Is Epiphany plausible?

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.

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…

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 it that none of it actually happened. Instead, it was 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 make 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 independence evidence), a supernova (observed by the Chinese in 4 BC) or the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation Pisces. 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!

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.

You can listen to my sermon from Epiphany 2014 here, in which I explore historical, narrative and theological approach to reading this text in order to understand what we might learn from it.

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30 thoughts on “Is Epiphany plausible?”

  1. There’s another couple of angles I’d be interested to see taken on the Magi. One is the Zoroastrian one. As far as I understand it “Magus” was the title of the priestly caste in Zoroastrianism, and the earliest artisitc depictions of the Magi have them in typical Iranian dress. (It is said the Parthian army spared the Church of the Nativity during one of their invasions because of the mosiac of the Magi showed them as Parthians).

    There’s also a degree of syncretistic title-borrowing going on in the Persian-influenced OT books. “God of Heaven” in Ezra, for example, is a title of Ahura-Mazda in Zoroastrianism, yet is freely applied to YHWH.

    Any recommendations of something intelligent that deals with that?

    • Yes, I would agree with this understanding of Magus…though it is used more widely in the NT, along with its cognates meaning ‘sorcery’ and to practice sorcery which both occur.

      So I think this understanding needs to be constructed from the context of the story and not just from the vocabulary.

      The issue of taking over other titles for God would be dealt with in commentaries. In Revelation, a lot of imagery and terminology (including Alpha and Omega, he is coming quickly, and I hold the keys to death and Hades) are taken over from Graeco-Roman magic rituals, and the worship of God in Rev 4 and 5 owes much to the imperial cult.

        • Yes, the classic one is David Aune, ‘The Apocalypse of John and Graeco-Roman Revelatory Magic’, NTS 33 (1987). Reproduced as a chapter in his book of collected essays Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity.

  2. Thank you for this interesting post. I think that imaginative creative interpretations as well as the insights of critical Biblical scholarship are both important in struggling to find not only what the author of Matthew’s gospel intended but also where God wants to lead us in our worship and service of Christ. I really appreciate your blog and the thoroughness of the theology in your posts. I have linked to this post today in my roundup today of posts worth reading about the Epiphany

    • Thanks very much for the link. I agree with you in part about imagination, but my concern would be that this imagination is disciplined by our understanding of the text, including its most plausible historical context.

      • I agree that imagination needs to be disciplined by understanding the text and context but without Spirit-inspired imagination that understanding can get stuck in academic knowledge only and not get to the heart (or will). So I think we do need academic theology and historical literary criticism, but also the contribution of poets, artists, story tellers and prayerful reflectors on the word to illumine the text. By the way I dislike having to do arithmetic to prove I’m human – but that’s just my fear of numbers!

  3. Ian, thanks for the thoughtful response to my article. Just one comment. You say:

    “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.”

    I think you might be expecting too much literalism of Matthew when he uses the Old Testament as his source. The fit doesn’t have to be perfect (and usually isn’t!), just thematically appropriate. Just like Matthew’s proof-text of Isaiah 7:14 makes no sense if you think it requires Jesus to have been named Emmanuel, which he certainly was not (and which was never used of him to our knowledge).

    All that said, there *is* an early tradition that describes Jesus as a star more directly. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, (Pseudo-) Ignatius writes:

    “How, then, was [Jesus] manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all.”

    This occurs *after* Jesus’ secret birth and death according to the epistle, and appears to be a different but related (possibly pre-Matthean) tradition.

    • Paul, thanks in turn for your comment!

      On the question of ‘source’, I think my methodological point is this. If Matthew is, in essence, creating his narrative from a series of OT texts (which is certainly what Strauss is implying, and to a lesser extent Brown and Borg and Crossan), then you need to explain what is pulling him away from simply following the OT texts. My argument is that there was either an account of what happened or the events themselves which is doing this. Your example of the name is a good one; if Matthew was constructing events from the OT, he might well have name the messiah figure ‘Immanuel’ but he doesn’t because he is constrained by the historical reality that this person was called Jesus.

      Thanks for the reference to Ignatius—that’s interesting. I was also intrigued to see that you think Ignatius did not write the letter…!

  4. Excellent article thanks. I would only add to this by highlighting the connection between Irenaeus and the Apostle John via Polycarp. It’s probably no coincidence that John is the only gospel to record Jesus being embalmed in Myrrh (John 19:39), so I would conclude that the prophetic nature of the magi’s gifts is an oral tradition going right back to the apostles.

    • Thanks, John, that’s an interesting connection. Most intriguingly (as you say) it suggest an apostolic tradition rooted in actual events, but would not support the idea of Matthew constructing the narrative out of the OT texts.

      I don’t think Irenaeus actually mentions this in John, does he, as the basis for his observations?

      • Yes I agree most definitely it would follow that it was rooted in actual events. Irenaeus doesn’t cross reference John, but the purpose of his argument, in Against Heresies Book III Chapter IX, is to emphasise the prophecies fulfilled specifically by the witness of the gospel of Matthew. He moves on to Mark, Luke and John in subsequent chapters.

  5. It is possible that the wise men story is actually just an introduction by Matthew to the Gospel using parallels and opposites.

    See Barton and Muddiman bottom of page 849 and onwards. (I acknowledge that Barton and Muddiman can point to others in their commentary mode).

    a) The wise men, representing the gentile world, the world as a whole, announce Jesus as King. At the end of Matthew’s gospel the roman gentile world again announces Jesus as King at his crucifixion.

    b) It is in the story of the wise men that the Jewish leaders gather against Jesus – they do so again at the end of Matthew’s gospel.

    c) The plans the Jewish leaders make are in secret when they talk with the wise men. At the end of the gospel they are once again making plans in secret. And here as there it’s Jesus’ death that they want.

    d) The wise men might or might not be Jewish, tradition is that they are not, but either way they are foreigners. So in Matthew’s gospel Jesus comes for foreigners as well as for his own people.

    e) In this story a great light at night-time announces his birth, at the crucifixion it is a great darkness in the day time that announces his death.

    f) Here, in this story, Jesus is worshipped but on the cross he is mocked.

    g) Here the prophesy is that Jesus is the shepherd of the people of Israel and at the crucifixion the prophesy is that the shepherd will be struck and the sheep scattered.

    h) The wise men are intelligent but they are confused by the hidden agenda of the authorities and they are NOT unified (Herod in the case of the wise men, Sanheddrin in the case of Jesus).

    So it is possible that the story of the wise men is an introduction to the Gospel. In that sense it doesn’t matter very much what date it happened on or, indeed, whether or not it is completely true. We should simply let it be an introduction to the Gospel through parallels and opposites.

    • Clive, I don’t disagree with any of this as a post-hoc reflection on how this narrative functions within the gospel overall.

      But that is quite different from saying that Matthew constructed this narrative in order to achieve this, without being constrained by what actually happened. I think it does matter whether or not this happened, for the reasons I give in response the comment from Borg and Crossan

      • Dear Ian,

        I love your reference to “post-hoc reflection”.

        I didn’t actually say directly that Matthew constructed the wise men, I am suggesting he might have used the story as an introduction. That’s different. You wrote:
        “But that is quite different from saying that Matthew constructed this narrative in order to achieve this, without being constrained by what actually happened.”

        The point is that it is a modern day question is to a) when the wise men happened, b) whether or not the wise men story is true, but possibly neither is as relevant as asking how it works as an introduction! The latter being probably an older question.

        • Yes, it is an older question…but the other one is forced on us because we live in a modern, not a pre-modern, context. Given our usual models of verification, the question of whether it happened cannot now be ignored, even if it could have been in previous generations.

  6. Thank you Ian, thought-provoking as always. I think the apparent “omission” of Myrrh in Isaiah 60.6 is interesting. In this prophecy of Zion’s glory Isaiah is looking beyond the return of the exiles from Babylon, beyond the incarnation and visit of the Magi, and beyond the cross and resurrection. If we agree with the symbolism of the gifts as proposed by Ireneaus then Myrrh is no longer a suitable gift for our eternal King and great High Priest, whilst Gold and Incense remain so.

    • I don’t think I do accept Irenaeus’ interpretation of the three gifts—mainly because Matthew does not make anything of this. It is John’s gospel (John 19.39) which mentions myrrh in Jesus’ burial, and I guess you could argue that John picked this up having read Matthew, though I am not aware of anyone suggesting this directly.

      The other factor to bear in mind is that myrrh had many other uses in the ancient world, include ones similar to frankincense. See

  7. On my Christmas site, I’ve got a page explaining all the different scientific star options. There’s actually three possible conjunction combinations within a few years of each other and in the right ‘time slot’: and put together, they all would have meant “there’s a new King…” ruling over the total of the then known world!

    I’ve tracked the star options using a night sky program, so you can even see what it would have looked like from what’s now Saudi Arabia!


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