Is the Epiphany in Matthew 2 myth or reality?


I am reposting here a longer article on the Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the young Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 2. The article is in several sections. First, a general exploration of the role it plays in the nativity story in Matthew, and the question of the relation of Matthew with Luke. Second, a more detailed engagement with a sceptical view about the narrative and its features. Within this I consider the importance of the various elements of the story. Finally, there is a historical appendix supplied by a reader of previous versions of this story, which offers a convincing context in which to read it. At the end, I have included the link to the weekly video discussion of this text. I hope you find them enlightening and useful!

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:

  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 previously, 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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83 thoughts on “Is the Epiphany in Matthew 2 myth or reality?”

  1. If you choose not to believe what the Bible says then that is up to you, in this life at least, but please don’t pollute the church. The task of Christian scholars is exegesis based on the belief that the Bible is true. As they do this they will learn that it *is * consistent and that apparent inconsistencies are due to misunderstandings of history, of Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc. Speaking personally as a scientist, I have been deeply committed to the view that Genesis 1-3 can be reconciled with the findings of physics, geology, biology etc even when I have not understood how. This has been quite a lonely intellectual path and tensions still remain, but I have learnt much that I would never have understood had I defected to either the secular or the fundamentalist pole of the debate.

    • Anton

      You’re free to believe that the Bible must be true on every little detail, but even most people who say they believe in Biblical inerrancy don’t usually mean they think there are zero errors or iconsistencies. A very small group of Christians believe that there are no errors in scripture.

      I think the most well known problems with the NT are 1) it being impossible to fit the two nativity stories together without changing any of the details and 2) making a definitive statement about who the resurrected Jesus first appeared to in the garden.

      We have to live with these unknowns. I think it makes most sense to consider that these were written by humans trying to be as accurate as they could with the information they have received and that these books were chosen as the most accurate by the early church. But they certainly aren’t a first century video recording of events

      • They are not a video recording of events, indeed. But I believe you will find they would be consistent with one and not inconsistent with each other.

        I’ve better things to do than discuss hermeneutics in the abstract, so if you wish to continue this discussion then please assert an inconsistency.

        • There are formal and verbal inconsistencies and there are real and substantial inconsistencies. Many unnecessary problems arise when the two categories are confused. Many critics of Christianity scorn harmonisations, but this is sometimes because they don’t like what the Bible has to say on some matter (so they strive to prove the Bible is wrong – feminists followed this course before the LGBT lobby started attacking Paul), and sometimes because they demand of historical records the same kind of rigour we expect in mathematical theorems. I wonder if this is the long shadow of Spinozan rationalism on biblical studies.

          • James

            The only person I’ve ever heard attacking Paul was a female member of church staff who shouted out during a sermon that Paul was a sexist. It was done partly in jest.

            But my point is I don’t think you have understood what the people who are campaigning for equality are actually saying about Scripture. And they are not all saying the same thing, just as conservatives don’t agree on everything amongst themselves

          • Anton

            The gospels contradict one another as to who Jesus first appeared to in the tomb garden after the resurrection.

            In Matthew Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and the tomb guards are confronted by an angel and told to tell the disciples. On their way to the disciples Jesus meets them.

            Mark is reasonably consistent with this only the women have Salome as well with them and there is no mention of the guards. The angels behavior is slightly different and Mark says that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene (only).

            In Luke its Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and Joanna (and possibly others) who meet the angel, but none of them encounter Jesus. The first encounter is by Cleopas and his colleague.

            In John its Mary Magdalene alone who encounters two angels and Jesus

          • This just illustrates your problem.

            ‘In John its Mary Magdalene alone who encounters two angels and Jesus’. Not so. The text says very clearly ‘WE do not know…’ (John 20.2). Mary is the only one mentioned; she is not the only one there. But she is the one whom the author is interested in.

          • Ian

            Its not my problem. I don’t need the texts to agree on every detail.

            I actually think its remarkable how much similarity there is between the four gospels on the post resurrection scene.

          • Christopher

            Really you guys are the worst! I get condemned for saying they disagree and then condemned for saying they agree

  2. Thanks Ian, one last word as I can see my belief that the star is the chariot of the cherubim is not a popular one.
    I have a hunch that the Magi came from the same region south of Babylon where Ezekiel lived and worked, by the chebar canal. They could have been familiar with his work. To them the dome of the heavens was filled with stars whose nature they only dimly understood. ‘Star’ seems to denote anything visible above. Exekiel said the vision moved in straight lines. A straight line from the east gate of Solomon’s temple leads directly to the bank of the Chebar. If I was following it, due east is the course I’d take, straight back to the Temple and then, after a week or two of diplomatic consultation, follow the star due south, without turning. If I’m correct the site of Ezekiel’s vision and the birth-place of Jesus can be extrapolated from the east gate.

  3. Interesting research; I am wondering how this will play out in Church next weekend?
    Is the Epiphany in Matthew 2 myth or reality?
    January 2, 2024 by Ian Paul

    The story of the (three?) magi (wise men? kings?) in Matthew 2.1–11 has gripped the popular imagination—but some also question whether the story has coherence and credibility.

    What was the actual context in which the story is set? Does it ring true? And how does it fit with the gospel of Matthew as it unfolds?

    Matthew 1 and 2 is similar to John’s prologue for me
    in setting the tone of this Gospel.
    Matthew being the Gospel of the King and Kingdom.
    Hence the focus on the Sovereignty of God and His Christ.

    Firstly, who were the Magi? [they were well understood by the Jews] Daniel was a magi, DAN.2:48 but the Scriptures were his guide rather than the stars.
    Tom Holland in his books Persian Fire and The Shadow of The Sword gives copious notes on the magi’s functions
    The ayatollahs of Iran [Persia] are an approximation of the ruler, wise man, spiritual heads combined. [Later in Acts we have Simon Magus as quoted.]
    For me the arrival of the magi[gentiles] show that Christ is not only King of the Jews but “of the nations” which subsequently resulted in Persia in a large Christian following such as there was in Ethiopia perhaps subsequent to the Ethiopian official and Philip in Acts.
    See Sempad the Constable’s letter
    The magi worshiped him as king. The first gospel message was that God had made Jesus “a Prince and a Saviour, a prince such as Jacob prevailed with God.
    When we come to worship the Christ Jesus is he only a Saviour to us or is He also Sovereign King in our lives.
    If possible, in your church, play HE’S MY KING, DO YOU KNOW HIM?
    @That’s My King Dr. S.M. Lockridge @ –
    Life in the subsequent kingdom is a life not dominated by law, sin, the world spirit or Satan but of the dominion of the King of kings.

  4. Chapter 4 of Michael Heiser’s Reversing Hermon (a book every believer should read) sees that an “astronomical reconstruction of the circumstances [of Revelation 12:1−7] produces a birth date for the Messiah” and he links this to Matthew 2 (p. 66). It seems a very erudite and convincing explanation, but it is beyond my pay grade.

    It is almost impossible to escape the traditions of reception history—Raymond Brown apparently believed that: “The parents are named as Mary and Joseph, who are legally engaged or married …”

    I doubt it. It is almost certain that any “engagement or marriage” would have simply been an agreement between the two families—and I would suggest that they were officially betrothed —not married. The “divorce” comment in Matt 1:19 is a translation of ‘apolysai’ which means to ‘let go’. Neither biblical Hebrew nor Greek had a specific word for divorce.

    • In that culture divorce and marriage were matters for the persons involved, who then *informed* the authorities. Today they have to petition the State and divorce and marriage have been nationalised. Certainly the State needs to know who is and isn’t married to whom, because of laws concerning who is the legitimate heir, etc, but nationalisation is a mixed blessing.

        • We know that Jewish genealogies were kept in the Temple and were burnt when the Romans torched it in AD70.

          The occupying Romans cared not a whit about Jewish family law – they were interested in collecting taxes and keeping order – and the priesthood would have enforced everything about family law short of capital punishment, which the Romans demanded a say in (John 18:31).

          • Anton,
            Yes—the key figures were recorded in these genealogies but then were destroyed. That is why very few today can categorically say they are descended from Abraham—which questions the concept that Jesus came to save the literal descendants of such.

            But many relationships would not be recorded—as Jewish scholars (e.g. Michael Satlow) point out there were few written records of marriage.

            The problem in the West is we cannot get our heads around the fact that marriages work elsewhere in the world without church or state registration or control. Madagascar has a population of 26 million and I would suggest the majority have never been married either by the church or by the state.

  5. Surely the difficulty with the birth narratives is a) if Luke got his account from Mary, or indeed anyone, why on earth didn’t she/they mention the trip to Egypt; and b) the clear implication in Matthew’s account that Nazareth in Galilee was chosen on their return because Judea looked too dangerous, while in Luke’s account it was already their home before they went to Bethlehem for a census. I might also mention that travelling to Jerusalem on the way home from Bethlehem looks a bit dangerous following the massacre of the innocents.

    • Why didn’t Luke include the flight to Egypt? Because a key feature of ancient historians was always to be selective, and this did not serve any purpose in his retelling of the story. You might as well ask why don’t all the gospels include all the stories that they had access to—and the simple answer is ‘the viable length of a manuscript’.

      If Jerry Akin is correct (did you read the linked piece) then Joseph and Mary are choosing between their two possible options of where to live. Does Matthew’s narrative state that Nazareth was simply picked out of the air? Why is it mentioned without any explanation?

      • Jimmy, not Jerry. The point about book length in the ancient world is a critical one. We have become used to books to infinite length but in the ancient world books were limited by the size of a scroll and the patience of a scribe.

      • Ian

        I think that’s a bit shaky. Leaving out the shepherds is more understandable than the murder of all young Jewish boys and a dramatic flight into Egypt.

        • It is not ‘shaky’. It is noting

          a. the consistent practice of ancient authors
          b. the refusal to demand that the gospel authors do what we want them to
          c. taking seriously their specific theological goals in their writing.

          Your dissatisfaction is driven by a demand they conform to modern expectations.

  6. Its not only tricky to make the two primary nativity accounts fit with each other, but also with other historical documents. The big problem with “believing” these accounts is not the esotic nature of the Magi or the star (if we don’t believe in Gods miracles then we cannot believe most of the NT!), but that they disagree with other histories and don’t make much sense of the politics.

    I think in other histories (if someone knows better feel free to correct me) that the Roman intervention is an indirect result of Herods death – Herod was a client king and on his death the kingdom became divided into Roman provinces. Its difficult to then position the magi as arriving after this, unless the Herod in this narrative is not Herod the Great.

    In these times of war and clashes of culture, people unhappy that the Prime Minister is not only not a protestant, but is actually a Hindu and a new wave of fear of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists its really important to honor the visit of the Magi (foreigners of a different religion), but I expect scripture emphasizes their visit not because they were outsiders, but because they were from the land of Abrahams birth

    • I have no *fear* of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists, but I could do without the increased risk of it which our wonderful governments of the last 30 years have brought.

      • Anton

        I wasn’t suggesting you personally were scared of anything, but that we have political leaders once again suggesting all Muslims are terrorists etc.

        • Name one and quote him accurately with source, please.

          Of course I don’t believe that proposition, but the questions are what Islam’s sacred texts say (cf the New Testament) and whether that makes any difference.

    • Peter, thanks for commenting!

      Given the nine major points of the narrative on which they agree, what are the problems with making them ‘fit each other’?

      I am not sure I understand your comment about Herod. I don’t know anyone who thinks this is not Herod the Great. Are you aware of the serious questions about the date of Herod’s death—amongst historians?

      • Ian

        Direct Roman rule of the holy land came after Herods death, but several of the details of the gospels (most notably the census of Quirinius) have direct Roman rule during Herods life time, which is inconsistent with other histories and also doesn’t make much sense – as an analogy its kind of like talking about Scotland’s first minister a few years before devolution happened.

        My Dad and I tried a few Christmases back to fit the two narratives together and we couldn’t do it without changing some of the details. Sorry I can’t remember really what the problems were in doing this.

      • I don’t think any historian dates the death of Herod after 1 CE, and that still leaves a gap of five years until the census of Quirinius and the formal Roman annexation of Judea. The generally agreed date of 4 BCE means a 10 year gap.
        The least unconvincing way to resolve the dilemma is to translate prote (With reference to the census) as before rather than first.
        I think it is possible to “fit” the Bethlehem / Egypt / Jerusalem / Nazareth geography. Luke may have left the Egypt exile out as a distraction from the focus of his narrative, and Joseph may have been in two minds whether he would settle as a married couple in Bethlehem or Nazareth, until the hostility of the next Herod confirmed his decision to go north; nevertheless it still seems a huge gap in Luke’s account. Matthew may have downplayed the original Nazareth element in order to focus on Bethlehem. It can fit but it feels a stretch.
        As someone whose first assignment in Roman History was to date the birth of Jesus, I am well aware that dating the ancient world, and finding perfect solutions is difficult, and often any answer has its problems. Ancient accounts are not written the way we would wish they had been! The gospel narratives generally provide a good historical insight, and secular historians treat them with broad respect, sometimes more than do some theologians.

          • Could you provide the link? I am interested why you think it cannot be used for dating. It seems to be a primary piece of evidence.

        • Both Matthew and Luke have the Jesus birth caught up in national politics. In Matthew Jesus birth is such a threat to Her of that he massacres all the little boys and the holy family become refugees in Egypt.

          Luke has the birth of Jesus caught up in the census that happend as a result of Herods death and the division of the holy land into 3 Roman provinces.

          Neither give a date, but it seems to me that Jesus birth cannot both be significantly before and also significantly after the death of Herod

          • But Luke does not state that the census took place after Herod’s death, and does state (2:1) that the entire Roman Empire was subject to this census. Caesar Augustus was hardly likely to call a census on the whole Mediterranean basin because one ruler of a distanct minor subject kingdom had died, so the reason you assert for the census is false.

            No inconsistency here.

          • Anton

            But Quirinius was sent to be governor of Syria and kind of Grand Moff of the whole area because of the political difficulties due to Herods death.

            You can say Luke got that bit wrong, but then you are changing a detail to make the narratives fit better

          • Luke does not say ‘Quirinius was the Governor of Syria’. He says ‘Quirinius was ruling Syria’, using a present participle, which he did indeed do before he assumed the formal title of Governor. Luke is everywhere very careful to use the correct titles.

          • Ian

            So the major translations are wrong?

            What’s the evidence Quirinius was even in Syria before being appointed Legate?

            Are you arguing that Quirinius took a census of the holy land before Herods death? Wouldn’t that be stepping on Herods toes?

          • The ‘major translations’ are just that: translations. The Greek text says this:

            αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.

            The ending -ontos of the word in bold, which is the verb hegemoneuo (from which we get ‘hegemony’) shows it is a present active participle ‘was governing’, and not a noun or title ‘Governor’. In loose English, we might translated ‘he was governor’ but that is not what Luke writes.

            [The other ambiguity is the word prote, which can mean ‘first [whilst…] or ‘prior to’ (that is, first came the census, then his governing). These sorts of things are inherent in the task of translation.]

            [Also worth noting that the AV translated ‘to be taxed’ is simply wrong.]


          • Anton

            So their explanation is that Q was governor of Galatians at the time, but based in Syria. That still doesn’t explain why he would take a census of Judea.

            It involves inventing a whole new census…and makes Luke still wrong because Luke says it was the whole Roman world, not just Judea

            A much simpler explanation is that either Luke or Matthew were slightly misinformed on some historical details

          • Peter, Luke does not say Quirinius ‘was the governor of Syria’. Unlike all the other occasions where he uses a noun as a title, which research shows is always historically correct, in this case he uses a particular ‘Qurinius was ruling Syria’, which indeed he was for some time before being appointed Governor.

          • Ian

            There’s speculation that he was governor of Galatea at the time and further speculation that he might have been based in Syria. But there’s no written evidence of this. It doesn’t explain why he would take a census of a client kingdom that was nothing to do with his duties, nor why he would do it again a few years later

          • Anton

            Its not just Josephus though. There’s no record anywhere of the Romans ever taking a census of their entire empire and Judea was not even a full part of the Empire until after Herod died. It was a client kingdom – loyalty to Rome, but with self rule.

          • Ian

            If the census was nothing to do with the census of Quirinius then why does Luke mention him? Why not say that Herod was ruling Judea instead of saying Quirinius was ruling *from* Syria?

            And then you still have the problem that you have to invent a whole new census for that theres no evidence of.

            Isn’t the more likely explanation that Matthew and Luke don’t agree on the political details of Jesus birth?

          • The article you shared doesn’t explain away the fundamental contradiction in the politics of Jesus birth. Matthews account means Jesus had to be born during Herods reign. Lukes account means Jesus had to be born after the Romans took direct control, ie after Herods death

  7. The story of the Magi coming to Jesus cannot be separated from the killing of the children, and Matthew’s scriptural fulfilment. Modern readers ask about the justice of other innocents dying while Joseph is warned in a dream. At the very least it is a disturbing and violent element.
    The second Moses, kept safe though other children die, protected from a cruel ruler, motif is one we should certainly note – Jesus is the one who will save his people, the great teacher, the one who will expound the Law in a new and authoritative way. Jesus fulfils Jacob (12 disciples regathering the 12 tribes), Moses, David (the true King), and as Hebrews reminds us the true High Priest.
    Yes the Magi are an irruption into the Jewish setting, but so were the women in the genealogy, part of the gospel sadly not reflected on in our Christmas thinking. And there is something amazing about the foreigner worshipping, having found their way, primarily by astrology / astronomy, though needing help at the end from the Jewish religious leaders.
    The greatest challenge to those wanting to harmonise accounts is the dating. Matthew (and Luke) acknowledge Jesus is born in the time of Herod, who died around 4BC / BCE. But Luke’ primary dating is by the census of Quirinius, the first, which would establish the tax levels for the new province which was in 6AD / CE, ten years after the death of Herod. There are attempts to translate as the census *before* the one of Quirinius, but no evidence that Herod in his final years assented to a Roman census in his country. While a census would mean movement of people, would an adult resident of Nazareth, who presumably worked there, really be expected to journey to a family town. Again a case can be made, primarily from silence and conjecture, but both the movement of Joseph and the dating are hugely problematic.
    That is not to say that Joseph did not go to Bethlehem for the birth, but that it is unlikely he did so at the time of the census. Luke however has a clear theological reason to link to the time of the census.
    As Matthew maps Herod to Pharaoh, Jesus the true King born contra the existing King, so Luke, writing for a Greco-Roman, Mediterranean readership, presents the true Lord, born in obscurity at the time when Augustus, Lord, Caesar, is claiming to bring peace to the world. Luke, clearly, presents Jesus as the true Lord; at the time when the Romans took over and taxed Judea, Jesus is born, God’s answer and riposte.
    In their different ways, both birth narratives present Jesus as the true King / Lord – the one focusing primarily on the corrupt rulers of the Jews, the other on the false claims of the Roman Emperor.

  8. There does seem to be an awful lot of pure speculation on today’s thread.
    The plain fact is that there is precious little data available for this aspect of the Epiphany, apart from Joseph and Mary’s, from whom a firsthand account could be given.
    In speculating on the minutia perhaps the glaringly obvious is being missed.
    How do we think that conjecture will benefit or edify
    the flock of His pasture next Sunday?
    It is very clear that Jesus endorsed the veracity of the Holy Scriptures and the forthcoming New Testament Scriptures, no doubt, else, his life and teachings are pointless.

  9. One big question we need to face is why so many adults have rejected the Scriptures as the Word of God.
    Some might say it is because liberal and questioning “scholarship” has corroded confidence. Others might say that when we tell children “Bible stories” then they will grow out of such stories just as they grow out of fairy-tales etc.
    There is a real danger that we lose the profound truths of the Incarnation, but the danger is twin-fold – it can be that we – maybe without realising it – minimise or remove the divine encounter clearly told; it can be that we maintain a rather lovely pastiche of shepherds, wise men, animals etc in a rustic crib. Bonus points for a live donkey!
    The issue is of course more complex than this. Christmas has become a cultural festival more than a religious one. We live in a post-Christian Britain, and most forms of authority are questioned even disliked, rather than respected.
    Maybe this Epiphany some strange people will come asking us questions about God. Would that throw us into turmoil or would we respond and even follow it up? There is something sad and worrying about the lack of further interest from the religious leaders in Jerusalem who met the Magi, or were they cowed by the oppressive shadow of Herod? What oppressive shadows restrict us?

    • Yes, I agree this is an important question. I would offer two answers:

      a. Not allowing people to ask their good questions;

      b. Not offering convincing answers.

      I always seek to do both.

    • Peter

      The people I know who have left the church and/or Christianity has been for two reasons

      1 disillusionment at dishonesty, corruption and abuse by church leaders
      2 discovering scientific truths that contradict the understanding of scripture they were taught, especially evolution.

      It seems to me that both of these is not a failure of faith per se, but a reaction to having their trust abused. “If they were lying about the small things then how can I trust that they are telling the truth about anything else”. These are people who grew up in the church, which is rare these days

      I think for the vast majority of British people, the church and the Bible has no relevance

      • My first comment on this thread concerned my commitment to the view that Genesis 1-3 is inerrant and can be reconciled with the findings of physics, geology, biology etc even when I have not understood how. By living in the tension and not defaulting either to the secular or the fundamentalist pole of the debate, I have learnt much. That applies to Genesis and evolution too, but I am not inclined to go into detail with someone who treats scripture with de facto contempt.

        • Anton

          I don’t treat scripture with contempt. I just live with the fact its not a video recording of events, but ancient history.

          Its irrelevant what you or I think of things like evolution. The reality remains that people who’ve been taught that interpretation of scripture can lose all of their faith if other evidence convinces them it isn’t true. Dinosaurs are very charismatic – its difficult to argue them away

          • I agree and this is my concern with fundamentalists. But what is and is not relevant in our debate is not decided by you unilaterally.

          • Anton

            Our own opinion on evolution is irrelevant to the opinion of those who have left the church because of it

          • Peter – my opinion on evolution is irrelevant. I should say, though, that I do avoid churches where people seem to think that Darwin’s ideas of evolution somehow contradict the idea of a creator God (who, by definition of being a creator God who created everything, created the natural laws that govern everything).

            I’m not affiliated to any church. Your assessment may have some truth.

  10. Thank you for this piece..always great stuff.. ‘Myth or reality’ or ‘truth’? It seems to me, whether “fictionalised history”[Robert Altar] the text is pointing towards theological truth – something so prized in the Classical period. It is noteworthy to recognise the influence of the , the ebb and flow of their political control in the area, and the importance of the Maji class in their society. Thus, I wondered whether Matthew was alluding to the sacred Zoroastrian texts which anticipated the birth of “Saoshyant” , the Messiah-savior-figure , who was to be “born of a virgin” at the end of time and “put to end Angra Mainya” (source of evil/chaos) ushering a new age. I think there is even a star in the story.
    Ultimately sign posting to the truth concerning the identity and purpose of this baby.

    • Rev Bred – I’d say that in the case of the gospels, it has to be much more than simply pointing towards a theological truth. The coming of Christ, God appearing in the flesh, dwelling among us, being crucified and rising again, must be a historical reality. If it is simply a `theological truth’ rather than a real event that took place at a specific time point in history, then there is no basis for our Salvation.

      The gospel writers, of all people, were well aware of this. Of course, they may well have been expressing the real historical event using language that alluded to certain texts, but the key point of their witness collapses like a pack of cards if any part at all of their narrative becomes myth (and no longer gives testimony to hard reality). If the Magi are a myth and if this part of the narrative only points towards a ‘theological truth’ then it is legitimate to ask how much of the gospel has the status of nice story which points towards a theological truth – and if the gospel writers are playing this game, then why should we believe them at all?

      Since the gospels are key to proving that Jesus was who he said he was, the truth of their testimony (i.e. the hard truth – and not simply imaginary pictures pointing towards some theological truth) is of much greater vital importance to the gospel writers than to any other part of Scripture.

      The sign pointing to the truth concerning the identity and purpose of the baby means absolutely nothing – and means that the gospel writers were bearing false testimony if there did not exist Magi who came, gave gifts and then went back a different way to avoid meeting Herod.

      • Jock

        I agree.

        If you’re not going to believe in the Magi then how can you believe in walking on water or the resurrection?!

        • Peter – rather – if the author isn’t being straight about the Magi, then how can he be trusted to be straight about walking-on-water or the resurrection?

          If you don’t have the resurrection, then – quite simply – you don’t have Christianity – there isn’t an object of faith.

  11. Peter Reiss
    January 4, 2024 at 10:27 am
    Thank you Peter you are gifted to elucidate the ache of my heart and thoughts.
    1 COR.2 2:11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
    2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
    2:13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual;was my reading /meditation this morning. Yes, your question is aposite,”What oppressive shadows restrict us?”

  12. I have thought much over recent years about the issue of the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke.

    If I understand correctly, it is a supported theory that Jesus was likely to have been born at Sukkot, then the two narratives interlink well.

    The family would have had to remain in Bethlehem for the 6 weeks until after Mary’s purification – after which Luke tells us that they return to Nazareth.

    Being a Torah observant family Joseph would have gone to Jerusalem every year for this great feast of Sukkot and the likelihood is that he would have stayed close by with family in Bethlehem

    So in Matthew 2 – Mary and the young child Jesus accompany him, but do not return to Nazareth but flee from there to Egypt after the visit of the magi. And Herod -having asked when the star first appeared – does the maths and knows he is not looking for a newborn.

    No conflict, but also fits with Ian’s explanation of the birth being in a family home!

  13. Thank you everyone. Very interesting points made. Having read the blog and watched the video discussion as well as read all the comments, I now have to discern what to preach tomorrow to two congregations in small rural churches who are probably not interested in biblical criticism etc. I may just go with my morning prayer reflection and unpack a verse of the hymn
    “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,
    Bow down before him, his glory proclaim,
    With gold of obedience and incense of lowlilness,
    Kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name”
    And whilst doing so bring in anything that I have gleaned from this time of reading.

  14. Was Quirinius’ census completed or was it like David’s? Did everybody up sticks and move only to find the census abandoned. If it was, then mention of it puts the writer of the Gospel in that narrow time. A later writer might omit Quirinius—like Liztrussius should be.


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