Giving and receiving light on Epiphany: what can we learn from a band of pagan foreigners in a Jewish story?

Ben Irwin

We three(ish) kingsWe three(ish) kings

At first glance, it seems odd that Matthew is the only gospel to record the events we commemorate on Epiphany: an unknown number of foreign visitors (no, there aren’t necessarily just three of them, they aren’t just “wise men,” and they’re almost certainly not “kings”) arrive to herald a toddler in Bethlehem.

It’s odd because Matthew’s gospel is the most distinctively Jewish of the four. It presents Jesus’ story through a more nationalistic lens than the others. Matthew’s Messiah is sent, it would seem, “only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Matthew is steeped in Jewish tradition. Even its arrangement—consisting of five main sections or “books,” each building up to a major sermon or discourse from Jesus—mimics the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Matthew takes pains to connect Jesus to the Jewish story, quoting regularly from the Hebrew prophets. The author bristles at the…

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