Print version ISSN 0259-9422
Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 no.2 Pretoria Apr./June 2008
The significance of dreams and the star in Matthew's infancy narrative
Francois P Viljoen
North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus)
The phenomena of dreams and the star of Bethlehem in Matthew's birth narrative have intrigued scholars through the ages. Scholarship in this regard went through the stages of identifying the origin of the material and of arguing the historicity of these events. Currently scholarship is moving into a new stage of investigating the meaning of these narratives. Without engaging the arguments developed by the first two stages mentioned, I investigate the significance of these unusual forms of revelation in this article.
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1 Significantly two very prominent nineteenth-century scholars writing on "the life of Jesus" ignore the Star of Bethlehem without any comment: Ernest Renan, La Vie de Jesus and D F Strauss, A new life of Jesus. In spite of widespread hesitancy concerning the historicity of this narrative there is no insuperable reason why one must deny that the tradition used by Matthew is historical in core (Hagner 1993:25).
2 Scholars delineate dream reports according to form-critical elements: Situation provided by the narrative, an introduction to the dream report, a theophany, a dream reference, a recipient, mentioning of the place, the auditory address formula, the message, termination of the dream and the fulfilment of the command (Gnuse 1990:107). The dreams or visions in Acts lack most of these significant elements.
3 Full accounts are given of three of these (1:20-25; 2:13-15 and 2:19-21), distinguished not only by the presence of the message, but also by reference to the angel of the Lord.
4 Ojnar and ovjneiro~ are the most common dream-vision terminologies (Dodson 2006:40).
5 The Elohist as one of the four sources or strata underlying the Pentateuch is far from assured, nor do those who acknowledge these sources agree on their features. Nevertheless some coherent portrait of the Elohist emerges from scholarship.
6 The Biblical narrative of Moses' birth had undergone substantial expansion by the first century AD as can be seen in the writings of Josephus (Ant 2.205, 206). In the expanded narrative Pharaoh was warned by his scribes that a child was about to be born who would threaten his crown, and he and his advisers decided to kill all the Hebrew male children. At the same time Moses' father had a divine revelation in a dream that his pregnant wife would bear a child who would save Israel the child who escaped Pharaoh's massacre (cf Brown 1975:577).
7 However, to assume that Matthew is unqualified pro-Gentile reveals that not all evidence is taken into account. Sim (1995:19-48) convincingly indicates that Matthew portrays Gentiles both positively as negatively.
8 Matthew's Gospel implies a reader who is rooted in the traditions of Israel Viljoen (2006a:152). Jesus' mission is to Israel. However, converts from all nations are welcomed and expected (Viljoen 2006b:259).
9 Artemidorus divided dreams into five categories; enigmatic dreams, prophetic vision, oracular dreams, nightmares, and apparitions (Dodson 2002:40)
10 Miller (1990:401-4) thinks that early Judaism blurred the older distinction between dreams and night visions.
11 In Matthew's narrative angels only appear in dreams until the appearance of the angel at the empty grave after Jesus' resurrection (Mt 28:2).
12 The parallels between Matthew's infancy and passion narratives are remarkable. Both have formula quotations, Gentiles (Magi and Pilate's wife) who have dreams and Jewish leaders with Herod and Pilate respectively.
13 This allusion could be another example of how Matthew views Jesus as the "new Moses" (cf Allison 1993:137-270).
14 As stated above, I do not engage the argument about the historicity of the events, but discuss the significance of the narrative.
15 Astrologers studied the relative movement of celestial bodies and interpreted their findings as having influence on human affairs and the natural world.
16 The Moses haggadah is very close to the Matthean story. Magi (TgJ pn Ex 1:15; ExR 1:18 on Ex 1:22) or scribes (Josephus, Ant 2.205) predict for Pharaoh the birth of Moses that would become its conqueror. Pharaoh is very upset (Josephus, Ant 2.206) and orders the infanticide (cf Luz 1989, 131). The same cast of characters is present: the wicked ruler, the chief priests and scribes that aligned against the newborn King.
17 Earlier texts apply "King of kings" to the Babylonian ruler (cf Ezr 7:12; Ezk 26:7; Dn 2:37).
18 In New Testament times the word mavgoi covered a wide range of people who practiced occult cults: astrologers, fortunetellers, magicians of varying degrees of plausibility (Brown 1975:577). Matthew refers to astrologers.
19 This formulation as interpretation of the text probably was first used by Augustine, Serm. 200.1 and 202.1.