Is Epiphany a myth of Matthew?

Three_wise_men_6th_Century_Roman_MosaicThe 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:

  1. 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)
  2. Joseph is of Davidic descent (Matt 1.16, 20, Luke 1.27, 32, 2.4)
  3. An angel announces the forthcoming birth of the child (Matt 1.20–23 Luke 1.30–35)
  4. The conception of the child is not through intercourse with her husband (Matt 1.20, 23, 25, Luke 1.34)
  5. The conception is through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1.18, 20, Luke 1.35)
  6. The angel directs them to name the child Jesus (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
  7. An angel states that Jesus is to be Saviour (Matt 1.21, Luke 2.11)
  8. The birth of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together (Matt 1.24–25, Luke 2.5–6)
  9. 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.

St Denis 2012 - 26 - Version 2Davidson now turns to consider the magi and the star. He notes a certain coherence up to the point where the magi arrive in Jerusalem.

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.

botticelli-c-1475-adoration-of-the-magiFinally, 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.

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34 thoughts on “Is Epiphany a myth of Matthew?”

  1. Um, I can see that it’s not your main point, but you do skip rather lightly over the fact that Luke (surely) clearly implies movement straight from Bethlehem to Nazareth via Jerusalem, all of which while Jesus is still extremely young, and Matthew tells a story of movement from Bethlehem straight to Egypt, implying a substantial amount of time, and then a settling in a town (Nazareth) which was not their original home.
    If fleeing Herod, a trip to Jerusalem would be unwise.
    Do you know anyone who explains this to my mind substantial discrepancy? If Luke got his information from Mary, as is I think the traditional view, why did she (or he) miss out this significant trip?

    • Hi Penny. I think that is a good question, but I do offer this specific comment:

      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.

      Not sure if that counts as ‘skipping over’. Had a long discussion online about this with someone yesterday.

      • 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

        Even if one reads it as a temporal marker, surely it’s consistent with them using Bethlehem (where, after all, they had family) as a base for some months/years while they went in and out of Jerusalem taking care of ‘everything required by the Law of the Lord’, before eventually, when everything was done, finally leaving for home? It’s less narratively streamlined than packing up everything in Bethlehem and leaving for good in a single trip, stopping off in Jerusalem just once on the way before continuing straight to Nazareth, but in my experience it’s far more realistic.

        The question about why Luke doesn’t mention the trip to Egypt (did he not know about it? Did he not think it important enough to mention? Did he know about it but only from a single source, so, as a good historian, he didn’t include it) is a better one.

        • Indeed. I have been ‘arguing’ with an atheist online about the resurrection accounts and had to remind him not to make assumptions such as the different writers consulted the same eyewitnesses, followed exactly the same time-line, didnt have reasons to highlight particular individuals, the Gospel authors dont use literary techniques such as compression etc.

          He is risen!

      • There emerged in these pages last year, I think, an interesting take on this. If we start with Luke 2.3, each is to go to his own town to be registered. What does this mean? There is no historical precedent for taxation to be levied in a man’s “ancestral” town. Thus the suggestion is that at this point Bethlehem was Joseph’s own town – after all, he was of the line of David. Why did then did Joseph “go up to Bethlehem from Nazareth”? Perhaps the clue is in v5: he was with Mary his betrothed. On the journey she was not yet fully his wife. Would a man have travelled like this with a woman not fully his wife? Not unless this was the part of the marriage when the bridegoom takes his betrothed from her home to his for the wedding to be completed. The registration causes Joseph to get the marriage done, so that Mary becomes his wife and so her child will be his son. Incidentally, we don’t know how long passed between v5 and v6.

        Why is Joseph marrying a girl from Galilee? She has family in “the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1.39).

        Fast forward to the return from Egypt. The holy family are returning to Bethlehem in Judea, Joseph’s home. But there are issues, so they divert to Nazareth, where Mary’s immediate family are, and which is a nice long way away from Jerusalem, and they settle there. Jesus grows up there. So it becomes ‘their own town’ (Luke 2.39) even though back at the start of the chapter Bethlehem had been Joseph’s ‘own town’.

    • Why did Luke omit this significant story of the flight to Egypt? Who knows?

      Why does Luke omit the raising of Lazarus? Why do Matthew, Mark and John omit the story of the Prodigal Son?

      The basic answer is that the gospels are incredible short and compressed, and the authors are all highly selective. If you only had around 18,000 words what would you miss out? Why?

      • Good point about the length of “books” (scrolls) in the ancient world – IIRC, most are not more than about 30-35 pages of papyrus glued together; beyond that, a scroll gets too unwieldy. I don’t know when the codex began but have read it was possibly a Christian invention. Our modern luxury (or burden) of books of infinite length was quite unknown in the ancient world.

        • I recall Richard Burridge making exactly this point when talking about his view of the Gospels having the form of ancient biography. Luke, it seems, is about the longest you could get on a single scroll.

          • Yes. And Acts being almost exactly the same length (not to mention Matthew) is further evidence in the same direction. As is Acts’s somewhat random endpoint.

      • Lazarus is an interesting one. It is possible (though many prodigies occur in both Luke and Acts – Gerasene swine and Ananias/Sapphira included) that Luke sometimes omits or alters things in the earlier gospels which he may suspect (not necessarily correctly) of being tall tales or exaggerated – or perhaps he thinks his sophisticated audience will think that. But he sometimes leaves signs that he knows them. Thus he omits one figtree cursing but inserts one similar figtree parable as a downgraded equivalent. He omits the walking on water (but also some of its surrounds). There is no reason at all why the poor man should be called Lazarus (or Jude or Simon or anything else) – and unless an explanation can be found for this ‘name’ feature then the interpreter is at a disadvantage – which suggests that ‘neither would they believe if someone rose from the dead’ is partly a comment on John’s version. Lazarus and figtree would then have in common that they were a narrative converted to a parable.

  2. I think we have to look no further than the Bible to identify the star.
    The Glory of the Lord hovered over the threshold and left the temple.
    It appeared again by the chebar canal to Ezekiel.
    This shows that God was with his people in exile.
    The Star appeared in the east and moved west. The last out of exile to return home.
    I think the Star is the Glory of the Lord. The Chebar canal is exactly due east of Bethleham: 31°E
    The witnesses of the glory returning were therfore Babylonian and presumed it would return to the temple in Jerusalem so they went there first.
    The shepherds saw the same thing earlier but close up.
    The Glory of the Lord returns to his New Temple – Jesus.
    Also, Ezekiel’s Temple is simply a prophesy describing Jesus as the New Temple.

  3. Interesting to recall in this context that in AD 66 Tiridates I, king of Armenia and himself a Zoroastrian priest, accompanied by other Magoi and a huge retinue of family, courtiers and soldiers, made a great overland journey from Armenia to Rome, where he was recognised as King of Armenia by Nero and great games were held in his honour at Puteoli. All this is recorded by Pliny the Elder and Tacitus.
    That date, of course corresponds closely to the time when Paul was in Rome and presumably Luke as well. I believe it is entirely possible that Luke-Acts was written around that time because we read nothing in Acts of Paul’s death. Other place Luke-Acts to c. 80.
    Those sceptical of the historicity of Luke 2 might suggest it was written up on the basis of Tiridates’ visit, but another view is to say that these journeys were the king of things magoi might do.

  4. I recall hearing a talk on tape (a long time ago) by, if recollection serves, Derek Prince which had a very similar line to that in John Hudghton’s contribution. I think the Magi were described as king/priests. Clearly, a group of these arriving on horseback from the neighbouring empire, with probably a retinue of soldiers, is sufficient to explain the detail that not only was Herod disturbed by their arrival and message, but also “all Jerusalem with him.” Might this arrival result in conflict between the empires?

  5. ‘ The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independent evidence)’

    – Colin Humphreys has presented evidence the ‘star’ was indeed a comet in 5 BC, as recorded by the Chinese.


    Although one cant be certain about such things, I think he presents a strong case.

    If he is right and also on the date of the crucifixion (April, AD 33) , it makes Jesus 37/38 when He was crucified.


    • I dunno. I like all my answers to be constrained within scripture. …like if we played monopoly I would be disappointed if you introduced a cludo answer to avoid gaol.

      • That’s an odd analogy! And not really appropriate as giving a cluedo answer when playing monopoly would make no sense, whilst a comet appearing in the sky visible in the Middle East for a limited time with its tail acting as a pointer makes perfect sense.

        Not everything is ‘spiritual’ as Scripture testifies.

        • Im being unfair. Of course your point about a comet is valid. Only too often Christians quote science only for it to be debunked by ‘new improved formula washes whiter’ . Is there a way to theologise without recourse to contemporary science.?

  6. First, I am not a Bible scholar. However, I have become intrigued by the sequence of events in Matthew and Luke and have wondered why Luke did not detail the flight into Egypt. I believe that the answer can be found in his purpose for writing to Theophilus: “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed”.

    Theophilus had been taught about Jesus, but Luke wants to be sure that he has certainty that these things are true. So he details that Jesus, Son of God, was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit; lived fully as a human man; proclaimed the Kingdom of God, performed many miracles, died on the cross and rose again and is alive. Considering the objective that Luke had set himself, I can see why events that boil down to ‘they went to Egypt and came back again’ were omitted, especially, as has been observed, Luke had a lot to say and must have pretty well filled his scroll.

  7. Goldberg ‘Josephus and the Star of Bethlehem’ is interesting for its light on stargazing in the 60s AD and on Rev 12, less so perhaps in its suggestion that Matthew is jumping on the bandwagon.

      • I had some thoughts on Goldberg, so now cannot fully remember which of the following ideas were his and which were mine 20-21 years on.

        The central idea of Goldberg (which certainly beats others for economy) is that the second tail of Halley’s comet year 65-66, i.e. the ion tail, appeared to be a different star because ion tails are of a different colour compared with the main part of the comet. So (Rev 12) this second tail looks like a symbolic sceptre (kingly and brutal) but also (Josephus – and see too Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2) like a rhomphaia sword – both of which symbols are heralded by the all-important Balaam story which gives the Messianic blueprint.

        Rev 12 has the picture of the draco (a draco shape, like a comet shape, is a snake because of the length and slightly-swollen head: not the sort of ‘dragon’ that we would envisage) standing in front of the manchild i.e. the one who is (as the text abruptly – and what would otherwise be inconsequentially – tells us) to rule with the iron sceptre. If the 2 were part of the same comet, year 65-66, then of course the 2 colours would look like they were standing in front of one another. Casting the stars from the sky is what the ice falling off the back of the comet looks like.

        The juxtaposition, standing in front of each other, is reflected not only in Rev 12.4 but also in Josephus where it is unclear whether the sword-shaped star is a separate phenomenon from the comet. And likewise whether one-year duration applies only to the comet or to both indistinguishably. This ties in well with the two being different but inseparable.

        Their inseparability extends to their both similarly disappearing, as of course happens when Halley’s Comet moves on. In the case of the sceptre (ion tail), this is taken as disappearing to the throne of God; in the case of the draco (snake-shaped comet) it is taken as a fall from heaven, so that it is not seen in heaven any more.

        It would be nice to think that the fallen star in Rev 8.10 was a different, earlier one (there was a very prominent comet in AD 60 which shone for 6 months and was noted in Rome) since that would make Wormwood the no.2 evil-star just as in Screwtape Letters.

        Goldberg makes a link between Josephus and Matthew both saying that a star was standing above a very local location – something that should strictly be impossible. But of course comet-tails are like arrows/pointers.

        (As for the stellar formation of Virgo, I will pass on that – *some* of the imaginary configurations of the Virgo stars do indeed look very like a woman in labour; stargazing might be at a peak around Tabernacles when the comet perhaps first appeared – Tabernacles was a feast when another ongoing prophecy had its genesis according to this same passage of Josephus. The new stellar phenomenon would make its greatest impact at the point when it *first* appeared.
        Every time that the supposed star-configuration of Rev 12.1ff is expected to reappear, then Catholics and others go into this in great detail – what the 12 stars/planets are around her head etc.. More important to John, I expect, is the scriptural tribes-as-stars (Gen 37.9) given that the woman is Israel/daughter of Zion.)

        The set of 7 signs (see 15.1) in Rev 12.1-15.4 corresponds a lot – and in sequence too – with those mentioned in Josephus BJ 6.5.3. The comet of 65-66, and its different-colour tail, first appearing in the autumn festival (time of Virgo, should John have been interested in that point, which is unclear). Next one is the heavenly battle seen in the clouds just before the war of 66-70 (Rev 12.7-8), which is also a way of accounting for the disappearance of the comet. (Halley’s comet would always make a great impression, because any individual would see it only once and would be very unlikely to remember its appearance 75 years earlier.) The Jerusalem church’s flight, which is another focus of the ‘signs’, is apparently explicitly said by Eusebius to belong to the same year 66 – before the outbreak of war. After which we get Nero (d and redivivus 68) and the emperor who was determinedly the self-proclaimed priest of Nero’s cult: Vitellius.

        • [The latter in 69, which helps date the book. This passage of Rev also is that which relates to the Third ‘Woe’. The repeated ‘Woe, woe, woe’ is another significant link between Rev and Josephus’s detailing of the portents.]

  8. Ian,
    Many thanks for the work put into this article, which highlights to me the very thinness (but strongly buttressed) of some critics and their presupposition, exposed by the simple questions you raise of them and their stance.

    You will be aware of the publication of this book, “The Great Christ Comet”, by Colin R Nicholl, (2015).

    Here is a review, though it is hardly that, rather a set of endorsements from the well regarded authors and scholars.

    It does however contain a link to a free 32 page excerpt, and to a 1 Hour 25 min interview video, (which I’ve not watched yet).

  9. The reference to Balaam (Num 22) as a magus in Jewish tradition calls to mind the treatment in Mark Powell’s book ‘Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-response Criticism’ (2001). Powell adds that in the Exodus midrash the sorcerers who serve Pharaoh (Ex 7 etc.) are also called magi. Putting these cases together with the ineffectual magi in Dan 2 and references from Philo, Powell concludes: “…Matthew’s implied readers are probably expected to regard magi as learned only in matters that the readers would regard as nonsense. Matthew’s implied readers are expected to ‘know’ that magi are not wise persons but fools.” (p. 152) Perhaps (though I don’t think Powell makes this point) we are supposed to understand the magi’s detour to Jerusalem in this light: instead of following the star all the way to Bethlehem – as they eventually do – they first go to Jerusalem because that’s where they mistakenly expect to find a new-born king of the Jews (a detour with disastrous later consequences).

    • When the magi arrive in Jerusalem they say “ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ”: “in the East”, or perhaps “at its rising”. Most assume that they came from modern day Iraq or thereabouts. So, their journey to Jerusalem was in the opposite direction to the direction they saw this heavenly event. If it were visible in the East, then this was probably not much before dawn, and so would not have been visible during the day, and below the horizon when the sun set. So it guided them to Jerusalem because its position in the celestial sphere associated it with the Jews, not because it somehow pointed them westwards.

      There is also some ambiguity in Matthew 2.9. Does προάγω, translated in the ESV ‘went before’, mean ‘guided their route’, or ‘went on ahead’? Perhaps, if the latter, then when they approached Bethlehem, it so happened to be above the right house.


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