The Wisdom Tradition and Matthew's Magi

by Peter Sandstrom

The Gospel of Matthew tells of the coming of wise men from the East, looking for the newborn king of the Jews. The gospel writer also uses this story to tell us of the wisdom tradition related to the heritage, life, and teaching of Jesus and asks us to ponder that theme as we consider Jesus' birth. The wise men in Matthew 2 are said to be following a star. At the very least, part of their role is to use astronomy and astrology in the service, of wisdom for an Oriental royal court. There is also the hint that these wise men are functioning as emissaries from their king, though they are not portrayed as reporting first to Herod's court as might be expected if that were the case. That they show up in Herod's throne room is made known to us, however, and sets a traditional scene for a wisdom encounter.

In Israel's history, as well, wisdom was associated with the court though not with astrology. The wisdom tradition is one that Israel shared with its neighbors and predecessors in the Ancient Near East. Although it had a strong association with counselors at court, it had its roots and a continuing tradition in the life and daily experiences of the common people. Wisdom thus had a strong empirical streak in it, asking the questions, "Does it work?" "Will it work?" "Does it make sense?" Questions of this kind were of great import in court, in town, and out on the farm. One of the earliest of any recorded wisdom literature is "The Protest of the Eloquent Peasant." It tells of an Egyptian farmer who stands before Pharoah telling how the government's farm and tax programs are not working and how his farm is going under because of them.

So it is that the wisdom tradition's concern is for what is practical even in its most ultimate sense: "How will I survive?" Empirical rather than ideological, practical rather than moral, wisdom asks for insight that leads to individual and communal survival. In valuing common human experience, it places trust in learning that is drawn from the life of the community rather than learning that comes from pronouncements from outside or above the community. These are tendencies, however, and not absolutes. The story of wisdom in Israel is one that involves constant interaction among the themes, concerns, and sources of the other traditions of the nation, such as the priestly and prophetic. It is this interaction which the Gospel of Matthew sets before us in its account of the birth of Jesus.

It is extremely interesting that Matthew gives credit to the wisdom of astrologers for correctly interpreting a celestial sign as signifying the birth of Jesus. If current interpretations of ancient Persian astrology are accurate and if astronomical calculations are accepted, during the years 4-2 B.C, there was indeed a series of rare triple conjunctions of planets near the constellation that, in the Persian astrological systems, signified the House of the Jews.

For the Gospel of Matthew, what is important is that those who are associated with wisdom, the court, and measuring the movements of stars and planets are those who come calling on Jerusalem for information regarding the new king. An exchange of information takes place. Herod finds out just when the star appeared so that he can tell just how old a pretender he needs to eliminate and the wise men find out where the newborn king can be found so they may worship him. Here in court (Matthew 2:4) we have wise men, a king, and priests whom the king calls to find out the required information for the exchange. One more addition to this group now enters: the scriptures that the priests lift up are from the prophets! Wise men, kings, priests, and prophets, all of whom apparently need each other to get where they are going.

As these different groups of people gather and interact, so, also, does an equally interesting array of ideas. Among them are wisdom, truth, insight, foresight, shrewdness (arum? — see "Arum: A Study in Genesis 2:7-3:24 by David Hawkinson, Vol. II, No. I, p. 2), and deception. The questions: who knows what and how much, where they got their information, and with whom they do or do not share it are all vital to the drama that unfolds. At one time or another all the persons involved in Matthew's account both deceive and are deceived. At any point in the story, any one of them could ask, "What's really going on here?" The way that truth and deception are used by these different persons speaks to the various degrees to which they are or are not wise.

Herod does not know the truth of the baby's exact whereabouts in Bethlehem. In a supposedly secret meeting (vs. 7 — though vs. 3 leads one to wonder just how many secrets can actually be kept in Jerusalem), Herod deceives the wise men into a promise to return with the information he needs to locate and kill the baby (vs 8). The wise men in turn deceive Herod by leaving the country secretly without sharing their knowledge (vs. 12), thus saving the infant's life. The relation of their insight, shrewdness, and deception to the matter of Jesus' survival is a large part of wisdom's contribution to the Matthew story of Jesus' birth.

That Matthew brings these people and themes together in his birth narrative is surely no accident. It is interwoven with his comparison throughout Jesus' life with the life of Moses in the book of Exodus. In the Egypt story, not only is there a ruler who feels threatened and proceeds to kill children, there are also wise people, again both Jewish and gentile, who use insight, shrewdness, and deception in their efforts to save innocent infant lives.

One of the important differences between the Matthew and Exodus stories is that, in Matthew's drama, all the important players and wise people are men — not even Mary is given a speaking part. In Exodus, however, the wise people are women: Jewish midwives, including the mother of Moses, Moses' sister, and, eventually collaborating with these women, Pharoah's daughter and her attending women. The midwives persistently thwart Pharoah's plan for killing male Jewish babies. They not only deceive him, they lie through their teeth! The Exodus text takes special care to note that God was well-pleased with these wise women and that God generously rewarded them. When, eventually, not even the midwives' shrewdness can forestall Pharoah's killing of many infants any longer, the women of Moses' family engage in their own secret plans. They employ trickery and hide Moses in the river in a desperate gamble for his survival.

When Pharoah's daughter, a wise woman herself, discovers the baby Moses, she has immediate insight into what is going on. She collaborates in an extremely shrewd plan with Moses' sister to protect Moses and reimburses Moses' mother for her services while they all protect their own reputations and their safety.

Tragically though, in Exodus as in Matthew, despite the best efforts of wise and shrewd people, all of the children are not savers Exodus leaves us with the implicit realization that multitudes of Jewish baby boys were killed by Pharoah's troops. Matthew is very explicit in letting us know that Herod's wrath was successful and severe, resulting in the slaughter of most of Bethlehem's infants. (Please read David Hawkinson's penetrating article on this tragic episode on pages 1-3 of this issue.) Exodus, though, like its Matthew commentary, focuses on wisdom's ability to help save one child.

Pharoah's daughter, who saves Moses, will not be the only foreign wise woman who will enter the stage of Jewish history in a pivotal and crucial role. When the Moabite woman, Ruth, enters Bethlehem with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, she not only plays the role of a young wise woman throughout the Book of Ruth, she also becomes the grandmother of David, Israel's greatest king and a most celebrated wise man! Once again, as with Pharoah's daughter, a foreign wise woman has a great deal to do with assuring the life of a leader of Israel. Ruth, however, is not only the grandmother of David, she is also an ancient female ancestor of Jesus, who also was born in Bethlehem, the city of Ruth and her grandson. Our story has now come full circle back to Matthew.

The wisdom tradition, as we have seen, had a long involvement with the themes of insight and shrewdness. In Israel's chronological history, the earliest person considered to be "a wise man" is the patriarch Joseph, who was also associated with dreams and their interpretation. Following Joseph, the dream tradition was increasingly incorporated into the realm of the prophets rather than into the wisdom tradition. Matthew, however, brings both the insight and the foresight that is shared in dreams back into connection with the wisdom tradition.

In Matthew's gospel, it is another Joseph, this time the husband of Mary and parent of Jesus, who is portrayed as the wise person whose insight and shrewd action help insure the survival of the infant Jesus. The text, however, portrays Joseph's insight into the uniqueness and danger of his family situation as coming primarily from dreams, which were more associated with the source of prophetic insight than with the source of wisdom. Matthew intersperses the birth narrative with texts from the prophets, suggesting that in Joseph's experience, as with his ancient patriarch namesake, wisdom goes hand-in-glove with prophecy. What is both subtle and fascinating in this regard is that the wise men from the East, who made their journey based upon the wisdom that came from the court and from the study of stars and planets, returned to their home based upon the wisdom that worships a child and that dreams dreams. Once again, Jewish and foreign wisdom came together, changed each other, and helped save a child who lived to tell about it, and then some.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom