Is the Epiphany myth or reality?

Three_wise_men_6th_Century_Roman_Mosaic


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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105 thoughts on “Is the Epiphany myth or reality?”

  1. A further interesting question is whereabouts the magi travelled from, and whether they were gentiles or were Jewish diaspora. The questions are correlated as Jewish diaspora were more likely to have come from the Babylon area. I’ve seen both questions addressed by commentators who confidently give differing answers.

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  2. I go with the comet. This is persuasively argued for by Colin Humphreys (an evangelical Christian and now retired professor of metallurgy at Cambridge), in Tyndale Bulletin 43.1, pp31-56 (1992). The paper is titled The star of Bethlehem, a comet in 5BC and the date of Christ’s birth and is a revision of a slightly earlier essay in Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (vol.32 pp389-407; 1991). Humphreys looks at ancient descriptions of comets and shows that Matthew’s description – including the unusual features – matches these. He also identified a comet in Chinese records from 5BC, so I respectfully disagree that there is “no independent evidence”.

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    • Thank you for an expansive essay. Has critical scholarship, really changed direction? Historicity of the Gospels, has ” relentlessly” been dismissed by Bultmann et al and present day disciples. Does it not underpin swathes of critical scholarship even as it has veered off into acceptance of ideas of myth and metaphor and parable Alone, under the camouflage clothing of (a Christ -less) Christianity

      Colin R Nichol’s book has gleaned a number of affirmative reviews: The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem.

      Reply
      • Hi Geoff, just to say Colin Humphreys does not agree with Nicholl’s conclusions in his book and has confirmed to me personally that he maintains the 5BC comet as recorded in Chinese astronomical records is the one described by Matthew.

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    • Thanks Anton. I am not sure I am now persuaded that Josephus was right about the date of the death of Herod, so that raises a question about the date of the ‘comet’.

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      • There are arguments on both sides as to the correct year of Herod’s death, but I think 4BC is the stronger contender. Humphrey’s proposed comet appeared in 5BC, thus leaving about a few months to a year between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death. There is in fact independent attestation to this comet in the Chinese Han Shu astronomical records.

        Such a comet makes sense to me given not only the timing but also the similar language used in Roman writings regarding comets (but not other celestial objects) – Dio Cassius described the comet of 12 BC (Halley’s comet) as ‘the star called comet stood for several days over the city [Rome]’. Josephus also wrote ‘a star, resembling a sword, stood over the city Jerusalem’. So very similar language of ‘stood over’ is used by different writers at different times, 5BC, 12BC & 64AD, but they all refer to the same phenomenon – tailed comets.

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    • I’m always impressed by Colin Humphreys work. He brings great enthusiasm with scientific rigour to all his studies relating to the Bible. I would just note that in the summary to the 1991 paper he refers not just to the comet of 5 BC but also to the other two astronomical events: the triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 BC and the massing if the three planets Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in 6 BC. He proposes that all three of these events would have been rich in significance to the Magi, and the combination would have provided a very clear sign that a mighty new king was about to be born in Israel.

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  3. Thank you Ian for this comprehensive scan of the landscape of interpretation in connection with this episode. The whole of this story in Matthew is an excellent example of Heilsgeschichte – salvation history.

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      • It means he puts it in the same class as the Virgin Birth of Christ. I asked him if he believed this happened in history and he continually punted and refused to answer,
        Andrew is one of those unusual reverse logicians who thinks you can affirm something if it is in the Creeds but doubt or deny it if it is in the Bible.
        He may not appreciate how the creeds came to be composed.
        Incidentally, I see that Pope Benedict wrote a shortish book on the Infancy narratives. I am currently reading volume 2 of his “Jesus of Nazareth” and saw in the foreword that he was going to write a book on the infancy narratives. Worth checking out? I think his books on Jesus are excellent and show fine engagement with Protestant scholars and Jewish writers like Neusner.

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      • Ian surely you know what Heilsgeschichte is and the work of Oscar Cullman?
        James you are completely wrong.
        You can’t treat all of the bible as if it were one thing. There are so many different sorts of literature.
        And I have affirmed the fact that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.

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        • Andrew – you have repeatedly refused to affirm what the doctrine of the Virgin Birth means – that Jesus had no human father and that his conception was miraculous.
          Your refusal to affirm this can only mean that you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth. Why do you keep equivocating? That isn’t a Christian virtue,
          Tell us simply, Andrew: do you believe Jesus had a human father?

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          • James I have repeatedly said that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. There is no equivocation.
            Jock: this from the Evangelical Quarterly is brief.

          • http://biblicalstudies.gospelstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1976-2_079.pdf

            I note that this paper defines ‘salvation history’ as a hermeneutic; that is, as a tool for interpreting texts.

            This is not compatible with the claim that ‘[the] whole of this story in Matthew is an excellent example of […] salvation history’ where ‘salvation history’ is used as a type of text.

            To be clear about the distinction, other examples of hermeneutics — tools for reading texts — would be, say, originalism (where one tries to read the text as it would have been read in the time and place it was written) or deconstruction (where one tries to read the text critically by identifying the implicit assumptions it makes and then showing how they don’t hold).

            So you can see that just as it would be nonsensical to say ‘this text is an example of originalism’ or ‘this text is an example of deconstruction’, so (if ‘salvation history’ is a hermeneutic) it is nonsensical to say ‘this text is an example of salvation history’. ‘Salvation history’, if it is a hermeneutic, is a thing you do to texts, not a property of the texts themselves.

            All of which is a rather long-winded way of pointing out that the link doesn’t answer the question.

          • It’s important to read the whole paper.

            “Salvation-history designates BOTH a principle of interpretation AND a theological system. As an interpretive principle it asserts that God has made in history a progressive revelation of himself and his will which can be traced in the scriptures. But the advocates of salvation-history do not see the idea as foreign to the Bible since..
            . . . the conception itself begins with the Bible’s own understanding of history. Basic to the witness of both the Old and the New Testament is the conviction that God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs, particularly in a specific chain of events by which the total welfare of man- kind, its salvation (German: Heil), is being prepared for and revealed to the world. The history of this step-by-step process is now seen to constitute the very core of scripture.”

          • Basic to the witness of both the Old and the New Testament is the conviction that God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs, particularly in a specific chain of events by which the total welfare of man- kind, its salvation (German: Heil), is being prepared for and revealed to the world. The history of this step-by-step process is now seen to constitute the very core of scripture.

            Right, okay. So:

            (a) ‘God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs’

            This directly contradicts your view that God is incapable of affecting earthly, human affairs as expressed eg here: https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/what-are-paul-bayes-goals-for-the-church-on-sexuality/#comment-396035

            So presumably you either disagree with the article or you have repudiated your earlier view that God is incapable of taking a direct hand in earthly. human affairs like the second world war; which?

            2. ‘ a specific chain of events by which the total welfare of man- kind, its salvation (German: Heil), is being prepared for and revealed to the world’

            A specific chain of events in history, ie, a specific chain of events that actually happened. The ‘salvation history’ hermeneutic referred to here is still a way of reading a text, it;s just that the text is question is real history, with God as its ultimate author (see point (a)).

            There is no room here for your idea that the gospel authors ‘embellished’ history, making up stories of things that didn’t actually happen in order to express what they feel God was doing with regards to salvation. Indeed to do so would be impossible to reconcile with the idea of reading history, real history, literal history, as ‘salvation history’.

            So basically the entire paper proves your entire view totally wrong. If the Bible is using the ‘salvation history’ technique, as I believe it is, then firstly, that means that it must only be recording events that actually happened (because you can’t do a ‘salvation history’ interpretation of events that aren’t real history, surely that’s obvious!) and secondly, it means that God can and does constantly act in the material world in ways large and small — something you have consistently denied for years and years.

          • And of course I have never denied that the Gospels give us a view of actual events. What I have consistently said is that one can’t necessarily take that view as literally the way things happened.
            The episode of the Epiphany, as Ian explores it here, is a classic example of how we need to explore which bits are historical and which are part of the Gospel writers ‘system’ of theology.
            I am glad that S now sees something of what salvation history means.

          • And of course I have never denied that the Gospels give us a view of actual events. What I have consistently said is that one can’t necessarily take that view as literally the way things happened.

            And the point is that the view that the gospel writers included things that did not literally happen is incompatible with the view that the gospel writers were writing ‘salvation history’ by this definition of ‘salvation history’.

            The episode of the Epiphany, as Ian explores it here, is a classic example of how we need to explore which bits are historical and which are part of the Gospel writers ‘system’ of theology.

            But in order to be ‘salvation history’ by this definition the all of it must be historical, that’s the point. Because by this definition ‘salvation history’ means seeing God’s hand in historical events that actually happened. So if you’re making up stuff that didn’t really happen, then you’re not doing ‘salvation history’ by this definition of ‘salvation history’

            I am glad that S now sees something of what salvation history means.

            I think you can excuse my confusion though, because you kept saying ‘salvation history’ like it was something that excused your saying that the gospels record events that didn’t really happen, or didn’t really happen in the way described.

            When in fact it’s the exact opposite! For the gospels to be ‘salvation history’, at least by this definition, requires that they be scrupulously accurate historical accounts!

          • “For the gospels to be ‘salvation history’, at least by this definition, requires that they be scrupulously accurate historical accounts!”

            Quite wrong. It means that they are a systematic theology – a mix of interpretation, historical event, and a specific form of literature that is not a tape recording of what occurred.

          • [The gospels] are a systematic theology – a mix of interpretation, historical event, and a specific form of literature that is not a tape recording of what occurred.

            I know that’s what you think — but that’s not the definition of ‘salvation history’ in the paper you pointed to.

            So if that’s what you think you should stop claiming that you think the gospels are doing a ‘salvation history’ analysis of history, because you don’t.

            The definition you pointed to is about reading actual history as being a text written by God for the purpose of salvation. Actual history.

          • (Are you just going to ignore point (a), that the entire premise of salvation history is incompatible with your oft-stated view that God is not capable of ‘tak[ing] a direct hand in earthly, human affairs’?)

          • (Come to think of it… do you believe that ‘God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs’? Or are you just saying you think that the gospel-writers believed that?)

          • I fear you are missing an essential part of that paper S.

            “History and salvation-history are not equals.”
            “A sequence of real events represents an analogy to history that is worthy of note, even though their selection cannot be explained historically”

            It’s a theological system, not an historical one.
            I’d love to think this would help but I fear it won’t.
            Have a wonderful Epiphany tide and New Year.

        • Andrew – well, perhaps you can give a brief summary for those of us of very little brain, who have no idea and who would a priori , without further information, hazard a guess that Heilsgeschichte is the German for Holy Scheidt.

          Reply
          • Andrew,
            Many thanks for the instructive link.
            While there is a spread of opinions of salvation history, to which do you subscribed.
            I doubt that many evangelicals would demure from term but would not endorse Schweitzer.
            Do you accept the conclusion of the article and yet have in the past, doubted whether Jesus said words registered in scripture.
            There seems to a substantial contradiction at the heart of your claimed belief systems.
            How does salvation history square with you drinking deep draughts of Honest to God and John T Robinson’s understanding of what scripture is.
            While you refer to salvation history of scripture.
            What do you say scripture actually is?

          • Geoff I am not sure how many times this can be said but scripture is not one ‘thing’. It is many things, written over thousands of years. It’s a library of different genres and books. You can’t treat them all the same way.
            What I think we can say is that scripture is the record of how God has been found in dealings with God’s people and a record of how God has acted for the salvation of the world, so far as we are able to understand it. Bear in mind Paul’s reminder that we can only see through a glass darkly. So our understanding is limited. Paul certainly seems to have known that.

          • Andrew,
            Many things? Sounds like a song….”different things to (in)different people.”
            That seems to be your go -to scripture, when you seek to obscure
            and justify your indifferent – vascilating belief, your incomprehension even.
            Yet, you have no basis for accepting even that part when scripture is according to you only an error strewn contradictory human construct with no Triune God involvement.
            It is where we part company and where there are no grounds at all for any ecclesiastical, structures, liturgies, feasts, Christian Creeds, orthodoxies and trustworthy integrity, in communicants and church leaders. Pretense and pretentious churchianity, religiosity as it’s belief systems are deconstructed by its own modern and postmodern methodologies, supported vigorous by the likes of atheist Gary.
            Frankly, I see no difference between you’re views of scripture and his.
            Sure scripture is many things, genres, but the very thing you both seem to be in agreement about and that is what scripture is not.

          • Geoff. Let me just repeat part of what I said above.
            What I think we can say is that scripture is the record of how God has been found in dealings with God’s people and a record of how God has acted for the salvation of the world, so far as we are able to understand it.
            Now, tell me please, how could an atheist agree with that?

          • a record of how God has acted for the salvation of the world

            So do you believe that ‘God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs’?

          • Now, tell me please, how could an atheist agree with that?

            An atheist could certainly agree with this bit of it:

            ‘scripture is the record of how God has been found in dealings with God’s people’

            For example, I don’t believe for a second that aliens helped build the pyramids. But I could certainly agree with the statement that ‘Chariots of the Gods is the record of how von Däniken found evidence of alien visitors in dealings with ancient people’. Because simply saying ‘X is a record of Y’ is not the same as saying that I think Y really happened; I might mean that X is a record of Y but that I think it is a wrong or unreliable or made-up record and Y didn’t really happen; which is what an atheist thinks of the Bible and it’s what you think about the Bible too, isn’t it?

          • As a contrast, an example of a description of the Bible that an atheist couldn’t agree with is, ‘the Bible is a record of the ways in which God has revealed Himself to mankind’. Would you agree with that description or, if not, what do you think is wrong with it?

          • As usual, S, you employ fuzzy logic. And you base your reasoning on only half of the information available to you. You are, also as usual, trolling and I recommend that none of us rise to the troll’s bait.

          • As usual, S, you employ fuzzy logic.

            On the contrary, my logic rests on precise definitions, whereas everyone can see that you rely on equivocations and ambiguous statements, refusing to ever give clear answers to direct questions.

            Questions like: Do you believe that ‘God has taken a direct hand in earthly, human affairs’?

  4. 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…

    They’re not Christians; what do you expect? Borg disputed the Resurrection against William Lane Craig (who believes it happened), and Crossan calls Jesus’ divinity “metaphorical”. These things are in their Wikipedia entries. Give me an honest atheist anytime!

    Reply
  5. Thanks Ian, like most of your ‘seasonal’ posts well worth an annual repeating! I’m especially grateful that you’ve shared John Hudghton’s persuasive background notes, as they fill in important details that are often overlooked (or simply unknown). Like Anton, I’m with the comet…

    Reply
  6. One of the little details which helped me differentiate usefully between Luke and Matthew as well is the sacrifice offered at the 40 day mark for Jesus; had the Magi’s gifts already been presented, Mary would not have had to offer the paltry 2 doves (a sign of poverty!) but could have done the full sacrifice. Clearly the visit of the Magi is sometime between the 40 day redemption sacrifice and the 2 year mark (given as an overly generous window by Herod, IMO). For these reasons I’ve always thought of the visit of the Magi being somewhere around the 2-3 month mark after our Saviour’s birth.

    Great article. Long time reader, first time commenter, etc.

    Reply
  7. Andrew Godsall once again refuses to answer a simple question: did Jesus have a human father?
    There are only three possible answers:
    1. Yes
    2. No,
    3. Don’t know.
    Which is your answer, Andrew? I know you have said “he was conceived by the Holy Spirit”. I say the same and this means Jesus did not have a human father. Is that what you understand it to mean? You seem extremely reluctant to answer a simple question, which strongly suggests to me you think Jesus had a human father. Is thst what you believe? You can eliminate all doubt sbout your belief very easily,

    Reply
    • In fairness to Andrew Godsall, I think he accepts the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the same sense as evangelicals (and in the same sense that, I am willing to insist, the gospel athors meant). This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition. But you might ask him, briefly and courteously, about his views of the Resurrection.

      Reply
      • Sure, it is not the Inquisition, Anton, but Andrew is/ was in a position of public high office/unfluence in the CoE and accountable as such for his teaching and theology, his beliefs even while some Bishops seek to make a claim of being responsible, but not accountable.
        Maybe, there is no duty placed upon them or it is erroneously denied. But where there is a duty there is accountability.

        Reply
          • I think Andrew has made it clear that he believes in a literal virgin birth and a literal resurrection of Jesus i.e. these events are not metaphorical but happened in history. I have never gained the impression he believes otherwise.

          • I think Andrew has made it clear that he believes in a literal virgin birth and a literal resurrection of Jesus i.e. these events are not metaphorical but happened in history.

            If you think that then point out where please, because I have been trying to get Andrew to make that clear for years without success.

            He has been very clear that he does not think that Jesus’s conception was ‘a conjuring trick with chromosomes’, whatever the heck that means, while refusing to say he believes that Jesus did not have any human father: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/challenging-christmas-myths-in-mission-and-ministry/#comment-417097 ; https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/dear-richard-whither-the-church-of-england/#comment-406972

            He also spent rather a long time insisting that he did not believe that men have walked on the moon, apparently because he wanted to maintain some kind of distinction where to ‘believe’ something did not mean to think it true but was instead a conscious choice to assent to some proposition that one couldn’t prove*; and therefore the fact that there was evidence for men walking on the moon meant that one couldn’t believe it as one can only believe things that one doesn’t have evidence for, though he has recently changed his tune on this, albeit without any explanation of how to square this with his earlier position: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/spoiling-the-beautiful-difference/comment-page-1/#comment-410584 ; https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/challenging-christmas-myths-in-mission-and-ministry/#comment-417118

            * a bit Douglas Adams, this one, as it basically seems to rest on the same idea of faith as this famous bit in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about the Babel Fish:

            ====

            Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some have chosen to see it as the final proof of the NON-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:

            “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

            “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don’t. QED.”

            “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

            ====

            But of course the atheist Adams’s satirical caricature of faith, by way of the existentialists, is nothing like the Christian idea of faith!

  8. Just in case it is not clear from the article, I think John Hudghton’s description of the geopolitical situation at the time means that Matt 2:3b is one of these details which shows this is rooted in historical reality. A writer might invent that Herod was troubled at the news of the new king – but why “all Jerusalem with him”? These guys from Parthia represented the possibility of war, if they wanted to put another king on the throne in Jerusalem.

    Years ago a friend played me a tape (I said it was years ago) of a talk by Derek Prince who described the guys, as Hudghton does, arriving in Jerusalem on horseback with a significant troop of soldiers with them.

    One might add to Hudghton’s description the note that Herod was not a true Jew. He was an Idumaean, with Arab ancestry. Therefore, the birth of a king in the true line of David, and therefore having a legitimate claim to the throne, was a real threat to him.

    Reply
    • Sinclair Ferguson, David, also states that Herod was of Idumean (Edomite) descent, so he was not a “pure” Jew in any sense and it showed, with ruthless brutalities, executing one of his 12 wives, three if his own sons and hundreds of their supporters. No rivals were brooked..
      If they the wise men thought that anyone who had built the magnificent temple had to be deeply religious, knowledgeable and trustworthy, they could not have been more mistaken…
      Sinclair B Ferguson; The Dawn of Redeeming Grace.
      (BTW, you are going back some, mentioning Derek Prince.)

      Reply
  9. Thank you Ian for the fascinating detail from John Hudghton. Interesting too that first on the list of bewildered nationalities in Acts 2 are Parthians ….

    In preparing to preach on this last week – yes, a bit early – I was reminded of a book given to me years ago called In Xanadu by William Dalrymple, published in 1989 by Wm Collins, his often hilarious account of a post-university journey across Asia following the route and journal of Marco Polo.
    In Iran south of Tehran, they searched for a town called Saveh which prior to it being burned down by Ghengis Khan had been famous for its astronomical instruments. He quotes Marco Polo in a story of tombs of three Magi there, who in the distant past had gone away to worship a prophet that had been born, carrying gold, incense and myrrh.
    Hardly Biblical scholarship, but rivetting. See In Xanadu Pp 135 – 145.

    Reply
  10. “Modern Protestant and Catholic scholars are in surprising agreement on the generally figurative and non-historical character of the infancy narratives.”

    —Raymond Brown, Catholic scholar, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 52

    So why do evangelicals and very conservative Protestant scholars still hold out for the historicity of these ancient tales? The answer can be found in Ian’s above post: ” The approach [that the birth narratives are figurative, not historical] 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.”

    Bingo! If evangelicals/conservative Protestants were to admit that the birth narratives are possibly non-historical, it opens Pandora’s box: What other stories in the Gospels are non-historical? Matthew’s tale of dead saints shaken out of their tombs to roam the streets of a major city? Jesus turning water into wine? Jesus walking on water? Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? All of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance stories which are absent from the first Gospel??

    This is why conservative Protestant and evangelical scholars cannot even consider the possibility that these beautiful ancient tales are fictional: It would call into question the historical reliable of the entire Bible, and therefore devastate the credibility of their entire belief system.

    Reply
    • Or perhaps the Gospels are ALL true?!

      And re Mark, if his was the only Gospel we had, it is still made clear that Jesus was indeed resurrected. Mark seemed to like abrupt beginnings and endings – he completely ignored Jesus’ birth and early life (but he clearly believed he was born and was a child at some point) and then at the end left the audience hanging with a knowing anticipation of what had happened.

      Reply
      • All things are possible, my friend, but let’s follow the evidence.

        Over the last 2,000 years Christian apologists have postulated multiple explanations for why the anonymous author of Mark, the first Gospel written according to most scholars, never mentions Jesus’ virginal conception, his birth in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, or any bodily appearances after his resurrection from the dead. One explanation is that these topics were not needed for the “theme” of “Mark’s” gospel. Another explanation is that Mark ran out of parchment, etc.. Ok. Sure. Those explanations are possible, but Mark’s lack of mention of these events can also be evidence that Mark had never heard of them; that these stories were later embellishments to the Jesus Story and that is why the author of the first gospel doesn’t mention them.

        Reply
  11. Evangelical (and very conservative Protestant) scholars, theologians, historians, and apologists tell us that the majority of scholars, including Roman Catholic scholars, reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels based on an anti-supernatural bias. And I will bet that they will allege the same bias for the majority scholarly position, including that of most Roman Catholic scholars, that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are non-historical.

    I agree that if two groups of experts examine the same evidence and come away with two very different conclusions, it is entirely possible that one group’s position is based on a bias, not evidence. One strong indicator of which group is more likely to hold a bias is which group has the most to lose by changing their position.

    What would Roman Catholics lose if their Bible scholars one day declared that the evidence indicates that the birth narratives are historical? How much revision to the teachings of the Catholic Church would be required? How many Catholics would walk out of their parishes in protest of this change in position?

    Now, what would happen in the evangelical world if evangelical Bible scholars, theologians, and historians one day announce that the evidence does not support the historicity of the birth narratives? How long would Gary Habermas keep his faculty position at Liberty University? How long would Biola University maintain its ties with William Lane Craig? How many evangelical pastors would denounce these experts from their pulpits? What effect would this change in position have on lay evangelicals in the pews. I suggest there would be mass outrage and disbelief.

    So which group of experts has the bias? I suggest that probability tells us that it is much more likely that evangelical/conservative Protestant scholars, theologians, and apologists operate from a bias than do Roman Catholic scholars. They have much more to lose in changing positions: It would devastate the credibility of their entire belief system.

    Reply
    • I do not understand your third paragraph. Most Roman Catholic scholars have affirmed the historicity of the infancy narratives. Brown didn’t deny them, rather he said they couldn’t be proved using the methods of historical criticism. Needless to say, conservative Catholics (e.g. Laurentin) were not impressed with Brown on this point.
      If you want to know what mainline Catholic thinking is, you can’t do better than Pope Benedict’s book ‘Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives’.
      Your third paragraph is pointless.

      Reply
      • I meant to say ‘your fourth paragraph’. What is the point of your speculation? What evidence do you have that Habermas and Craig hold such views? They don’t so, your speculation is pointless.

        Reply
        • What would happen in the evangelical world if Licona, Bauckham, Habermas, Willian Lane Craig, Craig Evans and other prominent evangelical scholars, theologians, and historians came out with a statement declaring that a fresh review of the evidence favors the non-historicity of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke?

          Reply
          • What would happen if YOU concluded that it was true?
            We can all play fantasy football. What is your point?

          • I freely admit I have a bias against supernatural claims.

            But this discussion is about Roman Catholic vs. evangelical Bible scholars and whether their respective majority positions on the historicity of the birth narratives is based on a bias. I specifically excluded atheist scholars as they have an obvious bias against supernatural claims.

            So, I again assert that evangelical scholars have much, much more to lose changing positions on this issue than do Roman Catholic scholars. This fact increases the probability that the bias exists among evangelicals not Roman Catholics.

          • What would happen in the atheist world if Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Fry et al came out with a statement declaring Jesus really was resurrected from the dead?

            Stranger things…

          • You are missing the point, PC1. I am not talking about atheist scholars. Of course atheist scholars have a bias against the supernatural. I am talking about Roman Catholic vs. evangelical scholars. I am presenting evidence that the claim by Ian Paul and so many other evangelical scholars and apologists that Roman Catholic scholars have an anti-supernatural bias is baseless. The probability of bias leans in favor of evangelical scholars—as they have the most to lose in changing their position.

          • And that is exactly what Muslim and Mormon websites also tell their readers: “Don’t talk to skeptics!!!” Why? They don’t want their fellow believers to look at contrary evidence. Contrary evidence is evil. Skeptics are evil.

            Not so on atheist websites. We welcome opposing views. We are not afraid of opposing arguments. All we ask for is a presentation of evidence, not simply appeals to “faith” or threats of “damnation”. Evidence, evidence, evidence.

            Listening to opposing views is good, my Christian friends! It will either sharpen your own position…or prove your position false. Don’t be afraid of skeptics!

      • James: “Most Roman Catholic scholars have affirmed the historicity of the infancy narratives. ”

        Really?? Raymond Brown says the very opposite. One of you is wrong.

        “Modern Protestant and Catholic scholars are in surprising agreement on the generally figurative and non-historical character of the infancy narratives.”

        —Raymond Brown, Catholic scholar, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 52

        Please provide a quote from a respected Roman Catholic Bible scholar who states that most Roman Catholic Bible scholars believe the birth narratives to be historically accurate accounts.

        Reply
        • “Modern” doesn’t mean “most”.
          Brown died in 1998. That’s a generation ago.
          You need to keep up.
          I suggest you read Ratzinger (2013) on the infancy narratives for contemporary Catholic belief.
          Keep up, Gary!

          Reply
          • Please provide a quote in which Ratzinger states that “most Catholic scholars today believe the birth narratives to be historical”.

          • Pope Benedict did not write his book as a work of scholarship. It was for the lay public. Here is what one Catholic website says on the book:

            Does the Pope employ modern scriptural scholarship in the book?

            Yes, he does. In the book the Pope references several modern and even recent biblical scholars whose commentaries on the Old and New Testaments he consulted. It should be noted, however, that these scholars do not always agree among themselves about the historical meanings of various passages in the Bible. It should also be noted that the Pope freely consults the views of the early Christian Fathers of the Church and of medieval theologians in presenting the Church’s and his own understandings of various biblical passages. In the end the Holy Father expresses his own views about the meanings of biblical passages.

            Does the Pope cite only Catholic theologians and biblical scholars?

            No, among Protestants, the Pope cites Karl Barth, Klaus Berger, Otto Kaiser, Hans-Joachim Kraus, Peter Stuhlmacher.

            Does the Pope always agree with modern Scripture scholars?

            Not with all of them, no. First, they do not always agree among themselves. One example of the
            Pope’s independent thinking is found in his assertion that there is no convincing reason to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem despite the view of many scripture scholars that he was born in Nazareth (pp. 65-66). In defending his view the Pope points out that, although the historical accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke differ in some respects, both agree that he was born in Bethlehem. And they are the only sources we possess on the question.

            Source: www dot ewtn dot com/catholicism/library/another-chapter-in-the-legacy-of-pope-ratzinger-9799

            Gary: So your assertion that Pope Benedict’s position on the historicity of the birth narratives as stated in his book reflect the new majority opinion of Catholic scholars is not supported.

          • Pope Benedict did not write his book as a work of scholarship. It was for the lay public. Here is what one Catholic website says on the book:

            Does the Pope employ modern scriptural scholarship in the book?

            Yes, he does. In the book the Pope references several modern and even recent biblical scholars whose commentaries on the Old and New Testaments he consulted. It should be noted, however, that these scholars do not always agree among themselves about the historical meanings of various passages in the Bible. It should also be noted that the Pope freely consults the views of the early Christian Fathers of the Church and of medieval theologians in presenting the Church’s and his own understandings of various biblical passages. In the end the Holy Father expresses his own views about the meanings of biblical passages.

            Does the Pope cite only Catholic theologians and biblical scholars?

            No, among Protestants, the Pope cites Karl Barth, Klaus Berger, Otto Kaiser, Hans-Joachim Kraus, Peter Stuhlmacher.

            Does the Pope always agree with modern Scripture scholars?

            Not with all of them, no. First, they do not always agree among themselves. One example of the
            Pope’s independent thinking is found in his assertion that there is no convincing reason to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem despite the view of many scripture scholars that he was born in Nazareth (pp. 65-66). In defending his view the Pope points out that, although the historical accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke differ in some respects, both agree that he was born in Bethlehem. And they are the only sources we possess on the question.

            Source: http://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/another-chapter-in-the-legacy-of-pope-ratzinger-9799

            Gary: So your assertion that Pope Benedict’s position on the historicity of the birth narratives as stated in his book reflect the new majority opinion of Catholic scholars is not supported.

    • Hello Gary
      Now that is some biased atheist speculation, from a closed material world system and world view philosophy based on a
      an unprovable view of what scripture isn’t – that it isn’t
      in any way
      supernatural revelation by God of God superintended sthrough human agencies, and a God who intervenes and appears in history. It can not be proved that God does not exist.
      And if you want to listen to discussion about a reformed Biblical Theologian and salvation history, based not only on a biblical longitudinal level, but a vertical level, downward movement of God in the incarnation of the Son: discussion of the Biblical Theology, Old and New Testament of Geerhardus Vos.
      It is a very slow and and overlong intro.

      Reply
        • Gary – so how do you define a Roman Catholic scholar? Is it someone who got one paper into a respectable journal? three papers? has a position in a theological department that is slightly more respectable than the Coconut University of Walmamaloo? And how many Roman Catholic scholars are there? The set could be rather small. I’m intrigued by your suggestion that The Pope doesn’t exactly cut it with RC scholars and that RC scholarship basically takes the view that The Pope’s position is theological horse manure (or horses d’oeuvres as they say in France).

          Reply
          • Where did I ever discredit the position of Pope Benedict? I didn’t. Yes, there are some Catholic scholars who believe in the historicity of these stories, but according to Raymond Brown, they are not the majority. If Pope Benedict’s position represents the new majority Catholic position, as “James” asserts, please provide a quote from Benedict or another respected Catholic Bible scholar who says as such.

          • Gary – the remark about the Pontiff was simply an aside at the end of the comment and you didn’t answer the main question which I posed. I’m not a scholar, I don’t have time to read much bible scholarship and, frankly, I haven’t a clue what scholars (even of any kind) have said about Benedict.

            I’m a statistician, interested in sample survey and related topics – and from this perspective I’d like to know (a) how you define a bible scholar, (b) how you define Roman Catholic bible scholar, (c) how you elicit their views on certain subjects and therefore (d) how you come up with statements along the lines of ‘Most Roman Catholic scholars take view xxx’ (insert whichever view is under discussion in place of xxx).

            The answers to (a), (b), (c) and (d) are kind of necessary to understand what your comments mean.

        • I am not sure why you seem so concerned about the possible differences between Catholic and Protestant scholars, given your atheism. Seems like a waste of time from your pov.

          Reply
          • to PC1: The position of Roman Catholic Bible scholars on these issues is CRITICAL to the debate between skeptics and conservative Christians regarding the historical reliability of the Bible.

            If only liberal Protestant and atheist scholars rejected the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels and the historicity of the birth narratives, evangelicals would have just cause to attribute this position to an anti-supernatural bias (as all atheists, by definition, and many liberal Protestants, reject the operation of the supernatural within our universe).

            But since most Roman Catholic scholars, who do NOT have an anti-supernatural bias, also reject the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels and the historicity of the birth narratives, this is DEVASTATING evidence against the historical reliability of the Bible.

  12. I haven’t read much of Raymond Brown’s work but I think he took a more conservative approach in his earlier work (cf. his commentary on John, 1966), but moved to a more liberal position in later years, leading to an eggshell relationship with the Catholic Magisterium. Maybe this was because he was more immersed in the liberal American Protestant world and was beginning to adopt its assumptions. I did hear Brown on a tour he did of Britain not long before he died in 1998 at a Catholic gathering but the question of his historical presuppositions didn’t arise, as I recall.
    But I can say that a number of Catholic biblical scholars were far from convinced by Brown and they accused him of ‘arguing from a squirrel’s cage’, i.e. going round in circles about the historical evidence for the NT narratives, concluding that you couldn’t know whether they were true or not using ‘historical criticism’, but in the end he would affirm them because of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium. Conservative Catholics accused Brown of sleight of hand here, liberal Protestants of inconsistency.
    When we allow the following – that miracles are certainly possible (liberals usually deny this), that the Gospels can be dated to the first generation after Jesus and are based on eyewitnesses, and that Paul’s preaching of the Resurrection is very early and in complete harmony with the Twelve – a very different picture of Christian origins arises.

    Reply
    • The majority of Roman Catholic scholars doubt the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. If we don’t know who wrote these books, how can evangelicals possibly assert that we can be certain that the birth narratives are historical?? This isn’t just Raymond Brown’s position. Here is a statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stating the “majority opinion of Catholic scholars”, not just a minority view:

      “United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Gospel of Matthew:

      The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel [Matthew] have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.

      The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.”

      Source: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/matthew/0?bk=Matthew&ch=

      Reply
  13. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has this to say about the Gospel of Luke:

    Early Christian tradition, from the late second century on, identifies the author of this gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles as Luke, a Syrian from Antioch, who is mentioned in the New Testament in Col 4:14, Phlm 24 and 2 Tm 4:11. The prologue of the gospel makes it clear that Luke is not part of the first generation of Christian disciples but is himself dependent upon the traditions he received from those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Lk 1:2). His two-volume work marks him as someone who was highly literate both in the Old Testament traditions according to the Greek versions and in Hellenistic Greek writings.

    Among the likely sources for the composition of this gospel (Lk 1:3) were the Gospel of Mark, a written collection of sayings of Jesus known also to the author of the Gospel of Matthew (Q; see Introduction to Matthew), and other special traditions that were used by Luke alone among the gospel writers. Some hold that Luke used Mark only as a complementary source for rounding out the material he took from other traditions. Because of its dependence on the Gospel of Mark and because details in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 13:35a; 19:43–44; 21:20; 23:28–31) imply that the author was acquainted with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Gospel of Luke is dated by most scholars after that date; many propose A.D. 80–90 as the time of composition.

    Luke’s consistent substitution of Greek names for the Aramaic or Hebrew names occurring in his sources (e.g., Lk 23:33; Mk 15:22; Lk 18:41; Mk 10:51), his omission from the gospel of specifically Jewish Christian concerns found in his sources (e.g., Mk 7:1–23), his interest in Gentile Christians (Lk 2:30–32; 3:6, 38; 4:16–30; 13:28–30; 14:15–24; 17:11–19; 24:47–48), and his incomplete knowledge of Palestinian geography, customs, and practices are among the characteristics of this gospel that suggest that Luke was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians.

    Gary: “his incomplete knowledge of Palestinian geography, customs, and practices are among the characteristics of this gospel that suggest that Luke was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians”. So how historically reliable was this anonymous author who displays incomplete knowledge of Palestine and the customs of the Jews living there??

    Reply
  14. From a scholar employing perspicacious and piercing forensic examination, of the text. Fiction, myth?: fact, history?

    “How many facts do we know about the Magi? (A point for each correct answer!)

    1 We know that they observed a new astronomical phenomenon

    2 We know that they interpreted this as a sign that a new King of the Jews had been born.

    3 We know that this affected them in a way that was, apparently, not true of their colleagues and neighbours.

    4 We know that they decided to set out on a long journey that took them eventually to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

    5 We know that, in preparation, they either purchased or gathered together expensive gifts to present to the new king.

    6 We know that en route they made enquiries about the new king.

    7 We know that news about them reached the ears of King Herod.

    8 We know that their questions disturbed Herod.

    9 We know that Herod’s reputation for cruelty was such that this had a ripple effect on the citizens of Jerusalem

    10 We know that in preparation for interviewing them, Herod summoned the religious leaders to ask about the birth of the Messiah.

    11 We know that Herod called them to a secret meeting.

    12 We know that Herod sent them to Bethlehem.

    13 We know that they were thrilled when they discovered the star could still be seen.

    14 We know that they realised that it was aligned with Bethlehem.

    15 We know that there, in Bethlehem, they found the King who was the reason for their journey.

    16 We know that they presented to the child the gifts they had brought for him.

    17 We know that they bowed down and worshipped him.

    18 We know that they stayed overnight and probably had extended conversations with Mary and Joseph.

    19 We know that they were warned through a dream not to report back to Herod.

    20 We know that they went home by a route avoiding Jerusalem.”
    (Sinclair B. Ferguson – The Dawn of Redeeming Grace)

    Now, how does that read? Fact, history?
    Now how does it preach, what do we learn?

    Sure it is unique, a once only historical event, experience.

    “But from Matthew’s view, God worked out his purposes through unusual providences in the Magi’s ordinary working lives, combined with an inner compulsion to respond to it.”
    Ferguson traces a pattern.
    “An awakening takes place, then a drawing and then a discovering and then a worshipping.”

    Reply
    • “We know that they [the three wise men] observed a new astronomical phenomenon”

      Really? Please provide historical evidence, outside of the Gospel of Matthew, that the story of the three wise men describes real historical events. Just because a couple hundred evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant scholars believe it happened is not historical evidence. The fact is, there is no other historical evidence, my friend. If you want to believe these tales, please be honest and admit that you believe them by faith.

      Reply
      • This is, getting tedious.
        It is documentary evidence equivalent to other historical sources.
        It certainly doesn’t read as legend or myth.
        By writers whose concern was for the truth not lies, not make believe, evidence which went against common, consensus beliefs and scribes and scholars, lives of those times and geographies.. It is evidence, that you don’t accept as you seek to serve your own purposes in your self described de-conversion,
        your own God as you rattle on with your I’ll concealed contempt and venom against Christ and Christians.
        It is only the supernatural intervention in history by God, that embarrasses liberal and modern and post- modern scholars. And of course stimulates high level atheist, Christ’s adversary rantings in throwing their snake, rattle and roll dance moves.
        Of course there: is a problem for the liberal- theologians if they admit the supernatural incarnation and the resurrection: how could such a God not superintend the writing of scripture, with all its genres, including history, prophecy, laws, indicatives and imperatives, its composition, it’s canon?

        Reply
      • Let’s try again, Gary.
        From the text what do you know? How does it read.
        You are floundering.
        You are not reading correctly. Nor have you carefully read or understood the article it seems.
        There is no mention of the number of magi. Yet you state there are 3.
        Let’s try some though experiments.
        Take out all reference to the star. Leaving the journey and encounter with Herod and Jesus. Remove the how and why questions, there would be nothing but what would be accepted as history reportage.
        It is the very idea of God superintending, providentially organising events in history, in the physical material world, in the lives of people, that sticks in your craw.

        Reply
      • So according to the Gospel of Gary… no single source is ever to be believed….

        Please be honest and admit that you are set in your “not going to believe you” mode.
        So in my case “Dust shaken…”.

        Reply
  15. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’?

    This is such an important point and I fear the answer is that many of them don’t think that God can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’. For example a frequent contributor below the line of this website says that the fact that God did not outwit Herr Hitler and prevent the Holocaust proves that God cannot outwit the Herr Hitlers of this world (as if there is nowhere in the Bible where God allows bad things to happen even though He could have stopped them!), which in turn leads him to insist that the gospel stories of miracles (presumably including this one) are something called ‘salvation history’ which seems to exactly mean ‘fictional stories that did not happen, but were made up to illustrate a deeper truth’.

    And of course the problem is that if we think that the gospel writers were on the habit of making up fictional stories to illustrate deeper truths and then presenting them as if they were part of the historical record, the next obvious thing to suspect of being such a fiction is the Resurrection.

    So it comes down to: if you don’t think the narratives about Jesus’ birth are historically accurate, on what basis can you possibly think that the narratives about His death, and what happened afterwards, are?

    Reply
    • “if you don’t think the narratives about Jesus’ birth are historically accurate, on what basis can you possibly think that the narratives about His death, and what happened afterwards, are?

      Excellent point, S.

      And this is why I believe evangelicals and very conservative Protestants refuse to acknowledge the existence of ANY embellishments in the Gospels and Acts: They know that if they concede that even one (non-parable) story in these texts is embellished (fictional), then ALL stories in the entire Bible are historically suspect. And this admission would destroy the credibility of the only source of authority for the evangelical and conservative Protestant belief system: sola scriptura. Roman Catholics can appeal to tradition and the Magisterium to maintain their belief in the Bible’s supernatural claims.

      Evangelical scholar Michael Licona found out the hard way what happens when an evangelical scholar questions the historicity of any story in the Gospels (in his case, Matthew’s story of dead saints shaken alive out of their graves by an earthquake to roam the streets of a major city). He was fired.

      Reply
          • Gary,
            You seem to be highly rattled by Christ and Christians. It can’t be doing your health much good, painting yourself into a corner and from the evidence of your shouting, reverting to your new atheist type, as you have splashed about on the internet in the past.
            God in Christ doesn’t exist and I hate him, seems to be your call to arms.
            One thing is certain, it is following a long line in hissstory of anti- Christ. Predicted and predictable.

            Truth is not only a principle, it is a Person.
            Truth mattered to the authors of scripture and was a matter of life and death.
            Christian is a matter of Truth, reality in the physical and spiritual realms.

        • Roman Catholics have three equal sources of authority for their belief system: Church tradition, the Magisterium, and Holy Scripture. Are you saying that Protestants (including evangelicals) have another source of equal authority to Scriptures? If so, what is it?

          If Protestants/evangelicals would just say: I believe in the virginal conception, the Incarnation, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by faith (hope in things not seen), it would be much more defensible.

          Reply
          • Defensible?
            Don’t you mean acceptable to you?
            You are asking for the same faith that you have, faith that there is no God that is without evidence.
            There is evidence for the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus.
            It is just that you don’t believe it because of you a prior set – stone presumption that there is no God, or the
            witness statements are mistaken or lying.

            Defensible? No. It would be pitiable if Christ were not raised.
            Christians would not have had life transformative encounters with the raised, living Christ of Scripture, by God the Holy Spirit . And Spirit Adopted into a relationship with our triune God.
            God is Spirit and we must worship him in Spirit and Truth.
            CS Lewis an atheist was Surprised by Joy on conversion.

        • If that were true, you evangelicals would not be so furiously trying to prove me wrong.

          The fact remains: Most Roman Catholic Bible scholars, Christian men and women who believe in miracles and the supernatural, reject the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels and the historicity of the two birth narratives. They believe in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by faith in the testimony of the Church, not by historical evidence. This fact is DEVASTATING for conservative Christian apologetics as it blows a big hole in your argument that the majority scholarly position on these issues is based on an anti-supernatural bias. No, my evangelical friends, the majority scholarly position is based on EVIDENCE and most modern, educated people trust and accept majority expert opinion.

          Your entire belief system rests on convincing lay Christians and the public that there is an evil bias, a conspiracy, against traditional Christianity and because of this anti-Christian conspiracy, they can ignore the majority opinion of experts. The evidence I have presented blows that claim out of the water.

          Reply
  16. Gary has very little understanding of Catholic biblical scholarship,
    He does not grasp that Raymond Brown died in 1998 and a new generation has arisen since.
    He does not seem to understand that Brown still affirmed the virgin birth because of the teaching of the Catholic Magisterium.
    He does not appreciate that Ratzinger (2013) affirms the historicity of the narratives.
    He does not understand how Catholic dogmatics work.
    Gary needs to read Ratzinger before commenting any further.
    When he has read Ratzinger, I will be happy to answer his questions,

    Reply
    • –Gary has never said that Raymond Brown did not affirm the virginal conception. Brown very much did believe in it, but he did so due to his faith in the testimony of the Church (Magisterium) not based on convincing historical evidence.

      –Gary agrees that Pope Benedict stated in his book on the birth narratives, written to a lay audience not a work of scholarship, that he believed in the historicity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his virgin birth because: he trusts that “Luke” received accurate information which originally came from Mary, since Luke quotes her as having “kept all things things in her heart”. That is a lot of faith in word of mouth stories, but that is the pope’s position.

      –However, Pope Benedict never ONCE in his book on the birth narratives states that his position represents a new majority among Catholic scholars. Not ONCE. So Raymond Brown’s statement that most Catholic scholars reject the historicity of the birth narratives still stands, regardless of the fact that he made that statement approximately 50 years ago.

      If anyone can provide a statement from Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, or any other respected Catholic scholar that the current Catholic scholarly consensus or even majority now believes that the birth narratives are historically accurate, I will be happy to admit my error.

      Reply
  17. Gary, you are now halfway to admitting you are wrong or don’t know. That is progress, I suppose. Now, to clarify your thinking:
    1. We don’t really care what Raymond Brown wrote 50 years ago.
    2. Brown wrote “modern scholars”, not “most scholars”. This is pretty self-referential. You have consistently misread him. In his own day, Brown repeatedly attacked those who disagreed with him.
    3. Do you know what Catholic scholars in Latin America, Poland, Africa and the Philippines think? That is where most Catholics live. Have you ever asked them what they believe? No, I didn’t think so. New York is not the world, although it thinks it is.
    4. Have you actually read Ratzinger’s book or just the Amazon reviews? When you have read it (it is only about 120 pages) I may be able to help you further. I am certainly not an expert on Catholic theology but I had a Catholic education and I think I know how its Magisterium works.
    5. When you have read Ratzinger’s popular book, go on to read Rainer Riesner, Jesus the Teacher, and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, as well as Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant. These technical works will help you to understand how first century historiography actually works. But you may need to learn some Koine to appreciate the arguments properly. I can help you with the Greek.
    6. When you have done this, go on to consider Arrian’s early second century AD biography of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) and reflect on the issue of sources and the elapse of time.
    From these brief comments you will see that a new paradigm has been emerging in the past 40 years, eclipsing the old Käsemann-type assumptions that Brown worked with – long before the rise of N T Wright.

    Reply
  18. Stepping away from the stramash above: would John Hudghton please point to sources by which I may follow up his observations? Eric Vanden Eydel’s recent publication on the Magi and their reception history offers a much more varied range of characterisations for the magoi than the very specific role that Hudghton describes.

    Reply

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