, if there were some Jewish groups that considered the Temple and the priesthood corrupt, then can their sacrifices be acceptable to God? If, for example, the high priest was not actually holy when he brought the Day of Atonement sacrifice (on the wrong day even!), is it possible that God did not accept that sacrifice?

All of this language sounds like Peter is describing the present people of God as a kind of New Israel, but it is not the case that Peter is saying that the present Church (the Body of Christ) replaces the old Israel. For a Jewish writer and reader this new priesthood and temple service replaces the old one that was ineffective. The believers in Asia Minor in the first century are now all priests that are capable of offering acceptable sacrifices to God.

Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 892 pp. $58, Hb.  Link to Eerdmans

When the first edition of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent was published in 2008, I happened to visit the now-closed Eerdmans Bookstore in Grand Rapids. Alan, manager of the Bookstore approached me and handed me a copy of the book and said “You are going to buy this book.” For those who knew Alan, if he told you to buy a book, you bought it because it was going to be an excellent book. And indeed it was. The first edition of Stories with Intent won the 2009 Christianity Today Award for Biblical Studies and was almost immediately considered by many to be the best book on parables written in the last fifty years. Since I regularly assign papers on parables in my Gospels class, my syllabus states: ignore Snodgrass at your own peril. I was therefore quite excited to see the announcement of a new edition of this important book.

Stories with Intent is a comprehensive commentary on every parable of Jesus. Although the commentaries may have similar content, Snodgrass includes parables from each synoptic gospels and includes two or three versions of the parable when this occurs (The Mustard Seed in Matthew 13:31-32, for example). Snodgrass includes two chapters of introduction to parables (sixty pages) where he defines and classifies parables and discusses interpretive strategies. He recognizes some parables have allegorical elements, but these do not give the interpreter warrant to allegorize anything and everything in a parable (p. 17). In the body of the commentary, he often interprets some element of a parable without resorting to the kinds of allegorical interpretation found in ancient commentaries or popular preaching. For example, the lamps and oil in the Parable of The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-12) does not “represent” the Holy Spirit. Commenting on the two sets of servants in the Parable of the Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), any interpretation that makes these two sets of servants into pre-Easter mission to the Jews and a post-Easter mission to the Gentiles is “merciless allegorizing” (315). Snodgrass is consistent in this methodology.

What makes this book an especially rich resource for parables interpretation is the collection of parallel material for each parable. While there are collections of rabbinic parables or parallels to early Christian literature, Snodgrass conveniently places the text of these parallels alongside his commentary on the parable. Sometimes these parallels seem strained, but since the goal of the volume is a “comprehensive guide,” this is understandable.

The book is now about 35 pages longer than the first edition, the main difference being one additional chapter on recent contributions to parable research (pages 565-600). The page numbers from the first edition have not changed and there appear to be no differences in the endnotes. This is convenient since references to pages in the first edition will be the same pages in the second. The index of authors is greatly expanded (from just short of four pages to nearly eight pages). The bibliography has been updated to include the books appearing in the new chapter. The bibliography appears to use a slightly smaller font and spacing since it is several pages shorter than the first edition although the content is nearly the same.

The title of the book is important. Snodgrass was dissatisfied with reader response approaches to the parables since they ignore the author’s intent and make the parables say anything. Some literary approaches to the parables completely ignored what Jesus said in favor of creating a new meaning which was somehow more modern and provoking. For Snodgrass, when Jesus spoke a parable he did so with a specific intention, and to ignore that intention is to miss the point of the parable. Although taking into account the literary features of parables as well as the literary context of its place in a gospel, he does not engage in the fanciful reader-response type application of parables. This requires the interpreter to understand the historical, social, and literary context of each parable and to consciously read that parable in that proper context.

Other books on parables are more concerned with reconstructing the original forms of parables or determining what the historical Jesus may (or may not) have said. This was the driving force in John Meier’s 2016 Probing the Authenticity of the Parables. Using the criteria of authenticity Meier concluded only four parables go back to the historical Jesus. As Snodgrass observes, these criteria have been challenged and for many Jesus scholars they no longer have any value at all. Snodgrass does engage with scholarship on the authenticity of the parables, but his goal is to set the parable into a context where Jesus’s original intent can be heard. Stories with Intent is not a historical Jesus study.

The parables are grouped thematically (parables of the present kingdom, parables about discipleship, etc.) For each parable Snodgrass collects any parallels in canonical writings, early Jewish literature, rabbinic literature and early Christian writing. He includes the text for most of the non-canonical texts, which is extremely useful for some of the more obscure rabbinical sources. He then asks questions and creates lists of things needing attention for students and teachers who want to interpret the parable accurately. Sometimes he does not address all of these needs in his explanation, but for the most part a mini-commentary on the parable compares and contrasts several approaches to the parable and draws conclusions. He provides a section on cultural background when applicable. For each parable he offers a short comment on how to adapt the parable for contemporary use in teaching and preaching. Each parable concludes with a short bibliography, although these have not been updated since the 2008 edition of the book.

In his new chapter for the second edition of the book Snodgrass observes that in the ten years since Stories with Intent was first published, more than twenty-five books on parables have been published. This does not include journal articles, but the number seems small to me, especially in comparison to other more burning issues in New Testament studies over the same time. Compare this trickle of parables research to the avalanche of books written in the New Perspective on Paul. Perhaps the publication of this massive commentary on all the parables discouraged some scholars from contributing their own monograph on the parables.

Snodgrass divides recent parables research into several categories and offers a short summary of their contribution to the study of parables. He begins with a short comment on his non-use of the Gospel of Thomas in Stories with Intent. This was a critique of the first edition in the original round of book reviews. For some scholars, GThomas is an early witness to the Jesus tradition and is useful for interpreting the parables. Snodgrass agrees with Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels and dates to the second century. In a footnote he dismisses April DeConnick’s suggestion that Thomas is a “rolling composition” with a kernel of early Jesus tradition as “speculative and unconvincing” (note 2, 807). Although Snodgrass includes Gospel of Thomas in this parallel texts on the body of the commentary, he is clear that Thomas will not provide “an early window into Jesus’s parables” (566).

There are only a handful of new books on Old Testament and Rabbinic parables, and Snodgrass includes a few Bible Study type books as well as a few monographs on specific parables. In his section on New Testament parables he includes David Gowler’s book on the reception of the parables in Christian art and other literature. He groups several studies under the heading “Social Science” approaches. In his summary, Snodgrass indicates these studies see the parables as political and economic stories rather than theology. They assume anyone who is rich in a parable is a negative character. Snodgrass is not convinced politics was Jesus’s intent. Although the ethical concerns are important, Snodgrass sees these approaches as open to criticism. If Jesus was were entirely political in orientation, how did the early church get them so wrong when they collected them as theological statements? Commenting on Stephen Wright’s Jesus the Storyteller, Snodgrass concludes “If Wright is correct, why were these stories remembered at all?” (588)

Conclusion. Stories with Intent is certainly the “first off the shelf” book on parables. Some will object to his rejection of parallels in Thomas or his rejection of most of the faddish approaches once popular in parables research. Nor is there much here on reception history of the parables, partly because Snodgrass soundly rejects allegorical interpretations of the parables and most of church history allegorized them extensively. Snodgrass consistently provides sufficient background material to read the parables in the context of Jesus’s ministry, but also to adapt the parable to the contemporary situation.

If you have the first edition of this book, it may not be necessary to replace it with this second edition. However, if you are going to use one book on the parables, Stories with Intent remains the best, most comprehensive book on the parables of Jesus.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The writer of Hebrews makes an inference from his assertion that Jesus is a High Priest: “Since we have a great high priest….let us approach the throne of grace with confidence” (4:16). The “throne of grace” in this verse is a reference to the presence of God. This may be a synonym for the Mercy Seat, the cover to the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Holy of Holies (Exod 25:17). While the word throne is sometimes used for an ornate chair and the words mercy and grace can both reflect the Hebrew word hesed, there is no other example of the Ark of the Covenant being called the “throne of grace.” Since the point of the passage is that the believer can enter into God’s presence, the analogy of the High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement seems to almost require the reader to understand the Mercy Seat Ark as the “throne of grace.” But like most things in Hebrews, the writer might evoke the Ark of the Covenant or the Day of Atonement, but he has in mind the ultimate presence of God in Heaven, the “real throne of grace.”

Within the world of the metaphor, no Second Temple period Jewish person would even think of entering the Holy of Holies! Only a Jewish priest could enter the Temple, but only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies within the Temple. Even then, the High Priest entered only once a year and only after elaborate preparations. Even then, the High Priest did not approach the Mercy Seat with confidence; he was likely in fear for his life while preforming the functions of his office, knowing that he was as close to the presence of God as he could be in this life.  If he was found unworthy or if he was erred in his job he might be struck dead.

Yet the writer of Hebrews tells his readers that they can enter this most holy place with confidence. In the context of temple worship, this is a remarkable statement since every high priest did his duty on the Day of Atonement with a great deal of fear and trembling! To “enter with confidence” is not disrespect. The believer is not to treat God as a human or flippantly address God. The noun παρρησία (parrasia) can be translated “boldness,” as it is in the early parts of Acts when the Apostles “speak with boldness” about who Jesus was (Acts 2:29, 4:13, 14:19).

In this context confidence refers to the believer’s position in Christ that gives us a kind of “permission to speak freely” to God.  Since we have Jesus as our High Priest, we have a new relationship with God that allows us to be fully open and honest with God (cf. Eph 3:12). For example, in the military a commander might have certain people who are his close advisors. These people have the freedom to speak openly to their superior officer in a way that would not be acceptable coming from a private.

If we are in Christ, we can walk into God’s presence and speak to him what is on our hearts. The best example of this boldness is the prayers of the Psalms. Some Psalms question if God really listens to the prayers, others are boldly claiming promises made. Others frank expressions a depth of anguish and pain that is almost embarrassing. The writers of the Psalms do speak with God with confidence. This confidence and boldness is based on the fact that Jesus is our Great High Priest and he has done something as the High Priest that allows his followers his new access.

What are the implications of the boldness in the context of the original readers? How can we “bridge the gap” to apply this “boldness” to contemporary spirituality?

After proving that Jesus is superior to the angels in Hebrews 1-2, the writer moves to his second argument, that Jesus is superior to Moses.  Why move from angels to Moses? For most modern readers, angels are superior to humans, so if Jesus is superior to angels, he would obviously be superior to Moses. But it is important to read this argument in the context of first century Jewish Christianity.  For Jews living in the Second Temple period, Moses was the most significant person in salvation history. In Sirach (about 200 B.C.), Moses is described as equal to the “holy ones” or even God himself (as the Hebrew text of Sirach can be translated):

Sirach 45:1-2 …and was beloved by God and people, Moses, whose memory is blessed. He made him equal in glory to the holy ones, and made him great, to the terror of his enemies.

In addition, messianic hopes in the first century sometimes focused on the coming of a prophet like Moses. Hope for a “return of Moses” as messiah was so strong that at least one messianic pretender stopped the Jordan in a re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea. Matthew’s gospel is designed to highlight Jesus as a new Moses who goes up on the mountain and gives the people the Law (the Sermon on the Mount).

Charlton-Heston-as-MosesThe writer of Hebrews might be trying to counter an objection to the first two chapters of Hebrews: Jesus might be superior to the angels, but the ultimate servant of God was Moses, who gave the Law. In the context of the first century, then, our author will argue that Jesus is a superior to even Moses as a servant of God.  Ultimately, this will lead to the conclusion that the covenant which Jesus made (the New Covenant) is superior to that of the Old Covenant made by Moses.  In verse two Moses is compared to Jesus, then he is subordinated to Jesus (verse 3) and by verse 5 he is contrasted to Jesus, negatively.

The author of Hebrews makes a “lesser to greater” type of argument. If Moses was faithful in God’s household in the previous age, how is Jesus be superior to him in the present age? First, Jesus is superior because he is the builder of the house.  Here the writer is making the point that Jesus is God, and because God is the designer of the administration that Moses presided over, he is therefore superior to him.

Second, Moses is a servant of the house, but Jesus is the son of the Builder, and therefore heir to the administration himself.  He is of a different class that Moses, beyond servant.  This takes into consideration the first argument of the book, that the angels were servants, but Jesus is the son.  Moses is a servant, but the word here is unique in the New Testament to Moses.  It is not a slave, but an “attendant,” one who “renders devoted service” (BDAG). The LXX uses the word for Moses in Num 12:7 (as well as Exod 4:10 and 14:31). Moses was a servant of the first class, but he is still a servant of Jesus.

How does the author of Hebrews develop this Moses/Jesus typology? Does he intentionally denigrate Moses or the Law when he argues Jesus is superior?

 

 

Image result for Christmas starThe answer to this question has to be “a miracle” since there are a great many variables to say with any sort of certainty that it was any particular stellar event.  It appeared in the east:  if Persia is meant then it is perhaps a two year journey to find Bethlehem.

It is possible that this simply means, as astrologers, they read the signs and determined that the birth of the messiah was near.  “We read his horoscope” sounds far less Christmas-y, but that may be in fact what Matthew meant.

Other things besides stars could be considered as omens and portents.  Comets and meteors were always considered signs, it is possible that one of these appears at the right time and made the Magi think that Messiah had been born.  In addition, the star guides the Magi to the house, this is unlikely to be a comet, meteor, conjunction, etc.

Why would a star be the sign that the Messiah was born?  Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 describes a king who will rise from Israel who will rule over the nations:

Numbers 24:17 (ESV) I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.

While it is difficult to state for certain that this “star” in Numbers was the star in Matthew 2, the connection of a celestial sign with the birth of a great king is a well-known feature of Ancient culture.  If Jesus was the Messiah, his birth would have been accompanied with signs and great men (like the magi) would observe and understand the importance of the birth.

The story of the Magi is filled with images of the “three kings” riding camels in robes and crowns, carrying chests of gold, etc. Typically this event is celebrated on Epiphany, on January 6 the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Of all of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, this one is often thought (at best) to be an invention of Matthew to show parallels between Jesus and Moses, or the “stuff of legends” at the worst.

Image result for We three kingsThe carol “We Three Kings” was written by an Episcopal deacon named John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857 it was not published until 1863. It was originally intended for a Christmas Pageant at General Theological Seminary in New York City. This song is likely the reason every Christmas scene has three kings dressed like Persian royalty (usually one black and one Asian).

More perplexing is “I Saw Three Ships,” a song which dates to the 17th century. There is no way for three ships to come sailing into Bethlehem, so it is usually explained that the Wise Men on Camels are the ships. It is possible, however, that the ships refer to three ships bring the relics of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. According to church tradition dating back to the fourth century the names of the three magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, although this varies in eastern forms of Christianity (Casper becomes Gaspar or Jasper, master of horses, for example).

The arrival of the Wise Men is celebrated by some Christians on January 5 or 6, in association with Epiphany, the day Jesus was revealed. For example, until recently, in Spain children receive their gifts from “Reyes Magos” rather than Santa Claus. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic children put it a box of greenery (representing grass) under their bed on January 5 for the camels of the wise men.

Who were the three Wise Men in Matthew 2? They were not kings, although the song “we three kings” has kept that interpretation alive. The idea that they were kings comes from the fact that they bring gifts (i.e., tribute) to Jesus. Craig Blomberg, for example, says “The gifts used to honor the new king were typically associated with royalty” (Matthew, 65). Magicians and astrologers often were important advisors to kings. If they were not political advisors, they were certainly the educated, scientific class of the ancient world.

A Magus was an astrologer, although not in the modern sense of the word. They did in fact tell fortunes by the stars, but there were more or less the astronomers of the ancient world.  The same word is applied to advisors of king Nebuchadnezzar, in the KJV this is also translated as wise men, although they are court magicians or astrologers. As odd as it seems, having an astrologer in the court who would read the signs and omens in the heavens was common in the Ancient world.

Where are the Wise Men From? We are simply told “from the east,” likely following the spice route from as far away as Persia. The word Magus has a Persian origin, although they may have been from only as far away as Nabatea on the east of the Jordan.

It is likely “from the east” refers to Babylon, and that the magi themselves were Jewish astrologers who had determined that the time for the birth of the messiah was at hand. There was a lively Jewish community in Babylon from the time of the exile, and it is not unlikely that Jewish men were still functioning in local governments.

A potential problem with this identification is that they do not know where the Messiah was to be born, something which Herod’s own wise men knew. It would seem odd that educated Jewish men would not know this somewhat obvious prophecy.

The gospels seemed to have been formed “backwards.” The initial preaching of the apostles was Christ Crucified and Risen. This is clear from Acts 2:23, 32, 3:14, 10:37-41, and 1 Cor 15:3-5. The teaching of Jesus (didache) was added to the “passion” of Jesus (kerygma). The last (canonical) stage of the development was to include a prologue concerning the origins of Jesus – was he simply a man?  Matthew and Luke include miraculous birth stories, John has a theological prologue announcing that Jesus is the Word who was with God from the beginning since he is God.  Notice the development taking mark as the earliest of the Gospels – there is no birth narrative and virtually nothing about his family history. The earlier one goes into the traditions of concerning Jesus, the less about Jesus’ birth we find.

One might extend this another step historically and include the infancy narratives that are created well after the end of the apostolic era. These apocryphal stories are much more fanciful and creative – and far less historically reliable. On the other hand, there are much more theological presentations of Jesus as well in the writings of the church fathers, in these Jesus becomes the Christ of theology.

Why were the infancy narratives written in the first place? Crossan thought the question should not be what Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, but “why they tell us anything at all?”  What would motivate the gospel writer to include an explanation of the birth of Jesus? Raymond Brown suggested three reasons (Birth of the Messiah, 29).

The most simple explaination for the birth narratives is curiosity.  Since Mark did not have many biographical details that people always seem to want to know about, the later gospels were interested in filling-in that gap.

Apologetic. One possible motivation for Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist’s birth along side Jesus’ birth is to show the superiority of Jesus over John, perhaps to answer non-Christian disciples of John (similar to those we meet in Acts 19) There is an apologetic value of the birth narrative when presenting the Gospel to skeptical Jews as well, helping to explain how the Messiah (who as to be born in Judean Bethlehem) ended up to be a native of Galilee. There is also the charge made by early Judaism that Jesus as of illegitimate birth, answer by both evangelists by the explanation of a virgin birth.

There are obvious theological motives as well. The genealogy in Matthew connects Jesus to David, Moses, Joseph, and the other great men in the history of Israel. Like Moses he survives the slaughter of children by a pagan ruler, and like Moses he goes to the mountain to dispense the Law (Matthew 5-7). There is a developing Christology in the four Gospels, Mark tells us that Jesus is already the Son of God at the baptism.  In the next two gospels (Matthew and Luke are chronological about the same time), Jesus is God from the moment of his conception, and in John he is God from the very beginning.  In fact, John tells us Jesus  is equal with God from  eternity since he is the creator (John 1:1).

I would add a fourth motivation for Matthew and Luke including the birth narratives.  More than Mark, these two gospels are interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, beginning with his birth.  Readers familiar with the Old Testament know than God has done a number of miracles to bring special individuals into the world – Isaac and Samuel are examples of children born to elderly or barren parents.  Jesus is the ultimate “miracle child” since he was born from a virgin.

All of this highlights the uniqueness of Jesus at the very beginning of the story.  What might be a few other motives for the writers of the gospels to include the story of Jesus’ birth?  Or to think of it the other way, why did Mark and John omit the brith of Jesus?

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Christian Theology

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