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18 The Star of the Magi and the Prophecy of Balaam in Earliest Christianity, with Special Attention to the Lost Books of Balaam

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Chapter Summary

Balaam’s oracle about the star from Jacob (Num 24:17), which was already interpreted messianically in Second Temple Judaism, was read as a prophecy of the advent of Christ as early as Justin Martyr. Justin is also the earliest extant witness of the identification of Balaam’s star with the star that led the magi to Bethlehem. A simple equation of the two stars continues well into the patristic period. However, another, more complex interpretation exists, which identifies the magi as the descendants or successors of Balaam who preserved the latter’s prophecies, including especially the one concerning the star, and passed them down from generation to generation until the advent of Christ. This more detailed tradition first appears in the writings of Origen. While Origen never details where he found this exegetical tradition, later Fathers seem to indicate that Origen’s source was an apocryphal book about or attributed to Balaam, which is now lost, but which circulated in Christian circles from the second century until sometime in late antiquity. This apocryphal text was among the earliest narratives to re-tell the story of the magi.



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