The Birth Narratives of Jesus in the New Testament – Part 2
Last week, we took a cursory look at the birth narratives (of Jesus, otherwise known as the infancy narratives) in the New Testament. Not everything is as it seems though. I had published that article as an introduction to the subject, today however we will look at a story (infancy narrative) present only in the gospel attributed to Matthew.
Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
If you read closely, within the first verse we are told that wise men come to visit baby Jesus. Next to the phrase “wise men” we find a citation, citation “[a]”. What does this citation read?
Matthew 2:1 Greek magi; also verses 7, 16
So who were the Magi (image taken from my debate slides, direct link to Strong’s Concordance here)?
Depending on the translation you read, these wise men came either to worship him or to pay homage to him. Let’s accept the Christian claim that these black magic practitioners (hereafter I refer to them as ‘black magicians’) came to worship Jesus. What then? They decide not to return to Herod and tell him where Jesus is located. You might think to yourself then, well if they decided not to harm Jesus then they must be good black magic sorcerers. Yet, can there be one who uses black magic for good? The use of black magic is in and of itself a form of pagan worship, to the point that the God of the Bible expressly calls for the removal of such people from Israel in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (emphasis mines):
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Isaiah 47:12-15 says (emphasis mines):
“Keep on, then, with your magic spells
and with your many sorceries,
which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
perhaps you will cause terror.
13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
let them save you from what is coming upon you.
14 Surely they are like stubble;
the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
from the power of the flame.
These are not coals for warmth;
this is not a fire to sit by.
15 That is all they are to you—
these you have dealt with
and labored with since childhood.
All of them go on in their error;
there is not one that can save you.
Right, so it’s not a few generic wise people from the East, but a few black magicians, a few sorcerers, a few diviners. That changes the immediate context of the story. Why would these people be coming to see Jesus? We are not given a reason, though it can be surmised that they did so to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of which, including the Magi, play no role in the story thereafter. What is perhaps most concerning is if this story is accurate, a lot of important questions arise. Why would Mary or Joseph allow black magicians/ sorcerers to come near their infant child? Did Mary or Joseph join these people in worship? The story is silent on these issues, but the visit of these black magicians does play a central role in how Jesus is perceived among his own people within the New Testament narratives.
If the infancy narratives in the Gospels are true, then the later reactions of Mary the mother of Jesus do not truly make sense, but ironically the actions of the Jews of Jesus’ day (as the New Testament presents them) do seem to be reasonable. To set the stage, Jesus has healed people and is also doing exorcisms (driving out evil spirits), some people complain about what Jesus is doing, they complain to his family members:
Roughly ten passages later we learn that the family members who said, “he is out of his mind,” also includes his mother Mary. Yet, if the infancy narratives as presented in the New Testament are true, then Mary no doubt had to know that Jesus was God and would be doing miracles. That her immediate reaction is to refer to him as being “out of his mind” does not seem in the least bit reasonable. What then did the Jews of that time within that same story (after the words of his family) say? We read from Mark 3:22 the following:
The Jews were not referring to him as a demonic agent for the fun of it, it is quite clear that from the New Testament’s narrative that throughout Jesus’ time, there was an association with him and demons/ black magic and things of this nature which had been readily condemned in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) in very harsh terms (as mentioned, in part, above).
This brings us back to the Magi. They were following a star which had apparently risen at the time of Jesus’ birth and they followed it to the place where the infant Jesus was located (Matthew 2:9):
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.
There are a few things to consider here. There is no consensus in Christian scholarship regarding the time frame of the visit of the black magicians. There are generally two main options:
- It could be within weeks of Jesus’ birth
- Up to two years after Jesus’ birth
It cannot be two years after Jesus’ birth as that would mean the star was in the sky for two years. Considering that King Herod was actively hunting for Jesus, in order to execute him (Matthew 2:13) and that he was consulting astrologists/ black magicians (Matthew 2:7), then how is it possible that no one in those two years accounts for this star in the sky? More so, it is not any kind of star, but one which was different enough that they could tell when it was over a person or not. So it would mean all the astrologists in the ancient world, missed a special star over a possible two year period (using the meaning of the word παιδιον, at least one Christian apologist argued to me that the visit could have been up to 7 years after the birth of Jesus, that makes the issue worse, not better).
One could conjecture and say that perhaps the star was only visible to the very people that the God of the Bible condemns (as quoted above). This would then mean, that the only people to see this star (which announced the birth of allegedly, God himself) were the one group of people that God has confirmed are in error such that they were to be driven out of Israel (as referenced in Deuteronomy 18:10-12). We never hear about or from the astrologists/ black magicians again, which is peculiar. For if this is from eyewitness testimony, then how did an eyewitness know what the Magi dreamt after having met Jesus in Matthew 2:12?
And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
We also know that after this dream, they were not the ones to tell Joseph and Mary about being in immediate danger, but rather an angel of the Lord did so in Matthew 2:13 via a dream:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
This therefore rules out the possibility that the Magi ever returned to tell anyone about their dream, so where exactly did this story come from? As with most things for the New Testament, it is silent on this and these passages only serve to promote doubt about the New Testament’s authenticity and reliability. One can also rule out that the black magicians/ astrologers were there to warn Joseph and Mary about King Herod, as they never did so and it takes an angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream to deliver this information. As a side note, multiple Christians have confused astrology and the science of astronomy in response to what I’ve written (and said in my debate), though these were not apologists in a career sense. That they cannot tell the difference between the two is not surprising but it does explain why they did not notice the impact that the Magi had on the infancy narratives of the New Testament.
Part 3 will be out soon…
As an addendum, to explain the significance of as astrology and why the Magi were watching the skies for signs, we read (it is attributed to the Biblical Solomon but there is no data which indicates this is true, just like the New Testament it is likely a work of homonymous/ pseudepigraphic authorship):
The zodiacal astrology, combined here with demonological perspectives, is further attested by the seven constellations that appear through the power of Solomon’s evocation:
(8:1) There came seven spirits bound up together hand and foot, fair of form
and graceful. When I, Solomon, saw them, I was amazed and asked them, “Who
are you?” (2) They replied, “We are heavenly bodies [esmen stoicheia], rulers
of this world of darkness [kosmokratores tou skotous].” (3) The first said, “I am Deception.” The second said, “I am Strife.” The third said, “I am Fate.”
The fourth said, “I am Distress.” The fifth said, “I am Error.” The sixth said, “I am Power.” (4) The seventh said, “I am The Worst. Our stars in heaven look
small, but we are named like gods. We change our position together and we live
together, sometimes in Lydia, sometimes in Olympus, sometimes on the great
Source: Von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Jewish and Christian Astrology in Late Antiquity: A New Approach.” Numen 47, no. 1 (2000): 1-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270359.
Update: 30th December, 2019
Following the publication of this article, Dr. Ehrman also published a similar article which overlaps with and confirms the arguments I’ve presented here. The following except is taking from this blog post by him, for full access a subscription is needed to his blog:
Here is what I say about it in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. (This is a college-level textbook: but if you are interested in basic knowledge about everything connected with the New Testament, it would be a great place to start: it includes discussion of every book of the NT and has suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter)
The story of the visit of the Magi (2:1–12), found only in Matthew, is one of the most interesting tales of the New Testament. Here we are less interested in the historical problems that the story raises (e.g., how can a star stand over a particular house?) than in the point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel. Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, of course, whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king.
and Allah knows best.