Just thought I'd post another excerpt from my upcoming book which is just being copy-edited at the moment. Let me know if you see any mistakes!

14 – An unlikely Herod acts particularly naïvely

One has to wonder why, if travelling from the East, the star does not lead the magi directly to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. What becomes even more implausible is that Herod decided not to follow the star himself, but to task the itinerant wise men with going themselves and returning to him with the knowledge of Jesus’ whereabouts. As Ray Brown says (1977, p.190):

Herod’s failure to find the child at Bethlehem would be perfectly intelligible in a story in which there were no magi who came from the East and where he had only general scriptural knowledge about Bethlehem to guide him. It becomes ludicrous when the way to the house has been pointed out by a star which came to rest over it, and when the path to the door of the house in a small village has been blazed by exotic foreigners.

Given this, then, let us look at whether it is likely that the magi and the star were historical realities or whether they were agents used by the author for particular ends.

As we have seen from the previous section, Herod calls the magi to his palace in Jerusalem after hearing of them asking about the new king. This arouses his suspicions and he calls together his chief priests to tell him of the birth of the Messiah and where it should take place. If this really was an important Messianic prophecy, rather than a verse dug out of the Old Testament retrospectively, one would imagine that Herod and the general public would have been well aware that a Messiah was due to be born in the vicinity of Bethlehem at some point. What is even more implausible is verse 3 in Matthew 2 which states that “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” So the whole of Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah. If this really was the case, the whole of the history of Judaism would have shifted from that point on; there would have been Jewish historical references to this great event. Jesus would have been properly heralded as the Messiah if all of Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of the prophecy from Micah. There is much that is strange and unbelievable about this whole episode. As Callahan (2002, p. 379) says:

That king also acts strangely. Rather than counting on the wise men to tell him where the new king is to be found, why wouldn't he give them an escort or have them followed, or even have his own soldiers follow the star that is so visible to the wise men? In fact, there are two reasons for stopping at Herod's court, both having to do with establishing Jesus as the successor to the Davidic kings. The first of these is so the chief priests and scribes can announce that the scriptures say that the divine child will be born in Bethlehem. The second is so that Herod can know that the child is there, but not know exactly where in Bethlehem he is.

So Callahan points out the rather bizarre behaviour of the king in relying on some magi, whom he does not know from Adam, to return to him and act as seasoned spies, betraying the very person they have travelled no doubt for many hundreds of miles and many weeks to see! This is the hope of a very naïve man. Any betting person would tell you that he has slim to no chance of seeing those wise men again. You don’t travel half of the known world to find and praise a new Messiah only to betray him immediately! Any decent king worth their salt would not exhibit such behaviour. Moreover, with a track record as vicious as Herod’s, you would expect him to send a detachment with the wise men or to put them under some kind of arrest so that they can “help him with his inquiries”. In addition, the time it would take the magi to go to Bethlehem and come back to Jerusalem there would be no guarantee, when the magi returned to Jerusalem and let Herod know of their exact whereabouts, that Joseph and family would still be in Bethlehem to be found by a returning Herod and entourage. As Strauss (1860, p. 160) agrees:

On all these grounds, Herod’s only prudent measure would have been either to detain the magi in Jerusalem, in the meantime by means of secret emissaries to dispatch the child to whom such peculiar hopes were attached, and who must have been easy of discovery in the little village of Bethlehem ; or to have given the magi companions who, so soon as the child was found, might at once have put an end to his existence.

What Callahan in the previous quote also illustrates is that the magi had to stop off in Jerusalem in order to give Matthew a mechanism to bring Herod into the story and as well as a mechanism to allow Herod to have heard of this birth. Without the magi turning up and shouting around Jerusalem “Has anyone seen the new Messiah?” (itself an unlikely thing) and alerting Herod, we would have no Herod, no massacring of the babies and no reason for Joseph and family to flee to Egypt. This fleeing to Egypt is a crucial event, thematically speaking, for Matthew’s account as we shall learn later and seems rather dependent on a highly implausible contrivance dictated by Matthew.

There is another fundamental problem with the behaviour of Herod as is so well set out by Strauss (1860, p. 159). In Matthew 2: 7-8, we have the following announcement: “Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem…” So before sending the magi to Bethlehem he is finding out the position of the star for an as yet unknown reason. But verse 16 indicates a reason as Herod “sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” Yet how can this have happened with this chronology? As Strauss (1860, p.159) says:

But this plan of murdering all the children of Bethlehem up to a certain age… was not conceived by Herod until after the magi had disappointed his expectation that they would return to Jerusalem : a deception which, if we may judge from his violent anger on account of it Herod had by no means anticipated. Prior to this … it had been his intention to obtain from the magi, on their return, so great a description of the child, his dwelling and circumstances, that it would be easy for him to remove his infantine rival without sacrificing any other life.

So it wasn’t until after he had discovered that the magi had not returned to him that he had to change his actions and seek to put all infants under the age of two. He was pretty damned lucky then to have ‘ascertained this time before he had decided on the plan’. Asking the magi was only relevant if and only if they were not to return to him, if they deceived him. As Strauss points out, his anger shows he was not expecting this but gets away with it because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it! Matthew’s chronology is woeful here and this makes the account even more contrived.

So yet again we have a set of events which seem incredibly unrealistic and unlikely, and which are incredibly artificially manufactured in order to allow for certain other events to unfold. In this way, the magi are nothing more than a literary and theological mechanism employed by the writer with little or no likelihood of being factually true.