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Why Does Matthew Have the Story of the “Wise Men”?


My Bible group had a good time yesterday comparing Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Christmas story. One question that came up was why would Matthew relate the story of the Magi?



Ah, it’s a great question and – as it turns out – an important one for understanding the Gospel of Matthew.   The story is found only in this Gospel (But this time of year, who can keep ones mind from jumping to:  “We Three Kings of Orient Are….”), and it is  filled with intriguing conundra.

For example, why would pagan astrologers from the East be interested in knowing where the King of Israel was born and come to worship him?  Were they doing this for all babies who were bound to become kings of foreign countries?  How does a star lead them to Jerusalem and then disappear and then reappear and lead the Magi not just to Bethlehem but stop over a *house*?  How does a star stop over a house?  If Herod really sent out the troops to kill all the boys of Bethlehem, two years and under, why is there no report of this in any historical records (e.g., Josephus)?   If it’s true that Joseph took Mary and Jesus and whisked them away to Egypt (a rather long walk; it’s 460 miles or so from Bethlehem to Cairo) and waited there till Herod’s death before returning (another rather long walk), how can Luke be right that the family stayed in the Bethlehem/Jerusalem area for a bit over a month and then returned directly home to Nazareth up in Galilee?   Etc. etc.

These various points contribute to the common scholarly view that Matthew’s story is almost certainly …

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  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 26, 2019

    I find it interesting that Matthew is “the most Jewish” gospel yet still emphasizes the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. As well as Jews rejecting him while pagans accepted him. That seems like a bit of a contradiction at first. Why emphasize the Jewish if the Jews got it wrong and it later became a religion of the Gentiles? To emphasize that point? Because Matthew still thought Christians should adhere to Jewish customs?

    On a side note, have you come to England for Christmas? Ever thought of doing a blog dinner in the UK? Say London or Cambridge?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Yup, here now. I’m thinking about it — maybe in the summer when I’m back for a longer period.

  2. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  December 26, 2019

    The Three Kings were just a legend? Well, that makes me feel a bit better that I never cracked the nod to be one of them in the Methodist nativity play. Always a sheep, only once a shepherd with that cool ‘crook’. We were told it was to hook a sheep by the head. Or neck. Was it? You had to be wary of what the older boys told you in Sunday School.

  3. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  December 26, 2019

    I tried to figure this out but couldn’t. How long would it have taken to ride a camel to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem? My guess is at least 60 days to get the star signal, figure out what it means, prepare for the trip and then go. I tried to figure out the distances on a map but wasn’t sure where the starting point should be. It may have been quite a long time for the family to live in that stable/cave/structure. Every nativity scene in the world would need to be updated if there was finally a room in the inn.

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 26, 2019

    When Matthew has Jesus accuse his opponents of placing a higher value on their own traditions than the law of God in chapter 15, he says,

    “you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition, For God said honor your father and mother and anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death … thus you nullify the word of God”

    However Mark in ch 7 has ” … Moses said honor your father and mother and anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death … ” but matches on the rest.

    Doesn’t Matthew’s version make more sense in the surrounding context and shouldn’t we think of Mark’s version as trying to separate Jesus from the sanctioning of the death penalty?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      They both are separating Jesus from an endorsement of the death penalty I think.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  December 28, 2019

        They also separate Jesus from what Jews call the Oral Torah, a tradition then in its developmental stages, by which the rulings of the rabbis were considered a continuing revelation similar to what was given to Moses on Sinai. This is how we got from “thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” to “no cheese on your hamburger.” Of course, Jesus himself engaged in this very tradition in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: “You have heard it said thou shalt not commit adultery…. but I say [paraphrasing] thou shalt not undress a woman with your eyes…..” etc

      • Avatar
        Riad Multoni  December 28, 2019

        they both are having jesus nullify the commandment of god?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 29, 2019

          That’s always the big debate, whether Jesus literally undermined the law when he was working out its deeper intention. (E.g., when the law says and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and Jesus says NO! — does that mean he’s against the law? Or does it mean he has seen what the real point was and insisted that *it* be followed?)

          • Avatar
            cristianp  December 30, 2019

            I think that, in some way, this question can be answered better if one considers the theological aspect that “Jesus does not annul the law of Moses, but perfects it”

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  December 29, 2019

        I dont think Matthew is – he has Jesus say “*God* said … Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.”

        The point of the story, whether Mark or Matthew wrote first, is the pharisees putting human commands ahead of gods word – (given they both quote Isaiah “in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines”) – but this gets completely negated if you have “*Moses* said … ” Human tradition would here just be compared to human commands.

        Also Mark moves the Isaiah quote to be before his Moses quote – this leads to the pointless repetition of Mark 7:8 and Mark 7:9

        “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. Then he said to them, You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”

        Isn’t it certain that Mark 7:8,9 has come about by the stitching together of two sections of text from a more original version? ie Matthew’s.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2019

          It’s not only not certain, it’s definitely not what most scholars of Matthew and Mark think! (As you know!)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  December 30, 2019

            Yes sorry I was being a bit hyperbolic!

            But isnt the pointless repetition of Mark 7:8,9 exactly the kind of tell tale sign of editing that we should be looking for?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 2, 2020

            Sorry — got lost in the thread. YOu’ll need to expand the question a bit.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 3, 2020

            Just the repetition of Mark 7:8,9

            “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. Then he said to them, You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”

            Strange for an original writer to have this. 7:8 belongs to whats above it Isaiah quote) and 7:9 to whats below /(Moses quote).

            Matthew has these same two sections in reverse order so we don’t get these two lines right on top of each other.

            Isnt this best understood as a secondary writer making edits (reversing the Isaiah and Moses quotes order) and ending up with this unnecessary repetition of Mark 7:8,9?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 4, 2020

            It’s usually believed that editors correct problems rather than create them.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 5, 2020

            But that’s not the case with editorial fatigue.

            If Matthew had wanted to correct Mark he could have just removed one of the repetitive lines. It would be remarkable if by simply reordering Marks paragraphs Matthew could correct the error and create a better writing style.

            Better instead to think of it as Mark reordering Matthew and creating an error in style.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2020

            I know you keep pushing the point. What from teh other perspective have you read?

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 5, 2020

            That Mark’s wording usually matches Matthew against Luke, or matches Luke against Matthew, but rarely do Luke and Matthew match against Luke. Same for ordering.
            That Mark has a cruder form a greek that appears to get improved by Matthew/Luke.
            That Mark is shorter than the other two – why would Mark leave out the nativities and sermon on the mount.
            That almost all of Mark is contained in Matthew – easy to see why Matthew would write given Mark but difficult to see why Mark would write given Matthew.
            That Mark often has a harsher reading – eg “Jesus couldn’t do miracles” vs “Jesus didnt do … ” in Matthew. Holy spirit “drove” Jesus in desert – etc
            That Mark preserves the majority of Aramaic words.
            That Mark has a more primitive christology.
            That there are examples of editorial fatigue in Matthew suggesting editing of Mark.
            That the assumption of Markan priority in redaction criticism is seen to be fruitful.
            Streeters chapter on markan priority and the section on Mark in horae synopticae.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 6, 2020

            Yes, I would say most of those are not the strong arguments, and are fairly easily countered. The argument from order, though, cannot be easily discounted. I’d suggest you read some of the more recent work.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  January 6, 2020

            Ok thanks

  5. Avatar
    godspell  December 26, 2019

    This doesn’t really explain where Matthew got the story from, though, since he clearly didn’t get it from memories of real events, and the other gospels don’t have it, meaning that it was not a widely known or accepted story about Jesus.

    I’ve read speculation that the story of the Wise Men originated with Zoroastrian converts to Christianity. Do you have an opinion as to its provenance? Could Matthew have been adapting a story told in a different context?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      I’m sure he got it from *somewhere* (unless he made it up); but I don’t think there were any Zoroastrian converts in this early period, before Matthew was writing.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 28, 2019

        I kind of suspected that. A lot of the time, stories resemble other stories for reasons that have nothing to do with cultural cross-pollination.

  6. Avatar
    Hume  December 26, 2019

    Would you say, Christmas was placed on Dec. 25th by *church fathers* because:

    1. It was the day after or on Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. And also, after Saturnalia.
    2. It was 9 months after the Annuciation.
    3. Some other reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      1/3 We’re not sure. 2. The Annunciation was dated on the basis of Christmas, I believe, not the other way around.

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  December 28, 2019

        Does Roman veneration of Sol Invictus go back that far? I thought it started in the 3rd century with Elagabulus.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 29, 2019

          It’s a great point — I’m not sure just now. Sol was worshiped for a long time by then, and “invictus” (= unconquered) was attributed to several deities, somewhat before Elagabulus to Sol. But I don’t really have a firm sense of the chronology.

  7. Avatar
    Hume  December 26, 2019

    Why is the Annuciation on March 25th? It seems a little Spring Equinoxy/New Springy/Pagany to me.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  December 26, 2019

    The traditional view is that Matthew is the most “Jewish” of the gospels yet in the past you’ve hinted at the possibility that the author was a gentile. Is this motif of the righteous pagans one of the reasons?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Yes, it’s one of them. And the great commission of 28:19-20. And other factors I mentoin in my textbook on the NT.

  9. Avatar
    Camtimothy  December 26, 2019

    Also, side effect of inflating the importance of Israel on the world stage!

  10. Telling
    Telling  December 26, 2019

    In the story of Buddha, at the moment he finds enlightenment the “demons of desire” arise to stop him from succeeding, for they know that by his presence their days are numbered. Similar stories are found in other religions, the giver of truth and knowledge must be stopped. There is truth in such stories: those who have gained great reputation and riches have most to lose (or seem to) when the knowledge of the ages is revealed to the common people. It is an idea that recirculates from lost generations to ours.

    As for the wise men from the East, such stories, too, are prevalent in the other religions, for such knowledge comes into the physical world from the inner senses and will be known to those (spirits, angels) who inhabit these inner worlds inside the sphere of our “physical” reality, and by way of the inner senses the information will manifest. In such case there is no one country or society, for wisdom belongs to all sentient entities and transcends countries and other artificial boundaries. The “awakened one” is born for all beings, human and animal, spirit and man, formless and in form.

  11. Avatar
    fishician  December 26, 2019

    The various parts of Matthew’s nativity narrative make sense if you understand his motive, but a lot of loose ends! Like, the problem with the star that you mentioned. And Herod is said to have been a shrewd and ruthless politician: why would he trust these foreigners to come back and report to him, when all he had to do was send one soldier along with them to kill the child once they found him? The so-called Slaughter of the Innocents is another opportunity to quote a “Messianic” passage (taken wildly out of context) and portray Herod, representing the political side of the Jews, as a monster. Of course, I try not to think too hard like this when I’m watching a Christmas pageant or looking at a pretty Christmas card.

    • Telling
      Telling  December 28, 2019

      Historians who research across religions and ancient societies find similarities in these various stories. The King killing all the firstborn first appeared in another separate religion (I forget which one, I would have to research), as do virgin births, Crucifixions, floods, and such. Metaphysically, these stories are ingrained in the human psyche even before our world was formed, and so they quickly become popular because of the familiarity. Bart may have a book on this, I’m not sure.

      The stories, although usually myth, offer simple child-like explanations for difficult to understand concepts. Such as, Jesus rising from the dead pictorially demonstrates that man need not die at death. He doesn’t die, actually, but having no framework to continue a life, and without mental discipline necessary for sustaining a living space, he must take on a new life, a new birth, losing former memories (or appearing to) when beginning the new incarnation.

      But the Crucifixion story offers him hope. Unfortunately, the concept is greatly distorted in our time and there is little gain in believing the fairytale. Yet, the fairy tale is superior to nothing at all. An atheist will be quite surprised and perhaps terrified upon learning his existence continues on after death, whereas the Christian will find a positive uplifting model: Christ gave him life.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 28, 2019

      Herod the Great was dead long before Jesus’ ministry began, so he needn’t have worried. Even at the time Matthew was writing, the Herodian dynasty was finished in Palestine, for reasons that had nothing to do with Jesus or the Kingdom. The entire line died out everywhere before 100 CE.

      Matthew’s point, of course, is that Herod misunderstands. He thinks it’s his kingship that’s being threatened, when it’s all earthly kingdoms and empires that will disappear when the Son of Man comes. This is a good thematic echo of Pilate’s later incomprehension. (Though Pilate comes off quite a bit better in Matthew’s gospel–he tries to heed his wife’s prophetic dream to have no part in Jesus’ death.)

      But in reality, Herod would have probably ignored the prophecy. It’s the child of two insignificant Galileans (meaning it can’t be the Messiah, assuming he believed in that). He has other things to worry about. And he probably knew enough about astronomy to understand a star can’t point to a specific spot on earth.

  12. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  December 26, 2019

    The reason the Chief Priest would not go to see the baby is because at this time Mary would be considered unclean. New mother’s could not bring their infants to the Temple for anointing until this period of uncleaness had passed. Simeon was the first to see him at the Temple and this would have been a few weeks after the birth. We know the Magi haven’t arrived yet for it would have been to dangerous to bring the infant to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Magi would arrive when Mary and Joseph had returned to a house in Bethlehem not to the stable.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 26, 2019

    For those new to the blog, Dr. Ehrman’s textbook on the “New Testament” is really great both in format and content.

  14. Avatar
    veritas  December 26, 2019

    Please give me some understanding, Bart. When you use the term Scripture, are you meaning a writing from the Bible (O.T. ) ? It is odd that these wise men did not know where this new King would be born and yet the gentiles did. Do you think that the Jewish and other leaders did not go to the birth because they did not believe this child was the new Messiah?

    • Avatar
      veritas  December 26, 2019

      Just an afterthought. I reread the account in Matthew. I use the NIV version. You mention Cairo being some 460 miles away from Bethlehem. The account says they fled to Egypt as you mention, but in the footnotes it states they probably went to the Egyptian border which is about 75 miles away from Bethlehem and it was beyond the area controlled/ruled by Herod. Can you clarify? I’m thinking like you ask of us. Thanks.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 28, 2019

        Ha! That’s funny. Yes, they are trying to make sense of a passage that literally has trouble making sense. But the entire point of Matthew’s story is to show that Jesus is like Moses, who led the children out of Egypt at the Exodus (and thus the explicit quotation: “Out of Egypt I have led my son”). Moses led the people out from the place of pyramids, not the southern border of Israel!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Scripture in this context refers to the Hebrew Bible, what Christians later called the Old Testament. I don’t understand your second sentence; the wise men were themselves gentiles. And yes, *Matthew’s* fiew is that they did not believe Jesus could be the messiah. (I’m not saying this is a historical account that really happened and that there was a real reason Jewish leaders didn’t go worship him.)

  15. Avatar
    RGM-ills  December 26, 2019

    It is a great question. It is an important one. One that I don’t believe you answered. You do not seem to have any doubts in the historical Jesus. Do you believe in the historical Magi?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      No, it’ is clearly a legend. Precisely the evidence that shows Jesus certainly existed is completely lacking when it comes to the magi. Plus every ounce of plausibility.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  December 26, 2019

    Interesting article in the current online Smithsonian magazine about a discovery of evidence (a Church) that Christianity had reached Ethiopia as early as the Fourth Century-


  17. Avatar
    forthfading  December 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In response to your comments that we have no historical account of Herod killing children outside the story in Matthew, if Herod really did commit that atrocity ( and l am not saying it did) would historians really be surprised that it was not recorded? There was no “breaking news” nor the almost universal view that kids are sacred 2000 years ago. Plus, based off my limited knowledge of Herod it seems that would just be business as usual for him.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Yes, I think they would. Lots of his other atrocities are recorded, including his execution of his own son.

  18. fefferdan
    fefferdan  December 27, 2019

    It’s a paradox that I find myself searching for plausible historical explanations for the “facts” in Matthew’s birth narrative, when I agree with Bart that the story is probably legendary. But along those lines I’d like to suggest a couple of ideas. First, I don’t think the Holy Family would have had to walk or caravan to Egypt. The easiest route would be by sea, with money for the voyage and start expenses in their new city paid easily by the Magi’s gold. And the most likely destination would be Alexandria, a city in which there were reportedly as many Jews as in Jerusalem. But either way, how do we reconcile this account, in which the family doesn’t get to Nazareth for at least two years, with the one in Luke, when they return there after 40 days? Not to mention that in Matthew, it’s quite clear that they have never even been to Nazareth until after they return from Egypt.

    A final footnote: although there is no mention of the slaughter of the innocents in any account outside of Matthew’s, it certainly fits with the historical character of Herod I. According to Josephus, he killed several members of his own family – including a wife and a son — when he thought they threatened his throne. Murdering a few baby boys in Bethlehem because one of them might be a divinely endorsed candidate for King of the Jews fits quite well with his character. Would it merit a mention by Josephus? Not if the victims had no political significance, as other groups did which felt Herod’s wrath.

    Personally I wonder if the Magi [if they existed] ever made it back to their places of origin. Did Herod dispatch troops to intercept them once he learned they had broken their promise to act as his spies? Were they in fact the first martyrs for Jesus?

  19. Avatar
    John  December 27, 2019

    “We find this particular Matthean theme played out not only in stories that Matthew has added to his Markan framework but also in the changes that he has made to stories he inherited from Mark.”

    So do you think that the stories Matthew added came from his own pen or might they have derived form stories circulating either orally or in writing?

    Is there any evidence for either or both?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      No evidence, but I suspect it’s an account that he heard and modified for his own purposes.

  20. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  December 27, 2019

    Here’s what I don’t get, how did these people communicate? Did Herod speak Aramaic? I’m pretty sure Jesus and his followers couldn’t speak Greek and how did the gospel writers account for the Wise Men from the East (whatever language they spoke) being able to communicate? Even if the stories are fiction how did people communicate in the first century? Did they have translators?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      I guess the had to use translators! But yes, I believe Herod did speak Aramaic; he certainly could speak Greek as well. Jesus nad his followrs almost certainly did not.

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