Why Are Mystic Magi in the Jewish Nativity Story?

Why do mystic Magi appear in an account written about a Jewish Messiah? Magi were scorned by Judaism for their mystical reputation.[1] How likely is it the Jewish author of Matthew would unnecessarily introduce the Magi…unless it was true?

MT 2:1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” (NIV)

MT 2:1 “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (NRSV)

Clearly not worried his reference to the Magi would ever be called into question by his contemporaries, Matthew’s account covered the Magi through 12 verses with at least 10 specific details.[2] He assumed his audience would recognize the Magi for who they were and the significance of their visit to Jerusalem.[3]

Matthew’s Greek text uses the word magos. Its Latin word equivalent is magus, its plural form is magi.[4] The word is sometimes translated into English as “wise men” – both are correct.

Babylonians, Medes and Persians viewed magos as an eclectic group of priests, physicians, teachers, soothsayers, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, and sorcerers. Not surprisingly, magi is the root word of the English word “magic.” It is easy to see how magi could be referred to as “wise men” – or just as easily, “mystics.”

Roman era Jewish society had a dual-perspective of magi. One was of the famed Daniel, a captured Israelite of royal descent whom Nebuchadnezzar placed into the elite Babylonian school of the Chaldeans which included an education in astronomy and astrology.[5]

Scripture says God gave “Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams,” a gift that landed him in Nebuchadnezzar’s royal council of wise men, the chakkiym.[6] Later, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of all the magi, a Rab-mag.[7]

After the Medes and Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire, Daniel’s “extraordinary spirit” again elevated him to a high level of government authority under Darius.[8] The main religion of the Medes and Persians during the reigns of Darius and Cyrus was Zoroastrianism. Its found, Zoroaster, was himself a magi.[9]

Setting the stage for the other Jewish perspective of magi began when Alexander the Great marched through Judea. The Greek Empire’s open-minded Hellenistic culture allowed the Jews religious freedom, but it also introduced Zoroastrianism intermingled with influences of the Babylonian chakkiym; its priests called magi. [10]

Over the coming decades the effects of Hellenism on Jewish culture was unavoidable much to the frustration of the Jewish Rabbis. Liberal philosophies of Hellenism permeated Jewish culture meanwhile Greek became the common language.[11] Next came the Roman Empire which was content to leave the prevailing culture in Judea alone.[12] 

As expert astronomers, the Magi used the legendary Babylonian astronomical science and charts to study of the motion of stars past, present and future. Their ability to plot upcoming cosmic events were scientifically predictive, not “mystical.” [13]

Toward the very end of the BC era a series of rare celestial conjunctions occurred, ones hard to ignore by astronomers – then or today. Witnessing just one such rare conjunction can be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine the scenario where, in a space of just 5 years from 7-2 BC, there were 13 rare conjunctions including two triple conjunctions! [14]  

Zoroaster beliefs held that celestial events served as signs with earthly significance. Signs of a newborn king observed by the Magi were so awe-inspiring, they set out on a month’s long quest to find and worship him.[15] If these signs visible across the entire Middle East were of such great magnitude, then why were only three magi inspired to begin such a quest?  Matthew does not say there were only three Magi…a Christmas legend.

Matthew’s introduction of the Magi into the Nativity story has a full historical basis behind its setting. Not just anyone appearing on the door step of the King’s palace would expect to gain entry. Yet, when the Magi arrived unannounced, they had no problem gaining direct access to King Herod who gave them his immediate and full attention. 

Herod did not question the credibility of the Magi when they gave him the alarming news about the birth of a king of the Jews. Neither did the King’s Jewish religious council who, instead, pointed Herod to Micah’s prophecy saying a Jewish ruler was to be born in Bethlehem.

Believing the prophecy to be true, Herod invited the Magi back for another meeting to investigate the timing of the star, directed them to Bethlehem, and slyly asked for their help in finding this newborn king. Angered when they didn’t return, Herod’s reaction by killing all the children 2 years old and under in the Bethlehem district testifies to his belief in the truth of the Magi’s message about a newborn king of the Jews.

If King Herod, his royal Jewish religious council and the author of Matthew believed the credibility and message of the Magi, should others believe it, too?

REFERENCES:

[1] Deuteronomy 4, 18.  Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  Sanhedrin 98a. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html> “Zoroastrianism – Magi.” Geni. 2016. <https://www.geni.com/projects/Zoroastrianism-Magi/13185>  
[2]  Matthew 2:1-12.
[3] Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. 2017. Chapter 2. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge.  <http://www.askelm.com/star/star002.htm#_ednref19>
[4]  “magus”  WordReference.com. <http://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=magus> “magi.”  WordReference.com. <http://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=magi> “magus.” Merriam-Webster.  <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magus>  
[5]  Daniel 1. Guisepi, Robert. “The Chaldeans, The Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian) Empire.” International World History Project.  2007.  <http://history-world.org/chaldeans.htm>  “Chaldea.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. 2014.  <http://www.britannica.com>  “Chaldea.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4213-chaldea>
[6] NKJV.  Daniel 1- 2.  “Magi.” New World Encyclopedia. 2014. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Magi>  Net.bible.org.  Daniel 2:12 Hebrew text “chakkiym” <02445>.  “Chaldea.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  Diodorus of Sicily. Mesopotamia: Ninus, Semiramis, the wonders of Babylon; Sardanapalus, Chaldaean astrology.  Vol. I.  Book II.  University of Chicago|Bill Thayer.  2017.  Page 431 # 24 ; p 447-457 #29-31. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html>
 [7] Jeremiah 39:3, 13.
[8] NASB. Daniel 6, 10-12.  Deuteronomy 4:19.  Gascoigne, Bamber.  “History of Zoroastrianism.”  HistoryWorld.net. n.d.  <http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab71>  “Zoroastrianism – Magi.” Geni. “Daniel, the Magi and the Luni-solar Calendar of Israel.” TryGod.com. 2017. <http://try-god.com/daniel-the-magi-and-the-luni-solar-calendar-of-israel.php
[9]  Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[10] “Hellenism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>.  Hooker, Richard.  “Alexander the Great – Hellenistic Greece.” Washington State University. 1999. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110104072822/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/ALEX.HTM>  “Zoroastrianism – Magi.”  Geni. “Zoroastrianism.”  BBC|The British Broadcasting Corporation. 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian>   Jafarey, Ali Akbar.  “The Achaemenians, Zoroastrians in Transition.”  CAIS|The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. 2015. <http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Zarathushtrian/achaemenian_zarathushtrian.htm>  Hooker, Richard.  “Mesopotamia:  The Persians.”  Washington State University. 1996. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110514001358/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/PERSIANS.HTM>  Hooker, Richard.  “Hellenistic Greece:  Hellenism.” Washington State University. 1999. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110104072353/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/HELLGREE.HTM>   “Zoroastrianism.”  ReligionFacts.com. 2014.  <http://www.religionfacts.com/zoroastrianism/index.htm>  Reed, Vicky.  “The Religion of the Persian Empire.” EsthersLegacy.com.  2011. <http://estherslegacy.com> “Zoroastrianism.”  PersianEmpire.info. 2007. <http://persianempire.info/zoro.htm>  Gascoigne. “History of Zoroastrianism.”  Gascoigne, Bamber. “Iran (Persia) timeline.” HistoryWorld.net. n.d.  <http://www.historyworld.net/timesearch/default.asp?conid=static_timeline&timelineid=759&page=1&keywords=Iran+%28Persia%29+timeline>  Eduljee, K. E. “Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi.”  Zoroastrian Heritage. 2011. <http://zoroastrianheritage.blogspot.com/2011/04/greek-perceptions-of-zoroaster.html>  Leverington, David. Babylon to Voyager and Beyond – A History of Planetary Astronomy.  Chapter 1. 2003.  <http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/08408/sample/9780521808408ws.pdf>  Diodorus.  Mesopotamia: Ninus, Semiramis, the wonders of Babylon; Sardanapalus, Chaldaean astrology.  Vol.I, Book II. Page 457; #31. 
[11] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.
[12] Myrle, Winn. “The Impact of Hellenism On Rome.” The Ancient Nile Webring. n.d.  <http://kekrops.tripod.com/Hellenistic_Files/Impact_On_Rome.html>  Hooker. “Hellenistic Greece:  Hellenism.” Petrucci, Valerio. “Hellenization and Romanization – the Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Cultures in the 1st and 2nd Centuries.” 2017. Academia. <https://www.academia.edu>
[13] Eduljee. “Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi.”  Leverington. Babylon to Voyager and Beyond – A History of Planetary Astronomy. Chapter 1.
[14] Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.” Pulcherrima Productions.  1997.  Twin Cities Creation Science Association.  n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>  Phillips, Tony. “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000. <http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Birth of Jesus.” Navsoft.com. 2012. <http://navsoft.com/html/birth_of_jesus.html>  Martin.  The Star of Bethlehem. Chapters 1, 4.  Cain, Fraser. “Venus and Jupiter’s Upcoming Conjunction.”   Universe Today.  29 Oct. 2004.  <http://www.universetoday.com/10006/venus-and-jupiters-upcoming-conjunction/#ixzz2B6cvKJEt>  Sielaff, David.  “An Important August 2 B.C.E. Conjunction.”  A.S.K. (Associates For Scriptural Knowledge), 2005. <http://www.askelm.com/news/n051211.htm>  Clevenger, John. “Astronomy, Astrology, and the Star of Bethlehem.”  Lake County (Illinois) Astronomical   Society.  n.d. <http://www.lcas-astronomy.org/articles/display.php?filename=the_christmas_star&category=miscellaneous>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.”  Anglican Curmudgeon.  2009. <http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2009/10/star-of-bethlehem-and-nativity.html>  Newman, Robert C. “The Star of Bethlehem: A Natural-Supernatural Hybrid?”  Interdisciplinary Bible Research Institute.  IBRI Paper (2001).  <http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm>  Beatty, Kelly. “Venus and Jupiter:  Together at Last.” Sky & Telescope. 25 June 2015. <http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/venus-and-jupiter-a-dazzling-duo-062520154>  Ratnikas,  Algis. “Timeline 499BCE – 1BCE.”  Timeslines of History.  n.d. <http://timelines.ws/0D499_1BC.HTML>  Pratt, John P.  “The Star of Bethlehem’s Forerunner.” JohnPratt.com. <http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2000/xmas_star.html>  “Star of Bethlehem May Have Been Planets Jupiter, Venus.”  IU News Room. 16 Dec. 2003.  <http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/1203.html&t=Star%20of%20Bethlehem%20may%20have%20been%20planets%20Jupiter%20and%20Venus>  Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>  Flescher, Eric and Sessions, Larry. “Ten ‘Star’ of Bethlehem Myths: Part II.”  Space.com. 26 Dec. 2001. <http://web.archive.org/web/20041205014757/http://space.com:80/SpaceReportersNetworkAstronomyDiscoveries/flescher_Xmasstar2_122601.html>  Cain, Fraser. “Venus-Jupiter Conjunction, March 15th, 2012.”  Universe Today. 13 Mar. 2012. <http://www.universetoday.com/94113/venus-jupiter-conjunction-march-15th-2012 >  Fazekas, Andrew.  “Christmas Star Mystery Continues.”  National Geographic Daily News. 24 Dec. 2008.  <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/12/081224-star-bethlehem.html
[15] “Trade between the Romans and the Empire of Asia.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  National Museum of American History, “Trade Routes” >  “Major Trade Routes of 2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE.”  <http://web.archive.org/web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu:80/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm> “Iran Historical Maps Arsacid Parthian Empire, Armenian Kingdom.” Atlas of Iran Maps. n.d. Iran Politics Club. 2014. <http://iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps04/index.htm

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Herod – Profile of a Cunning and Cruel King

Infamous as King of Judea in the Nativity story, Herod the Great was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.  Was the King really such a villain?

MT 2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…”

MT 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (NKJV)

Hard to believe anyone, especially a king of Judea, would kill all the boys in a Jewish community the age of 2 years and younger. How could a king be so cruel to his own people? One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage – his father Idumean, his mother Arabian.[1]

Herod’s career began as governor of Galilee in 47 BC appointed by his father, an administrator of Judea under Julius Caesar. Josephus noted people quickly saw Herod’s harsh personality:  “…they saw that he was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.”[2]

As governor, he killed so many people in violation of Jewish law, the Sanhedrin put him on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod that he was about to be found guilty allowing his escape to Damascus.[3]

Aligning himself with Roman rulers, the Procurator of Syria, Sextus Caesar, appointed Herod as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” Bribery and expensive gifts would be effective to maintaining Roman relationships. Marc Antony “by money” named Herod as tetrarch and such persuasions helped avert a dangerous dalliance with Cleopatra.[4]

With more financial influences, Antony presented Herod to the Roman Senate which voted to make him King of Judea in 40 BC. Authority had to be taken by force in Judea over the course of 3 years with the assistance of Roman Legions provided by Antony.[5]

Politics were a life and death game, one Herod played very adeptly. After Antony’s defeat by Octavius, Herod figured his days were numbered whereupon he boldly presented himself to Octavius in Rome. Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned his loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if allowed to pledge him allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship for the remainder of Herod’s life.[6] 

Allowed more power by Rome than any other king in the provinces, Herod was positioned to acquire great wealth and fame. Wealth was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some illicitly. Josephus wrote that under cover of night, Herod robbed King David’s sepulcher of gold furniture and precious goods (Hycranus had already robbed the money).[7]

Herod is famed for rebuilding the Temple back to the grandeur of Solomon. He also built new cities including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar and Herodium in honor of himself; buildings in honor of his parents and other Roman friends; palaces, temples, theaters, amphitheaters, market places, aqueducts, harbors, and exercise facilities throughout Judea and beyond including Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Greece.[8]

Rome’s Hellenistic culture was more important to Herod than honoring Jewish laws. The King hosted international games in honor of Caesar every five years with naked competitors and large prizes; Roman-style arena spectacles with wild animals and men; and public displays of trophies of war. 

All these things caused great animosity among the Jews. Throwing fuel on the fire, Herod used Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the new Temple. One sacrilege was placing Rome’s golden eagle insignia over the Temple gate leading to a future incident marking the final days of Herod – and another atrocity when 40 insurrectionists were burned alive. [9]  

Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats to himself.[10] A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” where anyone excepting his family were subject to it. Josephus identified palace eunuchs, body guards, maids, friends of family members, soldiers, and anyone else possibly holding secrets who met a fate on the rack.[11]

Perhaps the biggest threat to Herod actually came from his own family. With 10 wives and children, the palace was constantly in turmoil full of people who bore hatred for one another with rivalries, slanders, lies, backstabbing, and murder conspiracies.[12]

Executions and murders were standard fare. Herod killed the 17-year old brother of his second wife, Mariamne, because he wanted someone else to be high priest. He killed Hyrcanus, her grandfather, former high priest, and old heir to the throne. Mariamne rebuked Herod, his sister Salome and their mother for the murders leading to her own execution from a ginned up false murder conspiracy.[13]

Mariamne’s sons were heirs to the throne stirring more jealousies, slanders and conspiracies by Herod’s first wife and oldest son, Antipater, born before he was king. Convinced Mariamne’s sons were guilty of a murder plot to kill him, Herod tried them in absentia and, without any hard evidence, they were still convicted. Both sons were strangled and others who condemned Herod’s actions were tortured and killed. Days before Herod died, he also executed Antipater.[14]

Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a gangrenous groin condition where his bowels protruded out of his body, he thought death would be a welcome relief and attempted suicide.

Knowing death was imminent, the King devised the most dastardly plan of his reign. Feeling sorry for himself, Herod summoned all the principal men throughout Judea under threat of death compelling a great number to travel to Jericho.[15]

Surmising they would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, Herod wanted to deprive them of such mockery and had them locked inside the hippodrome. Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were commanded to kill them with darts intended to place all of Judea in a state of mourning. Further, to ensure deep national mourning, one member of each family in Judea was also to be killed.[16]  

Such depravity was even too much for his wicked sister, Salome. Upon his death, the plan was aborted and the principal men released after informing the soldiers that Herod had changed his mind at the last moment.[17]

Does the historical profile of Herod strengthen the credibility of Matthew’s Nativity account or diminished it?

REFERENCES:

[1]Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>
[2] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIV, Ch. IX.  William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Google Books.  n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book I, Chapter X. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>   “Herod the Great – Governor of Galilee (47-37 B.C.).”   <https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Idumean>
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Ch. IX; Book XV, Chapter II.  Josephus. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X. “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016.
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapters IV, V, IX, XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter. XVI, XII-XIV.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters IV, XV – XVII.  “Herod I.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters VI-VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XIX-XX.
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXI, XXV, XXIV.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.  
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Edersheim, Alfred.   The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 1. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/default.htm>  Hegg, Tim.  “Separating the Most Holy from the Holy:  The ‘Veil’ in the Tabernacle and First & Second Temples” Torah Resource.  <http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Veil%20ETS%20Paper.pdf>  “Temple of Jerusalem.”  New World Encyclopedia. 2015. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Temple_of_Jerusalem>  “Herod’s Temple.”  Bible-history.com.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODHerods_Temple.htm>   “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism> “Asia Minor.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2010-asia-minor>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX. 
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII.  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities.  Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. 

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Rabbi Rashi and the Messiah Prophecies

Rashi, one of Judaism’s greatest interpreters of the Talmud, emerged at a time when the Dark Ages were transitioning from rule by barbarian tribes like the Huns, Goths and Franks into the feudal era when kings, queens, knights & lords ruled Europe.[1] In the year 1040, Shelomoh Yitzha was born in Troyes, France.[2]

As a Rabbi, Rashi was renowned for his wisdom and interpretation of the Talmud in simple terms. Jewish academies widely accepted and valued Rashi’s commentaries mostly captured and documented by his students.[3]

Commentaries of Rashi include some Messiah prophecies which are also recognized by Christian authorities. One of the earliest is Jacob’s blessing of his son, Judah:

Gen 49:8-10 “Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you.  A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah.  From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.” The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary

Rashi’s interpretation included three prophetic aspects. Judah like a lion foreshadowed David who would become like a lion when the people made him their king. The scepter represents the royal lineage of “David and thereafter.” Shiloh refers specifically to the “King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs.” [4]

Moabite King Balak repeatedly pressed the Gentile prophet Balaam to place a curse on the approaching Hebrew nation as an alternative means to military confrontation. Balaam’s response was a prophecy doing just the opposite:

Num 24:17  “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” New American Standard

Hebrew text translations vary between Christian and Jewish Bibles.  “I see him, but not now” is translated as in the Jewish version as “I see it, but not now.”  Hebrew text does not contain the pronoun for “him” which is inferred by the remainder of the prophecy of a king, a male.[5] Rashi’s commentary says the opening phrase refers to the “greatness of Jacob” at a future time.

Hebrew word shebet is translated in the Jewish version as “staff” whereas the same word is translated as “scepter” in Jacob’s prophecy.[6] Consistently, the Rabbi’s commentary likewise says shebet represents “a king who rules dominantly.” While Balaam’s prophecy has strong Messiah implications, Rashi does not explicitly say it such as he did in his commentary on Jacob’s prophecy.

Micah 5:2 appears as verse 1 in the Jewish Bible, a prophecy making specific reference to Bethlehem Ephrathah, home town of King David, and a future ruler of Israel:

Mich 5:1 (or v.2) “And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah – you should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah-from you [he] shall emerge for Me, to be a ruler over Israel; and his origin is from of old, from days of yore.” The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary

Micah’s prophecy is understood by Rashi to mean the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah in the royal lineage of King David which stands opposed to some critics, including Jewish, who challenge the interpretation.[7] His remarkable phrase-by-phrase breakdown:

“And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah”:  [Rashi]: “whence David emanated, as it is stated (I Sam. 17:58): “The son of your bondsman, Jesse the Bethlehemite.” And Bethlehem is called Ephrath, as it is said (Gen. 48:7): “On the road to Ephrath, that is Bethlehem.”

“you should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah”: [Rashi]: You should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah because of the stigma of Ruth the Moabitess in you.

“from you shall emerge for Me”: [Rashi]: the Messiah, son of David, and so Scripture says (Ps. 118:22): “The stone the builders had rejected became a cornerstone.”  

“and his origin is from of old”: [Rashi]: “Before the sun his name is Yinnon” (Ps. 72:17).

The Rabbi expressed his distaste of Ruth, a Gentile, being in the prophetic lineage of the Messiah, facts unsavory to a Hebrew lineage.[8] He cites “the stigma of Ruth the Moabitess” as the reason Bethlehem is called “the lowest of the clans of Judah.”

Another Gentile appears in the lineage of David and the Messiah. Rahab, the prostitute, was spared from death after she helped the two Hebrew spies escape the Jericho King’s posse.[9] Rahab then married a Hebrew, their grandson being Boaz who married Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi whose inheritance was redeemed by Ruth’s marriage. Boaz and Ruth were the grandparents of Jesse, great grandparents of King David.

Leaving no doubt his interpretation is that of a messianic prophecy, Rashi explicitly said the future ruler of Israel would be “the Messiah, Son of David” citing Psalms 118:22 as another messianic prophecy. The Messiah’s divine characteristic, “and his origin is from of old,” is called Yinnon by Rashi, a Hebrew epithet meaning “be continued.”[10]

Christianity’s relatively close agreement with Rashi on the Messiah prophecies of Jacob, Balaam and Micah, parts company on another prophecy, Isaiah 7:14.[11] Rashi taught Isaiah’s prophecy was not about a virgin birth, rather it referred to Manoah’s wife, mother of Sampson, the Biblical strongman.[12]

As a Rabbi, Rashi obviously did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah due in part to a particular disqualification – the fact that Jesus was killed. Specifically, according to JewishEncyclopedia.com citing Rashi, it is the circumstances of his death:

“The very form of his punishment would disprove those claims in Jewish eyes. No Messiah that Jews could recognize could suffer such a death; for “He that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. xxi. 23), ‘an insult to God’ (Targum, Rashi).”[13]

Crucifixion of Jesus as a historical fact is undisputed by Judaism. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in the royal lineage of the House of David are also undisputed facts by Judaism. The ultimate question between Christianity and Judaism remains…what are the odds Jesus was a fulfillment of the Messiah prophecies?

REFERENCES:

[1] “Dark Ages.” New World Encyclopedia. 2013. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dark_Ages>  “Middle Ages,” “Feudalism,” & “Renaissance.”  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2017. <https://www.britannica.com/event/Middle-Ages> <https://www.britannica.com/topic/feudalism> <https://www.britannica.com/event/Renaissance>  “feudal system.” Vocabulary.com. n.d. <https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/feudal%20system>
[2] “Rashi (Solomon Bar Isaac).” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12585-rashi-solomon-bar-isaac>  “Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi).”  Chabad.org. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbi-shlomo-yitzchaki-rashi> Segal, Eliezer.  “Rashi’s Commentary on the Talmud.”  University of Calgary.  n.d.  <http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMap/Rashi.html>
[3] “Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi).”  Chabad.org.
[4] Rashi. The Compete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. Gensis 49. <http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9952#showrashi=true>  “Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017.  Mindel, Nissan. “Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi).”  Chabad.org
[5] Net.bible.org. Hebrew text. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php>
[6] Net.bible.org. Hebrew text shebet <07626>  Rashi. The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary  Commentary.
[7] “Jesus Christ is a False Messiah.”  Ed. Chris Thiefe.  EvilBible.com. Point #8. <http://www.evilbible.com/jesus_false.htm>  “Jesus of Bethlehem.” MessianicJewishTruth.com. n.d. Archive.org. 2013.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20131103080951/http://www.messianicjewishtruth.com/Jesusbethlehem.html>      “Who will emerge from Bethlehem.”  Teshuvas HaMinim.  2011.  Archive.org. 2012.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20120902023316/http://www.teshuvashaminim.com/michah51.html>    
[8] Mendel. “Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).” 
[9] Joshua 2.
[10] Yinon (Yinnon).” eTeacherHebrew.com.  2016. <http://eteacherhebrew.com/Hebrew-Names/yinon-yinnonInterlinear Bible.  Psalms 72:17. BibleHub.com.  2014. <http://biblehub.com/interlinear>
[11] The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary.  Isaiah , Chapter 7.  “Who is the Almah’s son?” Teshuvas HaMinim. 2011.  Archive.org.  2012.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20120425022737/http://www.teshuvashaminim.com/isaiah714.html>  Robinson, B.A. “Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…””  Religious Tolerance. 2007. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_proi.htm>  Gill, John.  John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible.  Isaiah 7:14.  2017. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb.html>  
[12] The Compete Jewish Bible- with Rashi Commentary.  Isaiah 7:14. CR Judges Chapter 13.
[13] “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  

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