The Magi in Redemptive-History

(Post by Ben Thocher)

It has been alluded to already that the Magi are in some way a function of Matthew’s fulfillment theology. Their presence before the Christ child carries a measured significance that extends beyond the pages of Matthew’s Gospel and reaches into the prophetic hope and vision of Israel for the end of days. In their presentation, Matthew has provocatively indicated that their visit involves much more than Christmas pageantry; their arrival represents the in-breaking of eschatological reality.

One of the foundation texts for placing the Magi’s visit within the flow of redemptive-history is the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon in 1 Kings 10. She comes to Solomon “bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones” while commending Solomon for executing “justice and righteousness.” This narrative highlights the immense power and wisdom wielded by the Solomonic dynasty. The Queen of Sheba represents the humble submission of nations to Israel’s great king. Provan notes that it is “the worldwide fame of Solomon” that attracts foreign dignitaries to his presence.[1] Brueggemann likewise suggests that “The visit of the Queen of Sheba is emblematic and representative of the pivotal place Solomon had come to occupy, if not in the actual world of royal competition and commercial success, then at least in the imagination of Israel.”[2] Put differently, Solomon is the Israelite king par-excellence. To him belongs the submission of nations.

While Solomon’s glorious kingdom shortly thereafter hurtles headlong into chaos and destruction, his positive portrayal becomes a foundation upon which the messianic hope of Israel is built. Psalm 72 is seemingly modeled after Solomon’s experience with the Queen of Sheba in its prayer for the royal son of God. As the Queen of Sheba lauded Solomon for his “justice and righteousness,” so too the prayer of Psalm 72 is strikingly marked by the frequent and overt use of this same language:

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice! (Ps 72:1; emphasis mine)

Not only that, but the psalm’s vision for the royal son involves the bringing of gifts and tribute from all nations – including Sheba!

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands

render him tribute;

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

bring gifts!

May all kings fall down before him,

all nations serve him! (Ps 72:10-11; emphasis mine)

That the psalm itself is “of Solomon” intimates a close relationship to Solomon either as author or as subject.[3] It is likely that the prayer offers a prophetic outlook for another king who would arise like Solomon. Given this, Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:42 that “something greater than Solomon is here” takes on a deeper and more significant meaning.

The arrival of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel is understood then within this wider theological context. Jesus is Solomon’s greatest son, the one to whom worldwide tribute is rendered. Isaiah 60:1-4 likewise presents a picture of Israel’s eschatological hopes. The prophet speaks words of hope to Israel, that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:3). The passage will later discuss the “wealth of nations” coming to Israel along with camels from Sheba bringing “gold and frankincense” (Isa 60:5-6). It is conceivable – and even likely! – that this passage forms the backdrop for Matthew’s presentation of the Magi’s star rising and resting over the place where Messiah was to be found.[4]

It becomes obvious that the worship of the Magi emerges as the Matthew’s primary focus in this passage.[5] Having seen his star they “come to worship him” (proskunh/sai), while Herod likewise desires to locate and “worship” (proskunh,sw) him.[6] So too, upon their arrival at the house, they “fell down and worshiped (proseku,nhsan) him.”[7] While Matthew may be playing off the ambiguity of the pagan’s worship, their response to finding Jesus – they “rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy”[8] – seems to indicate something beyond mere reverence or political maneuvering.

What is presented to the reader, then, is an understanding of the Magi’s visit which envisions the end of days inauguration of the worship of nations at Zion. The Magi come to Jesus bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh and bowing down before him in worship.[9] They do not come (ultimately) to physical Jerusalem or its Temple, but to Jesus the Messiah. What is at work here, even in Matthew’s second chapter, is a conception of Jesus as the one true place of worship over-against the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial system. Indeed, “something greater than the Temple” has arrived (Matt. 12:6).

[1] Iain Provan, 1 and 2 Kings (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 86.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 137.

[3] The function of the lamed preposition here, as with elsewhere in the Psalter, does not necessarily indicate authorship. While the English rendering “of Solomon” is often understood as an ascription of authorship, it is perhaps more helpfully understood as “about Solomon,” “concerning Solomon,” or “to Solomon.”

[4] While it is clear that the Magi are not themselves kings, they are almost always associated with kings. The tribute rendered to Jesus is unilateral. They give, but do not receive. Their worship is not reciprocal: they are servants, Jesus is Lord. The Magi stand in the place of kings, but are not actual royalty. The intertextual effect is one of representation, not identification. Readers are inclined to understand the Magi as kings due to the overt intertextual backdrop onto which Matthew’s story is cast. Powell notes that “…we must affirm, however, that Matthew’s narrative develops in ways that allow readers to connect the magi with kings and still make sense of the story” (“The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism,” CBQ 62 [2000]: 462.) The conception of kings rendering tribute to the Christ child is therefore not without warrant and may, in fact, more accurately portray the underlying theological point that Matthew is intending to make: In an act of eschatological subordination, the kings of the earth have brought gifts/tribute to Israel’s Messiah.

[5] Indeed, the particle ivdou. (“Behold!”) in 2:1 functions as a discourse marker meant “to focus attention on the introduction of a major participant into the episode…It alerts the audience to pay attention to a particular participant as the plot unfolds” (Richard Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994], 198). The focus throughout is thus on the arrival and activity of the Magi.

[6] Herod’s motives are dubious at best and likely driven by his desire to locate and destroy the threat to his throne. Powell highlights the irony of Herod’s response, “Matthew’s readers are expected to know that the kings in Scripture honor God’s chosen one, but now, when that one arrives, the kings of the earth do not respond. The gifts and the worship that kings would offer, according to Scripture, are brought by magi instead. To use a medieval analogy, it is as though the time for the king to appear had come, and a court jester showed up in his place. ‘Magi?’ Matthew’s readers are expected to ask. ‘Where are the kings?’ The point of  the story, then, is that when Jesus came into the world he was worshiped not by kings but by servants. Part of the irony, of course, is that there is a king in the story, and he even speaks of worshiping Jesus, but he has no intention of doing so” (“Magi as Kings,” 472-73).

[7] The use of the term proskune,w here is seemingly ambiguous. Nolland notes that “[i]n Mark the term means only to show deferential respect to (5:6; 15:19); in Luke it always denotes worship (4:7, 8) and is used with Jesus as its object only after the resurrection (24:52); in Matthew it can mean reverence (4:9, 10), at times seems clearly to involve (religious) worship directed towards Jesus (14:33; 28:9, 17), and is used repeatedly of Jesus from infancy onwards in a manner which seems designed to blur, in the case of response to Jesus, the distinction between deferential respect and religious worship” (Gospel of Matthew, 111). Powell counters this observation by suggesting that, in Matthew, worship always takes as its cue the proper response to Jesus as the true son of God. He notes that “Although Matthew’s Gospel never offers a definition of worship, the accounts of worship that are narrated in this book appear to assume that worship is fundamentally a matter of attitude rather than form or mood” (“A Typology of Worship in the Gospel of Matthew,” JSOT 57 [1995]: 16).

[8] Young suggests rendering evca,rhsan cara.n mega,lhn sfo,dra as “They were thrilled with ecstatic joy” (18), while Keener advocates “they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy” or, “they were thrilled to bits” (104).

[9] The nature of the Magi’s offerings has elicited much debate and discussion. Is there an underlying significance in their choice of gifts? France helpfully summarizes the possibilities and suggests an appropriate reading focusing on the kingly dimension of the gifts. “Their gifts are those of the affluent: gold, then as now the symbol of ultimate value and exotic spices, which would not normally come within the budget of an ordinary Jewish family. Frankincense…an expensive perfume…was burned not only in worship but at important social occasions…Despite the symbolism traditionally discerned in the gifts of the magi since the time of Irenaeus (gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for death and burial—the latter based on John 19:39), myrrh, too, was primarily used as a luxurious cosmetic fragrance…These are luxury gifts, fit for a king” (Gospel of Matthew, 75-76).


One Comment on “The Magi in Redemptive-History”

  1. Rachel says:

    This was a great, and informative, post. Thank you for sharing! I had never heard these passages compared before, but now you’ve clarified the passage in Matthew in a helpful way. Also, thank you for including your sources at the end of this post!

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