Is the Epiphany in Matthew 2 myth or reality?

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?

Join Ian and James as they explore these questions.


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43 thoughts on “Is the Epiphany in Matthew 2 myth or reality?”

  1. Thank you Ian and James for an ‘illuminating’ discussion. I was unaware that Joseph had family links to Bethlehem. Did I miss a reference to Q as a basis for the compilation of Luke and Matthew?

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  2. Im not sure why anyone would want to ‘spiritualise’ the star and not treat it as an actual celestial body or happening. If the Magi were astronomers/astrologers, they would have been looking at such actual bodies and drawing conclusions.

    I think Colin Humphrey’s argument that it was a comet with a tail as recorded in Chinese records in 5BC is strong. Even Matthew’s language of ‘stood over’ a certain place is found in Roman records referring to Halley’s comet ‘standing over’ Rome. I dont think that is a coincidence. With a tail, it would literally act like an arrow, and of course the viewer’s perspective at the time is all important. The Magi would have followed it from Persia, taking a number of weeks on camels. If Herod died no earlier than 4BC, then that also fits in with the time-line.

    Interestingly BBC’s ‘Sky at Night’ agrees. One of the presenters was genuinely taken aback when he was shown the actual Chinese records which record the comet’s appearance, and how it fits in with Matthew’s account. He was surprised it could actually have been real!

    Peter

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    • It is not about ‘spiritualising it’; it is about recognising that this was God’s guidance, and not merely some natural phenomenon.

      Dick France essential says ‘Why do we need to avoid this being miraculous?’

      And in any case, even if God uses a natural phenomenon, its ability to guide the magi to Jesus was miraculous!

      Reply
      • God uses the natural for guidance so no need for the star to be a supernatural phenomenon. There’s nothing in the text to indicate it was supernatural in nature. Perhaps it was a case of God inspiring the Magi to look out for such a ‘star’. Perhaps they dreamed dreams…

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      • If you reject natural phenomenon then Christianity becomes as meaningless as sudoku. If you reject the miraculous then Christianity becomes as meaningless as sudoku.

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  3. About the ‘star’: may I put in a plea for you (maybe particularly James?) to read and comment on Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem? It’s a very serious and massively researched piece of work by a biblical scholar who has taken a huge amount of trouble to learn a lot of astronomy and worked with professional astronomers. It’s endorsed by several distinguished scholars including Gordon Wenham, Simon Gathercole at Cambridge, John Lennox at Oxford, and various astronomers. As the title suggests, he believes the star was a comet (only a comet can do all the things Matthew says it did). I’m not competent to judge whether he’s right so I’d be so pleased if more people like you would read and comment!

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    • There are no records in the astronomical records of the time for the comet he proposes, so unlikely. More likely the comet of 5BC which is recorded.

      Reply
      • Nicholl says that the astronomical records (mainly Chinese and Babylonian) are fragmentary at best for this period. In addition some comets have an extremely long period/orbit – up to hundreds of millions of years so it’s perfectly possible for a comet to appear once and (in effect) never be seen again.

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      • I think the 5BC comet theory comes from Colin Humphreys (and maybe others). Interestingly, Humphreys endorses Nicholl’s book as follows: “Nicholl makes a compelling case that the Star was a comet, supporting this conclusion with a mass of evidence from a variety of sources. I strongly recommend his work on one of the most fascinating biblical mysteries.”

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        • I can advise that Humphreys made a mistake in his endorsement of the book, as although he agrees it was a comet, he disagrees with Nicholl’s conclusions. I understand Humphreys intends to write his own book on the subject, time permitting.

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    • Thank you for mentioning the book, Mark. I’d forgotten the title and author, but recall much was made of it when first published and was minded to buy it, but didn’t. Little, to no, subsequent reference seems to have been made to it.
      Has it slipped through the scholarship net?

      Reply
        • Nicholl gives multiple astronomical reasons why the conjunction theory doesn’t stand up. He examines all the major theories in detail from an astronomical point of view and concludes that only a comet will do. But I’m not an astronomer… He also says that Christian writers in the early centuries of the church uniformly identified it as a comet. But I’m no expert on such things, which is why we need those who are experts to examine his research in detail.

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      • He claims that the comet would have appeared in the constellation of Virgo and that the Magi might well have had information about the biblical prophecies of the Messiah from Jews left behind in Babylon after the return from exile. (This is my rather crude summary of a much more sophisticated argument!)

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        • I notice in a recent article on ‘TheTorah’ web site, that Prof. Amy-Jill Levine ‘recovers’ the Jewish roots of the Christmas story. She dismisses all talk of an actual star but assumes this is an angel, which in Jewish thinking was a kind of star;
          ‘Stars do not function like GPS systems. Moreover, a heavenly body does not, as Matthew states, ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον, “stop over the place where the child was” (2:9). Had it done so, the house, and the earth, would have been incinerated. The “star” for Matthew is a being, like an angel. Philo, for example, defined stars as “living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind” (Dreams 1.135). ‘
          This seems an unsatisafactory way to explain the astrological observations of the magi, leading to their journey, but provides a good way to explain how the star could point to the actual place where Jesus was. Perhaps the magi saw a ‘star’ rising, as conjunction but where then guided by an angel, as Levine suggests? The magi I assume, would see no discontinuity between stars rising and angels pointing; there might be a new carol there for someone to work on!!

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          • Good point.
            Its one of perspective.
            To the Magi the phenomena was a star moving slowly on the crustal, crystal dome.
            To Mary the phenomena was personal, an angel.
            Finally the shepherds got bowled over.

            Reminds me of a quip:

            “The light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an on-coming train.”

  4. I was quite taken by your post a few days ago of the birth narratives of John and Jesus. It struck me that we were seeing the handover from the O.T to the N.T. right there.
    On the star— a hand over is made again. The Chariot of the Lord returns from the east. ‘They saw a great light’ and followed it. Instead of returning to Herod’s gaudy temple the Star moved over to Bethlehem and so fulfilled Ezekiel’s prophecy.
    The Chariot of the Lord (1 Chronicles 28:18), returns over the spot over where the Lord in a manger lay.
    No soap opera mentions events without there being some significance later on. The star is the last O.T manifestation of the Lord before handing over to Jesus. A very royal, diplomatic event. The Glory enters to real Temple, The Lord.
    James, If conjunctions occur every two years or so what was so special that it took the magi to Jerusalem? Did they first see the star when it was in the guise of the angel visiting Mary? I think so. It would then take them months before they arrived in Bethlehem for the birth. Perhaps Herod killed the infants just to be sure, not because the magi turned up late.
    Why is this important? What’s wrong with the star being a comet or conjunction? I think all the events in the O.T. , like characters in a play, need to be seen to take a chorus bow and hand over to the main character and hero of the story.

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  5. Thanks for this. I am preaching on this on Sunday; I think worship will be my focus. Some questions always occur to me re this passage (unanswerable no doubt!)
    – Why didn’t God get the star to re-appear a bit earlier, bypassing Herod altogther?
    – why didn’t Herod just send some soldiers with the Magi (for protection of course)
    -why were the priests so indifferent – surely the possibility of the Messiah …? Or were they too scared of Herod? Or the news coming from pagan sources couldn’t possibly be right?

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    • Good questions!

      a. Not sure what you mean by ‘by-passing Herod’?
      b. I think that is a function of the political dynamic. If you have important diplomats, you are limited as to how you can dictate to them.
      c. All the signs are that (well placed) fear of Herod was determining…

      Reply
    • From what I can tell, Nicholl is proposing a solution based on a naturalistic reading of the text, for which there is no actual astronomical evidence.

      The fact that he is (completely wrongly) reading Rev 12 as astronomical seems rather problematic to me.

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      • Nicholl’s overall case doesn’t depend (if I understand him rightly) on his reading of Revelation 12. It is based on a careful reading of Matthew 2 in the light of contemporary (Babylonian and other) astronomical terminology – in other words, a serious analysis of the text sensitive to what words meant at the time – allied with some complex astronomy which clarifies what the different kinds of celestial bodies can and can’t do. He claims that only a comet can do what Matthew says the star did – that is, Matthew understood to be using astronomical terminology with clearly defined meanings. I think it would be a shame if his theory was dismissed only on the basis of a faulty reading of Revelation. There may be a lot more to it than that – but that’s what I would be glad to hear thought through by those who know what they’re talking about!

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  6. What surprised me in the discussion was that about the relationship of Joseph to Bethlehem and Nazareth. James seemed to need to explain why the holy family remained in Bethlehem, and I was confused by what Ian said.

    Reading the text, Matthew gives no reference to Nazareth until the return from Egypt. Indeed, the text is clear (2:22) that Joseph would have returned to Judea – presumably Bethlehem – if there had not been a potential threat to the child.

    We know from Luke that Mary was in Nazareth, and we know that the family went to Nazareth after the birth etc. which is described at this point as “their own town” (εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν Ναζαρέθ). But this must be after the sojourn in Egpyt, if Matthew is correct. Was Nazareth Joseph’s “own town” at the start of Luke 2? I would suggest not. For, Luke tells us that for the census everyone had to be registered “his own town” (εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν). So Joseph travels there with the pregnant Mary to whom he is not yet married. I would suggest that this journey was precisely that journey a bridegroom makes with his bride to his own place where the nuptuals are completed. If not, would a betrothed couple travel together as is implied here?

    So, Joseph is following the command of the angel and taking Mary as his wife. This ensures that the child to be born will be counted as his in the census, a child in the line of David.

    If you wonder why Joseph from Bethlehem is marrying Mary from Nazareth, perhaps it is because Mary has a relative in the nearby “hill country…a town in Judea” (Luke 1:39) who id some matchmaking for two devout people.

    Reply
    • Well, perhaps I was just being confusing…!

      I had recently read this, from Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin: https://jimmyakin.com/2022/03/where-was-josephs-residence.html In it he comments:

      The first thing to mention is that the “Joseph’s two residences” view is not based on a desire to harmonize Matthew and Luke.

      It is something that Luke’s Gospel indicates, without any need to consult Matthew. The first time we hear about Joseph in Luke, we read:

      ‘In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary’ (Luke 1:26-27).

      People in any age—and this was certainly true in the first century—tend to live in the same area as the ones they are engaged to be married to (or are already legally married to), and so from this we would expect from this passage that Joseph was residing in Nazareth.

      Doing an inductive, narrative reading of the Gospel of Luke, that should be the default expectation for the reader from this point forward: Joseph has a residence in Nazareth.

      Later, we read:

      ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. . . . And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city’ (Luke 2:1, 3).

      This corresponds to known Roman enrollment practices, which involved calling people back to the place of their legal residence.I have discussed this matter further here [link], but—even in modern times—there are multiple practices based around one’s place of residence. If you want to comply with the law, you need to:
      • Pay taxes based on your place of legal residence
      • Vote based on your place of legal residence
      • Register for the draft based on your place of legal residence
      Given the mobility of modern society and the massive communications networks we’ve set up (including the original one—the postal service), we now have the flexibility to do many of these things at a distance, but we’re still tied to our legal residences for various governmental functions and duties.

      People in the ancient world did not have modern communications networks (not even a formal postal delivery service), and so they needed to appear at their places of legal residence on certain occasions.

      So Luke on his own suggests the two places of residence, not Matthew, but Matthew’s narrative makes perfect sense if we know that.

      Does that help to clarify?

      Reply
      • I suppose that I would be interested in this concept of ‘legal residence’. It is certainly a better concept for getting Joseph, with Mary, to Bethlehem than the town being his “ancestral town”. Did people really have a ‘legal residence’ at the time? Surely the point of the registration was to establish who lived somewhere.

        However, for me it does not really address the issue of Joseph travelling with Mary, when they are not yet fully married.

        Also, I noted, it is not impossible that Elizabeth is the connection between Joseph and Mary.

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  7. Now a serious comment, Ian!
    Your references to the complex relationship between astronomy, astrology, theology and diplomacy do bring into focus the contemporary growing interest in the fulfilment of scripture re modern military conflicts in “Palestine” and an apparently insatiable thirst, especially from the other side of the pond, about the fulfilment of the apocalyptic prophecies related to the temple – e.g. a good evangelical member of my congregation gave me a book for Christmas which you probably know – “The Red Heiffer Ritual” by Otto Gonzales. My normal response to such tomes is “You do not know the day nor the hour” – how much significance would it be wise to attribute to this apparent contemporary trend?
    Martin

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    • I don’t think it is wise at all!

      But I am not sure how connected it is with the desire to find naturalistic phenomena to explain the Bible’s historical account?

      Besides, even if this were a comet, it is still miraculous that God could have used that to guide the magi to the birthplace of Jesus!

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  8. Herod, being only half-Jewish, had no legitimate claim to the throne of David. He had been installed as a vassal king by the Romans. So, when some potentates (possibly king-makers, as some have suggested) from the empire to the East turn up and start asking about a new “king of the Jews”, what might that imply. Is the enemy of Rome to the East going to claim that this king is the true king of the disputed territory? Perhaps the fear of those in Jerusalem was the fear of a possible war.

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  9. I see that a number of commenters have referred to the work of Colin Nicholl. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of his work is the suggestion that Revelation 12:1-5 incorporates a reminiscence of the star/comet. I wonder if you, Dr Paul (if you are reading this!) have any thoughts about that, given your expertise in Revelation?

    https://www.walkingwithgiants.net/bible-study-notes/new-testament/revelation/revelation-12/

    https://www.walkingwithgiants.net/christmas/the-star-of-bethlehem-revisited/

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    • I have not read it—but my immediate response is scepticism! It seems to me to be an odd way to read Rev 12, which is actually packed with allusion to the OT and apocalyptic imagery. It is the main reason why I have not invested any time in reading Nicholl.

      Reply
  10. 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 @wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi

    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 @ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzqTFNfeDnE
    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.
    Rom 8:14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God

    Reply

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