I am continuing apace with my latest book. But the more research that I do, the more astounded I am that anyone believes in the historical veracity of the nativity accounts of Jesus' birth.

I am including a section that I am still working on, and which has not been proof read yet, so apologies for any typos. It looks at the early actions of Herod and the notion that the magi are nothing but literary and theological devices:

13 – Herod acts rather naively and the magi as a mechanism for Matthew

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 arises 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was the case, the whole of the history of Judaism would have shifted from that point on; there would have been Jewish historical references to this great event.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 die 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 die 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”. 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 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.

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 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 contrived 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.

It can also be said that the use of the three gifts is itself symbolic and carefully thought out by Matthew. The queen of Sheba, in the Old Testament, paid homage to king Solomon with Sheba being the southern end of the Incense Route and the source of frankincense and myrrh. Gifts good enough for king Solomon are good enough for Jesus, it would seem.

Being from the East, the magi are most likely from the Parthian Empire and thus would most likely be Zoroastrians by religious persuasion. This looks to be a capitulation of Zoroastrianism to the wonder of the Almighty, to Jesus

Richard Carrier, in his essay Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story, shows a motif in Matthew, an attempt to link Jesus with Daniel. Daniel, in the Old Testament, was a very popular figure in early Christian art with which to compare Jesus (see Robin Jensen’s Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature[1]).

Let me set out a little background information about Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel was made “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48) and was a ruler of great integrity. In fact, so much so, that he was a more upright and righteous man than Solomon or David who both disobeyed God. Daniel never disobeyed or argued with God. Daniel named three fellow Babylonians (from the East) as assistant governors. The three wise men of Daniel are thrown into a fire for refusing to worship a massive statue to a Babylonian God. Nebuchadnezzar then says of this, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” In most other translations this reads as “Son of God”. Nebuchadnezzar himself has direct parallels with Herod – both disobey the will of God, both are insecure and forthright, and both order a massacre of sorts (Nebuchadnezzar the wise men and Herod the infants).

There are many parallels between the two accounts. Firstly, Richard Carrier (2006) points out in relating Daniel to Jesus both in birth and death:

The parallels here are far too dense to be accidental: like the women who visit the tomb of Jesus, the king visits the tomb of Daniel at the break of dawn (6:19); the escape of Jesus signified eternal life, and Daniel at the same dramatic moment wished the king with eternal life (6:21; the identical phrase appears in reference to God in 6:26); in both stories, an angel performs the key miracle (Matt. 28:2, Daniel 6:22); after this miracle, the guards become "like dead men," just as Daniel's accusers are thrown to the lions and killed (6:24). Matthew alone among the Gospels ends his story with a commission from Jesus (28:18-20), whose power extends "in heaven and on earth," to "go and make disciples of all nations" and teach them to observe the Lord's commands, for Jesus is with them "always." Curious, then, that the same author who alone creates a parallel with Daniel, is also alone in borrowing language from the same story for this commission: for King Darius, after the rescue of Daniel, sends forth a decree "to all nations" commanding reverence for God, who lives and reigns "always," with power "in heaven and on earth" (Daniel 6:25-28; the Greek phrase is identical in both cases: en ouranôi kai epi tês gês). The stories thus have nearly identical endings.

Which sets the scene for how Matthew borrows from Daniel. Does this necessarily mean that what Matthew writes about is false? No, it doesn’t. It could be that he has a set of historical events which he wants to deliver in a symbolic manner to give it historical gravitas and theological reference. Some apologists call this history “scripturalised” and insist that there is a truth to the claims even if the truth isn’t one of factual events and chronology, but one of theological truth. However, the problem here is that in order to have some kind of symbolic truth to an account, one has to have some nugget, some element, of actual truth to the account upon which to hang the symbolic truth. If we go back to the genealogies of Jesus and agree with Foster that there is some kind of truth to the claim that Jesus was of Davidic heritage, that he was special. If we are to believe that which Matthew or Luke says about the heritage of Jesus, that he is of Davidic lineage, then there must be at least some truth to this. The point is that these two genealogies are the only evidence of this. Thus to insist that he is of Davidic lineage but the only evidence that one provides is as symbolic and not factual begs the entire question as to whether he actually was of Davidic lineage. If there is no nugget of truth underlying the symbolic claims, then the symbolic claims are meaningless.

In the example of the magi and Herod, if the events are supposed to fulfil a theological or symbolic objective, then there must be some truth underlying this to which the symbolism refers. But here it seems that every verse referring to the magi or Herod is fraught with issue. There simply is no truth underlying this potentially symbolic overlay. Therefore, the claim that there is a symbolic truth to these accounts, or some other truth, is simply misplaced. Either there is some truth to Jesus’ heritage, to the magi and Herod interacting over the birth of Jesus, in which case where is it? OR, on the other hand, there simply is no factual truth to the accounts, and we have no basis for any belief that some magi or Herod were involved in with the birth of Jesus.As Hinnells (2010, p. p. 403) says:


This tendency to find in the scripture whatever the community needs for its continuing development is remarkably widespread. This is in effect the purpose of all forms of figurative or non-literal interpretation, namely to enable the community to find there what it must. In many traditions this approach has been taken to considerable lengths, often through elaborate theories of multiple senses of scripture. In Christianity, there were sometimes as many as seven, but most often four: the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogic (or relating to the end times).


None of which helps the case for the factual understanding of the events of the nativity, or in this case the magi and Herod. If it is a non-literal understanding, then it is for the development of the Christian tradition without regard for whether it is true or not. “Whatever the community need” is really what these accounts are about, and not “whatever might be true”.

 With regards to the reflection of Daniel, it could be that God made these events transpire in such a way that one reflected another, but that both were historically veracious. On the other hand, it could just be that Matthew was trying to give the person of Jesus a theological deference and a biography that was not accurate by elevating him above the Old Testament prophets and kings by having him piggy-back on the events of the Old Testament. This reflective symmetry is, in this case, not an accurate account of events, but either an evolution of theology and biography that was originally very different, or an outright falsehood. Thus it is a case of probability. What is the most likely accounting for the fact that there is a much later account of a potentially disputed man-god which entirely reflects an earlier account of a biblical great?

Carrier continues, now referring to the magi:

In both texts (Matthew and the Septuagint text of Daniel) the stories have in their beginning the verb "to seal" (sphragizô), and in their endings the noun "eon" (aiôn, Daniel says "Oh king, live through all ages," Darius decrees "He is the living God through all ages," Jesus says "I am with you through all days until the end of the age"). Furthermore, in earliest Christian art, Daniel was the hero with whom Jesus was most commonly equated (cf. Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the Gods, 1993, pp. 77ff.), and Matthew alone depicts Magi visiting Christ at birth, whereas in the whole of the Old Testament the actual term "Magi" only appears in Daniel--for Daniel was most commonly associated with miracle working in the East. Since Matthew is clearly creating the guard story to create a seal and thus link Jesus with Daniel in death as in birth, the story is even less likely genuine than I grant above... The guard-placing account also involves the Sanhedrin both holding a meeting and placing a seal on a tombstone on the Sabbath, which is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. Thus, Matthew shows them violating the Sabbath to work against the good, after having shown them attacking Jesus for violating the Sabbath to do good (12:1-14). So Matthew may be deliberately crafting a story to create a symbolic contrast, another reason we cannot be sure it is true.

This motif of sealing is the common thread between the two biblical narratives, according to Carrier. The magi both refuse to bend to the will of the insecure ruler and fulfil God’s will.

As a result, I would posit that the magi are indeed a mechanism with which Matthew can bring in Herod in order to satisfy a theological objective of reflecting Moses’ flight from Egypt, as I will later point out. Furthermore, the magi provide another mechanism with which he can compare and liken Jesus to the much favoured Daniel to give Jesus (to a Jewish audience) and lofty position (in other words, better, even, than Daniel). This is prevalent since we also know of his Davidic heritage. In the eyes of the Jews, then, Jesus is the greatest man imaginable. Jesus is, in fact, God.

[1] Who also notes “The magi’s visit to the crib was thus their moment of conversion and the renunciation of their misguided, idolatrous practices. And so Justin reads Matthew’s story as a sign to the world that Christianity was the true and pure faith… This popular interpretation is reflected in art, which often links the three magi with the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and with Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6)—all easterners (Daniel and the Hebrew youths lived in the Persian court) who used their gifts of prophecy, dream interpretation and perhaps even magic to resist the evil of pagan idolatry.”