WHERE WE ARE
Most of the stories about Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew were borrowed from the earlier Gospel of Mark. In Part 1 of this series, I provided some general reasons why we should doubt the historical reliability of any changes or additions to the stories about Jesus made by the author of the Gospel of Matthew to the stories about Jesus that came from the Gospel of Mark.
One of the biggest and most obvious additions by the author of the Gospel of Matthew to the stories about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is the addition of the birth story of Jesus, constituting the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. There is no birth story of Jesus at all in the Gospel of Mark. So, if the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew is historically dubious, then that would give us good reason to doubt the historical reliability of any other additions or changes to the stories about Jesus that the author of the Gospel of Matthew makes to the stories about Jesus borrowed from the Gospel of Mark.
In Part 2 of this series, I pointed out that Jesus scholars view the birth story of Jesus in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew as being historically dubious. I also gave reasons for viewing the genealogy at the beginning of the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17) as being historically dubious, and I gave reasons for viewing the story of the alleged virgin birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-25) as also being historically dubious.
In this present post, I will provide reasons for viewing the part of the birth story concerning the visit of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew as also being historically dubious.
THE VISIT OF THE MAGI IN MATTHEW 2:1-12 IS HISTORICALLY DUBIOUS
According to the Gospel of Matthew, some “Magi” traveled to Jerusalem seeking a baby who was to be the “King of the Jews” because of a star they had seen:
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.”Matthew 2:1-2, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
A scholarly commentary on Matthew explains the meaning of the word “Magi”:
The word…designates a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, “The Gospel of Matthew” by M. Eugene Boring, p.141-142
There are at least four significant problems with this part of the visit of the Magi story:
- The author of the Gospel of Luke says NOTHING about Magi predicting the birth of the king of the Jews (or anything else about Magi)
- Astrology is superstitious bullshit–it does NOT provide knowledge about the future
- An all-knowing and perfectly good God would NOT use superstitious bullshit to announce the birth of the savior of mankind
- The belief that astronomical events could be supernatural signs of the birth of a great hero or leader was a commonplace superstition in ancient times
The Gospel of Luke makes no mention of the Magi in its birth story of Jesus. Did Mary or Joseph tell the author of Matthew (or his source) about the Magi but forget to tell the author of Luke (or his source) about the Magi? That seems very unlikely. The fact that Luke makes no mention of the Magi (or of King Herod the Great’s interest in the alleged birth of the “king of the Jews”) by itself raises historical doubts about this part of the birth story in Matthew.
A second obvious problem is that astrology is superstitious bullshit. Astrology does not work. For example, astrologers did not warn us about the horrible death and destruction that would come from the births of Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, or Pol Pot. Nor did astrologers give us hope by announcing the births of great leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Astrology is no better than Tarot cards, Palmistry, Ouija Boards, or Tea leaves for predicting the future. These are all superstitious bullshit practices that consistently FAIL to predict the future with any degree of accuracy or reliability. So, even if the position or movement of some star showed, according to Astrology, that a “king of the Jews” was about to be born, that would provide ZERO evidence that such a birth was about to actually occur. The chance that astrology would correctly predict the birth of the “king of the Jews” is astronomically small. So, this gives us good reason to view this part of the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew as being DUBIOUS.
God, if God exists, is not an ignorant fool. God, if God exists, is an all-knowing and perfectly good person. God would KNOW that astrology is superstitious bullshit. God would KNOW that astrology consistently FAILS to predict the future. So, although God, being all-powerful, could make stars appear and move in any direction that God wanted, God would NOT use astrological predictions to announce the birth of the divine savior of mankind. That would be a great deception by God, making superstitious bullshit appear to provide accurate knowledge about the future. This is another good reason to view this part of the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew as being historically DUBIOUS (If the Christian view of God were true, then this part of the birth story would be FALSE).
The idea that astronomical signs would predict or signal the birth of a great hero or leader was a common belief in ancient times, so it was common for ancient biographies to make up or include fictional stories about astronomical events occurring around the birth of the hero or leader that was the subject of the biography. The birth story of Apollonius of Tyana includes an alleged lightning bolt from the sky:
Those who lived thereabouts claim that [at the time Apollonius was born] a bolt of lightning appeared to strike the earth but then was carried aloft where it vanished. In my judgement, the gods used this sign to reveal and predict that Apollonius would transcend all earthly standards and rival the gods.Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, 1.4-6, quoted in The Acts of Jesus, p.505
The following passage about the Magi involves omniscient narration that reflects events about which the author of the Gospel of Matthew would be very unlikely to have had historical evidence:
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. …7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”Matthew 2:1-4 & 7-8, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
How would the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing his gospel about ninety years after these events, know that King Herod consulted with the chief priests about the alleged birth of the “king of the Jews” or that these foreign astrologers had met with King Herod the Great? How would the author of Matthew have known the details of the conversations between Herod and the astrologers? How would he have known the subjective feelings of Herod about the quest of the astrologers?
How would he have known about a “secret” meeting between the astrologers and Herod and about what was discussed at that meeting? The astrologers left the country shortly after the birth of Jesus, according to this story, so they would not be around to tell this story to Jews in Palestine. The only plausible way of getting this information would be if the astrologers had described their encounters with Herod to Mary and Joseph, and later on Joseph and Mary had told stories about what the astrologers had told them.
But if Mary and Joseph were the source of this information, why does the Gospel of Luke make no mention of the astrologers or of King Herod? Furthermore, as I have previously indicated in Part 2 of this series, Mary and Joseph were probably long dead by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written. It is improbable that the author of Matthew had any reliable and detailed information about the alleged meetings between foreign astrologers and King Herod the Great.
THE ALLEGED PROPHECY OF THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE MESSIAH
Another historically problematic aspect of this passage about the visit of the Magi in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew is the alleged prophecy that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem:
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,Matthew 2:4-6, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
First, as with the alleged prophecy that the Messiah would be born to a “virgin”, the author of the Gospel of Matthew has again misunderstood (or intentionally altered) the Old Testament passage from the prophet Micah. This passage does NOT predict that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem. Rather, it predicts that the Messiah would come from the CLAN of Bethlehem Ephrathah, the same CLAN from which the father of King David came.
Here is an important critical comment on the passage quoted from Micah:
That is, the one who restores the dynasty will have the same roots, be of the same ancestry, as David of Bethlehem. …Only Christians have traditionally read this passage in Micah as a prediction of a future birthplace rather than as a description of the origins of the Davidic dynasty; we do not see multitudes of Jewish faithful eagerly eyeing the village of Bethlehem for the birth of the Messiah: remember the Jews rejection of Jesus in John 7:27: “We know where this man comes from, but when the Messiah appears, no one is to know where he comes from.”Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms
It is helpful to recall that Old Testament names could be ambiguous between being the designation of a person, or the designation of a tribe, or the designation of a place. The passage from Micah, for example, refers to the name “Judah”. “Judah” was the name of one of the sons of Jacob. It is also the name of one of the tribes of Israel (who were supposedly the descendants of the person “Judah”), and it is also the name of a territory:
Thus the name “Judah,” like the name “Israel” is used in different ways in the Bible. It can refer to the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 29.35; 35.23; 37.26), to the tribe itself (Num. 2.3; 7.12; 10.14; Josh. 18.5; 19.1; Judg. 1.4), and to the kingdom of Judah, which covered more extensive territory and included peoples of other tribal origins (1 Kings 14.21, 29; 15.1, 7; Isa. 1.1; Jer. 1.2).The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, p.388
“Bethlehem Ephrathah” has a similar ambiguity. It is the name of a CLAN, and the name of a town. The author of the Gospel of Matthew used (or invented) a translation of Micah 5:2 that is incorrect and misleading. For example, the phrase “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” does NOT occur in Micah 5:2, and this phrase misleadingly biases the interpretation of “Bethlehem Ephrathah” as being a place or town. Here are three good modern translations of Micah 5:2:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,Micah 5:2, New International Version
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,Micah 5:2, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,Micah 5:2, New American Standard Bible
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will come forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His times of coming forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
In all three cases, there is no mention of “the land of Judah”, which would be a reference to a place or territory. Rather, all three translations above talk about the “clans of Judah”, which are groups of people that are a subset of the tribe of Judah. This clearly disambiguates the meaning of “Bethlehem Ephrathah”. In this passage “Bethlehem Ephrathah” is NOT a place or town, but is a small CLAN or subset of people in the tribe of Judah.
This interpretation also fits better with the use of the personal pronoun “you”: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…” and “from you shall come forth…” It is more natural to use the pronoun “you” of a group of people than it is to use it of a place or town.
King David’s father Jesse was a member of a small clan known as “Ephrathites”:
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years.1 Samuel 17:12, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, emphasis added
“Ephrathrah” was a person who was associated with Bethlehem:
…and Penuel was the father of Gedor, and Ezer was the father of Hushah. These were the sons of Hur, the firstborn of Ephrathah, the father of Bethlehem.1 Chronicles 4:4, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, emphasis added
The close connection between this small clan and Bethlehem is noted in an Old Testament commentary concerning the passage from 1 Samuel 17:12:
17:12 Ephrathite. The Ephrathites were probably a tribal subdivision of the Calebites from the Bethlehem region. Bethlehem was a village within the larger Ephrathah clan, and later the clan became synonomous with the village itself.The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton, Victor Matthews, & Mark Chavalas, p.307
The passage in Micah 5:2 is NOT a prediction that the Messiah would be born in a particular town or village, but rather that the Messiah would “come from” the small clan of Ephrathites, the same small clan from which King David, and his father Jesse, had come, a small clan that was historically associated with the town of Bethlehem.
Apart from the apparent inability of the author of the Gospel of Matthew to correctly understand and interpret important passages from the Old Testament, the reference to this alleged prophecy about the Messiah creates a good reason to doubt the historicity of the birth story that is told in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. As with the dubious claim that Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin, the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, also appears to be a case of prophecy historicized.
Even apart from any historical evidence or eyewitness testimony the author of the Gospel of Matthew (or the Christian source the author made use of) might well have invented this story on the basis of Micah 5:2. The author of the Gospel of Matthew and other early Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah or savior of the Jews, and the author of the Gospel of Matthew and other early Christians believed (incorrectly) that Micah 5:2 predicted the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem. So, they would have inferred that Jesus MUST have been born in Bethlehem, and then they would be likely to form stories around this belief.
The citing of the alleged prophecy from Micah thus actually creates significant doubt about the historicity of this story, which appears to be centered around the alleged fulfillment of the (misunderstood) prophecy in Micah 5:2.
THE MAGI FOLLOW THE STAR TO BETHLEHEM
After being informed that the Messiah or the “king of the Jews” was to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi then simply continued to follow the star that they had been following from the east, and the star ended up stopping in Bethlehem over the house where Mary and Jesus were staying:
9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This part of the story is also dubious. If they followed the star from the east, why stop to ask King Herod where to find the “king of the Jews”? Why not just keep following the star? That is what they apparently did anyway, according to the story. The story is illogical and implausible because the Magi appear to have had no need to consult with King Herod or the Jewish high priests; they already had the guidance of the star.
Another problem, of course, is that stars cannot be observed to stop over a particular house to point out a specific house.
Consider the movement of the sun in the sky. It travels about 180 degrees from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west. How many houses or house-sized spots on the surface of the earth does the sun pass directly overhead during its movement across the sky (resulting from the rotation of the Earth)?
The Earth is fat in the middle, at the equator or zero degrees latitude. If the sun “traveled” directly over the equator, then between sunrise and sunset, it would travel over half the equator in that period of time. The circumference of the Earth at the equator is 24,901 miles, so the sun would travel overhead above 12,450 miles between sunrise and sunset (when days last 12 hours). That means that for each degree of travel, the sun would cover 12,450 miles/180 = 69.2 miles. How many houses could be located next to each other in 69.2 miles? If the houses were an average of 40 feet wide and were separated by 20 feet of space, then there would be a house every 60 feet. How many feet are 69.2 miles? That would be 365,376 feet:
How many houses could fit in that distance? 365,376 feet/60 feet = 6,090 houses. So, in order to determine that the sun was directly over a specific house we would need to be able to measure the travel of the sun with a precision of about 1/6000 of a degree! Neither the Magi nor anyone else in the 1st century had instruments that would allow them to measure such a tiny fraction of a degree of travel through the sky.
Bethlehem, however, is not on the equator. It is at 31 degrees latitude. So, if the sun traveled from east to west along the 31st degree of latitude (instead of along the equator), it would not travel above as much territory or distance as it would traveling along above the equator. What is the length or distance of the 31st degree of latitude going all around the world? It is pretty close to the length or distance of the 30th degree of latitude, for which Wikipedia provides this information:
At this latitude:
- One degree of longitude = 96.49 km or 59.95 mi
So, one degree of travel over the 30 degree latitude would cover about 60 miles of territory or distance. How many feet are in 60 miles? That would be 316,800 feet:
How many houses could fit in that distance? Assuming one house for every 60 feet, the number of houses in that distance would be 316,800 feet/60 feet = 5,280 houses. Just one degree of travel of the sun (if it traveled directly over the 30th degree latitude) would pass over 5,000 houses. So, in order to determine which specific house the sun was directly above, one would need to be able to determine the position of the sun to 1/5000 of a degree. The Magi were not capable of making such precise measurements of the travel of a star through the sky.
Furthermore, the fact that there is no mention in the Gospel of Luke of Magi or astrologers or traveling stars, or of foreigners bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus, is a good reason to doubt the historicity of the story of the visit of the Magi in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. The only plausible historical source for this story would be Joseph or Mary, and both of them were long dead by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written. And if Mary or Joseph did tell this story about the visit of the Magi to early Christians, why does the author of the Gospel of Luke know nothing about this?
Finally, Mary and Joseph probably spoke Aramaic. Why would Magi from the east (Persia or Babylonia) know how to speak Aramaic? If the Magi were from Persia, they likely spoke Middle Persian:
Modern Persian is most closely related to Middle and Old Persian, former languages of the region of Fārs (Persia) in southwestern Iran. It is thus called Fārsī by native speakers. Written in Arabic characters, Modern Persian also has many Arabic loanwords and an extensive literature.
Old Persian, spoken until approximately the 3rd century BCE, is attested by numerous inscriptions written in cuneiform, most notable of which is the great monument of Darius I at Bīsitūn, Iran. The inscriptions at Bīsitūn were generally trilingual—in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian.
Middle Persian, spoken from the 3rd century BCE to the 9th century CE, is represented by numerous epigraphic texts of Sāsānian kings, written in Aramaic script; there is also a varied literature in Middle Persian embracing both the Zoroastrian and the Manichaean religious traditions. Pahlavi was the name of the official Middle Persian language of the Sāsānian empire.https://www.britannica.com/topic/Persian-language
If the Magi were from Persia, they probably did not speak Aramaic, and thus would be unable to tell Mary and Joseph about their meetings and conversations with King Herod. There is certainly no reason to think that Mary or Joseph knew how to speak Middle Persian.
If the Magi were from Babylonia, they probably knew Babylonian (the language of priests/astrologers in Babylonian temples) and Greek (many Greeks had immigrated to Babylon by that time, and since Babylonia was under the rule of Parthians at that time, they might have known some Parthian too (an official language of the Parthian Empire). But Joseph and Mary spoke Aramaic and probably did not know Babylonian, Greek, or Parthian.
Every part of the story about the visit of the Magi in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew is implausible and unlikely, so we have good reasons to conclude that this part of the story of the birth of Jesus is historically DUBIOUS.