The infancy narrative in Matthew represents a developed Christology proclaimed through a reflection on the origin of Jesus. These appealing stories of Jesus’ birth and early life are the entire gospel story in miniature. The story of Jesus starts with the story of Israel. The infancy narratives are serve as a bridge between God’s saving work in Israel and the fullness of the good news in Christ.

Father Brown was Auburn Professor of biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Among his many honorary doctorates in divinity and theology are those awarded by the European university faculties of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Uppsala and Louvain. He was simultaneously a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and a consulter of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity. In 1973 Father Brown was the only American named by Pope Paul VI to the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission.

He is author of some dozen books on the Bible, including a two-volume commentary on The Gospel According to John in the Anchor Bible Series (1966-1970), Priest and Bishop (1970), The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973), Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (1975) and the full-scale commentary of 600 pages on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, entitled The Birth of the Messiah (1977).

The Meaning of the Magi; the Significance of the Star

The evangelist tells the story of the magi and the star after he has given the genealogy of Jesus and told how an angel announced to Joseph in a dream the forthcoming birth of the child who would be the Davidic Messiah (see 1:1, 16, 18)

a child conceived through the Holy Spirit and therefore the Son of God. (see also 2:15)

Scholarly observations about the parts of the Matthean infancy narrative that supply a framework for the story of the magi and the star:

  1. 1.In the annunciation to Joseph, Matthew follows the pattern of the typical annunciation of birth in the Old Testament—for example, the births of Isaac (Gn 17:15-21) and of Samson (Jgs 13).

  2. 2.Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph who receives a revelation in dreams (1:20; 2:13, 19) and who goes to Egypt (2:14) resembles the portrait of Joseph in the Old Testament, the patriarch who was “the dreamer” and who went down to Egypt, escaping an attempt on his life (Gn 37:28).

  3. 3.Matthew’s account of Jesus’ escape from Herod is like the Jewish story of Moses’ escape from the Pharaoh—the Moses who, like Jesus, came back from Egypt to which Joseph had gone. tThe biblical narrative of Moses’ birth had undergone considerable popular expansion by the first century A.D., as we can see in writers of that period like Philo and Josephus. In the expanded narrative Pharaoh was forewarned through his scribes (see Mt 2:4) that a child was about to be born who would prove a threat to his crown, and so he and his advisers decided to kill all the Hebrew male children. At the same time, through a dream there was divine revelation to Moses’ father that his wife, already pregnant, would bear the child who would save Israel, a child who would escape Pharaoh’s massacre. Forewarned, the parents acted to preserve the life of Moses when he was born. Later in life, Moses fled into Sinai and returned only when he heard from the Lord: “All those who were seeking your life are dead.” (Ex 4:19; cf. Mt 2:20).

The story of the magi and the star also echoes the Old Testaments account of Moses but combines this with the imagery of a Messiah descended from David—an imagery for which Matthew has prepared us by beginning the infancy narrative with “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David.” The Old Testament passage is Numbers 22-24, the episode involving Balaam. When Moses was leading Israel through the Transjordanian region on the way to the promised land, he encountered another wicked king who, like the Pharaoh of Egypt, tried to destroy him. This was Balak, king of Moab, who summoned from the East (Nm 23:7) a famous seer named Balaam who was to use his arts against Moses and Israel. Balaam was a non-Israelite, an occult visionary, a practicer of enchantment—in short, what would have been called in Jesus’ time a magus. He and his two servants (Nm 22:22) came; but instead of cursing Moses and Israel, he had a favourable vision of the future: “There shall come a man out of Israel’s seed, and he shall rule many nations...I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close;

a star shall rise from Jacob, and a man [sceptre] shall come forth from Israel”. (Nm 24:7, 17)

Almost certainly this passage refers to the emergence of the Davidic monarchy: it was understood that David was the star that Balaam had foreseen, the man who would be given the sceptre over the United Kingdom of Judah and Israel. In later Judaism the passage was taken as a reference to the Messiah, the anointed king of Davidic descent.

The Herod of Matthew’s story has the features not only of the Pharaoh who tried to destroy the baby Moses by killing the male children of the Hebrews, but also of King Balak who sought to destroy Moses by means of a magus from the East. Just as Balaam saw the star of David rise, the New Testament magi saw the star of the King of the Jews at its rising.

The realization that such Old Testament imagery lies behind the Matthean story of the magi and the star was one of the positive results of the second stage of scripture described in the Introduction. But now we concentrate on how Matthew used this story in chapter two of his Gospel to describe the aftermath of the revelation of who Jesus is—the good news which Matthew has attached to the annunciation of the conception of Jesus. This aftermath or sequence normally consisted of the proclamation of the good news to Jews and Gentiles, with the consequent twofold response of acceptance and rejection. The story of the magi and the star becomes for Matthew the anticipation of the fate of the good news of salvation, a fate that he already knew in the aftermath of the resurrection.

First, the Christological good news draws believers, and those believers, the magi, are Gentiles. yet the evangelist is Jewish enough to continue the tradition that, deprived of the Scriptures, the Gentiles never had so explicit a revelation as was given to the Jews. It was through nature that God revealed himself to the Gentiles (see Rm 1:19-20: 2:14-15).

And so Matthew shows the magi receiving a revelation through astrology: the birth star associated with the King of the Jews brings them the good news of salvation. This is an imperfect revelation; for while it tells them of the birth, it does not tell them where they can find the King of the Jews. The ultimate secret of his whereabouts is locked in the special revelation of God to Israel, in the Scriptures

(Mt 2:2-6). The Gentiles come to worship, but they must learn from the Jews the history of salvation. Then Matthew highlights the paradox: those who have the Scriptures and can see plainly what the prophets have said are not willing to worship the newborn king. To the contrary, the king and the chief priests and the scribes conspire against the Messiah, and the wicked king decrees his death. But God spares Jesus and ultimately brings back his Son from another land.

In other words, stories reflecting Old Testament reminiscences of Joseph, Moses and Balaam have now been worked into a unified anticipation of the passion and resurrection narrative.  The same cast of characters is present: the secular ruler, the chief priests and the scribes are all aligned against Jesus, who has only God on his side. But God makes Jesus victorious by bringing him back. And in this process, those who have the Scriptures, find and adore him.

The Matthean infancy story is not only gospel (the good news of salvation) - it is the essential gospel story in miniature. And so, when we look back at the history of Christianity, perhaps we can understand better now why this infancy narrative has been on of the most popular sections of the whole Jesus story, one of the best known and of worldwide appeal. This was due not only to the appreciation of a good story that was satisfying to emotion and sentiment; it also reflected a Christian instinct recognizing therein the essence of the good news—that is, that God has made himself present to us (Emmanuel) in the life of one who waked on this earth, indeed, so truly present that this one, Jesus, was his Son. This revelation was an offense and contradiction to some, but salvation to those who had eyes to see. Of the latter the magi are truly the forerunners, the anticipation of all those who would come to worship the risen Jesus proclaimed by the apostles. The Book of Numbers presented to Balaam as one from the East who could say, “I see him, but not now,” since the star would not rise from Jacob until David’s time. So also the Matthean magi, in seeing the star of the King of the Jews at its rising, see (but not now) the one whose kingship would not be visible historically until he had hung on the cross beneath the title The King of the Jews and would not be communicable until he had been elevated to God’s right hand through the resurrection.


The Ancestry of Jesus

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.

  1. 1.Abraham was the father of Isaac,

  2. 2.Isaac the father of Jacob,

  3. 3.Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

  4. 4.Judah  the father of Perez and Zerah, Tamar being their mother,

  5. 5.Perez was the father of Hezron,

  6. 6.Hezron the father of Ram,

  7. 7.Ram the father of Amminadab,

  8. 8.Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

  9. 9.Nahshon the father of Salmon,

  10. 10.Salmon the father of Boaz, Rahab being his mother,

  11. 11.Boaz the father of Obed, Ruth being his mother,

  12. 12.Obed was the father of Jesse;

  13. 13.and Jesse was the father of King David.

  1. 1.David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife,

  2. 2.Solomon was the father of Rehoboam,

  3. 3.Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

  4. 4.Abijah was the father of Jehoshaphat,

  5. 5.Jehoshaphat the father of Joram,

  6. 6.Joram the father of Azariah,

  7. 7.Azariah was the father of Jotham,

  8. 8.Jotham the father of Ahaz,

  9. 9.Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

  10. 10.Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh,

  11. 11.Manasseh the father of Amon,

  12. 12.Amon the father of Josiah;

  13. 13.and Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers.

After the deportation to Babylon:

  1. 1.Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel,

  2. 2.Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

  3. 3.Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud,

  4. 4.Abiud the father of Eliakim,

  5. 5.Eliakim the father of Azor,

  6. 6.Azor was the father of Zadok

  7. 7.Zadok the father of Achim,

  8. 8.Achim the father of Eliud,

  9. 9.Eliud was the father of Eleazar,

  10. 10.Eleazar the father of Matthan,

  11. 11.Matthan the father of Jacob;

  12. 12.and Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary;

  13. 13.of her was born Jesus, who is called Christ.