Brown [Birth of the Messiah, 1977:165-201] devotes 37 pages to his discussion of the episode.
Long before [Matthew], Herodotus (Histories I) had intrigued his Greek readers with a description of a priestly caste of magi among the sixth-century Medes, a caste that had special power to interpret dreams. (p. 167)
After reviewing various references to magi in Jewish and Greek texts, Brown concludes:
Thus, the term "magi" refers to those engaged in occult arts and covers a wide range of astronomers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers, and magicians of varying plausibility. (p. 167)
Brown rejects those interpretations with cast the magi in negative terms in Matthew:
My own opinion is that such references reflect a Christian use of Matthew in an apologetic against magic rather than a true exegesis of Matthew. There is not the slightest hint of conversion or of false practice in Matthew's description of the magi; they are wholly admirable. They represent the best of pagan lore and religious perceptivity which has come to seek Jesus through revelation in nature. (p. 168)
Matthew's age would not have found bizarre the claim that a star rose to herald the birth of the King of the Jews and subsequently guided magi-astrologers in their quest to find him. Virgil (Aeneid II.694) reports that a star guided Aeneas to the place where Rome should be founded. Josephus (War VI v 3#289) speaks of a star that stood over Jerusalem and of a comet that continued for a year at the time of the fall of the city. ... It is true that Pliny (Natural History II vi 28) combats the popular opinion that each person has a star which begins to give light when he is born and fades out when he dies; yet the thesis that at least the births and deaths of great men were marked by heavenly signs was widely accepted. ... Suetonius (Augustus 94) records a tradition stemming from Julius Marathus that a public portent alerted the Roman people some months before the birth of Augustus that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king, ... and this so frightened the Senate that it issued a decree forbidding the rearing of any male child for a year ... (p. 170)
VISITORS FROM THE EAST
The picture of magi coming from the East to pay homage to a king and bring him royal gifts (vs. 11) would not have struck Matthew's readers as naively romantic. When King Herod completed the building of Caesarea Maritima in 10-9 B.C., envoys from many nations came to Palestine with gifts (Josephus, Ant. XVI v 1 #136-41). In A.D. 44 Queen Helen of Adiabene, a kingdom that paid tribute to the Parthians, converted to Judaism and came to Jerusalem with bounteous gifts for those affected by the famine which was devastating the land. In A.D. 66 there took place an event that captured the imagination of Rome (Dio Cassius, Roman History lxiii 1-7; Suetonius, Nero 13). Tiridates, king of Armenia ... came to Italy with the sons of three neighboring Parthian rulers in his entourage. Their journey from the East (the Euphrates) was like a triumphal procession. The entire city of Rome was decorated with lights and garlands, and the rooftops filled with onlookers, as Tiridates came forward and paid homage to Nero. Tiridates identified himself as a descendant of Arsaces, founder of the Parthian Empire, and said, "I have come to you, my god, to pay homage, as I do to Mithras." After Nero had confirmed him as king of Armenia, "the king did not return by the route he had followed in coming" but sailed back a different way. It is significant that Pliny (Natural History, XXX vi 16-17) refers to Tiridates and his companions as magi. (p. 174)
THE MAGI IN MATTHEW'S MESSAGE
Matthew's presentation of Jesus as son of David and Emmanuel was in part inspired by controversy with Jews who did not believe in Jesus -- the Jews who denied his divine origin because they knew of his humble human family, and indeed may have questioned even the family origin by a charge of illegitimacy. ... The "Where" motif of Act I (2:1-12) shows that Jesus did meet the strictest Jewish expectations about the Messiah: as a true son of David, he was born in Bethlehem, the ancestral Davidic home. The "Whence" motif of Act II (2:13-23) shows that it was no historical accident that Jesus came from Nazareth and was known as a Nazorean. ... Within this double-pronged answer to his opponents' objections about Bethlehem and Nazareth ... Matthew is able to squeeze in an added apologetic use of geography. In moving Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth, he has him go to Egypt and return; and he has the massacre of the children at Bethlehem commented upon in the words that Jeremiah used to describe the exiled northern tribes. Thus, in a certain sense, the Matthean Jesus relives the Exodus and the Exile and fulfills the history of Israel.(p. 179f)
Nevertheless, Matthew's apologetic motif is secondary: his first goal is not to refute the opponents of Jesus, but to explain the Christian mystery to a believing community of Jews and Gentiles. In the genealogy of ch. 1, especially in the mentions of the "son of Abraham" alongside the "son of David" and in his inclusion of the foreign women, we saw Matthew hinting that Jesus was destined for Gentiles as well as Jews -- a hint that reflected the mixed nature of the Matthean community. However, in what follows in ch. 1, Matthew concentrated on Jesus as the son of David; and so it is fitting that now in 2:1-12 he turns his attention to the ramifications of Jesus as son of Abraham. (p. 180f)
REVELATION IN NATURE AND SCRIPTURE
The proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah is given to magi from the East, the wise and learned among the Gentiles. Precisely since they are Gentiles, they receive their proclamation through created nature (see Rom 1:19-20; 2:14-15); but, like Balaam of old who also came from the East and was endowed with special insight, they recognize the salvific import of the Davidic star. Although they hasten to Jerusalem to pay homage, the full revelation of the Messiah cannot be gleaned from nature: it is a secret found in the Scriptures, the special revelation that God has given to the Jews alone. And so the magi must learn from the Jewish Scriptures God's plan of salvation before they can find the Messiah and pay him homage. Therein lies a paradox: Jews who have the Scriptures and can plainly see what the prophets have said are not willing to worship the newborn king. (p. 182)
HISTORY AND VERISIMILITUDEThe simplest explanation of the pre-Matthean background of the magi story is that it is factual history passed down from the time of Jesus' birth in family circles. ... those who wish to maintain the historicity of the Matthean magi story are faced with nigh insuperable obstacles. (p. 188)
Brown identifies the major sets of obstacles as:
- the intrinsic improbability of the kind of celestial phenomenon described in Matthew;
- the impossibility of reconciling Matthew's infancy story with that in Luke;
- the lack of fit with descriptions of Jesus' adult activity (and specifically the general ignorance of his identity and special origins. He acknowledges some "plausibilities" in the narrative of Matthew, including a general interest in omens and magi.
Brown concludes as follows.
... this constitutes evidence of verisimilitude, not of history. Inclusion of these details would make Matthew's story intelligible and would be a natural way of expression. Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah might well explain him to Gentiles as the fulfillment of the expectation of a world ruler from Judea. If in the East, where there was contact with large Jewish colonies, some Gentiles were familiar with Jewish messianic expectation, this could easily have been dramatized by Christians as a readiness to accept the birth of Jesus. Christians, sharing the general belief that celestial phenomena marked the birth of great men, may have reflected on astronomical peculiarities at the time of Jesus' birth ... and, in retrospect, may have fastened on one or other as a sign from God that His Son was going to be born. Yet, these contacts of the Matthean story with culture of its time do little to establish that the story is factual or to account for what originally inspired it. The original inspiration, in the judgment of many scholars, is to be sought in popular reflection on the OT. (p. 190)
The views of the Seminar can be sketched as follows:
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
- After Jesus was born, magi guided by a star or some other astral phenomenon sought and visited him.
- After Jesus was born, Jesus was taken to Egypt by his parents.
- After Jesus was born, children were slaughtered in Bethlehem by Herod the Great.
The following papers from the Fall 1994 meeting of the Jesus Seminar are published in Forum NS 2,1 (1999):
- W. Barnes Tatum, "The Historical Quest for the Baby Jesus." 7-23
- Lane C. McGaughey, "Infancy Narratives and Hellenistic Lives." 25-39
Barnes Tatum notes that there may have been a pre-Matthean version of the magi story, as the star seems to function rather more accurately in the final stage of the journey (when it leads the magi precisely to the house where Jesus is living) while earlier it simply led them in a westward direction without any specific destination. This earlier form reflected the motif of an eschatological visitation of Gentiles to Zion, that is to Jerusalem; also known in Jewish tradition as the city of David.
Lane McGaughey notes that the magi's visit reflects items D and E from the classic form of the ancient infancy narrative:
B. Miraculous conceptionE. Human responses to the birth: positive or negative.
C. Angelic annunciation or parental vision
D. Birth accompanied by supernatural signs
Acts of Jesus (p. 508) outlines the legend of the three kings from the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo. (see above)
Acts of Jesus (p. 128) also has a reference to a comet that appeared shortly after the death of Julius Caesar and was believed to be a portent of his posthumous divinity. This "Julian Star" became a popular literary motif, and was sometimes described as shining more brightly than all other stars. It appears on the reverse of a coin issued by Augustus in 17 BCE.
Commenting on the infancy narratives overall, Luedemann [Jesus, 124-29] concludes that Luke and Matthew represent "two equally unhistorical narratives." He cites the occurrence of a miraculous heavenly sign at key points in the life of Mithridates VI in a history written by Justinus (active in the reign of Augustus, 2 BCE to 14 CE).
Jock McTavish, To Follow a Star
This brief discussion paper by Jock McTavish provides an insight into aspects of astrology and astronomy that are intertwined in this tradition. Includes a link to a NASA site with a movie of the night sky on 23 December 2000: showing a combination of Saturn and Jupiter in Orion, a combination suggested by one of the theories for the Star of Bethlehem.
John P. Meier
Meier [Marginal Jew I,211ff and 376] considers these traditions to be "largely products of early Christian reflection on the salvific meaning of Jesus in the light of OT prophecies" and concludes that their historicity is "highly questionable."
This article at the Religious Tolerance website offers a helpful overview of the various religious views concerning the miraculous star in Matthew's infancy narrative, along with a brief bibliography.
John Shelby Spong
In [Born of a Woman 1992:86-94] Spong reviews a number of literary, historical and natural factors that may have contributed to the development of the legend about the star and the magi:
- Isaiah texts (following Herman Hendrickx, Infancy Narratives, 37):
Who stirred up one from the east who meets victory at every step?
He gives up nations before him, so that he tramples kings underfoot. (Isa 41:2)
The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. ...
Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves. (Isa 49:1, 7)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ... And nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising ... A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall cone.They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa 60:1, 3, 6)
- The Balaam tradition in Numbers 22-24 (following Raymond Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 193). Balaam, was remembered in Jewish tradition as a Gentile seer from the east. The key oracle reads:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near --and a scepter shall arise out of Israel. (Num 24:17a)
a star shall come out of Jacob,
- The biblical story of the visit to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13) included the themes of exotic visitors bringing gold, spices and precious stones to honor Israel's divinely blessed ruler. Hendrickx [Infancy Narratives, 39] quotes the following midrash which incorporated a supernatural star into the legend:
As the Queen of Sheba approached the holy city reclining in her litter, she saw at a distance a wondrous rose growing at the edge of a lake. But when she came near she saw to her astonishment the rose suddenly transformed into a flashing star. The closer she came the more dazzling was its light.
- Jewish midrashic traditions include other instances of a star appearing at the birth of a Jewish hero: Chaldean astrologers had advised the evil King Nimrod of Abraham's birth after seeing a rising star, while others are associated with the birth of Isaac and Moses. [see Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 543]
- Halley's Comet was recorded in 12/11 BCE, and is the only known instance of a "wandering star."
- A rare juxtaposition of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars occurred in 8 BCE, creating an unusually bright glow in the sky.
- Josephus (Antiquities XVI V. 1,136-41) gives an insight into the media hype associated with political celebrations when he described foreign ambassadors traveling to Jerusalem to hail King Herod on the occasion of the completion of the palace in Caesarea, around 9 BCE.
- The state visit to Nero by the Armenian ruler, Tiradates, in 66 CE, accompanied by the sons of three Parthian rulers, involved a triumphal procession from the east and festive celebrations in Rome on their arrival. In a remarkable parallel to Matthew, his return journey was by a different route. Pliny, one of three Roman authors to mention this event, refers to Tiradates and his entourage as "magi." [see Infancy Narratives, 39; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 174; and Albright & Mann, Matthew, 13]
Barbara G. Walker
In The Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Walker suggests that Magi referred to Magicians. In what she calls "Persian-Essenic traditions," Magi were the only seers able to read the coming of the Messiah's star and so identify the right Divine Child. She traces this idea to Egypt, where the Three Wise Men were the three stars in the Belt of Orion, pointing to Osiris' star Sothis, which "rose in the east" to announce the coming of the Savior at the season of the Nile flood. She notes that these three Belt stars were still called Magi in the Middle Ages. In addition, she stated that in "Rome early in the Christian era, Magi meant priests of Mithra [the original Persian 'Messiah'], or astrologers, or miscellaneous healers and miracle-workers; it was a term for magicians in general. Roman Christians were hostile to the magi but were forced to retain the three Magi of the Gospel story because their presence was emphasized as evidence of Jesus divinity."