This entry is part 24 of 102 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Matthew 2:1f After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Did this happen?
For sceptical scholars such as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, The story of the visit of the Magi is a ‘parable’, constructed out of OT texts in order to convey the true significance of Jesus:-
‘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.’ (The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth)
Harper’s Bible Commentary confidently states: ‘The story of the Wise Men is like a “haggadah,” i.e., a story made up from biblical materials to make a theological point.’ The OT texts would have included Num 24:17, Ps 72:10–11, and Isa 60:1–7. The same kind of process continued to elaborate the tradition beyond the NT period, adding details such the visitors being not merely wise men, but kings (and, we might add, giving them names).
Gundry, although claiming to be an evangelical who believes in inerrancy, thinks that Matthew has altered Luke’s story about the shepherds (which he thinks is historical) to this very different story about the Magi. The Magi are then made to come to a ‘house’, not a ‘stable’ (as if Luke had specified that it was a stable!) because it would fit better with their distinguished status. To have such insight into the Matthew’s fertile imagination is a truly wonderful thing. See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p135, and this article in Christianity Today.
As Ian Paul remarks,
‘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?’
Regarding the general plausibility of this account, Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet) remarks that
- the massacre of the innocents matches what we know about Herod’s suspicious and cruel nature
- the long journey of the Magi to greet a new king is in keeping with what other magi did, some 70 years later in the time of Nero
- most devout Jews and Christians despised astrology; it is most unlikely that they would have fabricated this story
- the fact that the star appeared about a year before the massacre of the innocents (Herod determining the age of those to be killed based on this information) is hard to account for otherwise
On the other hand, arguments against historicity (Herod would not have called the Sanhedrin together, he would have sent a spy along, the Magi already knew the way to Bethlehem, and didn’t need the star to show them the way, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned in other ancient sources) are weak.
France adds a further argument in favour of the historicity of this event, stating that ‘it is unlikely that a church which repudiated astrology and magic would have embarrassed itself by inventing such undesirable witnesses to the Messiah.’
So, where did they come from?
They could have come from Persia, Arabia, or Babylon.
Persia? Among recent scholars, this is favoured by Blomberg. It is in the east and was at some time a centre for astrology and astronomy. The term ‘magi’ originated in this area, although by NT times it had expanded to cover a range of meanings and connotations.
Arabia? Kenneth E. Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) says that to someone living in Rome ‘the east’ would suggest Persia, whereas from the perspective of the Holy Land, ‘the east’ would be the other side of the Jordan river. The expression ‘would naturally refer to the Jordanian deserts that connect with the deserts of Arabia.’ The same writer adds that gold was mined in Arabia (cf. 1 Kings 9:28; 10:2; Job 28:16), and that frankincense and myrrh are harvested from trees ‘that only grow in southern Arabia.’ Early Christian writers, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Clement of Rome all attest to an Arabian origin from the Magi. Bailey reports that ‘In the 1920s a British scholar, E. F. F. Bishop, visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. This Muslim tribe bore the Arabic name al-Kokabani. The word kokab means “planet” and al-Kaokabani means “Those who study/follow the planets.” Bishop asked the elders of the tribe why they called themselves by such a name. They replied that it was because their ancestors followed the planets and traveled west to Palestine to show honor to the great prophet Jesus when he was born.’ The reference to Arabia in Isa 60:6 might also support this suggestion.
Babylon? Babylon is certainly to the east of Judea. There was a sizeable Jewish diaspora in Babylon. Dan 2:2,10 make it clear that magi had been associated with Babylon for a long time. Josephus and Philo both attest to there being a sizeable Jewish population there. The Babylonian Talmud has frequent references to the Jewish population being visited rabbis. Babylon was a renowned of astronomy. Putting these facts together, we might well expect magi from Babylon to be skilled in astronomical observation, and familiar with OT prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah. Important figures in the early church, including Origen, Jerome and Augustine, associated the magi with Babylon. Mounce: ‘The astrologers probably came from Babylonia, where they would have had contact with the Jewish exiles and the opportunity to develop an interest in the coming Messiah.’ This is the location favoured by Nicholl, France, and others.
Kerry Magruder (Dictionary of Christianity and Science, art. ‘Star of Bethlehem’) states:
Babylon at this time was the leading center for magi who were not only astrologers but also proficient astronomers. Babylonian magi were historical, not legendary, and their astronomical knowledge was sophisticated, not trivial. These magi, the “scribes of Enuma Anu Enlil,” pioneered quantitative methods in ancient astronomy and could predict planetary cycles hundreds of years into the future (Swerdlow 1998). Few discussions of the Bethlehem star appreciate the capability of mathematical astronomy in this cuneiform tradition or delve deeply into the historical question of the magi’s astrology, that is, how they interpreted celestial events.