Is the story of Epiphany plausible?

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

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

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

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

Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says…


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in 2015)


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47 thoughts on “Is the story of Epiphany plausible?”

  1. Borg and Crossan’s approach is wrong in 4 ways.

    First, presenting facts as (unarguably) less important than parables is an approach they do not justify. What justification could be given?

    Second, it is mere rhetoric to mention facts first and parables (as the climax!) second. Who said they were the climax?

    Third, this approach and ‘conclusion’ is predictable and cliched. Liberal interpretation has always been the least plausible system on the planet. Everything but everything turns out by coincidence to be untrue – and then by a second and even (far) less plausible coincidence also to be true metaphorically. That is 2 coincidences by my count; worse – 2 constant and unfailing coincidences. (Yet weren’t coincidences supposed to be rare, by definition?) To magnify the problem: unfortunately ‘true metaphorically’ does not mean anything anyway.

    Fourth, if something is not factual then in many cases it will not be real at all and (being fictional and not real) will therefore not have the power to do what is claimed for it. If ‘something’ unreal ‘has’ power, that ‘power’ obviously cannot operate in the world.

    • You remind me of a Sunday morning many years ago when I was lying in bed listening to the morning service on the radio, and still feeling rather sleepy. The preacher was going on about how the resurrection of Jesus didn’t need to be understood literally: what mattered was that he was raised spiritually (expounded in ways that I don’t remember). As the service ended, I thought “time to get up” but then had the attractive thought of getting up spiritually. I decided, however, that my fellow church members might not be impressed with this, nor would my work if I got up spiritually on Monday, so I went for getting up physically after all.

    • Tell me Christopher, is it “coincidence” that most things most people believe are true most of the time, even though those things might often be contradictory if compared? In my own writing on the gospels I have pursued a “hermeneutic of fiction” based exactly in the belief that ANYTHING human beings believe in narrative form is simply, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, “an expedient falsification”. That is to say, the gospels are not fiction because they are made up; they are fiction because the nature of human thinking is to create the fictions we call understanding.

      That the world doesn’t disprove what we believe doesn’t make it “fact”. and that we believe something to be “true” doesn’t make it true. Indeed, it exactly pushes back to the philosophy of what “true” can usefully mean in language.

      • That is to say, the gospels are not fiction because they are made up; they are fiction because the nature of human thinking is to create the fictions we call understanding

        So is the fall of the Berlin wall on the 10th of December 1989 fiction?

        • Yes, because it fell on November 9th 1989 as any Berlin resident, as I once was, knows well. But if you think my fictional hermeneutic operates at that level then you haven’t understood it.

          If you want to understand it ask yourself if there can be such a thing as any non-interpretive fact or any fact that is not a fact because it has been interpreted as such.

          • Yes, because it fell on November 9th 1989 as any Berlin resident, as I once was, knows well

            Ah, so there is a difference between fiction and fact then? The 9th November date is a fact and the other one is not a fact?

            If you want to understand it ask yourself if there can be such a thing as any non-interpretive fact or any fact that is not a fact because it has been interpreted as such.

            Isn’t ‘the Berlin Wall fell on the 9th of November 1989’ a non-interpretive fact (otherwise just known as ‘a fact’)?

            If not then you’re going to have to explain what the difference between an ‘interpretive’ and a ‘non-interpretive’ fact is, its not something I’ve come across in all my studies of either ontology or epistemology.

  2. The question of whether or not certain things happened, and whether or not it is a prophecy, might all be irrelevant.

    What if the story of the Wise men is actually used by the writer of Matthew’s gospel as the introduction to the entire gospel?

    If the Child was BORN king then why wouldn’t they go to the Palace first? Surely any King would be expected to go there or the people at the Palace would know where the King was?

    The rich and powerful are intrigued by the gospel and want to hear it but (as elsewhere in the gospels) they then reject the message strongly and sometimes violently without even having heard it all.

    The wise men might not have been Jews and yet at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, probably the most Jewish-orientated gospel of all, we nonetheless start with a story of Jesus being worshipped as King by non-Jews.

    ….and so on.

    What if it is actually Matthew’s introduction to his entire gospel?

    • The question of whether or not certain things happened, and whether or not it is a prophecy, might all be irrelevant.

      How is it irrelevant whether it happened?

      I mean if the writer of Matthew’s gospel just made this up to be his introduction, what else did they make up? The sermon on the mount? The transfiguration? The crucifixion? The resurrection? Jesus?

      • Well said ….and I accept the point you make ……but the important word in my sentence is “might”. I said “might” because it seems to me that with or without taking seriously the questions of whether or not it is prophecy or the actual history, we might be all the time asking the wrong questions if we look instead at what is written and ask “why did the write of Matthew’s gospel include it and write it in that form?”

        • It’s the concept of ‘wrong questions’ that I don’t understand. If questions are important, they can never be wrong.

          It’s a bit like when people say, ‘The real question is…’ or ‘the point is’. They are asserting that there is only one thing that should be talked about. 4 answers to that: (1) says who? (2) Real life is not one-dimensional. (3) Truth lies in comprehensiveness, so the more one-dimensional we are, the further from the truth we will be. (4) Nice attempt to avoid the other questions and dimensions, but I spotted it.

          If your main point is to emphasise authorial intention, I thoroughly approve.

        • it seems to me that with or without taking seriously the questions of whether or not it is prophecy or the actual history, we might be all the time asking the wrong questions if we look instead at what is written and ask “why did the write of Matthew’s gospel include it and write it in that form?”

          I’m not sure I follow… did a negative get lost in the editing somewhere? That has happened to me so many times.

          • I think the valid question is: “why did the writer of Matthew’s gospel include it and write it in that form?”

            Will the answer to that question tell us anything interesting about anything?

    • The wise men might not have been Jews and yet at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, probably the most Jewish-orientated gospel of all, we nonetheless start with a story of Jesus being worshipped as King by non-Jews.
      Matthew does seem to be “the Jewish-orientated gospel”, however the writer also seems keen to include many elements which elevate gentiles and criticise the Jewish leadership. There is the inclusion of the foreign women in Jesus’ ancestry. He, with Luke, includes the story of the faithful centurion, and alone has the story of the canaanite woman. The men of Nineveh and the queen of the south are held up as examples. Much of the last week of Jesus’ life is represented in the conflict with the religious leaders. That the magi honoured the new-born king but the king in Jerusalem sought his death is part of this general theme.

  3. Matthew certainly has a richer implied reader. Of course, ‘what happened’ is a question that always matters (unless someone can convince me otherwise)….

  4. On the topic of writer invariants, I (as a Council public transport officer) was once consulted by one of my Councillors about a problem with a certain bus company’s operation. After briefing him, he asked me to draft a letter to the MD of the company for his signature.

    A few hours later another Councillor spoke to me about the same issue, and also, having had the same briefing, asked me to draft a letter to the MD for her signature. So I was faced with the interesting challenge of writing two letters which shouldn’t look too much alike. I thought myself into the personalities of the two councillors concerned and, I must admit, was quite pleased with the result of two letters which, while clearly addressing the same issue, had different styles of writing. I have often wondered if a literary critic would conclude that they had been written by different people.

      • I do still have copies – not sure who I could test them on though without giving away at least a hint of the answer.

    • I recall C.S. Lewis recounting that when he was producing the Narnia stories, another author was writing children’s stories with more than a passing resemblance. Naturally, reviewers and critics declared that there was some influence one way or the other. However, Lewis knew that there was none, which did not give him much confidence in “the assured results of modern scholarship.”

  5. Couldn’t agree more that facts really matter (William Temple has a great saying somewhere to the effect that whilst things often have a rich spiritual meaning, part of that meaning is that they actually happened)… but am not sure this means we have to defend the historicity of every single item that on the surface looks like an historical assertion. What makes us so sure that the evangelists *never* wrote in the kind of way Borg and Crossan suggests? I think, for instance, of the assertion in Matthew 27:52-53 (many of the dead saints being raised and walking around Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion) or indeed Matthew 27:51 (the tearing of the veil in the temple). The ‘parabolic’ meaning of both is luminously evident, but did they really happen as historical facts? I suspect not: for the first I would anticipate hearing from a great many more witnesses to such an astonishing event (especially as Matthew emphasises that ‘many’ saw the saints); as for the second, surely that would have prompted the immediate conversion of the High Priest, or at least massive controversy within Jewish circles. It seems to me far more plausible to take these as imaginative ways of stating of what for Matthew was profound truth, and in these instances the profound truth was simply much more important than whether it happened in fact or not.

    Of course facts matter, and of course if you follow the kind of line I do, you have the tricky question of deciding when the evangelists are writing in this kind of parabolic mode and when not (for me, the story of the Epiphany and the Slaughter of the Innocents are borderline cases). But the mere fact that these questions are tricky doesn’t mean that we are aren’t faced with them!

    • Peter, I agree with you that we don’t need to defend the historicity of every item–but for me this is about differences in our criteria of historicity more than anything else.

      I am slightly struggling to understand on what grounds something is existentially ‘true’ if the thing that demonstrated the truth (and is presented as something that demonstrated the truth) did not in fact happen. For example, if I said to you ‘You can trust me on this mountain; at home I lifted up my Ford Fiesta with one hand, so I am strong enough to hold you’ then the facticity of the claim is rather important.

      Given the cultural context, the selectivity of all the gospel writers, and our lack of historical witnesses for even quite important events in the NT period, I think your standard of proof for the raised saints is unrealistic.

      And on the tearing of the veil, there does appear to be Jewish testimony for strange events in the temple at the time of Jesus’ death; the best summary appears to be by Plummer in JETS. https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/48/48-2/48-2-pp301-316_JETS.pdf

      I remember reading elsewhere of Jewish debate about the meaning of the torn veil, but I cannot now track that down.

  6. Thanks Ian….

    I agree that there’s a connection between existential truth, and historical facticity – and that often the former is dependent on the latter. You can’t say Jesus is victorious over death if the the tomb is still occupied: agreed.

    On the other hand, I think the evangelists were also capable of telling stories (‘making things up’ if you want to put it pejoratively) that they thought illustrated truths – truths which did not however depend upon the facticity of the story in question. So, for instance, one can say that Jesus’ death brings hope for the dead saints, without knowing the story of the dead getting up and walking around Jerusalem. The thought experiment is simple: cut that verse out of Scripture and our faith is affected not one jot. Cut the empty tomb out, and the problem is rather larger!

    I’m not asking for ‘proof’ that the dead got up and walked around Jerusalem and appeared to many … I’m asking for strong historical testimony. And for something as spectacularly odd and public as this event seems to be in Matthew’s telling, that means multiple witnesses. Why is that unrealistic?

    Thanks for the tip re. the events in the temple, I shall read with interest!

    • The thought experiment is simple: cut that verse out of Scripture and our faith is affected not one jot. Cut the empty tomb out, and the problem is rather larger!

      But that’s not the problem. The problem is that if the gospel-writers were in the habit of putting in things that didn’t happen (without specifically marking them as such, eg as parables) then that lessens their credibilty on the other things, the really important things.

      If I tell you three things, and then later you discover that one of them was a story that illustrated a truth I believed rather than something that actually happened (and I hadn’t presente dit as such), are you really saying you wouldn’t start to wonder whether the other two were also stories rather than things that actually happened?

      • Yes, of course I’d start to wonder!!

        But what gives us the right to assume our faith is meant to be without this kind of wondering? That the evangelists were always writing in a straightforwardly historical way?

        So … am I right in thinking, then, that you do think that something like Matt.27:52-53 actually happened?

        And if such a report was included in any other narrative accepted by you as broadly historical in other respects, would you accept it then – or is your acceptance more dictated by your understanding of Scripture’s uniquely inspired status?

        • But what gives us the right to assume our faith is meant to be without this kind of wondering?

          Well, nothing, really.

          But why would anyone be a Christian if they thought that there was a good possibility that the gospel writers had just made the resurrection up?

          It seems to me that if we take your position then there is that good possibility, and as we have absolutely no reason to think that the resurrection happened other than the evidence of the gospels, then shouldn’t we all just give up on this Christianity lark and have a good time instead?

          • I think to equate the quality of the historical evidence for the resurrection, with that for the incident described in Matthew 27:52-53 (or indeed the story of the Magi) is odd. And it is precisely this way of putting everything the evangelists tell us on the same level, so that to question one thing is to lose everything, which strikes me as unwise .

            Firstly, unlike the cases of the Magi and the dead saints rising, we have multiple attestation for the resurrection – at least three or four traditions which are not entirely consistent but which all agree on the key claim: that tomb was empty, and the disciple believed they saw the risen Jesus. As many have observed before, that kind of slightly inconsistent consensus is the hallmark of authentic historical testimony.

            Secondly, it’s not actually true that the gospels are the only reason we have to believe in the resurrection. Something like what they describe is actually required to make sense of what happens next: the church.
            Remove the resurrection (or at least, the sincere belief in the resurrection) you have a massive historical problem in explaining early Christianity.

            Matthew 27:52-53 and the Magi, by contrast, are traditions which come from one source only, and which are not of crucial explanatory importance for later history.

          • Firstly, unlike the cases of the Magi and the dead saints rising, we have multiple attestation for the resurrection – at least three or four traditions which are not entirely consistent but which all agree on the key claim: that tomb was empty, and the disciple believed they saw the risen Jesus

            Yes, but you are saying that at least one of those, Matthew, is unreliable because some of the things in it are just made-up stories. Presumably the same is true of the others? Well, if you add together four unreliable sources that doesn’t make one reliable one. Historical maths doesn’t work like that. Four fictional accounts doesn’t equal one truthful one.

            As many have observed before, that kind of slightly inconsistent consensus is the hallmark of authentic historical testimony.

            It is, if you’ve got four accounts which are trying to be truthful but have got different bits of the story, different perspectives, etc.

            But that doesn’t apply if they aren’t trying to be truthful but are willing to just either put in stories that they heard without caring whether they are true or not if the stories fit what they are trying to convey, or outright make stuff up, which is what you are suggesting they were doing at least sometimes.

            Lots of novels, TV programmes, films etc depict the World War I Christmas truce football game, for example, but it never happened in anything like the form popularly depicted, as you can find out from any account which is actually trying to be historically accurate. Nevertheless if you were willing to add multiple fictionalised accounts you could easily claim that if that many sources have it then it must have happened, right?

            Secondly, it’s not actually true that the gospels are the only reason we have to believe in the resurrection. Something like what they describe is actually required to make sense of what happens next: the church.
            Remove the resurrection (or at least, the sincere belief in the resurrection) you have a massive historical problem in explaining early Christianity.

            Not really. There are lots of examples of things like the church happening without something like the resurrection actually happening. For example, the Koran wasn’t actually dictated to Mohammed by God, and yet Islam exists; an angel didn’t actually lead Joseph Smith to some gold tablet, yet there are Mormons knocking on doors.

            What’s different about the resurrection which means it must have happened?

          • Hi S… this comment is in haste, but here goes:

            The mere existence of four related (but not reducible to each other) accounts is strong evidence that something like what they described happened. The odds of four independent sources ‘making up’ what is fundamentally the same story are low. By contrast, the account of the Magi, or the raising of the dead saints, is found in one source only.

            Secondly, unlike the dead saints or the Magi, the resurrection narratives are of crucial explanatory power for what happens next – the church. I think even really sceptical historians would cede that the early Christians’ sincere belief in Jesus’ resurrection was a sine qua non for the mission of the church – even if, of course, said historians would also think that belief to be misplaced.

            You’re correct, of course, that the rise of Islam doesn’t prove that God dictated the Qu’ran to Mohammad in a cave. However, it probably does provide good evidence that people really thought He did. Of course, in the case of Islam there are also other obvious factors in its spread – not least military power. The rise of Christianity is a lot more difficult to explain, indeed impossible, to explain without sincere belief in the resurrection – because the Cross had happened. How do you get from that disaster to the Acts of the Apostles without what people really believed to be resurrection experiences? The answer ‘by fabrication’ strains credulity.

            Multiple attestation, plus the need for a sincere belief in something like this happening, leads to the judgement that the resurrection narratives were at least intended as accurate testimony to real experiences.

            I’m just not convinced that everything in the Gospels must have been intended in the same way – for instance, the Magi and the dead saints rising.

            But have I understood you right: do you think that unless we defend the actual historicity of everything in the Gospels that, on the face of it, looks like an historical claim then we have no reason to trust *any* of their historical claims? This looks like rather an ‘all or nothing’ approach to me, which I’m not sure is necessary. I wonder if this is applying standards we’d expect of modern history books to Gospels … which doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is history in the Gospels, just that there’s theological imagination and creativity (perjoratively, ‘making stuff up’ ) in them too.

            And don’t you find it odd, if Matthew 27:52-53 really did happen – and remember, Matthew claims there were ‘many’ witnesses – that there is no trace of this event anywhere else?

            Happy to leave it there or to continue … but am not around till Monday.

          • The mere existence of four related (but not reducible to each other) accounts is strong evidence that something like what they described happened. The odds of four independent sources ‘making up’ what is fundamentally the same story are low.

            Thats’s true, but if they are willing to put in stuff they themselves have made up, then surely they would also be willing to put in stuff that they have heard that other people have made up? Either knowing that it was made up and not caring, or not bothering to check. How do we know that isn’t what happened with the resurrection story?

            Well, one way is that if we have four accounts all of which were trying to write the truth as best they could and doing research to ensure what they write is true and they all include it, then that’s pretty good evidence. then, if all four hear the same made-up story, odds are good that while one or two might be taken in, at least one and maybe more will figure out that it’s not true (or at least that it’s unreliable) and not include it.

            But that relies on all four caring to include only what is true. If one is willing to include things that are not true, then that one can no longer be relied upon as evidence that the story that they heard was actually true, because we can no longer be sure that they would have bothered to check.
            By contrast, the account of the Magi, or the raising of the dead saints, is found in one source only.

            Yeah, and I agree that makes it less likely that it happened. Maybe it was a legend with no basis in reality, Luke and Matthew both heard about it, they both looked into it, Matthew was fooled, Luke spotted it was fake and left it out.

            Secondly, unlike the dead saints or the Magi, the resurrection narratives are of crucial explanatory power for what happens next – the church. I think even really sceptical historians would cede that the early Christians’ sincere belief in Jesus’ resurrection was a sine qua non for the mission of the church – even if, of course, said historians would also think that belief to be misplaced.

            Yeah, but sincere belief is irrelevant. Lots of people sincerely believe all sorts of utter rubbish. Sincere belief is no evidence of anything.

            But have I understood you right: do you think that unless we defend the actual historicity of everything in the Gospels that, on the face of it, looks like an historical claim then we have no reason to trust *any* of their historical claims? This looks like rather an ‘all or nothing’ approach to me, which I’m not sure is necessary. I wonder if this is applying standards we’d expect of modern history books to Gospels … which doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is history in the Gospels, just that there’s theological imagination and creativity (perjoratively, ‘making stuff up’ ) in them too.

            Okay but then the question is: how do you tell which bits were intended by which evangelists to be historical and which bits were intended to be historical and which imaginative?

            If Matthew mixes up the real and the fake without apparently making it in any way obvious to the reader which is which, how do you tell which bits he meant to be which?

            And you can’t claim multiple attestation as the answer because the question here is about the intent of Matthew. We need to know, before we can evaluate the value of Matthew’s evidence for a particular event, whether Matthew thought he was writing fact or fiction at that point, don’t we? Because if Matthew thought that when he reported the resurrection he was reporting a historical event, then yes, that’s evidence for multiple attestation of the resurrection which e can add into the probability of it having actually happened.

            But if Matthew didn’t think the resurrection actually happened — if it was just a story that was going around that he put in because it fitted his theme and he thought it held a ‘deeper truth’ — or if he didn’t bother to check — then his attestation is not really an attestation at all, is it? Our four independent sources have become three. And if the same is true of the other gospels, pretty soon we have no sources at all.

            I am open to the idea that, unlike modern history books, the gospel-writers mixed in (what they believed to be) fact and (what they knew, or believe to be, or didn’t check one way or the other) fiction. But if that is the case, then did they leave signs to the reader to be able to untangle which is which? If they did, that are they? And if they didn’t, then surely we have to regard everything they wrote as unreliable?

          • Re the tombs opening, Paul refers to the same event when he explains (Eph 4:9) that Ps 68:18 refers to Christ’s resurrection and others rising with him. If Matthew’s gospel was written after c. AD 60 (but I accept John Wenham’s argument that it was written earlier), this would be implicit independent corroboration. Regardless of dates, there is no indication that Paul had Matthew’s report in mind; if he did, he would surely have made the connection explicit.

  7. On a very quick skim of the Plummer article, it’s worth noting that he does not offer any independent testimony at all to the story of a torn veil at the death of Christ.

    What he provides (p.314) is one reference, dated to the first third of the first century, to a prophecy that the veil *would* be torn. Plummer suggests that the writer might have got this idea from the actual tearing of the veil around the time of Christ. It is at least equally plausible to suggest that this is the kind of terrible event that faithful Jews imagined could happen as a judgement on the Temple’s faithlessness … faithful Jews like Matthew.

    • I would ask the question – if it happened would the Jewish authorities record it, given the possible implications? I doubt it. It reminds me of one argument against the historicity of the Exodus – why didn’t the Egyptians write about it? As if they would!

    • I thought Id already commented on this but it didnt appear, so again-

      If the tearing of the veil did happen, would we really expect the Jewish authorities to record it, given the possible implications? Probably not. It is more plausible that they tried to keep it quiet.

      It reminds me of the argument against the historicity of the Exodus – why didnt the Egyptians record it? As if they would!

  8. Apparitions are connected to times of great moment or anguish (Persian Wars, Edge Hill, Mons). Stories of what was seen are then reported. It is a moot point whether our senses are heightened or disturbed at such times: in my view, both.

  9. Pilate’s wife’s dream, the risen saints, the fluteplayers Mt 11 ‘we piped’, the coin in the fish’s mouth – all very Herodotean. For all the talk of oral tradition, this is the direction that oral tradition often takes us in. An next-generation investigator is being as complete as he can in recording the canon of stories that are being told, that have entered the tradition, or were always in it.

  10. “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.”

    What about those who might argue that Jesus actually happened (perhaps ‘inconveniently’) to be born in Bethlehem, and so Matthew rooted around in the Old Testament for something that would fit as a prophecy?

    Thanks for the article.

  11. In the context of ‘star’, what do you understand concerning the ‘anatole eks hupsous’ (Vulgate ‘oriens ex alto’) in Luke 1:79? Any recommended (online) reading?

  12. Ian, There is another reason for the Magi to come to see the new born king of the Jews – gratitude for the survival of the Magi society throughout the Babylonian empire.

    In Daniel, “… in the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. 2 So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers[a] (i.e. the Magi – note the Magi-cians listed first in this group) to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, 3 he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.[b]”

    4 Then the astrologers answered the king,[c] “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

    5 The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. 6 But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

    7 Once more they replied, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

    8 Then the king answered, “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: 9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

    10 The astrologers answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. 11 What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

    12 This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death.

    14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. 15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. 16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

    17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon….Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

    As we know, Daniel delivers the goods and the Magi (the wise men and their households – wives, kids, etc.) are NOT wiped out by the ruler of a world empire.

    The Magi “claim to fame” is special knowledge and understanding about ‘stuff’ – studying the moon and stars (to discern when to plant or harvest crops for example) and when Daniel’s SUPERNATURAL wisdom saves them, their wives, children – basically the entire Magi caste throughout the entire empire, it would be entirely natural for these Magi to take an exceptionally keen interest in anything else Daniel would have said or written.

    It is logical to assume the Magi listened in when Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzer’s dream. The Magi would have held onto the prediction that there would be 3 more Empires after Nebuchadnezzer’s – think of the power and awe having that knowledge would bring. And think of knowing that during the last empire (the iron one – Rome), a small stone would fall to earth (come down from heaven), break the feet of clay, destroy the remnants of the empires completely, and then that stone would grow into a mountain that would cover the whole earth. Think of how the Magi caste would have held onto that information and passed on from father to son for generation after generation. And then, think of them having copies of Daniel’s prophecy that the heaven sent stone would arrive in seventy weeks of years.

    It is logical to conclude the descendants of the Magi who were saved by Daniel’s supernatural knowledge also held onto the other bits of information Daniel gave out. Now imagine being one of the Magi descendants who only exists (and still benefits from knowing the special knowledge Daniel provided centuries before) because Daniel saved your great, great, great, great, etc. grandfather and grandmother’s hide from an unreasonable Nebuchadnezzer. And you just happen to be alive at the time when Daniel’s seventy weeks of years is just about up… Wouldn’t you want to see this little stone come down from Heaven yourself? Making the trip to see this newborn king of the Jews would actually provide validation for almost everything else the Magi believed in or practiced. And maybe you would like to give him a little present in gratitude for literally making your life possible…

    Maybe the early Church commentators on the Infant story forgot about Daniel’s prophecy and how it saved the Magi from extinction – but the Magi didn’t.

  13. One of the abiding mysteries, if we take the arrival of the Magi seriously, is the nature of the star. It appears when Jesus is born and somehow conveys the news that a new king of the Jews has been born. This star then seems to disappear – the Magi don’t say to Herod, “Look there it is!” Nor does the star show them where to go prior to their arrival at Herod’s Palace. Once the Magi leave Herod’s Palace and head of to Bethlehem the star reappears as a local guide and stops over the house where Jesus, now probably a toddler, was staying. Clearly neither a comet, nor an alignment of planets would explain this. There is an alternative possibility which would seem to me to make sense of this conundrum but, as I seem to be only one who holds this view I look forward to a response which shows why I am in error:
    Every other communication surrounding the birth of Jesus is via angels who are messengers of the one true God. These angels always engender fear as they radiate the brightness and glory of God. To people who believe in a pantheon of gods, expect the stars to communicate with them and have no theology of angels, is it not reasonable that they should refer to such a dazzling supernatural communicator as a star? This would mean that the same angelic enthusiasm which disturbed the Palestinian shepherds was also experienced by the Magi. When they got to bethlehem, the angel the reappeared to give final directions. This could also answer the riddle of how the shepherds found the right location for the manger once they had come down from the hillside on that first Christmas night!

    • Thanks Michael; I think your point is quite right and is mostly overlooked. It is why Dick France, in his commentary, thinks that attempt to offer ‘scientific’ explanations for the phenomenon are entirely misplaced.

      I am now thinking of the film version of Prince Caspian (do you know it…?)

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