Is the story of Epiphany credible?

Three_wise_men_6th_Century_Roman_MosaicThe Feast of the Epiphany in the church’s liturgical calendar is based on the events of Matt 2.1–12, the visit of the ‘wise men’ from the East to the infant Jesus. There are plenty of things about the story which might make us instinctively treat it as just another part of the constellation of Christmas traditions, which does not have very much connection with reality.

The first is the sparseness of the story. As with other parts of the gospels, the details are given to us in bare outline compared with what we are used to in modern literature. We are told little of the historical reality that might interest us, and the temptation is to fill in details for ourselves. This leads to the second issue—the development of sometimes quite elaborate traditions which do the work of filling in for us. So these ‘magoi’ (which gives us our word ‘magic’) became ‘three’ (because of the number of their gifts), then ‘wise men’ and then ‘kings’ (probably under the influence of Ps 72.10. By the time of this Roman mosaic from the church in Ravenna built in 547, they have even acquired names. Christopher Howse comments:

[T]hink how deeply these three men have entered our imagination as part of the Christmas story. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Those words, in a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem The Journey of the Magi. And we can see it all: the camels’ breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger.

Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says…

In response to this, critical scholarship has moved in the other direction, and by and large has pulled apart Matthew’s story and confidently decided it that none of it actually happened. Instead, it was constructed by Matthew out of a series of OT texts in order to tell us the real significance of Jesus. So Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth, come to this conclusion:

In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes, Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes. (p 184).

The approach presents problems of its own. For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.

A good working example of this approach is found in Paul Davidson’s blog. Davidson is a professional translator, rather than a biblical studies academic, but he offers a good outline of what critical scholarship has to say about Matthew’s nativity.

His basic assumption is that Matthew is a ‘multi-layered’ document—Matthew is writing from the basis of other, differing sources. He takes over large parts of Mark’s gospel, as does Luke, and Matthew and Luke never agree in contradiction to Mark, a key piece of the argument of ‘Marcan priority’, that Mark was earlier than either of the other two. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the so-called Q, another early written source (and with Mark Goodacre, I don’t), Matthew is clearly dealing with some pre-existing material, oral or written. It is striking, for example, that Joseph is a central character in Matthew’s account before and after the story of the magi, and is the key actor in contrast to Luke’s nativity, where the women are central. Yet in this section (Matt 2.1–12) the focus is on ‘the child’ or ‘the child and his mother Mary’ (Matt 2.9, 2.11; see also Matt 2.14, 20 and 21). Some scholars therefore argue that this story comes from a different source, and so might be unhistorical.

This is where we need to start being critical of criticism. Handling texts in this way requires the making of some bold assumptions, not least that of author invariants. If a change of style indicates a change of source, then this can only be seen if the writer is absolutely consistent in his (or her) own writing, and fails to make the source material his or her own. In other words, we (at 20 centuries distant) need to be a lot smarter than the writer him- or herself. Even a basic appreciation of writing suggests that authors are just not that consistent.

Davidson goes on in his exploration to explain the story of the star in terms of OT source texts.

The basis for the star and the magi comes from Numbers 22–24, a story in which Balaam, a soothsayer from the east (and a magus in Jewish tradition) foretells the coming of a great ruler “out of Jacob”. Significantly, the Greek version of this passage has messianic overtones, as it replaces “sceptre” in 24:17 with “man.”

He is quite right to identify the connections here; any good commentary will point out these allusions, and it would be surprising if Matthew, writing what most would regard as a ‘Jewish’ gospel, was not aware of this. But if he is using these texts as a ‘source’, he is not doing a very good job. The star points to Jesus, but Jesus is not described as a ‘star’, and no gospels make use of this as a title. In fact, this is the only place where the word ‘star’ occurs in the gospel. (It does occur as a title in Rev 22.16, and possibly in 2 Peter 1.19, but neither make any connection with this passage.)

Next, Davidson looks at the citation in Matt 2.5–6, which for many critical scholars provides the rationale for a passage explaining that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he is otherwise universally known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (19 times in all four gospels and Acts). But, as Davidson points out, Matthew has to work hard to get these texts to help him. For one, he has to bolt together two texts which are otherwise completely unconnected, from Micah 5.2 and 2 Sam 5.2. Secondly, he has to change the text of Micah 5.2 so that:

  • Bethlehem, the ‘least’ of the cities of Judah, now becomes ‘by no means the least’;
  • the well-known epithet ‘Ephrathah’ becomes ‘Judah’ to make the geography clear; and
  • the ‘clans’ becomes ‘clan leader’ i.e. ‘ruler’ to make the text relevant.

Moreover, Matthew is making use of a text which was not known as ‘messianic’; in the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.

All this is rather bad news for those who would argue that Jesus’ birth was carefully planned to be a literal fulfilment of OT prophecy. But it is equally bad news for those who argue that Matthew made the story up to fit such texts, and for exactly the same reason. Of course, Matthew is working in a context where midrashic reading of texts means that they are a good deal more flexible than we would consider them. But he is needing to make maximum use of this flexibility, and the logical conclusion of this would be that he was constrained by the other sources he is using—by the account he has of what actually happened.

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

So far, the story makes logical sense despite its theological problems (e.g. the fact that it encourages people to believe in the “deceptive science of astrology”, as Strauss noted). The star is just that: a star.

Then everything changes. The star is transformed into an atmospheric light that guides the magi right from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where it hovers over a single house—the one where the child is. We are no longer dealing with a distant celestial body, but something else entirely, like a pixie or will-o’-the-wisp.

Here again critical assumptions need some critical reflection. Matthew’s inclusion of magi is theologically very problematic indeed. Simon Magus and Elymas (Acts 8.9, 13.8) hardly get a good press, not surprising in light of OT prohibitions on sorcery, magic and astrology. Western romanticism has embraced the Epiphany as a suggestive mystery, but earlier readings (like that of Irenaeus) saw the point as the humiliation of paganism; the giving of the gifts was an act of submission and capitulation to a greater power. For Matthew the Jew, they are an unlikely and risky feature to include, especially when Jesus is clear he has come to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10.6, 15.24).

There have been many attempts to explain the appearance of the star scientifically. The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independence evidence), a supernova (observed by the Chinese in 4 BC) or the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation Pisces. I think the latter is the best candidate; Jupiter signified ‘leader’, Saturn denoted ‘the Westland’, and Pisces stood for ‘the end of the age’. So this conjunction would communicate to astrologers ‘A leader in the Westland [Palestine] in the end days.’ This highlights a key problem with Davidson’s criticism; the issue is not whether a star could in fact indicate a particular house in our, modern scientific terms. This is clearly impossible. The real issue is whether Matthew thought it could—or even whether Matthew thought the magi thought it could. As Dick France highlights in his NICNT commentary, this was actually a common understanding for which we have documentary evidence. And any naturalistic explanations miss Matthew’s central point: this was something miraculous provided by God. If you don’t think the miraculous is possible, you are bound to disbelieve Matthew’s story—but on the basis of your own assumptions, not on any criteria of historical reliability or the nature of Matthew’s text.

Davidson cites the 19th-century rationalist critic David Friedrich Strauss in his objection to the plausibility of Herod’s action:

With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?

In fact, we know from Josephus that Herod had a fondness for using secret spies. And in terms of the story, the magi are unaware of Herod’s motives; we are deploying our prior knowledge of the outcome to decide what we think Herod ought to have done, which is hardly a good basis for questioning Matthew’s credibility.

botticelli-c-1475-adoration-of-the-magiFinally, we come to the arrival of the magi at the home of the family. Interestingly, Matthew talks of their ‘house’ (Matt 2.11) which supports the idea that Jesus was not born in a stable—though from the age of children Herod has executed (less than two years) we should think of the magi arriving some time after the birth. No shepherds and magi together here!

Davidson again sees (with critical scholars) this event constructed from OT texts:

According to Brown, Goulder (2004), and others, the Old Testament provided the inspiration for the gifts of the magi. This passage is an implicit citation of Isaiah 60.3, 6 and Psalm 72.10, 15, which describe the bringing of gifts in homage to the king, God’s royal son.

But again, the problem here is that Matthew’s account just doesn’t fit very well. Given that these OT texts uniformly mention kings, not magi, if Matthew was constructing his account from these, why choose the embarrassing astrologers? And why three gifts rather than two? Where has the myrrh come from? Again, it is Irenaeus who first interprets the gifts as indicators of kingship, priesthood and sacrificial death respectively, but Matthew does not appear to do so. In the narrative, they are simply extravagant gifts fit for the true ‘king of the Jews’. Subsequent tradition has to do the work that Matthew has here failed to do, and make the story fit the prophecies rather better than Matthew has managed to.

Davidson closes his analysis of this section with a final observation from Strauss:

If the magi can receive divine guidance in dreams, why are they not told in a dream to avoid Jerusalem and go straight to Bethlehem in the first place? Many innocent lives would have been saved that way.

Clearly, God could have done a much better job of the whole business. But it rather appears as though Matthew felt unable to improve on what happened by fitting it either to the OT texts or his sense of what ought to have happened.

The modern reader might struggle with aspects of Matthew’s story. But it seems to me you can only dismiss it by making a large number of other, unwarranted assumptions.

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11 thoughts on “Is the story of Epiphany credible?”

  1. Hi Ian
    I really enjoyed this – thank you It was most helpful.

    Personally I go with Philip Jenkins in “the lost history of Christianity”, in which he reminds us of how much Christianity operated outside the Roman empire amongst Christian groups the roman church dismissed as cults.
    This raises the intriguing possibility that “the kings” were leaders of kingdoms now lost to history, who like the Ethiopian Eunuch came on a faith quest and returned with more than they bargained for.
    The gifts can be seen as tributes from a lesser king to a greater one rather than just gifts.

    Seasons Greetings

    jonathan Ford

  2. Whether Matthew constructed stories to fit Biblical [OT] texts, or went looking for texts that fitted his material, an important aim he undoubtedly has is to show how the story of Jesus “fulfils” the Messianic expectation. Further, he clearly considers that he has provided sufficient evidence, by way of case after case that appears to be a fulfilment of an OT prophecy. It seems to me that the story of the Magi fits this pattern extremely well. You, Ian, have shown convincingly how the whole story works for someone in Matthew’s position.

    What you have not shown, and I applaud your restraint, is that this enables Matthew to meet the modern criteria for historicity. It raises for us what we do hermeneutically with ancient “proofs” – here, and in many other places. If we take the authority of Scripture seriously, as you and I do, it is incumbent upon us to find such an hermeneutic. I have always believed it is possible; but I confess that Matthew’s Gospel is a great challenge to it.

  3. I’m not a theologian but I am attracted to Dick France’s comment on the star. If we don’t question the supernatural appearance of angels at the supernatural birth of God as a human baby, why the need for historical or astronomical evidence for the star?

  4. Ian,

    It’s been interesting to see the wide-ranging strands of argument which can be developed in response to the challenges of critical scholarship.

    Yet, despite the importance of this area of study, it concerns me that the inadvertent and inevitable result of repeated rationalist responses to critical scholarship is the evolution of a rationalist gospel, which distils Christ’s message of redemption into a hierarchy of logical steps. Each of these appears to provide a scientifically defensible argument, offering the kind of incontrovertible proof which could even silence the most vehemently opposed atheist.

    In contrast, as I re-read the book of Acts, I’ve noted that this kind of rationalised discourse stands in stark contrast with Paul’s marked avoidance of such debate. Of course, Paul reasons regularly in the synagogues and marketplace, but his discourse consists of implications which are derived from accepting the witness of those chosen by Christ ‘by faith’. He relies more on induction from persuasive testimony than on deduction from incontrovertible facts.

    So, despite citing familiar poems (Cleanthes and Aratus) which would have resonated with those Greeks who shared his contempt for the fearful servility which characterized first-century idolatry, Paul aroused a fair measure of scornful incredulity by declaring that Jesus’ resurrection marked out His divinely designated role as the Judge of all mankind. This was a Gentile-friendly summary of the gospel, not a complete re-working of it.

    ‘For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

    The use of ‘proof’ here is misleading, since the word pistin (faith) is actually used and it demonstrates that Paul was simply declaring that, by raising Jesus from the dead, God has provided faith (i,e. a revelation of divine power sufficient to arouse faith) that He is the Judge of the living and the dead.

    This is Paul before non-Jews and, by the standards of rational argument, we would have to describe his speech as unconvincing:

    When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

    Even if the gospel narratives and apostolic testimony could clear the hurdle of historicity, that accomplishment would do nothing to advance the authority of Christ in post-modern minds which distrust the concentration of moral authority in a specific person, book, or creed.

    Instead, in Acts, we see that, although the apostles intentionally visited the Jewish synagogues to testify of Jesus’ Messiahship, successful conversion of Gentiles is almost invariably precipitated and directed by the divine prerogative of supernatural intervention: visions of the Lord, angelic visitors, miraculous escapes and healings, bringing the dead back to life, exorcisms and earthquakes. In the modern world, we should be equally intentional in spreading the gospel, but without quenching this selfsame prerogative of supernatural intervention. And the latter does happens when Church leaders try to override divine prerogative to encourage conformity to their self-generated biases and predispositions.

    Despite modernity and post-modernity, what does hold true for all time is Paul’s explanation that God actually intends (as redemption for those humbled by Him and retribution for the self-reliant and presumptuously impenitent) the vastly contrasting reactions of love, disdain and disaffection aroused by the message of a Messiah humiliated and put to death by the very people who He came to deliver.

    In fact, to the presumptuously impenitent, It’s as nonsensical as building an ark to escape the judgment of a promised global deluge when it’s never even rained.

    ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

    Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

    So, it’s one thing to engage with scripture, tradition and reason, but quite another for extensive rationalist debate to lend credence to the apparent foolishness of proclaiming Jesus’ utter self-abnegation to be the ground of mankind’s eternal redemption. The declaration of this revealed truth will never make sense to the self-reliant rationalist mind.

  5. If the magi visited Jesus after a census under Quirinius, who became Governor in 6AD, then they would have had to have done so at the very least two years after the death of Herod the Great. So how would you respond to those scholars who say that Matthew and Luke cannot both be right about the historical and political background to their nativities? And if we are to assume that one of them is correct, surely it’s most likely to be Luke given that there’s evidence of Quirinius’ census from elsewhere?

  6. Ian,, Suggest you look at Sir Colin Humphrey’s paper to Christians in Science Journal of 1995, available on the web, and Colin Nicol’s recent comprehensive, peer reviewed worldwide, consolidation of all the evidence in his book, “The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem”, available on Amazon.

    There certainly was a comet in 5 BC, independently verified by the Chinese, which fits amazingly well with Matt. 2. The Magi’s interest will have been triggered by the planetary conjunctions of BC 7 & 6.

    Ian Bensted LLM, Oxford Diocese,

  7. I like this approach. Of course Matthew would transmit his stories in a way that highlighted connections with the OT. The fact that he fails doesn’t mean he isn’t inventive enough – anyone can string texts together to make a story. He fails because he can’t bend the facts far enough. Well argued.


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