Ancient Judaism Scripture and Tradition Synoptic Gospels

Balaam, the Magi, Matthew, and Philo: The Problem of Using Rabbinic Sources

In some instances, rabbinic sources appear to contain traditions that shed valuable light on what we find in the New Testament.

The obvious problem, however, is that these sources clearly post-date the New Testament books. To appeal to the rabbis to account for what we find in the New Testament is therefore fraught with difficulties.

But what if the New Testament writers were, at times, drinking upstream from from the rabbis? In other words, what if the New Testament authors are the earliest written witnesses of traditions that were only later mentioned by the rabbis?

Here I would like to highlight a possible example of this.

As commentators often explain, Matthew’s account of the magi being drawn to Jesus’ birthplace by a star is likely connected to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24. There we read:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near: A star shall appear from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. . .”

Numbers 24:17

The passage unambiguously connects the “star” to royal imagery, namely, the “scepter.”

It is no surprise, then, that the Dead Sea Scrolls interpret Balaam’s oracle as a messianic prophecy. For example, the Damascus Document states:

The sceptre is the prince of the whole congregation. . .

CD-A VII, 20 (cf. also 4Q266 III, 21); quoted from Florentino Garcı́a Martı́nez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition [DSSSE] (Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997–1998), 1:61.

As W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison explain,* there are other indicators that this prophecy was connected to messianic hopes in the first century:

  1. The Septuagint bears witness to a messianic reading, rendering “scepter” as “he”.
  2. The name of the later messianic figure Simon Bar Kokhba (“son of the star”) was likely derived from Numbers 24:17.
  3. The various targummim include the terms “king” or “anointed one” within the text.*

Given all of this, commentators think it probable that the star in Matthew’s description of the the birth of the messiah involves an allusion to Balaam’s prophecy.

But there is more.

What is often overlooked is that Balaam himself was associated with magi. Here I will draw from Davies and Allison’s fine commentary as well as from a fascinating article published by David Instone-Brewer (cited below).

Philo specifically calls Balaam a magos (Philo, Life of Moses, 1:276), the same term he uses to describe the “magicians” who opposed Moses in Egypt (Philo, Life of Moses, 1:92).

Such magicians are present in the Exodus story, though a different Greek word is used for them in the Septuagint.

So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and did as the LORD had commanded. And Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a snake. 11 Then Pharaoh called the wise men [LXX sophistēs] and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians [LXX epaoidos] of Egypt, did likewise by their secret arts. 12 Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

Exod 7:10-13; my translation

Jewish tradition identified the Egyptian sorcerers as “Jannes” and “Jambres.” The tradition appears, for example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

For in ancient times there arose Moses and Aaron, by the hand of the prince of lights and Belial, with his cunning, raised up Jannes and his brother during the first deliverance of Israel.

CD-A V, 17-19 (cf. 4Q267 frag. II, 1-2; cited from DSSSE 1:559.

Remarkably, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Numbers 22 identifies Balaam as the father of Jannes and Jambres!

And he [Balaam] was riding on his ass and his two lads, Jannes and Jam(b)res.

Cied from David Instone-Brewer, “Balaam-Laban as the Key to the Old Testament Quotations in Matthew 2,” in Built upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 219.

Later Jewish works such as The Chronicles of Moses continue this tradition:

And after they [Moses and Aaron] left, Pharaoh sent and called to Balaam the magician and Jannes and Jambaris [sic] his sons the sorcerers.

The Chronicles of Moses cited in Yalqut Shimoni 173; cited from Instone-Brewer, “Balaam-Laban as the Key,” 219.

Now, again, many of the texts cited above post-date Matthew. As far as I know, apart from Philo, Balaam is not connected to the magi in any source that clearly pre-dates Matthew.

Nevertheless. . . wow.

Here we either have a remarkable coincidence or Matthew is breathing the same air as Philo. And from what we have seen, there appears to be a trajectory of tradition between Philo and subsequent rabbinic and Targumic sources.

New Testament exegesis is difficult and exegetes must be cautious. Given the evidence from Philo, we have warrant to think that the Jewish traditions connecting Balaam to magi were already circulated in Matthew’s day.

But what if we didn’t have Philo? In that case, we would be left with much more uncertainty. Yet that would that mean that appealing to the later rabbinic traditions would be recklessly irresponsible? I think not, though certainly caution would sill have to rule the day.

A model for me in navigating these issues has been the careful scholarship found in W. D. Davies and Dale Allison’s Matthew commentary. Throughout their work, Davies and Allison not only highlight later Jewish sources, but also appeal to the later Christian writer Eusebius. In cases where caution should prevail, they are justifiably careful. Still, they are not afraid to use later sources.

For example, after citing Balaam’s oracle as the backdrop for Matthew 2, the mention that Eusebius describes the magi as “Balaam’s successors”:

We are told that Balaam’s successors moved by this (for the prediction was preserved most likely among them), when they noticed in the heavens a strange star besides the usual ones, fixed above the head, so to say, and vertically above Judæa, hastened to arrive at Palestine, to inquire about the King announced by the star’s appearance

Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel, 9.1 [418]; cited from Eusebius of Cæsarea, The Proof of the Gospel: Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Cæsarea, ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke, trans. W. J. Ferrar, vol. 2 of Translations of Christian Literature: Series I: Greek Texts (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), 150–151.

In the end, Davies and Allison conclude that Eusebius was likely on the right track:

Matthew probably thought of the magi as ‘Balaam’s successors’ (so Eusebius, Dem ev. 9:1) who come to witness the fulfillment of the OT oracle their predecessor uttered so long ago.

W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, ICC, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988–1997),1:231.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for a reckless use of post-biblical sources. We should always be cautious and critical about such literature. It would be hazardous to assume that they reflect what Jews in the first century thought.

Indeed, we know that they often do not!

Nevertheless, I keep coming back to Philo and Matthew’s narrative. If it was not for the Alexadrian Jew, we would have little indication that the Balaam-magi connection was already established in Matthew’s day. And that makes me wonder: what other traditions attested only in later rabbinic works were circulating in the first-century? The sad thing is, we likely can’t say.

But, in case no one has mentioned it:

Thank you, Philo.

*W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, ICC, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988–1997),1:234.

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