The Feast of the Epiphany in the church’s liturgical calendar is based on the events of Matt 2.1–12, the visit of the ‘wise men’ from the East to the infant Jesus. There are plenty of things about the story which might make us instinctively treat it as just another part of the constellation of Christmas traditions, which does not have very much connection with reality—and these questions are raised each year at this feast.
The first is the sparseness of the story. As with other parts of the gospels, the details are given to us in bare outline compared with what we are used to in modern literature. We are told little of the historical reality that might interest us, and the temptation is to fill in details for ourselves. This leads to the second issue—the development of sometimes quite elaborate traditions which do the work of filling in for us. So these ‘magoi’ (which gives us our word ‘magic’) became ‘three’ (because of the number of their gifts), then ‘wise men’ and then ‘kings’ (probably under the influence of Ps 72.10. By the time of this Roman mosaic from the church in Ravenna built in 547, they have even acquired names. Christopher Howse comments:
[T]hink how deeply these three men have entered our imagination as part of the Christmas story. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”
Those words, in a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem The Journey of the Magi. And we can see it all: the camels’ breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger.
Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says…
But for any careful readers of the gospels, there is a third question: how does the visit of the magi fit in with the overall birth narrative, and in particular can Matthew’s account be reconciled with Luke’s? Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart address this question in The First Days of Jesus pp 164–167, in dialogue with Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah (1993). Brown notes the points that Matthew and Luke share in common:
- The parents are named as Mary and Joseph, who are legally engaged or married but have not yet come to live together or have sexual relations (Matt 1.18, Luke 1.27, 34)
- Joseph is of Davidic descent (Matt 1.16, 20, Luke 1.27, 32, 2.4)
- An angel announces the forthcoming birth of the child (Matt 1.20–23 Luke 1.30–35)
- The conception of the child is not through intercourse with her husband (Matt 1.20, 23, 25, Luke 1.34)
- The conception is through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1.18, 20, Luke 1.35)
- The angel directs them to name the child Jesus (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
- An angel states that Jesus is to be Saviour (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
- The birth of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together (Matt 1.24–25, Luke 2.5–6)
- The birth takes place in Bethlehem (Matt 2.1, Luke 2.4–6).
This is a surprisingly long list, and Brown’s careful examination produces a longer list of points of agreement than is usual noted. But even a cursory reading highlights the differences, not just in style and concern in the narrative, but in material content. Luke includes the angelic announcements to Zechariah and Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the ‘Magnificat’, the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s song (the ‘Benedictus’), the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jesus being laid in the food-trough, the lack of space in the guest room, the angelic announcement to the shepherds, and the presentation in the temple with Simeon and Anna—all omitted from Matthew. On the other hand, Matthew includes the visit of the magi, Herod’s plot, the escape to Egypt, the slaughter of the ‘innocents’, and Joseph’s decision about where to settle—all omitted from Luke. As Richard Bauckham notes, Luke’s is a largely ‘gynocentric’ narrative, focussing on the experiences, decisions and faithfulness of the women, whilst Matthew’s is largely an ‘androcentric’ narrative, focussing much more on the roles, decisions and actions of the men involved.
Brown sees these differences as fatal to the possible harmony of the two accounts, stating that they are irreconcilable at several points. But Köstenberger and Stewart disagree:
Nothing that Matthew says actually contradicts Luke’s account about Mary and Joseph being in Nazareth prior to the birth. Matthew is silent on the matter…[which] simply indicates his ignorance of or lack of interest in these details for the purpose of his narrative…Narrators commonly compress time and omit details (either from ignorance or conscious choice). Luke’s reference to the family’s return to Nazareth after the presentation of the temple does not contradict the events recorded in Matthew 2; he just doesn’t comment on them. Again, silence does not equal contradiction (pp 166–167).
Luke’s conclusion, in Luke 2.39, is sometimes seen as creating a difficulty; the most natural way to read the English ‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth’ (TNIV) is as a temporal marker, suggesting an immediate return. But the Greek phrase kai hos can have a range of meanings; the emphasis for Luke here is that, since they had done everything, they were able to leave, contributing to Luke’s consistent theme throughout the early chapters that Joseph and Mary, along with other characters in the story, are obedient, Torah-observant, pious Jews.
What is interesting here is that we have two quite different accounts, working from different sources, with different aims—and yet in agreement on all the main details. Normally in scholarly discussion, this double testimony would be counted as evidence of reliability and historicity, rather than a contradiction to it.
In response to this, critical scholarship has moved in the other direction, and by and large has pulled apart Matthew’s story and confidently decided that none of it actually happened—in part because of the supposed contradictions with Luke, but in even larger part because of Matthew’s use of Old Testament citations. Thus it is read as having been constructed by Matthew out of a series of OT texts in order to tell us the real significance of Jesus. So Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth, come to this conclusion:
In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes. Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes (p 184).
The approach presents problems of its own. For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.
A good working example of this approach is found in Paul Davidson’s blog. Davidson is a professional translator, rather than a biblical studies academic, but he offers a good outline of what critical scholarship has to say about Matthew’s nativity.
His basic assumption is that Matthew is a ‘multi-layered’ document—Matthew is writing from the basis of other, differing sources. He takes over large parts of Mark’s gospel, as does Luke, and Matthew and Luke never agree in contradiction to Mark, a key piece of the argument of ‘Marcan priority’, that Mark was earlier than either of the other two. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the so-called Q, another early written source (and with Mark Goodacre, I don’t), Matthew is clearly dealing with some pre-existing material, oral or written. It is striking, for example, that Joseph is a central character in Matthew’s account before and after the story of the magi, and is the key actor in contrast to Luke’s nativity, where the women are central. Yet in this section (Matt 2.1–12) the focus is on ‘the child’ or ‘the child and his mother Mary’ (Matt 2.9, 2.11; see also Matt 2.14, 20 and 21). Some scholars therefore argue that this story comes from a different source, and so might be unhistorical.
This is where we need to start being critical of criticism. Handling texts in this way requires the making of some bold assumptions, not least that of author invariants. If a change of style indicates a change of source, then this can only be seen if the writer is absolutely consistent in his (or her) own writing, and fails to make the source material his or her own. In other words, we (at 20 centuries distant) need to be a lot smarter than the writer him- or herself. Even a basic appreciation of writing suggests that authors are just not that consistent.
Davidson goes on in his exploration to explain the story of the star in terms of OT source texts.
The basis for the star and the magi comes from Numbers 22–24, a story in which Balaam, a soothsayer from the east (and a magus in Jewish tradition) foretells the coming of a great ruler “out of Jacob”. Significantly, the Greek version of this passage has messianic overtones, as it replaces “sceptre” in 24:17 with “man.”
He is quite right to identify the connections here; any good commentary will point out these allusions, and it would be surprising if Matthew, writing what most would regard as a ‘Jewish’ gospel, was not aware of this. But if he is using these texts as a ‘source’, he is not doing a very good job. The star points to Jesus, but Jesus is not described as a ‘star’, and no gospels make use of this as a title. In fact, this is the only place where the word ‘star’ occurs in the gospel. (It does occur as a title in Rev 22.16, and possibly in 2 Peter 1.19, but neither text makes any connection with this passage.)
Next, Davidson looks at the citation in Matt 2.5–6, which for many critical scholars provides the rationale for a passage explaining that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he is otherwise universally known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (19 times in all four gospels and Acts). But, as Davidson points out, Matthew has to work hard to get these texts to help him. For one, he has to bolt together two texts which are otherwise completely unconnected, from Micah 5.2 and 2 Sam 5.2. Secondly, he has to change the text of Micah 5.2 so that:
- Bethlehem, the ‘least’ of the cities of Judah, now becomes ‘by no means the least’;
- the well-known epithet ‘Ephrathah’ becomes ‘Judah’ to make the geography clear; and
- the ‘clans’ becomes ‘clan leader’ i.e. ‘ruler’ to make the text relevant.
Moreover, Matthew is making use of a text which was not known as ‘messianic’; in the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.
All this is rather bad news for those who would argue that Jesus’ birth was carefully planned to be a literal fulfilment of OT prophecy. But it is equally bad news for those who argue that Matthew made the story up to fit such texts, and for exactly the same reason. Of course, Matthew is working in a context where midrashic reading of texts means that they are a good deal more flexible than we would consider them. But he is needing to make maximum use of this flexibility, and the logical conclusion of this would be that he was constrained by the other sources he is using—by the account he has of what actually happened.
So far, the story makes logical sense despite its theological problems (e.g. the fact that it encourages people to believe in the “deceptive science of astrology”, as Strauss noted). The star is just that: a star.
Then everything changes. The star is transformed into an atmospheric light that guides the magi right from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where it hovers over a single house—the one where the child is. We are no longer dealing with a distant celestial body, but something else entirely, like a pixie or will-o’-the-wisp.
Here again critical assumptions need some critical reflection. Matthew’s inclusion of magi is theologically very problematic indeed. Simon Magus and Elymas (Acts 8.9, 13.8) hardly get a good press, not surprising in light of OT prohibitions on sorcery, magic and astrology. Western romanticism has embraced the Epiphany as a suggestive mystery, but earlier readings (like that of Irenaeus) saw the point as the humiliation of paganism; the giving of the gifts was an act of submission and capitulation to a greater power. For Matthew the Jew, they are an unlikely and risky feature to include, especially when Jesus is clear he has come to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10.6, 15.24).
There have been many attempts to explain the appearance of the star scientifically. The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independent evidence), a supernova (observed by the Chinese in 4 BC) or the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation Pisces—something that recently recurred to headline coverage. I think the latter is the best candidate; Jupiter signified ‘leader’, Saturn denoted ‘the Westland’, and Pisces stood for ‘the end of the age’. So this conjunction would communicate to astrologers ‘A leader in the Westland [Palestine] in the end days.’ This highlights a key problem with Davidson’s criticism; the issue is not whether a star could in fact indicate a particular house in our, modern scientific terms. This is clearly impossible. The real issue is whether Matthew thought it could—or even whether Matthew thought the magi thought it could. As Dick France highlights in his NICNT commentary, this was actually a common understanding for which we have documentary evidence. And any naturalistic explanations miss Matthew’s central point: this was something miraculous provided by God. If you don’t think the miraculous is possible, you are bound to disbelieve Matthew’s story—but on the basis of your own assumptions, not on any criteria of historical reliability or the nature of Matthew’s text.
Davidson cites the 19th-century rationalist critic David Friedrich Strauss in his objection to the plausibility of Herod’s action:
With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?
In fact, we know from Josephus that Herod had a fondness for using secret spies. And in terms of the story, the magi are unaware of Herod’s motives; we are deploying our prior knowledge of the outcome to decide what we think Herod ought to have done, which is hardly a good basis for questioning Matthew’s credibility.
Finally, we come to the arrival of the magi at the home of the family. Interestingly, Matthew talks of their ‘house’ (Matt 2.11) which supports the idea that Jesus was not born in a stable—though from the age of children Herod has executed (less than two years) we should think of the magi arriving some time after the birth. No shepherds and magi together here! (It is worth noting, though, that forming a ‘tableau’ of different elements of a narrative, all compressed together, is a common feature of artistic depictions of stories. We just need to be aware of what is going in here in the compression of narrative time.)
Davidson again sees (with critical scholars) this event constructed from OT texts:
According to Brown, Goulder (2004), and others, the Old Testament provided the inspiration for the gifts of the magi. This passage is an implicit citation of Isaiah 60.3, 6 and Psalm 72.10, 15, which describe the bringing of gifts in homage to the king, God’s royal son.
But again, the problem here is that Matthew’s account just doesn’t fit very well. Given that these OT texts uniformly mention kings, not magi, if Matthew was constructing his account from these, why choose the embarrassing astrologers? And why three gifts rather than two? Where has the myrrh come from? Again, it is Irenaeus who first interprets the gifts as indicators of kingship, priesthood and sacrificial death respectively, but Matthew does not appear to do so. In the narrative, they are simply extravagant gifts fit for the true ‘king of the Jews’. Subsequent tradition has to do the work that Matthew has here failed to do, and make the story fit the prophecies rather better than Matthew has managed to.
Davidson closes his analysis of this section with a final observation from Strauss:
If the magi can receive divine guidance in dreams, why are they not told in a dream to avoid Jerusalem and go straight to Bethlehem in the first place? Many innocent lives would have been saved that way.
Clearly, God could have done a much better job of the whole business. But it rather appears as though Matthew felt unable to improve on what happened by fitting it either to the OT texts or his sense of what ought to have happened.
The modern reader might struggle with aspects of Matthew’s story. But it seems to me you can only dismiss it by making a large number of other, unwarranted assumptions. (The main parts of this post were first published in 2015—but they clearly bear repeating.)
Additional note: when I post some of this material last year, my friend John Hudghton posted this fascinating comment offering a broader historical context:
I have to admit at one time I thought that the birth narratives, especially this one in Matthew were literary constructs which while they were metaphorically true as myth did not contain reliable historical content. Well that was what some of the scholars and commentators said. It was all a bit airy fairy, mysterious men from the East…who were they, what were they doing there? How likely was this at all – would these wandering fortune tellers have been received by Herod, his court and had an impact which would throw Jerusalem into panic? What kind of interest would THEY have had in announcing a future King of the Jews? Well I used to think that – but that was a result of very sloppy critical scholarship. Having continued in my reading and studying in the field of ancient history as well as biblical studies I have grown to understand that the story in Matthew is credible and likely and quite frankly I believe it thoroughly, from the coming of the Magi to the flight and return from Egypt. To understand the story of the Magi you need a good appreciation of the geo-politics of the time, as well as the religious situation. Without this you will flounder and make wild stabs in the dark as to the historical anchor of Matthew 2 and may well end up, like I did consigning it to the category of “myth” – a story constructed to teach truths but not necessarily being true in itself. While this may be ok in some holy literature, as far as the Gospels are concerned this sits uncomfortably with me, particularly if it is poorly done.
Let’s talk about the political situation in Israel at the time. Herod is in power as an ethnarc – ruling over the Jews. How did he get there? The Roman general, Pompey had invaded and in 63BC put an end to Jewish independence and carved up the state of Israel. Herod, the son of an advisor to Julius Ceasar was appointed governor of Galilee in 47BC and then in 41 BC promoted to tetrarch by Mark Anthony and in 39BC the senate exclusively proclaims him “King of the Jews” because his reign of terror brought in plenty of taxes to the coffers of Rome. However during this time he had to contend with the Parthians – who were in essence Persians.
The Parthian empire was second only to Rome. The Parthians ruled from 247 BC to 224 AD creating a vast empire that stretched from the Mediterranean in the west to India and China in the east. East of the Caspian Sea there emerged from the steppe of Central Asia a nomadic Scythian tribe called the Parni. Later called the Parthians and taking over the Seleucid Empire and fending off the Romans, they established themselves as a superpower in their own right. They were especially proficient in cavalry fighting using light cavalry horse archers and heavily armoured cataphracts. It was an equine culture, the Parthians only had a relatively small standing army but could call upon militia whose culture equipped them for this means of combat. Camels were used for baggage only….
The Parthians took advantage of the Roman infighting of the later years of the 1st century BC. They intervened in the region sending 500 warriors and in 40BC placed Antigonus II on the throne of Judea and made him High Priest while the unpopular Herod retreated to his fortress in Masada. However as the Romans reorganised and re-established their influence in the area they defeated the Parthians in Syria who pulled their expeditionary force back to their former borders. Herod then fought a war with the assistance of Mark Anthony to regain control of Judea, culminating with the defeat of Antigonus in 37BC and his subsequent brutal execution by Mark Antony. At various times there was peace and at other times disputes between Rome and Parthia. The Parthians were ever watchful of their borders and like the Romans persisted in trying to influence the buffer states along their borders. The traffic though was two way, as Herod attempted to influence the Jewish population within the Parthian empire by deposing the local priests and instead appointing priests to the Jerusalem temple from this Jewish diaspora.
Now what is of primary importance is the term Magi. Yes the term has been used of some individuals using supernatural powers “magic” as a means of making a living – but the primary usage and common understanding of the term Magi is related to the “tribe” of priests who acted almost like a religious civil service to the various empires of the area, from the Babylonian through to the Medo-Persian era and then to the Parthians. Josephus tells us that no one could be King in Parthia unless they knew the ways of the Magi and were supported by the Magi who some understood to operate in a not dissimilar way to a US senate. They were indeed not the Kings but they were the power behind the throne – the King makers. You may remember in the book of Daniel that Daniel is appointed chief of the Magi. They had a reputation throughout the region for being educated, wise, learned, religious priests with knowledge of religion from previous empires to that of Zoroastrianism, the prevalent religion of the Parthian empire. Conventional learning was interlaced with astrology, alchemy and other esoteric knowledge.
As Herod’s life was drawing to a close there was plenty of public debate concerning his succession – Herod had 11 Sons (and five daughters) but was subject to Roman support. In 7 BC he executed his own sons Alexander and Aristobulos because he believed they were plotting regicide and a coup and again in 4 BC he had his favourite son, his eldest, Antipater executed for the same reason causing Augustus Ceasar (who was no pussycat) to remark “Better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios)”. Many other members of the family were also casualties including his favourite wife, Mariamne as were various members of his staff. There was much uncertainty as to his succession as Herod’s will changed more than once and on top of this the population were ready for revolt – which did in fact come to pass at Herod’s death in 4BC. Herod used secret police, spies and brutality to achieve his ends. He suffered depression and paranoia throughout his life and was now according to Josephus was suffering gangrene, severe itching, convulsions and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumours and he had constant fevers.
It is to this scenario that the Magi (king makers) came from Parthia (the neighbouring empire with a track record) seeking “he who is to be born King of the Jews” causing a huge amount of anguish to both Herod’s court and the establishment in Jerusalem. The Herodian-appointed Priests who depended on his patronage would have been as disturbed as Herod himself at the news of a new King. Had these strangers been wandering Gypsylike fortune tellers they would neither have gained access to Herod’s court or been given any credibility. However as they were the respected Magi – the Parthian religious civil service they received a hearing. We don’t know how many Magi there were, there is no record, but it is likely they arrived with an escort and would have been protected both physically and diplomatically from any action that Herod may have desired to bring against them.
It was not uncommon for astronomical events to be interpreted through astrology and significant potents such as comets or conjunctions of stars could signify a shift in the order of events on earth. This is what has alerted the Magi in Matthew’s story and they go seeking the new King of the Jews as it is in their interest to honour him as future good relations with this new King will stand them (the Parthians) in good stead. Herod (as may be expected) sees this as a threat and seeks to eliminate the new King. The Magi are warned in a dream to return by another route – and as we know from Daniel, this sort of thing was the bread and butter of Magi.
In so many modern day depictions of Magi they are riding camels. If, as I believe the extremely persuasive evidence indicates that they were Parthians, there is as much hope of them arriving on a camel as there would be of a chapter of bikers opting to travel in a van rather than on a bike. Camels were for luggage and yes they would have had some of this, but horses were for personal transport and the few depictions there are in the history of art of Magi on horseback have got it right.
So I now do believe the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 to be credible and likely. As was the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt – who in the light of the rebellion against Herod’s family in 4BC (and the subsequent brutal massacre, rape and enslavement of Jews following Varrus’ punitive recapture of the land when he sent in FOUR whole legions, laid waste to the land and crucified 2000 Galileans alone for rebellion) would have not been the only refugees fleeing the middle East in bloody and uncertain times.