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Matthew 2

May 16, 2011

I don’t know if there is any specific prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures that the visit of the wise men, or “Magi,” is supposed to fulfill. The passage’s account of a star is obviously supposed to be prophetic fulfillment, maybe of Numbers 24:17, though I can’t see how.

Notice that the belief that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is presented as having been very common. This might help explain why Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem became such a common belief in early Christianity. This belief was probably was probably not arrived at by the Christians because of biographical information, but rather in the same way it is here represented as being understood by the chief priests and teachers of the law: derived directly from Micah 5. Micah 5:2-3 says:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
   though you are small among the clans[b] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
   one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
   from ancient times.”

 3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
   until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
   to join the Israelites.

 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
   in the strength of the LORD,
   in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
   will reach to the ends of the earth.

The phrase, not quoted in Matthew, “until she who is in labor bears a son” was likely a strong influence on the interpretation of this passage as being about a savior-figure. The prediction of a ruler coming from Bethlehem might indeed have been about a person’s own life, but I think it was more likely a reference to King David of Bethlehem. Since this passage supposedly antedates the captivity of the nation of Judah, the particular ruler foretold may have been expected to be from the then-ruling family. And even if the passage doesn’t really come from the time period alleged, that still wouldn’t discount the possibility that a king from the pre-captivity years is being referred to.

While I’m discussing Micah 5, I want to consider the great controversy about whether verse 2 said that the “coming forth” (ESV) or “origin” was from eternity or merely “ancient times.” This is thought to be a possible declaration that the ruler to be born is God himself. I think first we need to establish whether the “coming forth” refers to the ruler and not to Israel or Bethlehem. And I certainly wouldn’t consider myself qualified to determine that, since I don’t know the Hebrew language and even the translations differ too much among themselves in this case.

What the star in Matthew 2 is supposed to be, I don’t know. The description of the star in Matthew is less than clear. Remember that anything far away from the earth in the night sky (besides the moon) was called a “star” in those days. Perhaps it looked exactly like a real star and was changing just a few degrees every time the Magi, who are already in Bethlehem, changed direction. Or perhaps it was floating all over the sky and would stop when the Magi were going the right direction.

I can rant about how stupid verse 14 is, but I don’t have anything to discuss about it. If you look up Hosea 11:1, the verse being quoted, I think it will be self-evident to you that nothing is prophesied there about Egypt and God’s son. The “son” is a reference to Israel (cf. Exodus 4:22), and the “calling out” happened in the past. There is no prophecy, and therefore there cannot be a fulfillment. And please, please, please do not give me some nonsense about Hosea 11:1 being a hidden prophecy. If the prediction of the prophecy has already been met, it has already been fulfilled. That’s what the word “fulfilled” means. And Hosea 11:1 was not a prophecy in the first place.

I really cannot believe that such an incredible act of cruelty as the mass killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem would go without an historical reference from Josephus. I’ll leave that up to the Josephus scholars, though. If this wasn’t recorded by him, I don’t know who would have at that time in history. Remember that this wouldn’t have been a widespread event, but instead one confined to “Bethlehem and all its vicinity.”

I don’t know how long Matthew is suggesting Jesus lived in Egypt. Jesus is still referred to as a “young child” (or just “child,” ESV) when he leaves. Obviously, Luke has Jesus in Galilee by the time he is twelve. What’s more, Joseph and Mary’s trip to Jerusalem at the Passover (Luke 2:41) is made to be a regular thing by that time. I suppose this is all very interesting to those who try to date the birth of Jesus according to Matthew’s biography, Luke’s, or those of both. To use this information to date the birth of Jesus, though, the death of Herod and/or the reign of Archelaus would first have to be known.

The part at the end that claims prophets foretold that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene is clearly meant to be based on outside knowledge that the reader should have access to. It is not itself a historical claim; otherwise, there would be no point in Matthew’s claiming fulfillment. Who these prophets could have been, and why this prophecy is considered authoritative, are two questions to which I would very much like to know the answers.

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