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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Matthew 1-7, The Life of Jesus, part 5, by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz


The Appearance

2.2 The Gentiles before the King of the Jews (2:1–12*)
F. Boll, “Der Stern der Weisen,” ZNW 18 (1917/18) 40–48.
Ingo Broer, “Jesusflucht und Kindermord: Exegetische Anmerkungen zum zweiten Kapitel des Matthäusevangeliums,” in Pesch, Theologie, 74–96.
J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Further Light on the Narratives of the Nativity,” NovT 17 (1975) 81–108, esp. 95–105.
Albrecht Dieterich, “Die Weisen aus dem Morgenlande,” ZNW 3 (1902) 1–14.
Konradin Ferrari—d’Ochieppo, Der Stern der Weisen (2d ed.; Vienna: Herold, 1977).
Idem, Der Stern von Betlehem (Stuttgart: Franckh-Kosmos, 1991).
R. T. France, “The Formula Quotations of Matthew 2 and the Problem of Communication,” NTS 27 (1980/81) 233–51.
Paul Gaechter, “Die Magierperikope (Mt 2,1–12),” ZKTh 90 (1968) 257–95.
Martin Hengel and Helmut Merkel, “Die Magier aus dem Osten und die Flucht nach Ägypten (Mt 2) im Rahmen der antiken Religionsgeschichte und der Theologie des Matthäus,” in Paul Hoffmann, ed., Orientierung an Jesus: Zur Theologie der Synoptiker: Für Josef Schmid (Freiburg: Herder, 1973) 139–69.
David Hughes, The Star of Bethlehem Mystery (London: Dent, 1979).
Hugo Kehrer, Die “heiligen drei Könige” in der Legende und in der deutschen bildenden Kunst bis Albrecht Dürer (Studien zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte 53; Strassburg: Heitz, 1904) (cited as Kehrer I).
Idem, Die heiligen drei Könige in Literatur und Kunst (2 vols.; Leipzig: Seemann, 1908–9) (cited as Kehrer II).
Max Küchler, “ ‘Wir haben seinen Stern gesehen …’ (Mt 2,2),” BiKi 44 (1989) 179–86.
H. Leclercq, “Mages,” DACL 10.980–1067.
J. C. Marsh-Edwards, “The Magi in Tradition and Art,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record 85 (1956) 1–9.
Karl Meisen, Die heiligen drei Könige und ihr Festtag im volkstümlichen Glauben und Brauch (Cologne: Göller, 1949).
Bruce M. Metzger, “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament,” in Patrick Granfield and Joseph A. Jungmann, eds., Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quaesten (2 vols.; Münster: Aschendorff, 1970) 1.79–99, esp. 79–85.
H. W. Montefiore, “Josephus and the New Testament,” NovT 4 (1960) 139–60, esp. 140–46.
Eberhard Nestle, “Einiges über Zahl und Namen der Weisen aus dem Morgenland,” in Marginalien und Materialien, Heft 2 (Tübingen: Heckenhauer, 1893) 67–83.
A. D. Nock, “Paul and the Magus,” in F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity, vol. 5 (1922; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) 164–88.
John Nolland, “The Sources for Matthew 2:1–12,” CBQ 60 (1998) 283–300.
Mark Allen Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
Christophe Raimbault, “Une analyse structurelle de l’adoration des Mages en Mt 2,1–12,” EstBib 56 (1998) 221–35.
Utto Riedinger, Die Heilige Schrift im Kampf der griechischen Kirche gegen die Astrologie, von Origenes bis Johannes von Damaskos: Studien zur Dogmengeschichte und zur Geschichte der Astrologie (Innsbruck: Wagner, 1956) 130–46.
Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 1 (trans. Janet Seligman; Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971) 94–114.
Wilhelm A. Schulze, “Zur Geschichte der Auslegung von Mt 2,1–12,” ThZ 31 (1975) 150–60.
August Strobel, “Weltenjahr, grosse Konjunktion und Messiasstern: Ein themageschichtlicher Überblick,” ANRW 20/2 (1987) 988–1187.
Peter Stuhlmacher, “Epiphanias: Matthäus 2,1–2,” Göttinger Predigtmeditationen 27 (1972) 63–70.
Richard C. Trexler, The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Anton Vögtle, “Das Schicksal des Messiaskindes,” BibLeb 6 (1965) 246–79.
Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann, Das Weihnachtsfest: Eine Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit (Lucerne: Bucher, 1978) 192–201.
Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Episode of the Magi,” in Jerry Vardaman and Edwin M. Yamauchi, eds., Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1989) 15–39.
Lorenzo Zani, Abbiamo visto la sua stella (Padua: Antoniana, 1973).

For additional literature see above, I A on 1:2–2:23.

2:1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the East came to Jerusalem 2/ and said: “Where is the king of the Jews who was born? For we have seen his star at its rising and came to pay homage to him.” 3/ When King Herod heard that, he became dismayed and all Jerusalem with him. 4/ And he gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people and inquired of them where the Messiah is to be born. 5/ They said to him: “In Bethlehem in Judea, for thus it is written through the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the princes of Judah.
For out of you will come a leader
Who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod summoned the magi secretly and inquired from them when exactly the star appeared, 8/ sent them to Bethlehem and said: “Go and question carefully about the child, and when you have found him report to me so that I too can come and pay homage to him.” 9/ After they had heard that from the king, they went away, and behold, the star that they had seen at its rising went before them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. 10/ When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly. 11/ And when they came into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. And they fell down, paid homage to him, and opened their treasure chests and brought him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12/ And because they received divine instructions in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their country a different way.
This section is bracketed with the following section (2:13–23*) by means of numerous common catchwords.2 Without 2:1–12*, 2:13–23* would not be understandable. That is true for all of 2:13–23* and not merely for the episode of the murder of the children in vv. 16–18*. The connection with 1:18–25* is not as close. The two sections are connected primarily by the dream motif.3 The transitional verse 2:1* has to bridge a “gap” in the narrative—the missing birth story. It abruptly introduced the place name Bethlehem.
After the introductory question of the magi (vv. 1–2*), the narrative divides into two main parts—the meeting with the false king of the Jews, Herod, and that with the genuine royal child in Bethlehem (vv. 9b–12*). The two parts are similarly structured and mirror each other antithetically. The reference to the star in v. 2* corresponds to its reappearance in v. 9*. The dismay of Herod and his people in v. 3* corresponds to the great joy of the magi in v. 10*. Corresponding to Herod’s evil plan in vv. 7–9a* is its frustration by God in v. 12*.4 In addition, the narrator parallels the two direct discourses in vv. 2* and 8*. Both begin with the question about the new king and end with the desire to pay homage (προσκυνέω) to him. The two subsections correspond to the “conflicting narrative agendas” that will characterize vv. 13–23*. On the one side is Herod’s strategy in Jerusalem, on the other side God’s strategy. Sections in which Herod acts and those in which God acts alternate, much like the Gospel’s conclusion in 27:62–28:20*.6 Of course, the evil King Herod and the royal child Jesus, who cannot yet act on his own, are unequal opponents: on the side of the good is God, the secret sovereign actor; the people through whom he acts are the magi in 2:1–12* and Joseph in 2:13–23*.
The entire narrative is very compact; I am not able to find anything in the way of tensions and contradictions that have led to its source-critical deconstruction.
This pericope has also been strongly shaped by Matthew. There is little non-Matthean language.9 Unless one is of the opinion that Matthew has simply invented the pericope, one must assume that he is here the first to write a traditional piece that had been transmitted to him orally.
Theoretically, the fulfillment quotation (vv. 5–6*) could be left out of the pericope; that it was discovered by Matthew is, because of its wording, improbable. Only the introductory language is Matthean.11 It does not include the “fulfill” (πληρόω) that is characteristic of the fulfillment quotations. Obviously Matthew did not want to put the fulfillment formula into the mouths of the hostile chief priests and scribes. The wording of the quotation differs from all known forms of the text of Mic 5:1*. It is a mixed quotation; the final clause comes almost word for word from 2 Sam 5:2* LXX (perhaps inserted because of its similarity to Mic 5:3*). It may come from Matthew because of its similarity to the LXX and because it contains the idea of the people of God that is so important for Matthew. The “land of Judah,” which corresponds to Matthean (but also to biblical) style, may also come from Matthew. All of the remaining peculiarities of the quotation hardly come from him, because they have nothing to do with the story of the magi.13 Thus it may well have been transmitted apart from the story.
Tradition History
When a tradition is put in writing for the first time by the evangelist, the chances of saying anything certain about the history of the tradition are from the outset not great. That is also true for this pericope. We can hardly reconstruct an original form of the tradition that is plausible. There are no breaks in it; it is poured in one casting, and it also contains no tensions with the preceding and following stories. In my judgment it is also not possible to go back to an original, independent story of the magi that has not already been told in the context of the persecution and rescue of the child Jesus (2:13–23*).
Admittedly, that contradicts the theses usually advocated by scholars. One assumes either that the Herod motif that led to the superfluous visit of the magi to Jerusalem was added to an original story of the magi or that a story about Herod on which chap. 2 was originally based was secondarily enlarged by the magi motif. Or were two originally independent narratives connected either prior to Matthew or by Matthew? In my judgment such theses are not convincing. A Herod story without the magi would hang completely in the air; we would not know where Herod got his information about the royal child. Conversely, the story about the magi is built on the Herod episode: that the magi are Gentiles requires some sort of confrontation with Israel. Furthermore, in numerous parallels about the endangering of a royal child, magicians or astrologers play a role, so that the appearance of magi is not a foreign element. The source-critical and tradition-history deconstruction attempts to “solve” problems that, in my judgment, simply do not exist in the present complete and concise narrative.19
Motifs and History-of-Religions Analogies
Of the related stories of the royal child, the Moses haggadah is the closest to this story and to 2:13–23*: astrologists (Tg. Yer. on Exod 1:15; m. Soṭah 12; Exod. Rab. 1.18 on Exod 1:22) or scribes (Josephus Ant. 2.205) predict the birth of Moses to Pharaoh. He then is frightened (Josephus Ant. 2.206) and plans the murder of the infants. The Moses traditions have enriched our story. At the same time, however, our story shows itself to be so independent of them—especially when the magi in Matthew 2 are on God’s side—that it in no way can be understood as simply an imitation of the Moses haggadah.
That does not explain the star motif. In Hellenistic sources there are reports of a comet at the birth of Mithridates and in the Nero episode in Suetonius. There are also reports of comets or other light phenomena at the birth of gods.22 On coins of Alexander, of the Diadochi, of Caesar, of Augustus, but also of Alexander Jannaeus and of Herod a star appears as the symbol of the king. Furthermore, the idea is widespread that every person has a star—important and wealthy people a bright star, the others a dim one—that comes into existence at birth and is extinguished at death.24 This idea is the basis of the popular astrology of that day. In the Jewish tradition a star appears in the story of Abraham’s child who is persecuted by Nimrod. The sources are admittedly late. Rev 12:1* mentions a “great sign in the heaven.”
More difficult is the question whether we are to think of Balaam’s prophecy of the star out of Jacob (Num 24:17*). The messianic interpretation of this passage was widespread.26 In the story of Balaam a Gentile prophet also thwarts the plans of an evil king by announcing that God is with Israel (Num 23:21*) and that a ruler will arise in Israel. In later traditions Balaam is described as a magician.27 The history of interpretation shows that Christian readers thought of Balaam. On the other hand, the star is not identified with the Messiah, contrary to the history of interpretation of Num 24:17*. Literal reminiscences of the Balaam story of Numbers 22–24 are relatively scarce in Matt 2:1–12*.29 While there are parallels between the magicians who appear in the Moses haggadah and Balaam in the Jewish tradition, the sources are very late. In sum, the text makes it relatively easy for its readers to draw on the story of Balaam as an intertext, but whether that was the author’s intention must remain an open question.31
There have been, especially in the older literature, frequent references to the episode of the Armenian king, Tiridates, who, himself a magician, traveled to Rome attended by magicians and with great pomp in order to pay homage to Nero. One can hardly prove that this cunning political maneuver, which Tiridates and Nero staged in 66 C.E. as a public relations event for their mutual benefit, lay behind the creation of our pericope. It is possible that this journey was also motivated by an unusual heavenly phenomenon. The journey of the magi to Bethlehem to pay homage—not to a sitting ruler but to a child—would be a subversive counterstory to Tiridates’ journey. It is probable, however, that many of the first readers remembered this episode. Indeed, that was the purpose of the land journey from Armenia to Naples made by Tiridates and his retinue of several thousand persons—a journey for which Nero paid.
Our story is a briefly and simply told legend that is not interested in the laws of historical probability. That can be seen in the desperate questions of the interpreters: Why did Herod at least not send a spy with the magi? How could all the people of Jerusalem and the scribes along with the unpopular King Herod be frightened about the coming of the Messiah? Even the star is not portrayed realistically, that is, plausibly.
In the abundant astronomical literature on our text three possible explanations predominate. (1) A supernova, for which, however, there is no evidence from that time. (2) A comet, but the frequently mentioned so-called Halley’s comet of the year 12/11 B.C.E. came too early for Jesus’ birth. A more serious possibility is a comet (or a nova?) witnessed by Chinese astronomers in the year 5/4 B.C.E. (3) The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction that appeared three times in the year 7/6 B.C.E. It was conspicuous and was predicted by Babylonian astronomers. This event would not be a bad fit, since Jupiter is the royal star and Saturn as the star of the Sabbath was sometimes regarded as the star of the Jews.39
What all of these attempts have in common is that they are of little help in explaining our story. Matthew wanted to portray a miraculous star that appeared in the East, went before the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (thus from north to south), and then stopped over the house where the child was to be found. Philologically, ἀστήρ means a single star, not a group of stars (= ἄστρον). With the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7/6 B.C.E. the two planets were never so close that one could have seen them as one star. Of course, all of this does not exclude the possibility that the memory of some unusual astronomical appearance around the time of Jesus could have remained alive in the churches.
Finally, that Luke does not know anything similar to our story speaks against a historical core; indeed, there would be no place for the episode of the magi in the Lukan birth narrative. Even Jesus’ parents appear to know nothing about the miraculous events at his birth (Mark 3:31–35*). In short, a historical core is no longer available. On the other hand, the numerous parallel traditions in the history of religions make the details of the story more understandable. To sum up, in my judgment this story contains no historical core.44
However, the narrative doubtless gives information about the Christian community in which it was created. It is a community familiar with Jewish but also with Hellenistic traditions. Like the majority of the people of that time as well as many Jews, it is relatively open to astrology. In its situation it can see Judaism only as an enemy. Unlike Luke, it lets Jesus be provided with gold and spices while he is still in the cradle. In its purview there are Gentile magicians, and, as 2:22* in particular shows, it has available to it a certain historical literacy. Perhaps it is an urban community in an area that is not completely Jewish?

Once again interpreters are faced with the problem of how they should deal with a story whose historicity is improbable. Since one of its primary concerns is to proclaim God’s providential guidance, the problem becomes even greater. A guidance that exists only in a story is close to an illusion. Where then is the act of God of which the story wants to speak? We should not resort to easy answers here. For the church the presupposition for this story was God’s turning to the Gentiles, the experience of (its own?) preservation from the blows of (Jewish?) enemies, the knowledge of Jesus’ victory over worldly power, hence the faith in the power of the risen Lord Jesus. Thus our interpretation must pay attention to that to which this “story” wants to testify; the proclaimers who use it are asked about their own experiences that correspond to this witness.
History of Interpretation

The history of interpretation shows that one can distinguish among five basic dimensions of meaning that have unraveled the witness of the text: (a) christological and soteriological interpretations in different varieties, (b) a salvation-history interpretation looking toward the coming church drawn from the Gentile nations, (c) interpretations focusing on the piety of the individual or the church in which the readers identify with the magi, (d) political interpretations, and (e) the reference to God’s guidance that does not let the child Jesus come to ruin. As a rule these various dimensions of meaning supplemented one another reciprocally. I cite several examples, not in chronological but in systematic arrangement.
a. The christological interpretation. An ancient interpretation understands the coming of Christ as the dissolution of all magic. Justin (Dial. 78.9) claims that the magi have renounced the evil demon of magic and have converted to Christ. For Clement of Alexandria a “new star” has arisen with Christ—a star that has dissolved the old astral order, inaugurated new saving ways with new, supernatural light, and led people from Heimarmenē (Destiny) to God’s care. According to Tertullian (Idol. 9) the coming of Christ means the end of astrology, because “since Christ’s birth no one should thenceforward interpret any one’s nativity by the heaven.” He interprets the magi’s gifts as self-obligation and their return home by a different way as conversion. Thus the coming of Christ means a new “light of knowledge.”49 With the homage of the magi the world’s wisdom is reoriented.
Figure 1: The Epiphany. Mosaic. Early Christian, fifth century. S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy.
Photo credit: Nimatallah / Art Resource, NY

Connected with this idea is a new christological perspective. The proskynēsis, which of course is worship, is directed to the Son of God. That is seen especially in the interpretation of the gifts. Since Irenaeus (Haer. 3.9.2) and Origen (Cels. 1.60) the myrrh has been understood as a reference to Jesus’ death (cf. Mark 15:23*; John 19:39*). Jesus receives gold as a king, frankincense as God, and myrrh as a human being.51 Sometimes the frankincense is also related to Jesus’ dignity as high priest. These interpretations of the gifts illustrate how the ancient church read individual passages of the Bible in the light of the church’s faith. The allegorical interpretation is of the greatest hermeneutical significance. It makes possible what we today call a “personal understanding” of the biblical texts—namely, their connection with one’s own faith or, perhaps, the church’s doctrine.
Figure 2: Detail from the Procession of the Virgins (photo credit: Cameraphoto Arte, Venice / Art Resource, NY) and The Three Kings (Wise Men) (photo credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY). Mosaic. Bzyantine, sixth century. S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

The christological perspective is also clear in many artistic depictions of the magi. I cite as an example the mosaic on the triumphal arch of the church Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (fig. 1) that originated shortly after the council of Ephesus (431). As a small adult, Christ sits on a magnificent throne decorated with a blue pillow; the throne suggests his world dominion. In his nimbus he wears a small cross; above him shines the star of Jacob with eight rays. Four angels stand in the background guarding the throne. To the right stands the Mother of God, Mary, to the left an allegorical female figure who is interpreted as Sibyl and thus as the church of the Gentiles. The magi wear Persian clothes (with tights, a belted tunic, and Phrygian caps). Christ’s gesture of speech “is a symbol of Christ’s self-revelation and an imperial gesture.” The Christ child is the “small enthroned Logos.”55 The entire style is borrowed from the imperial iconography of late antiquity.
b. The salvation-history interpretation focused on the Gentile mission sees in the magi the Gentile firstlings (primitiae gentium) and has our text renew a concern of the genealogy. Since Bede the three magi represent the three continents Asia, Africa, and Europe, and at the same time the three sons of Noah. Thus since the twelfth century one of the magi was occasionally depicted as a black man.58 The interpretation of the magi in terms of the Gentiles is often combined with an anti-Jewish accent. As early as Origen, Herod is “a symbol of the disobedient nation.” John Chrysostom contrasts the magi with the disobedient Jews who “did not even believe their own prophets,” and he calls on his hearers, like the magi, to leave “the Jewish nation, the city full of confusion.”60 For Hilary the divine command to the magi not to return home by way of Jerusalem means that we “are not allowed to aspire to the learning and knowledge of Judea.”61
Figure 2 (continuation): Madonna Enthroned with Four Angels. Detail from early Christian mosaic. sixth century. S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.
Photo credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY

c. In various ways the magi are suitable as figures with whom the Christian readers can identify. For John Chrysostom they are examples of people who have experienced an “inner enlightenment.” Their return to their homes by a different route shows a faith “that does not ask for reasons for what a person has been given to do.” In particular, vv. 11–12* lead the believers to identify with the magi: the magi, who bring gifts to Christ and after meeting the child Jesus return home a different way, become examples for people who come to faith, who in so doing assume obligations and who later do not return to their “former sect.”63 If one interprets v. 11* parenetically, it summons the believers to generous giving.64 In late medieval piety the magi are models for a deep love of Jesus. According to Pseudo-Bonaventure, they bowed before him “with veneration and devotion and kissed his feet.” They are examples for the kings and the great of this world who become humble. The parenetic interpretation surfaces then again at another place: Mary, who loved poverty, did not know what to do with the gifts of the three kings and gave them to the poor. In the Reformation’s interpretation the magi represent the Protestant solum verbum. Luther’s homiletic result is: “The main point: Do away with Jerusalem, the church, the authority of the prince, but adhere to the word alone.” For the Opus Imperfectum their gold, frankincense, and myrrh are rational faith, pure reason, and good works; for Euthymius Zigabenus they are pure works, prayer, and destruction of the passions; for Gregory the Great they are wisdom, prayer, and mortification of the flesh; for Luther they are the creed or faith, love, and hope (“every Christian can bring these gifts, the poor man no less than the rich man”); for Grotius they are mercy, prayers, and purity; for Bengel they are a believing heart, devout prayer, and mortification of the flesh.67
Figure 3: Rogier (Roger) van der Weyden (ca. 1399–1464). Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi, central part. Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Photo credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY

One can trace the identification with the magi especially well in the artistic depictions. In the mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (fig. 2) from the time of Justinian, the magi, again dressed in Persian clothes, lead a long heavenly procession of virgins who stride across a meadow in paradise bearing their wreaths. They bring their gifts before Mary’s splendid throne with star-spangled cushions. Unlike the mosaic of Santa Maria Maggiore, Jesus here sits on the lap of Mary, the Mother of God. It is she who is the central figure, and she is flanked left and right by angels.
Some thousand years later the Columba altar of Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1500; fig. 3) shows a completely different way for the believers to identify with the three kings. Now the worship takes place on earth rather than in heaven, and it takes place not in a house as in Matt 2:11* but, in agreement with Luke 2, in the stable of Bethlehem, in poverty and lowliness. The three kings wear contemporary clothes of respectable, late medieval citizens. The emphasis is no longer on their gifts; it is on their devotion to the newborn infant Christ on Mary’s lap. Mary is no longer the queen of heaven; now she is a mother. Once again the three wise men are leading a procession; this time it is not a procession of virgins as in San Apollinare but of people of that day who are following them to the baby in the stable. Through the walls of the run-down stable one sees not paradise but a late medieval city. A crucifix hangs on the middle pillar of the stable: the child born in extreme poverty and lowliness will die on the cross. The heavenly star, symbol of divine glory, is only partly visible.
d. Political dimensions of Matt 2:1–12*. The contrast between the evil King Herod and the royal child Jesus whose dominion is of a completely different kind has also led to political readings of the story. In the fourth century sometimes the worship of the magi is compared with the three men in the fiery furnace of Daniel 3. Here the issue is resistance against the evil ruler of the world, Nebuchadnezzar, or the pagan emperor; there it is turning to Christ, the completely different, true ruler of the world.
The perspective is different in the time of Christian emperors. Now the Christian emperors are among those who worship the newborn king and receive dominion from him. Related here are the depictions of an obeisance ceremony from subjected kings: the gift of the first magi is the aurum coronarium, the golden crown, symbol of the authority that a subjected king lays at the feet of the new king. Numerous sources indicate that something similar also happened in Christian rites: the Christian ruler lays his authority at the feet of Christ, the king of the world, and then receives it back from him.72 The idea that the magi were kings, first put forward by Caesarius of Arles, probably belongs in this historical context.74
Since the Middle Ages there have been popular customs whose central element is that ordinary people—commoners, the poor, children—temporarily assumed the role of “kings.” Here too a political dimension is clear, the dimension of the “pretended” and ritualized protest.
The reformers polemicized against identifying the magi with kings, and Catholic exegetes soon took over this Protestant skepticism.77 Admittedly one can see here what little influence exegesis had on popular piety. Still today Epiphany or Twelfth-Night is a “Festival of the Three Kings” (Dreikönigsfest). And that in the modern period “Christian” kings are less and less identified with the “royal” role of the magi has little to do with the Reformation but much to do with the modern understanding of the absolute monarchy.
e. In all periods our story has been understood as a witness to God’s guidance. That is a correct literal understanding of its testimony. It is not the Christ child as much as the magi who were led by God. God has been at work in their hearts. Influenced by this idea in particular are the legends80 and the Three Kings plays that elaborate the biblical story and make it possible for people to experience it.

Our interpretation will now have to ask how these many dimensions of meaning discovered in the course of history correspond to the potential meaning of the original text itself.
■ 1* Verse 1* states the situation and connects the pericope with 1:18–25*. Matthew must state that Bethlehem lies in Judea not only because in the OT there is also a Bethlehem in Zebulun81 but also because the deliberately repeated expression (v. 5*; cf. “land of Judah” in v. 6*) suggests one of Matthew’s themes: Jesus, the messianic king from David’s family (1:1*, 6*) comes from the city of David, Bethlehem in Judea. That Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Messiah—an idea already derived in Judaism from the scriptures—is so definite for Matthew that Jesus’ move to Nazareth requires special scriptural proof (2:22–23*). Herod does not need to be expressly mentioned; he was in that day still such a famous figure immortalized in buildings at many locations that the readers know about him.82 The action begins with a brief statement: magi appear. From the beginning the stage is Jerusalem. Matthew is not interested in the journey of the magi; his interest is in the confrontation with Herod. Only a single bit of information is given about the magi: they come from “the East”—a place not further defined—the origin of magic, astrology, and religious wisdom. The readers know that magi are Gentiles; the evangelist underscores this by having them ask in v. 2* about the birthplace not of the king of Israel but of the “king of the Jews.”83
Μάγος initially means a member of the Persian priestly class, but the meaning expands, and beginning with the Hellenistic period it also includes other representatives of Eastern theology, philosophy, and natural science. The boundary between magicians, astrologists, and theurgists becomes fluid. According to ancient traditions magicians also predict major events. Beginning with Sophocles and Euripides, μάγος is also used in a negative sense: magicians/ magi are sorcerers and charlatans. In the Hellenistic age, however, magi are more likely to be regarded positively, understandably so in view of the esteem that Eastern wisdom enjoyed in that day. Judaism, which under the influence of the OT was allergic to any form of sorcery, has a generally negative view, but it is not completely able to resist the influence either of astrology or of the Hellenistic high regard of magi.86 Christianity takes over the Jewish negative view. We may therefore assume that Matthew’s readers also come to the text with a negative attitude toward “magicians.”88 The surprise that the story brings for them is then all the greater. Socially their prestige is high; one meets them often at royal courts. Their prestige corresponds to the gifts they bring to the infant Jesus.
■ 2* In our text the magi are not described negatively. The story will show what the readers are to think of them. Initially they are probably ambivalent. In the context of Matthew 1–2 they suspect that the magi are looking for the child Jesus in order to pay homage to him but that they are doing it at the wrong place. Because of the star we cannot completely exclude the possibility that there were associations with astrology, but Matthew if anything represses them by refusing even to intimate how the magi recognized what the star meant. God’s guidance alone is decisive.
A great deal of ink has flowed about the star. The formulation “his star” (αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα) suggests that Matthew is thinking of the popular idea that every person has his or her own star or that he is thinking of the king’s star. However, this star is a miraculous star that shows the magi the way and goes before them to Bethlehem.
■ 3–4* Now the adversaries of the messianic child make their appearance, Herod and “all Jerusalem with him.” Their reaction is dismay,92 proof that they have understood how serious the situation is. Herod and all the people of Jerusalem are together part of the Jewish front that rejects the new royal child. Everyone who was at all familiar with the historical situation must have been surprised by the Matthean sketch: apart from the members of the ruling class who were supporters of the king, Herod was so unpopular with the people of Jerusalem that news of the birth of a royal child—or especially a messianic child—would have caused great rejoicing. However, Matthew is not concerned about such things. For him Jerusalem is the city of Jesus’ murder; at the end of his Gospel the people will say: “His blood come on us and on our children” (27:25*). The “king of the Jews” about whom Herod and the people are so dismayed is not mentioned again until the passion narrative (27:11*, 29*, 37*; cf. 27:42*). Thus Matthew gives a “signal” about what is going to happen in the passion narrative. Verse 4* corroborates this: Herod gathers93 the members of the high priestly clan and the scribes, who are emphasized as the scribes of the people (of God).95 The readers who do not yet have the totally negative image of the scribes that will emerge at the end of the Gospel will be surprised again by Herod’s nice harmony with all the scribes, but it is an even clearer indication of the narrator’s intention. Herod asks where the Χριστός is to be born. The title reveals that Herod fears not merely a rival but Israel’s Messiah.
■ 5–6* The scribes respond to the king’s question with Mic 5:1*. Matthew, who here in the mouth of the scribes avoids his fulfillment formula, does not see in the quotation primarily an “OT basis of the historically-biographically fixable beginning of Jesus’ life.”97 Instead, as the double “Judah” and the added piece from 2 Sam 5:2* with the catchword “people” (λαός) show, his concern is to show the birthplace of Israel’s Messiah predicted by God and thus the starting point of Jesus’ salvation-historical journey. Admittedly, in the context this assumes an anti-Jewish sharpness: although the scribes of the people of God recognize that they are talking about the hoped for messianic shepherd of God’s people Israel, instead of acting on that knowledge they become Herod’s accomplices.
■ 7–8* Now the evil Herod in turn makes inquiries of the magi. The readers will not attribute to him any good intentions. When they come to the similarly formulated v. 16* in their reading, they will see clearly Herod’s abysmal brutality; they will now have the impression that Herod had been planning the murder of the children from the very beginning. Verse 8* serves the same purpose; the readers are to see Herod as a hypocrite. At the same time, the foundation is laid for v. 12*. Herod is trying to draw the magi into his plans. However, his evil intention will be destroyed by God’s intervention.
■ 9–10* The magi travel at night, not because that was the custom in the Near East but because that gives the narrator another chance to speak of the star. As in related reports,99 the readers are to sense God’s guidance that is at work in the entire event and to share the overwhelming joy the magi feel.
■ 11* Verse 11* is the high point of the legend. In the house100 the magi find the child and his mother. The formulation, which is reminiscent of 2:13–14*, 19*, 21*, and Joseph’s absence suggest the special position of the virgin Mary in the sense of 1:18–25*. With vv. 2* and 8* this makes the third appearance of the catchword “pay homage/worship” (προσκυνέω).
What is meant is veneration in the form of falling on one’s face that according to Greek understanding is due to gods, and according to Near Eastern understanding is also befitting superior persons, especially kings. Although by NT times the word already can be used in a refined manner,102 Matthew has a conscious and pointed usage. Proskynesis is directed almost exclusively to Jesus, and it is done by supplicants (8:2*; 9:18*; 15:25*; cf. 20:20*) and disciples (14:33* in connection with the Son of God confession), especially to the exalted one (28:9*, 17*). In 28:17* προσκυνέω designates the appropriate attitude toward the risen Lord in contrast to doubt.
The proskynesis of the magi directs the readers’ attention to the majesty of Christ, the son of David (1:1*), the Son of God (cf. 1:21*; 2:15*), and the Immanuel Jesus. It makes the Gentile magi appealing to the readers who to this point may have been reserved. Indeed, proskynesis is their own attitude toward the Lord Christ.
The magi open their treasure chests and offer the child their gifts. The formulation is reminiscent of Isa 60:6* and in a secondary sense of Cant 3:6*.103 Isaiah 60 speaks of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles and their kings to Zion. Does Matthew see in the homage of the magi a symbolic fulfillment of this well-known prediction? That is not certain, since the OT reminiscence is by no means unambiguous and no reference is made to the context of Isa 60:6*. What the gifts themselves mean is not certain. Frankincense, the resin of the (frank)incense trees that grow in southeast Arabia,105 India, and Somalia, and myrrh, the resin of the myrrh trees that also grow in Arabia and Ethiopia, were used primarily in the cult but also for magical practices, at wedding ceremonies, for cosmetic purposes, and as seasoning or medication. Both were regarded as very expensive (imported) luxury items. Along with gold, the most likely meaning is that the magi bring the child the most costly gifts possible.
■ 12* After the high point in v. 11* our story ends abruptly. The narrator again uses the medium of a dream to show God’s leading; Herod’s evil plan is thwarted. That only Joseph is considered worthy of the appearance of an angel (1:20*; 2:13*, 19*) may be mentioned as a subtle nuance. The magi return to their home country; the narrator has no interest in what happens to them further.

Let us look back at the five earlier sketched dimensions of the text that it has gained in the history of its reception. What is supported by an appeal to the text?
a. The christological theme is only intimated in this story. One might say that it is mirrored in people’s reaction to Immanuel—in the murderous rejection of the Christ by the murderous Jewish king, Herod, and in the proskynesis of the Gentile magi that anticipates the worship of the disciples. However, in the macrotext, where our episode immediately follows the basic christological text 1:18–25*, the christological theme is important: God is with Jesus and those who surround him.
b. For Matthew, the worship of Jesus by the Gentiles and his rejection by the people of Jerusalem are in the foreground. Here he takes up an idea already suggested in 1:1* and in the genealogy and preludes a basic theme of his Gospel: the flow of the Gentiles to Israel’s Messiah and his rejection by Jerusalem that comes to a climax in the passion narrative.107 The text does not say that the magi are “the intellectual elite of the Gentile world,” but many of its contemporary readers in Syria and Asia Minor will have thought that.
c. The magi were probably not initially figures with whom the first Jewish Christian readers of the Gospel of Matthew identified. However, they became such through the story told about the magi, especially through their proskynesis. For later Gentile Christian readers they were presumably such from the very beginning. The decisive point here is not that they turn from their godless astrology to Christ. The Matthean story does not contain the potential meaning of a conversion story. Nor are the gifts they bring decisive. Rather, the decisive point for the readers’ identification with the magi is their worship of the Christ child (v. 11*).
d. At most, the story has a political dimension of meaning only incidentally. That the small child who soon will have to flee from Bethlehem is an anti-king to the brutal and violent Herod does not become clear until vv. 16–18*. The entire Gospel of Matthew will also make this idea clearer: Jesus is the nonviolent king of peace.109 Only the idea that the Christ child legitimates existing secular rule is foreign to the text.
e. Finally, the idea of God’s guidance and plan is important for the traditional story of the preservation of the royal child Jesus as well as for Matthew.
Thus the Matthean text already contains a number of different dominant or subliminal potential meanings. They show that the history of interpretation in large part can be understood as developing this potential. It becomes clear that biblical texts, especially narrative texts, can in no way be reduced to a single meaning and that there is probably no such thing as the “right” interpretation of this text.
History of Interpretation

In conclusion, I will call attention to several features of the magi legend that also strongly influence our modern image of the “three kings.”
From early on there have been two opposing views about the origin of the magi. For Justin it is self-evident that they come from Arabia, obviously based on Ps 72:10* and Isa 60:6*.110 However, their origin from Persia with corresponding Persian dress came to dominate, especially in artistic portrayals. Mesopotamia and Ethiopia are less frequently represented as their home.
The number of magi long remained an open question. While the number three soon came to be accepted in the Western church, in the Syrian church one often assumed that there were twelve magi who traveled to Jerusalem with a large retinue.114
The time of their visit to the child Jesus is also established. While in earlier times based on Matt 2:16* people often thought of a time two years after the birth,115 under Augustine’s influence in particular the thirteenth day after the birth came to be accepted. Thus the festival of Epiphany, which at first in the West had lost its character as a Christmas festival in favor of December 25, became the festival of the three kings.
For a long time the names of the magi were not established, either in Syria or in the West. The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar first appear in the sixth century. Their appearance is described: Caspar is a beardless young man, Melchior a bearded old man,118 and Balthasar is dark, later black.120 Also reported are the return journey of the magi by ship, their later conversion by the apostle Thomas,122 and their death.
The three kings played a considerable role in popular piety and custom.
Since the late Middle Ages, more precisely, since 1164, in the German-speaking area the cult of the relics of the magi became important. After the capture of Milan, Friedrich Barbarossa had moved the relics of the magi to Cologne. This symbolic act,124 which was probably originally politically motivated, had a strong effect on the history of piety in Germany, and it makes understandable the reformers’ sharp polemic against devotion to the three kings. Since the Middle Ages the magi took on the most diverse protective functions. As kings they prevented misfortune and protected stable, house, and harvest from fire and bad weather. As magi they helped tame fractious animals and prevented illness, especially epilepsy. With a “democratization” of the kings the medieval Three Kings plays evolved into the familiar Three Kings chamber plays connected with the practice of going from house to house in hopes of receiving food or money: boys played the role of the three kings in the homes of peasants. The custom of star singing also developed from the Three Kings plays connected with elements of Advent singing.126 Unlike the Christmas celebration of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the Three Kings festival never became a central family celebration in northern Europe. All of that has little to do with the biblical text.
2.3 Flight to Egypt and Move to Nazareth (2:13–23*)
William Foxwell Albright, “The Names ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Nazoraean,’ ” JBL 65 (1946) 397–401.
R. T. France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem,” NovT 21 (1979) 98–120.
Bertil E. Gärtner, Die rätselhaften Termini Nazoräer und Iskariot (Horae Soederblomianae 4; Uppsala: Gleerup, 1957) 5–36.
Michael Knowles, Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel: The Rejected Prophet Motif in Matthaean Redaction (JSNTSup 68; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993) 33–52.
Lindars, Apologetic, 194–99.
Stanislas Lyonnet, “ ‘Quoniam Nazaraeus vocabitur’ (Mt 2.23): L’interprétation de S. Jérôme,” Bib 25 (1944) 196–206.
A. Medebielle, “ ‘Quoniam Nazaraeus vocabitur’ (Mt 2.23),” in Adalbertus Metzinger, ed., Miscellanea Biblica et Orientalia: Athanasio Miller completes LXX annis oblata (Studia Ansselmiana 27–28; Rome: Herder, 1951) 301–26.
Martinus J. J. Menken, “The References to Jeremiah in the Gospel according to Matthew,” EThL 60 (1984) 5–25.
George F. Moore, “Appendix B: Nazarene and Nazareth,” in F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsop Lake, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity, Part I: The Acts of the Apostles (5 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1920–33) 1.426–32.
Jean G. Rembry, “ ‘Quoniam Nazaraeus vocabitur’ (Mt 2.23),” SBFLA 12 (1961/62) 46–65.
Hans Heinrich Schaeder, “Ναζαρηνός, Ναζωραῖος,” TDNT 4 (1967) 874–79.
Eduard Schweizer, “Er wird Nazoräer heissen,” in Neotestamentica (Zurich: Zwingli, 1963) 51–55.
George M. Soares-Prabhu, “Jesus in Egypt: A Reflection on Matt 2:13–15, 19–21 in the Light of the Old Testament,” EstBib 50 (1992) 225–49.
Eugenio Zolli, “Nazarenus vocabitur,” ZNW 49 (1958) 135–36.
Ernst Zuckschwerdt, “Nazoraios in Matth 2,23,” ThZ 31 (1975) 65–77.

For additional literature see above, I A on 1:2–2:23.

13 But when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and speaks: “Arise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you; for Herod intends to seek the child in order to destroy it.” 14/ So he arose, took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15/ and stayed there until Herod’s death in order that what was said by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled:
“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 Then when Herod saw that he had been deceived by the magi, he became very angry, and he sent and had destroyed all the boy children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding area who were two years old or younger, according to the time that he had strictly inquired from the magi. 17/ Then was fulfilled what was said through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lamentation.
Rachel weeps for her children
and would not be comforted
because they are not (any longer).”
19 When Herod had died, behold, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph 20/ and speaks: “Arise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21/ So he arose, took the child and his mother, and entered the land of Israel. 22/ But when he heard that Archelaus was king of Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there; since he had been instructed in a dream, he departed into the area of Galilee. 23/ He came and settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was said through the prophets might be fulfilled:
“He will be called a Nazarene.”
Structure and Form
This text is connected by numerous catchwords to both 1:18–25* and 2:1–12*.1 It has three subsections (vv. 13–15*, 16–18*, and 19–23*) that exhibit a certain symmetry by ending in fulfillment quotations.2 The first and third sections have parallel wording (v. 13a*, b*//vv. 19*, 20a*; v. 14*//v. 21*). In the two sections the angel’s command and the description of its execution by Joseph are almost identical. The elements of the narrative that are different stand out all the more. Verses 13c*, 14* (“and be … to destroy him”: καὶ ἴσθι … ἀπολέσαι αὐτό) connect the first subsection to vv. 19–21* or vv. 16–18*. “When Herod had died” (τελευτήσαντος δὲ τοῦ Ἡρῴδου) in v. 19a* is directly joined to “until the death of Herod” (ἕως τῆς τελευτῆς Ἡρῴδου) in v. 15a*. Since the death of Herod is already mentioned in v. 15a*, the readers know that Jesus’ evil enemy will die: God’s guidance will triumph over his murderous rage. Verse 20b* (“they have died … child”: τεθνήκασιν … παιδίου) has no corresponding words in vv. 13–15* and again emphasizes—this time in the angel’s word—the end of the threat. Also noteworthy here is the third person plural. The evangelist takes it from Exod 4:19* and thus emphasizes the OT reminiscence. There is also nothing in what has gone before that corresponds to vv. 22–23*, even though individual formulations are familiar to the reader. The return of Jesus’ family to Israel in two stages is curious; the move to Nazareth receives special emphasis.
The middle section, vv. 16–18*, occupies a special position. As in 2:3–8*, God’s enemy, Herod, is the sovereign actor. It is impossible to miss the reference back to 2:7* in the conclusion of v. 16*. Herod’s malice, with which the readers are familiar from 2:3–8*, reaches its goal in v. 16*. His anger stands in contrast to the great joy of the magi (v. 10*). That Herod’s action also ends with a fulfillment quotation demonstrates the theological significance of this middle section as well.
Formally, the section is very lean, as was already the case with 1:18–25*. There is not a single superfluous word; the evangelist makes use of no legendary or novelistic embellishment.
The close connections to 1:18–2:12* already justify the assumption that Matthew also played a major role in the wording of vv. 13–23*. The linguistic details also suggest that Matthew himself is largely responsible for the wording.3 Presumably here too he has put in writing for the first time an orally transmitted narrative cycle. It may be that the traditional narrative spoke only of the return to the land of Israel and did not speak in the present awkward manner first of the return to the land of Israel and then, after another divine revelation, of Galilee. Verses 22–23* contain an especially high number of idiosyncratic Matthean linguistic characteristics, and they closely parallel 4:12–13*.5 The evangelist himself probably formulated vv. 22–23* on the model of 4:12–13*.
Fulfillment Quotations
Each of the three fulfillment quotations poses its own problems.
Verse 15* (= Hos 11:1*) follows the Hebrew text and speaks in the singular of “my son”; the wording of the LXX would not be suitable for Matthew. However, the main problem lies not in the quotation’s wording but in its position: it speaks of calling the son out of Egypt; that does not fit the immediate context. Does the quotation refer to Jesus’ entire sojourn in Egypt, and does it interpret it as a new exodus from Egypt? If so, it is awkwardly placed. Or is Matthew only interested in the geographic term “Egypt”? Speaking against that possibility, however, is the redactional introduction that shows that the expression “my son” was also important for Matthew.
Verse 18* (= Jer 31:15*) follows in its first clause the Hebrew text that here exactly corresponds to LXX B, in its fourth clause to LXX A, in its fifth to the LXX, and in its third more likely to the Hebrew text. For its part, the second clause offers an independent abbreviation of all known variants. Matthew’s own contributions are “much” (πολύς) in line 2 and “children” (τέκνα) instead of “sons” in line 3. Since the quotation would be suitable for its present purpose in almost every form of the text, the existing text form is not to be explained as an adaptation to its present purpose. The major difficulty lies in the location “in Ramah,” since it lies north of Jerusalem. The problem would have been avoided if in the first clause Matthew had followed LXX A, where the Hebrew place name is translated “in the height” (ἐν τῇ ὑψελῇ). I conclude that the quotation was presumably already available to the evangelist in this only relatively appropriate wording.
Verse 23* is completely puzzling. My exegesis will show that this quotation is also traditional.9
In their contents all three quotations are rather special; they could almost be used only in connection with a story of Jesus’ youth similar to Matthew’s. In my judgment, they show that the Matthean birth story was known in his community and that it already had been the subject of reflection by scribes in an oral stage. Matthew did not create his material freely.
This text has numerous parallels in ancient stories about the persecution and preservation of the royal child. The Jewish Christian narrators of our story were especially familiar with the tradition of the rescue of the infant Moses in Egypt and Pharaoh’s murder of the Israelite male children.12 Matthew is also aware of the parallels between the traditions and the story of Moses when he portrays Joseph’s return from Egypt in vv. 19–20* with the OT words that tell of Moses’ return with his family from Midian to (!) Egypt (Exod 4:19–20*).13 It is not the case here that the Moses story was simply applied to Jesus in a unilinear way. In the birth story of Moses the parents do not flee with the child. With Moses, Egypt is the land of the threat rather than of refuge. In Exod 4:19–20* the adult Moses has fled from Egypt, and after the death of his enemies he returns there with his family. Compared with the Moses haggadah, Matt 2:13–21* is a new story. It is inspired by the earlier story and corresponds to it in a number of ways, but in some of its details it also contradicts it.
We may therefore ask whether the memory of Joseph’s move to Egypt (Gen 46:2–7*) might not have provided an additional point of contact. Jacob also goes to Egypt in response to a command from God in a nighttime vision.15 Of special interest would be an ancient midrash—although admittedly one that cannot be dated with certainty—on Deut 26:5–8* that interprets Jacob’s journey to Egypt as a flight from Laban.16 To be sure, there are no linguistic points of contact between Matt 2:13–14* and Genesis 46. There are also a number of differences in the contents so that a relationship between the two remains unprovable.
Neither Herod’s infamous cruelty nor the fact that Egypt has always been a refuge for Israel’s persecuted19 helps much: every saga or legend makes use of historical data and relates events that could have happened. The many connections with the Moses haggadah show that our story is also a haggadic narrative inspired by it. Some of its details are incomprehensible, such as why Herod, the “sly fox,” waits so long until his only option was a politically unwise mass murder. Furthermore, our story is connected with the presumably unhistorical tradition of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. In that regard it agrees with Luke, but only in that regard; otherwise it has no analogy in Luke.
Only one point is to be taken seriously. We must ask whether there is not a kernel of truth behind the tradition of Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt. Jewish sources are also familiar with this tradition, and they know it in a form that in my judgment in its oldest formulation could not have been dependent on Matthew. If the essential parts of the pericope are unhistorical, then its theological profile and the situation of the Matthean community separated from Judaism become all the more important as historical background.

As a part of the Matthean prologue this section also is a prelude to essential, basic affirmations of the entire Gospel. However, that is noticed only by the Christian readers who again reflect on the prologue after they have read or heard the entire Gospel.
■ 13–15* The first episode, vv. 13–15*, deals with the flight to Egypt. Egypt is a Gentile country, but the Christian readers would be primarily thinking that in Israel’s history it has always been a refuge for persecuted persons.22 The extreme brevity makes clear what the narrator’s interest is: the plan and hand of God stand over Jesus’ destiny. God’s guidance alone saves the child. The focus is on the child and his mother; Joseph appears as the agent guided by God but not as the father. He is, as is intimated by the literal repetition of the angel’s command in vv. 14–15* (and 21*), the obedient one.23 The flight takes place at night—that is, immediately—in great haste. The introductory formula of the fulfillment quotation expresses the idea of the divine plan with the verb “fulfill” (πληρόω). As in 1:22*, God himself speaks his word. It is clearer here than in 1:22–23* that this is related to the title υἱός: God himself speaks of his Son. This title is extraordinarily important for Matthew; it is the only christological title of the entire chapter.25 The readers can fill it with meaning here only on the basis of their traditional Jewish knowledge. Either they remember that in the Bible Israel is God’s son (Exod 4:22* and often) whom God has called out of Egypt (Hos 11:1*), and they connect the Son title with a point of Israel typology.26 The exodus from Egypt is repeated and fulfilled in Jesus. Or they remember that the son of David, the Messiah, will be God’s Son as a king on David’s throne. Thus the term “Son of God” is to be understood in terms of the readers’ Jewish-messianic hopes. In his narrative, in the important section 3:13–4:11*, Matthew will deepen it and give it a new accent based on what Jesus does. Just as important for Matthew as “my son” is the catchword “Egypt.”28 It is to remind the readers of the exodus of the people Israel from Egypt and to let them sense that something old and familiar that is basic for Israel takes place in a new way that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The readers familiar with the Bible sense that God’s action in his son is fundamental, that it is related to Israel’s basic experiences, while at the same time performing them anew.
It is questionable whether the evangelist is thinking of Gentile country when he speaks of “Egypt.” Although such an idea would be quite possible, nothing in the text indicates it. It is presumably an undeveloped secondary accent in the story.
■ 16–18* The brief episode of the murder of the children in Bethlehem forms an effective contrast: it tells of Herod’s dangerous anger and thus shows how great the danger was that the child escaped. That Herod’s action covers the entire area of Bethlehem and includes all boys under two years of age shows the tyrant’s malice. The fulfillment quotation’s introduction is again deliberately varied: the murder of the children does not happen so that the scripture would be fulfilled. It is not said that God is directly responsible for the death of the children. The quotation from Jer 31:15* again presents the readers with the idea of God’s plan: this frightful event has also been predicted by the prophet. At the same time new light is shed on the murder of the children and on Herod. The murder of the children is no harmless matter if the ancestress Rachel weeps for her children in Ramah.30 Herod cannot be a true king of the Jews if he kills Israel’s children because of Jesus. In persecuting the messianic child, Jesus, the king of the Jews destroys Israel’s children. In a similar way Matthew will later suggest that Israel’s no to Jesus brings a curse on its children (27:25*).31 Thus the lament of the ancestral mother gains in the context of the Gospel of Matthew a proleptic depth dimension.
Modern readers notice that Matthew does not raise the theodicy question in connection with the suffering of the innocent children. The evangelist’s interest is in the struggle between God and Herod, the enemy of Jesus; the innocent children appear as it were only on the reverse page of this struggle. It does not bother Matthew that God saves his Son at the expense of innocent people. Even the history of interpretation deals with the issue with a great deal of hesitation. Indeed, as one knew from Josephus (Bell. 1.656–58), with his horrible death Herod had received his well-deserved punishment. John Chrysostom, who dealt extensively with the innocent children, claims that nothing good would have come from them anyway, since there can be no innocent human suffering.32 Most interpreters did not follow him here. For them these children were innocent. They were permitted to die for Christ, because that is better than living in sin. From here it is not far to the idea of understanding the suffering of the innocent children as martyrdom and of interpreting these children parenetically as a model of all martyrs.34 This was also the idea behind the Feast of the Holy Innocents celebrated on December 28. It is not surprising that with this understanding it was not a problem that the number of the slaughtered children was able to increase.
■ 19–21* The return from Egypt takes place in two stages. The idea of divine guidance and Joseph’s obedience are again in the foreground. Matthew’s language is suggestive of Israel’s time in Egypt (Exod 4:19–20*). The wording “[in]to the land of Israel,” corresponding to biblical and rabbinic language,36 is deliberately chosen. Jesus, the son of David and of Abraham, returns to the land of the people for whom he has been sent.
■ 22* There is a strange tension between the statement and the explanation Matthew adds in v. 22*: at God’s command Joseph’s family makes not for Judea but for Nazareth in Galilee.
Matthew shows himself to be well informed historically. Archelaus, the son of Herod who after his father’s death in 4 B.C.E. assumed power in Judea, had a reputation that was worse than that of his brothers, and for that reason he had difficulties already at his accession to the throne (Josephus Bell. 2.1–13). Then after ten years he was removed from power by Augustus because of mismanagement. Since Archelaus was an ethnarch and never held the title of king (cf. Mark 6:14*), the statement that “he reigns” (βασιλεύει) is popular and imprecise. It also does not appear to be completely correct that Nazareth—an obviously insignificant village that is almost never mentioned in Jewish sources—is called a “city” (πόλις). In Matthew’s biblical Greek, however, πόλις means simply “an enclosed place of human habitation,” corresponding to Heb. עִיר.
■ 23* One is initially tempted to understand vv. 22–23* as a simple geographical transition: since in the Gospel of Mark Jesus comes from Nazareth from the very beginning (Mark 1:9*), he must somehow get there. However, the fulfillment quotation in v. 23* shows that Nazareth has fundamental significance for Matthew. This quotation is a crux interpretum, since it cannot be identified in the OT, and the meaning of “Nazarene” (Ναζωραῖος) is not clear.
We must distinguish among the following questions:
1. How did Matthew understand the word Ναζωραῖος? The answer is clear: Ναζωραῖος is synonymous with the Ναζαρηνός that is used only by Mark and that Matthew takes over.
2. What was the original meaning of Ναζωραῖος? Is Ναζωραῖος a nomen gentilicium corresponding to Aramaic נְצֹורַי or נַצְרַי? There are three difficulties: (a) The vowels Α–Ω can be understood on the basis neither of Heb. נַצְרַת, first documented in the ninth century, nor Syriac naṣrat. (b) The transcription of צ with ζ rather than with σ is unusual. (c) The feminine ending -ath would be eliminated in this nomen gentilicium. There are analogies to the last two points, however; perhaps we can overcome the difficulty in the first point by assuming a metathesis from a to o. Thus a nomen gentilicium Ναζωραῖος is not common, but it is possible. This explanation is better than the derivation of the term from a Jewish, law-observant sect of the Νασαραῖοι mentioned by Epiphanius whose name would also have been preserved in the Mandean self-designation נאצוראייא.
3. Of which OT text was Matthew thinking? The answer depends on whether Matthew (a) discovered the quotation himself or (b) received it in his tradition.
a. In the first case he must have been thinking of a specific passage of scripture. The only real possibility would be Judg 13:5*, 7*; 16:17*, where LXX A translates נַזִיר with Ναζιραῖος. Matthew himself then could have undertaken the vowel change to Ναζωραῖος in an exegetical process that corresponds to the rabbinic ʾAl-Tiqri interpretation. All other texts that have been suggested must be eliminated for Matthew, because they are based not on the LXX but on the Hebrew text. Even if we concede that Matthew knew Hebrew, it is difficult to imagine that his Greek-speaking readers could have followed this new scriptural proof.
b. If Matthew found the quotation in his tradition, one can think of many passages of scripture, since the Hebrew original then could have been the basis of the quotation. Here the first choice would probably be Isa 11:1*, the passage about the shoot from Jesse’s stem that was also interpreted messianically in Judaism.50 The many other suggestions made by exegetes are not very helpful, because they assume that Matthew here was already in a dilemma. He probably used the plural “by the prophets” (διὰ τῶν προφητῶν) because he could not identify the quotation transmitted to him and thus preferred an indefinite statement. As in 26:54*, ὅτι could introduce an indirect quotation.
That the Messiah would be called a Nazarene was predicted in scripture. Only later does the evangelist develop what that means. For him Nazareth is located in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15*). The geographical statements of 2:19–23* anticipate the journey of Israel’s messiah to the Gentiles.53 From another side this thesis receives additional support: in the area of Syria, the home of the Matthean community, one of the names for a Christian was “Nazorean.” Thus an ecclesiological note resonates with Ναζωραῖος. By coming to Nazareth in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” Jesus becomes a Ναζωραῖος, that is, a “Christian.” He becomes the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him.
History of Interpretation
The history of the interpretation of our pericope is more limited than that of the story of the magi. Of course, the drive to create legends has taken it over and in particular has described the events during the sojourn in Egypt, a sojourn that is estimated to have lasted anywhere from one to eight years. Various locations are given where the holy family stayed.56 The legend also portrays in detail the events of the flight itself, describing the adoration of the child Jesus by the wild animals and the palm tree that bends low to offer the child its fruit. The material has repeatedly been given new literary form up to the present and is correspondingly well known.58 By contrast, the church’s “scholarly” literature has on the whole remained remarkably immune.

In contrast to the later legends, Matthew refrains from glorifying Jesus through miracles, and he depicts the child’s preservation by God concisely and simply with a minimum of supernatural interventions. In the Matthean narrative the child is little more than an “object” that lets God be at the center of attention. The simplicity of the narrative concentrates the attention on the main theological lines. The readers hear how, according to his plan, God protects his Son and is “with him” on his way. They sense that God will complete his work of salvation. They experience how the plan of Herod, the king of the Jews, against Jesus fails so that Israel’s children are destroyed by their own king. And they hear how the malice of the Jewish kings leads the child Jesus to Nazareth so that he will be called a Nazarean just like their own community in Syria. They thus have a presentiment of something of the coming way of Israel’s Messiah to the Christian community in fulfillment of Israel’s scripture. Everything that this final text of the birth story intimates with almost formulaic brevity will be developed in the Gospel.
Excursus: The Fulfillment Quotations
Jean Mari van Cangh, “La Bible de Matthieu: Les citations d’accomplissement,” EThL 6 (1975) 205–11.
Bertil Gärtner, “The Habakkuk Commentary (DSH) and the Gospel of Matthew,” StTh 8 (1955) 1–24.
Gundry, Use.
Hawkins, Horae, 154–58.
McConnell, Law, 101–41.
Rothfuchs, Erfüllungszitate.
F. van Segbroeck, “Les citations d’accomplissement dans l’Évangile selon Matthieu d’après trois ouvrages récents,” in Didier, Évangile, 107–30.
Soares-Prabhu, Quotations.
Stanton, Gospel, 346–63.
Strecker, Weg, 49–85.
1. Definition, Occurrence, Problems
The expression “fulfillment quotations” refers to a series of quotations from OT prophets that are introduced by a particular formulaic phrase, namely by “(in order that) might be fulfilled what was spoken by … the prophet saying” ([ἵνα] πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ … τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος). They are: Matt 1:22–23*; 2:15*, 17–18*, 23*; 4:14–16*; 8:17*; 12:17–21*; 13:35*; 21:4–5*; 27:9*. They are distributed unevenly in the Gospel of Matthew; the concentration in the prologue is conspicuous. They appear in material from different sources: 8:17*; 12:17–21*; 13:35*; and 21:4–5* are inserted into Markan sections, while the others are in stories from the special material. As a rule they appear as the narrator’s concluding commentary on a brief narrative (2:15*, 18*, 23*; 4:15–16*; 8:17*; 12:18–21*; 13:35*; 27:9–10*); only 1:23*, 21:5*, and the quotations with a “quasi-fulfillment formula” (2:5*; 3:3*; 13:14–15*) are different.
The difference between the fulfillment quotations and the other OT quotations is not unambiguous: 1:22–23* and 2:15* are special cases, because here the introductory formula names as “author” the Lord who speaks through the prophet. In addition, there are a number of other quotations that because of their introductory phrases are similar to the fulfillment quotations. They are 2:5* (“for thus it is written through the prophet”: οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου), 3:3* (“for this is the one spoken of through Isaiah the prophet”: οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαίου τοῦ προφήτου), 13:14* (“and in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah saying”: καὶ ἀναπληροῦται αὐτοῖς ἡ προφητεία Ἠσαίου ἡ λέγουσα), and to a certain extent 24:15* (not an exact quotation; the abomination of desolation is “spoken through Daniel the prophet”: τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Δανιὴλ τοῦ προφήτου). Thus the fulfillment quotations are not an absolutely special case within the Matthean OT quotations; there are transitions to the “normal” quotations. This means that we may not regard them as a special theological problem; they must be interpreted in the context of Matthew’s understanding of scripture as a whole.
We will discuss the following problems: Is the introductory phrase redactional? Where does it appear? What does it mean? (= 2 below). Often (but not always) the wording of the quotation poses a special problem. It is frequently a mixed text. Who is responsible for it? (= 3). What is the theological significance of the fulfillment quotations in the Gospel of Matthew? (= 4).
2. Introductory Phrase (= Fulfillment Formula)
Formally the fulfillment formula is a commentary by the narrator. There is a rather large consensus that it comes from the evangelist. It clearly shows Matthean linguistic characteristics. Even the variations in the introductory phrase can be explained in terms of the Matthean context.4 The introduction of the Lord as the “speaker” is connected in 2:15* with the fact that the quotation speaks of the Son of God and in 1:22* obviously with the quotation’s special christological significance. The plural “through the prophets” in 2:23* indicates that the evangelist could not identify the quotation that he had received. It is a similar case with 13:35*: either Matthew knew that the quotation comes from the psalm or he failed to give the name of the prophet because he did not find it in his material. In 21:4–5* and 27:9* Matthew quotes Zechariah, once without a name, the other time incorrectly as Jeremiah. It is a safe conclusion that the library of Matthew’s church did not have a copy of the Twelve (Minor) Prophets in which he could have checked his reference. The library probably had an Isaiah scroll; for Matthew, as elsewhere in early Christianity, Isaiah was the most important of the prophets. The evangelist has compared at least some of the Isaiah quotations with the text of his Bible, the LXX. On the other hand, we cannot assume that Matthew’s church library had another OT prophetic scroll, even a Jeremiah scroll.6 From this evidence we may conclude with caution: if a Jewish Christian community, whose exponent and evangelist was as interested in the Bible as was Matthew, presumably did not itself possess the larger part of the Bible, then this so-called well-to-do city church8 could not have been all that wealthy. Finally, we may perhaps conclude that the evangelist often cites OT quotations from Christian sources and from memory even when he could have checked the biblical text. That is true of almost all early Christian writers, but it must be especially noted in the case of the alleged “rabbi,” Matthew.
The question remains where the fulfillment formula has come from in the history of tradition. The evangelist, bound to tradition as he is, has not simply invented it. There are no direct models in OT and Jewish texts: πληρόω scarcely appears in the OT for the fulfillment of prophecies; of the few examples, 2 Chr 36:21* is the closest to the fulfillment formula.10 I am not aware of any corresponding statements from Jewish texts. The catchword “pesher” (פֵּשֶׁר, “interpretation”), with which interpretations of the prophets are introduced in many Qumran texts, does not appear in Matthew. That is probably no accident, because there is an essential difference between the two basic words.12 פֵּשֶׁר begins with the text and interprets it; πληρόω begins with the present event and understands it as the fulfillment of predictions. פֵּשֶׁר begins with the Bible and tries to understand it; that is why there are commentaries on entire biblical books in the pesher style. Πληρόω, on the other hand, begins with the Christ event and reflects on it in light of the Bible. In short, when we ask about the roots of the fulfillment statement in the history of tradition there can be only one answer: Matthew is rooted in early Christian usage that speaks of the fulfillment of scripture.14 He found this assertion along with others in his Gospel of Mark (Mark 14:49*). It is especially noteworthy that there are many fulfillment statements in the Gospel of John, which may also come from Syria.15
The other parts of the fulfillment formula are theologically less central. There are analogies in rabbinic usage for designating the word of scripture as “the [thing] spoken” (τὸ ῥηθέν). The wording that God speaks “through” the prophet may have already existed in early Christianity.17 Matthew takes it over with some determination, since it is important to him that God is the actual “author” of the scripture, while the prophet is only his instrument. That is true for all passages of scripture, not only for those where he explicitly calls attention to it by speaking of the “Lord” (1:23*; 2:15*; cf. 15:4*; 19:5*; 22:31*).
Where do fulfillment quotations appear? It is obvious that they are present with special frequency in the prologue. They appear with less frequency in the later parts of the Gospel. Three times they are connected with summaries (8:17*; 12:18–21*; 13:35*). Which quotations did Matthew characterize with the fulfillment formula? The answer to this question sounds surprisingly simple: almost all for which it was possible.18 The fulfillment formula introduces a commentary by the narrator on a report about Jesus. That means that all the biblical quotations that appear in the words of Jesus or of others do not come into question. Thus Matthew does not use the fulfillment formula to separate certain OT quotations from others and to single them out as a special group of quotations.
3. Wording and Origin of the Quotations
Most of the fulfillment quotations are conspicuous by their text form. Some are closer to the MT than to the LXX; some also show parallels with other Greek translations and with Targums. There might appear to be a substantial difference from the quotations taken over from Mark and those (few) from Q. There either Matthew uses the text of his sources unchanged, or he changes it only slightly, for example, in the direction of the LXX, with which he is probably familiar from the church’s worship. Two hypotheses are possible explanations:
a. According to one hypothesis, since most of the fulfillment quotations have a text that diverges strongly from the LXX, one must conclude that its wording goes back not to the evangelist but to a source. Various sources have been suggested: an Aramaic targum of Mark,22 a Christian collection of testimonies, or an oral tradition.24
b. According to the other hypothesis the evangelist himself is responsible for the mixed text. Paul Kahle’s hypothesis that in the NT period there was not yet an established LXX text but rather a number of recensions and variants25 has often been indirectly fruitful. Were there also Greek targums? Since this is completely unprovable (and improbable), one assumes that Matthew himself is responsible for the text form of the quotations. Matthew then would have produced a kind of targum of the OT text for his purposes; he would be “his own targumist.” Scholarship oriented toward redaction criticism claims that Matthew has redacted the wording of the quotations transmitted to him in view of what he wanted to say.27 By contrast, Stendahl assumes that there is a “school” behind the Gospel of Matthew whose method was similar to that of the author of Qumran’s exegesis of the prophets, for example, of 1QpHab. Proceeding from the basic conviction that the predictions are fulfilled in the present, Matthew and the author of the Habakkuk commentary used several recensions of the biblical text to create their own recension and then interpreted it in terms of the present. Thus Matthew’s school practiced פֵּשֶׁר exegesis in the Qumran style.
Ad (a): An Aramaic targum of Mark is of no help in explaining the numerous fulfillment quotations in the special material. I cannot really conceive of a Christian collection of testimonies as the source for the fulfillment quotations. To what should such quotations as Hos 11:1* (= Matt 2:15*), Jer 31:15* (= Matt 2:18*), Zech 9:9* (= Matt 21:5*), or 11:13* (= Matt 27:9*) bear witness other than the stories in which they now appear? In my judgment, the large majority of fulfillment quotations, especially in the area of the special material, can have been transmitted only in connection with those narratives in which they appear today. As for the assumption of oral tradition, of course, one can neither verify nor disprove it. It is thus a passe-par-tout that is always useful when all other hypotheses fail.
Ad (b): I have already mentioned the major differences between the Matthean fulfillment quotations and the pesher interpretations of biblical texts in Qumran and elsewhere. The discussion of the exegesis of the prophetic text in 1QpHab has shown that although in Qumran as well as with the rabbis one must reckon with the possibility that occasionally changes are made in the biblical text for the sake of an interpretation, they are relatively infrequent, and it almost never happened that a new text was created from different text recensions. On the other hand, we again know better today that in the Judaism of that day alongside the proto-Masoretic “official text” there were numerous forms of a “fluid” text that was not yet stabilized. That can be seen in the many “free” biblical texts found in Qumran. Fragments such as 4Q119, 121; 7Q1, 2; and of course also the numerous “free” Greek text forms transmitted in the NT show that to a certain degree this was also true for Greek texts in that day. The texts of the Matthean fulfillment quotations also fit this situation; one could easily imagine them in the context of the precanonical “fluid” texts of that day.31
Thus everything is open. It is difficult to say how much of the variants from the later “official” texts is due to Matthew’s work, how much goes back to the activity of Christian scribes in his community, and how much is to be attributed to special “fluid” texts already in Greek or even in special Hebrew forms, and that is especially true in individual cases. In any case, it is not advisable to make an either-or choice between the two basic hypotheses presented here.
What can we still say concretely about the individual quotations?
A. We begin with Matthew’s work on his biblical texts, because we are most familiar with it. On the basis of all Matthew’s quotations we can say the following:
1. Matthew’s Bible is the LXX.32 That follows, in my judgment, not from the minor changes in the wording of the quotations that come from Mark but from the quotations that Matthew himself supplied and added, and from Matthew’s language that in general has been influenced by the LXX.
2. The wording of the biblical quotations taken from Mark and Q shows that Matthew primarily follows the text he finds in his sources. He then follows the LXX when he inserts new quotations.
3. Several passages (cited in n. 33) show that we must assume that Matthew himself inserts new quotations in his narrative in other places as well.
4. With the “fulfillment formula” Matthew is not trying to distinguish a special group of quotations on the basis of their origin or text form. Thus what we learn from the other quotations can be applied to the fulfillment quotations.
We can conclude then for the fulfillment quotations that:
• Quotations whose wording is especially close to the LXX are most likely to have been found by Matthew. Here it seems to me that we must think especially of Isa 7:14* (= Matt 1:23*), thus of an Isaiah quotation.
• A separate question is which of the fulfillment quotations previously known in the church were inserted by Matthew in the context. Here we can perhaps think of 8:17* and 12:18–21*.
• With all of the quotations we must reckon with the possibility that Matthew lightly adapted their wording to the LXX or to his context.
B. When we come to the issue of the pre-Matthean tradition, our question is: Which quotations have presumably not been inserted into their present context? Which have presumably not been discovered by him?
1. Probably not discovered by Matthew and placed in their context are those quotations that he has incorrectly identified or was not able to identify. I am thinking here of the two Zechariah quotations 9:9* (= Matt 21:5*) and 11:12–13* (= Matt 27:9–10*). It is probable that both quotations already influenced their respective reports in the community tradition prior to Matthew.34 The same is probably true of the unidentified quotation in 2:23* and of the incorrectly identified quotation of Ps 78:2* in Matt 13:35*. In all four cases this thesis is confirmed by the wording of the quotation that does not correspond to the LXX. At the same time, in all four cases it is true that the quotation can be used only in connection with the context in which it presently appears. Thus we can assume here that (scribes in?) the Matthean community reflected on the corresponding Markan and special-material traditions in light of the Bible.
2. It is more difficult in the other cases. It may be that we have a certain clue to the “free” text form when a quotation contains more than is needed for its Matthean context, that is, when it is used only for the sake of one or two of its affirmations. The control test is whether a quotation makes sense as a general Christian testimonium or whether it can be used only in its present context.
Exceeding its context and at the same time useful as a general Christian testimonium are Isa 8:23*/9:1* (= Matt 4:15–16*) and Isa 42:1–4* (= Matt 12:18–21*). Here it is conceivable that Matthew was the first to add to his Markan context a testimonium known to him from oral or written Christian tradition. It may have been a similar case with Isa 53:4* (= Matt 8:17*) and with the mixed text of 2:6*; we simply do not know.
It is more difficult to make a statement about Hos 11:1* (= Matt 2:15*) and Jer 31:15* (= Matt 2:18*). Here I surmise that the corresponding material—Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt and the murder of the children—already in the oral tradition was the basis of reflection (by Christian scribes?) in light of the Bible.36
C. The most difficult question is whether the actual wording of the quotations not discovered by Matthew goes back to a text of the Bible that already existed but was still “fluid,” or to the work of Christian scribes. In principle either is possible. In almost no case can one be certain.
This examination of the wording of the quotations has produced little that is of value for understanding Matthew’s theology. My conclusions mean that I have abandoned the major theses that have thus far been dominant in the history of scholarship. In addition, this examination provides a glimpse of the activity of Christian scribes in the Matthean community as they commented on the Jesus traditions. Once again we get to know the evangelist as a conservative traditionalist and interpreter who, where possible, treated the biblical quotations he received even more carefully than he did the text of the Gospel of Mark or the Sayings Source.
4. The Theological Problems of the Fulfillment Quotations
Why did Matthew comment on so many events from the story of Jesus by means of fulfillment quotations? According to Strecker, Matthew was primarily interested in proving “the historical-biographical facticity” of the gospel tradition with the aid of the fulfillment quotations. Thus the evangelist’s interest, he claims, was a biographical, indeed, a “historical understanding of the life of Jesus.”38 It is significant how often details of the life of Jesus are verified with a fulfillment quotation, for example, the stations of the journey of the child Jesus (2:6*, 15*, 18*, 23*; 4:15–16*), riding on two animals (21:5*), or the purchase price of thirty pieces of silver (27:9*). For other authors the apologetic motif is decisive: the fulfillment quotations are part of the Christian defense against Judaism.39 Still other authors do not see a unified meaning behind the fulfillment quotations. For Eduard Schweizer, for example, in the prologue’s quotations the concern might be to emphasize Jesus’ itinerant life as “a consoling and strengthening example for all the itinerant prophets,” while the quotations in the middle of the Gospel portray Jesus as the Messiah of word and deed—that is, as the “prophetic revealer of God’s mysteries (13:13–16* and 35*) and charismatic healer (8:17* and 12:17–21*).”41
Three considerations are compelling for me:
a. If Matthew wherever possible used fulfillment formulas to emphasize biblical quotations that illustrated events of the story of Jesus, and if he did this with special frequency in the prologue, then the idea of the fulfillment of the prophets in the story of Jesus has for him a principled and programmatic significance. In the prologue Matthew sets up a “light” for his readers with his rapid sequence of fulfillment quotations. The fulfillment quotations scattered throughout the rest of the Gospel are then reminders of this light. The narrative method of repetition is especially effective here.
b. In my judgment the fulfillment quotations have no special content; they point to basic themes of the Matthean understanding of Christ. In many quotations basic affirmations of Matthean christology are in the foreground, for example, in 1:23* (Immanuel), 2:15* (son), 8:17* (Jesus’ healing as healing by Israel’s Messiah), 12:18–21* (the peaceful servant of God as hope for the Gentiles), and 21:5* (the powerless king). The “journey” of Jesus in 1:18–4:16* is told by Matthew not for the sake of historical facticity but because the journey of the gospel from Israel to the Gentiles is proleptically indicated in it. That as Israel’s Messiah Jesus is salvation for the Gentiles is important for many quotations (2:5*; 4:15–16*; 12:18–21*; cf. 2:15* [Egypt], 18* [weeping of Israel’s ancestral mother], 23* [Nazarenes as a term for Christians]; 13:14–15* [Israel’s obduracy]; 21:16* [children and infants]). From the very beginning the life of Jesus corresponds to God’s plan, to which Jesus is totally obedient (21:5*; cf. 13:35*; 21:9*; of the other quotations, e.g., 2:5*; 3:3*; 4:4*, 6–7*, 10*). Thus the fulfillment quotations emphasize basic themes of Matthean theology.
c. The center of the fulfillment is the word πληρόω. It is a “christological” word. Apart from the story of Jesus there is no “fulfillment” of the scriptures in the entire NT (with one exception). For the evangelist πληρόω is also important outside our quotations. Just as Jesus has “fulfilled” the prophetic predictions by his life, he has also fulfilled the Law and Prophets by his perfect obedience (5:17*; cf. 3:15*). Thus Matthew programmatically emphasizes the fulfillment of the entire Bible by Jesus’ story and behavior.
This programmatic emphasis on the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets by Jesus became necessary, in my judgment, in the situation after the Christian church’s separation from Israel. By making it, Matthew, the Jewish Christian, whose community has intensively suffered through the separation from Israel, emphasizes the Jesus community’s fundamental claim to Israel’s Bible. One also finds a similar programmatic in the same situation in the Lukan writings and in the Gospel of John. In the situation before the definitive break between Israel and the church, Paul could be satisfied with demonstrating exemplarily with individual texts how the Bible bore witness to its faith in Christ. He knew absolutely that this same Bible also testified that “the man who does it [the righteousness of the law] will live by it” (Rom 10:5* = Lev 18:5*). For Matthew and other Christian authors who wrote after the break between church and Israel this statement was no longer possible. They had to lay claim programmatically to the entire OT. Frankemölle has expressed this pointedly: “All relations with Israel have been broken off; now they are fighting over the inheritance.”45 In the situation in which Israel and the church confront one another as two hostile separated brothers, each was forced to lay claim to the entire inheritance of the fathers definitely and principally for himself.
This excursus requires two concluding remarks designed to confront the readers of this commentary with a dilemma.
1. The Matthean and early Christian programmatic claim to the OT have indirectly had disastrous results. The history of anti-Jewish polemic in Christian theology shows that OT words, especially of the prophets, have become intellectual weapons and then also indirectly cudgels in the church’s struggles against Judaism.
2. The fulfillment quotations are not a completely new phenomenon in the history of early Christian theology. They are merely the intensified and principled expression of a conviction that all of early Christianity shares: the Christ event is the fulfillment of scripture. For Matthew too christological affirmations are the central concern of the OT quotations. In addition, his entire christology—even more emphatically than that of his predecessors—is a reflection on the person and story of Jesus that is determined by the OT. It is true for Matthew and for all of early Christianity that the OT alone makes it possible to proclaim and understand the risen Jesus. To that degree it is not only understandable, it is also necessary that Matthew programmatically lays claim to the Bible in conflict with Israel. Christian faith cannot easily dispense with this dimension.
These two considerations belong together. They are to prepare us for interpreting the individual quotations, especially those of the central Israel sections in chaps. 21–23 and 27, and they are to make us aware of the problem these statements pose for us.
Luz, U. (2007). Matthew 1–7: a commentary on Matthew 1–7. (H. Koester, Hrsg.) (Rev. ed., S. 101–131). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.


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