Historical Cultural Context
Matthew alone reports this story about the Magi. No other ancient documents corroborate the account as actual, historical fact. Contemporary scholars believe that it was probably a preexisting tradition based on the Balaam story (Num 22-24) intending to demonstrate that Gentiles were part of God’s plan from the very beginning. Scholars are divided, though, in their estimation of the degree of creativity exercised by the evangelist in shaping this story for his Gospel.
Mediterranean people, however, maintain a very porous boundary line between reality and appearance, fact and impressions. The appearance or impression is always considered much more significant than reality or the fact. This, of course, is all driven by that culture’s overarching concern for honor, that is, public recognition and affirmation of proclaimed worth.
Joseph knows he is not the father of the child Mary is carrying (Mt 1:19). Matthew doesn’t hide this fact. An angel of the Lord, a most honorable messenger from God, the source of all honor that counts, informs Joseph of the divinely willed circumstances of Jesus’ conception and the function Jesus will play in God’s plan: “He will save his people from their sins.” But so far as we know, Joseph doesn’t make this message public. He apparently lived with the secret all his life and presented a different impression to the public.
How can the evangelist give an honorable public appearance to the potentially embarrassing circumstances of Jesus’ conception? Matthew begins Jesus’ story with a genealogy, which in the ancient world is a key strategy for documenting one’s claim to honor.
Matthew does it cleverly with a number scheme based on David’s name. Hebrew letters are also numbers, and the consonants DVD in Hebrew add up to fourteen. In this genealogy, Matthew clusters names in three groups of fourteen, more or less. The point: Jesus is none other than a descendent of David, Israel’s greatest king!
Then Matthew reports the tradition about the Magi (not kings or astrologers) coming to pay homage to this descendant of royalty. A closer look at the story through the lenses of Mediterranean honor reveals how cleverly Matthew magnifies Jesus’ honor rating.
King of Judeans
The Magi come seeking the newly born king of Judeans. Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus during his ministry routinely identify God’s people as “Israel” (see Mt 2:6; also 8:10; 9:33; 10:6, 23; 15:24, 31; 19:28; 27:9). Three groups make up this people: “Judeans,” “Galileans,” and “Pereans.” Outsiders ignored these distinctions and called everyone “Judeans” (the Greek word is often incorrectly translated “Jews”). Pilate calls Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee “King of the Judeans” (Jn 19:19-22).
Word that these visitors from the East are seeking a newly born king of Judeans strikes fear into the heart of old Herod who is the current, living king of Judeans. He knows that he has no newly born heir.
Then Matthew draws a contrast between these honorable visitors and the fearful ruler. Herod calls for the Magi “secretly” (Mt 2:7). In the Middle East and all societies in which honor is the core value, privacy is a threat to honor. If honor is a public claim to worth along with a public acknowledgement of that worth, then people’s behavior must be ever on public display. Anyone who acts secretly has something to hide and is therefore automatically considered to be dishonorable, shameful. Herod’s secret inquiry immediately tags him as acting dishonorably.
The Magi listen to his request that they report to him what they find about this new king, but, astute Middle Easterners that they are, they refuse to enter into his shameful strategy. They return home by a different route (Mt 2:12), thereby deceiving the shameful Herod (Mt 2:16).
When the Magi find Jesus, they pay homage. The high, honorable status of these visitors indicates the high degree of honor they pay to Jesus and his mother. They also offer three kinds of gifts (gold, myrrh, and frankincense), further enhancing the honor they bestow. Matthew has masterfully cast Jesus into an impressively honorable context that does not fail to catch the attention of his original Middle Eastern audience.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From Saint Louis University