The nativity story begins with this week’s portion. (Each week all religious Jews around the world study the same "portion", or parasha, of the Torah together. It is fitting that we use the same term to describe our weekly scripture, since as we have noted, Matthew is a Jew, writing to Jews about a Jew.)

In this portion we find a new cast of characters, including a major power broker in the Roman world, a pair of Jewish sects who represent both the last practitioners of traditional Mosaic Judaism and the birth of Judaism as it is practiced today, and some enigmatic men of faith who have no formal connection with the God of the Hebrews, yet seem somehow to understand these momentous events as few others do.

Consider the players in this portion of Matthew’s drama.

The “King Herod” mentioned here is Herod the Great, son of an ally of Julius Caesar, Herod Antipater. Technically, he was not a king, but a “tetrarch,” or “client-king” (governor) subject to Roman authority. Most scholars agree he died in 4 or 5 B.C., thus, while we do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, we do know our calendar is off by at least four years. Herod the Great was an Edomite, not a Jew. In an effort to ingratiate himself with his Jewish subjects, he restored and enlarged the second temple in Jerusalem. He also built most of Caesarea (mentioned seventeen times in Acts) and ensured the survival of the Olympic Games when they nearly died out from lack of funding, although they were essentially a pagan ritual at that time. His son, Antipas, is the Herod who had a role in Jesus’ crucifixion.

“The people’s chief priests” is probably a reference to the Sadducees, who controlled the second temple at that time. At a more appropriate moment, Matthew will remind his Jewish readership that this sect did not believe in physical resurrection. They died out after the Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D., which made obedience to the sacrificial code of the Torah at the temple quite impossible.

The “teachers of the law” most likely means some of the prominent Pharisees or rabbis mentioned in Rabbinic Judaism’s Talmud, including Hillel and Shammai who were among the few to survive a bloody purge by Herod the Great in 6 BC. Their sect is the direct predecessor of Rabbinic Judaism, practiced today. Rabbinic tradition places Hillel’s death shortly after Jesus’ first visit to the Temple, so it is quite possible they met. If so, it might explain the strong parallels between some aspects of their teachings.

The “magi” (plural for “magus,” and root of the English word, “magic”) were a priestly caste originating in ancient Mede or Persia (modern Iran). They were probably adherents of the religion known as Zoroastrianism, founded by Zoroaster in about 1700 B.C., at least 300 years before the time of Moses. A form of the religion is still practiced in parts of India, Pakistan and Iran. It taught the existence of heaven, hell, a last judgment, Satan, demons, angels, prophecy, and a coming messiah called Saoshyant (meaning “savior,” or “one who will make existence brilliant”), who would lead the entire earth into a time of peace and tranquility. It may be this last belief that inspired the Magi to follow the star to Jerusalem. The word “magi” or “magus” is used only here by Matthew, and in the story of Bar-Jesus, a “Jewish sorcerer and false prophet”.

With Herod, the chief priests and teachers of the law, and the magi, Matthew places Jesus squarely in a particular moment. He means for us to understand that this is history he writes, not mere legend, and certainly not myth. All the major forces of the earth revolve around this infant boy. Matthew shows us Jesus entering creation in relationship to politics, culture, military might, and religion. While it is not possible here to examine all the implications of these players in the story, next week we will consider some of them, and find surprising reasons for God’s choice of this time, this place and these people.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:41 PM  


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