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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
    JBarruso  December 27, 2019

    Very good! Extremely insightful and makes a great deal of sense once we view it through the author’s theme and the message he is presenting (rather than seeing it as a historical account). But please forgive me for a question unrelated to your post here. I’ve recently finished reading Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities (I’m currently reading Did Jesus Exist? – all of it is wonderful stuff!) and the foremost question in my mind is how is it possible for a semiliterate peasant to come to the knowledge he needs for the unique and radical messages he presents? As well as his apparent understanding of scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Yes, it’s hard to imagine in our day of almost universal literacy. But before the Industrial Revolution, it didn’t exist. There were lots of people in antiquity with great wisdom who never wrote anything. My guess is that Jesus absorbed knowledge like lots of other bright people, based on what he heard read and discussed.

      • Avatar
        SeptimusHM  December 29, 2019

        Do you think Jesus could read? If so, was he reading Hebrew, Aramaic, or both? I know he at least spoke Aramaic. Also, what was he reading? I’m assuming he was reading the Hebrew scriptures (if he could read Hebrew) but did he read other stuff besides scriptures?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 29, 2019

          I suspect he could read, but I don’t think we really know. Only one passage of the NT mentions him reading (Luke 4, in the synagogue). If he could read, it would have been the Hebrew Scriptures, and probably them alone.

          • Avatar
            Phillipos98  January 2, 2020

            Forgive me if I’m wrong Dr. Ehrman but I seem to recall that you’ve written somewhere earlier that you thought Jesus was illiterate. Have you changed your mind on that?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 4, 2020

            By literate I mean “able to read.” I’ve always thought that — though now I do wonder; but for many years I’ve thought that he was never taught how to compose a writing.

  2. Avatar
    Damian King  December 27, 2019

    Hey Bart, I had a question. Gospels describe miraculous events of Jesus. do you think that the gospel writers themselves believed that many of these miracles actually happened? Like, when Mark describes Jesus healing a demoniac, did Mark believe that he was describing actual history?

    Now, I am also interested in your opinion on whether these miracles have historical foundations? I understand you personally do not believe that miracles happen, but do you believe that Jesus himself was exorcising, actually met a demoniac in the Gadarenes? Actually met a leper?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Yes, I think they really believed they happened, as most of hteir readers have believed over the centuries. I don’t know what historical basis there might have been for the miracles of Jesus, or even if the stories were already being told during his lifetime.

  3. Avatar
    Anticonflationist  December 27, 2019

    Dr ehrman. Thanks for the many informative posts.
    Ive expanded my understanding of christian literature
    And history immensely. Where might one obtain a copy of your textbook.
    The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the
    Early Christian Writings.
    I want to add it to my library for the coming year.

  4. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  December 27, 2019

    Why does Matthew have a mass jewish resurrection scene in it’s passion narrative and why is this never talked about in church? 😄

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      I think it is to show that Jesus’ death had cosmic effects; it’s never talked about because most people appear to think it is too weird.

  5. Avatar
    Riad Multoni  December 28, 2019

    you said,
    “The Jewish leaders know perfectly well where the messiah is to be born: Bethlehem of Judea. They can even quote the Scriptures in support and do so before Herod, who informs the wise men.”

    luke says that the family went to visit jerusalem every year and when jesus turned 11, “they went up as usual”

    we are to understand that the family were going to the festival every year and at the same time the jewish leaders knew perfectly well where the messiah is to be born?

    if we are to assume that the magi reach jesus when jesus was two years and the family in the two year period is doing yearly visits to jerusalem, how is it possible that the jewish leaders did not plan execution of the child?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2019

      The problem is that Matthew has one of these passages and Luke has the other. It’s only if you conflate them into one big account that there is a problem. For neither Matthew nor Luke themselves is there a problem. (Even so, nowhere does Luke say that hte Jewish leaders wanted to execute Jesus as an infant; that was just Herod)

  6. fefferdan
    fefferdan  December 28, 2019

    Regarding the “righteous gentile” idea, I stumbled on this the other day, giving a related interpretation. Namely, it says that the story of the Magi was used by Matthew as a parallel to the story of Balaam [Numbers 22-24]. He was the pagan prophet hired by the King of Moab to curse the Israelites, but who ended up blessing them. The author also points out that Philo refers to Balaam as a “magos.” His character is ambiguous in rabbinical tradition, and I don’t know whether Matthew was thinking of Balaam here. But I do see a parallel between Herod and the King of Moab in terms how they intended to use the magi and Balaam respectively.

    The only other magus in the NT was Luke’s character, known to us as Simon Magus, in Acts. He’s not a good guy, which raises the question as to how Matthew’s readers might have seen our magi at first glance. The term is usually associated with magic [same root word] and sorcery, not miracles approved by God.

    BTW, I learned just last week that the tradition that these magicians were “kings” probably comes from an interpretation of Psalm 72.10 “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” This may also be where we get the number three, which is not mentioned in the text [another revelation!]

    • Avatar
      Baligomingo  February 3, 2020

      Actually you raise a good point I haven’t seen in this thread. The Star in the Bethlehem story is most certainly the star from the Balaam prophecy that a ruler would come out of Jacob – made literal. It was a common Messianic text in the first century, apparently, and so in Matthew is another connection to Jesus as Messiah, along with the Bethlehem (Davidic) birth and maybe even the Nazareth “home” (the root being very close to the root for “branch” – another messianic symbol. Matthew wants us to definitely get that this is the One the Jews were waiting for.

  7. Avatar
    Hogie2  December 28, 2019

    If only that star had skipped going to Jerusalem first, and went directly to the house in Bethlehem, like it ended up doing anyway, this whole messy business of a slaughter of babies could have been avoided.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2019

      Yeah, I know. But Matthew needs the slaughter so Jesus can fulfil Scripture (“weeping in Ramah… etc.)

  8. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  December 29, 2019

    Does the story of King Herod killing all the babies have a name in scholarly circles? Do you ever call it the “Massacre of the Innocents”?

  9. Avatar
    guslott  December 30, 2019

    There is a neat apocryphal document from c200 that is an extended story of the Magi reaching all the way back to the Garden of Eden. It’s about as long as Matthew’s gospel itself. Translated from syriac for a dissertation at Harvard 10 years ago:

    It’s a neat read. No mention of Jesus by name, and it puts the star of bethlehem over the tree of life in eden. Not sure if this is made from other stories at the time of Matthew’s gospel, or if it was completely invented, but it’s quite universalist and pluralist.

  10. Avatar
    hankgillette  December 30, 2019

    Back when I was a child, I assumed that the star appeared to the Magi two years before the birth of Jesus, thus allowing them to show up in time to make an appearance in the nativity scene at the stable. Of course, that required Matthew not knowing the difference between a house and a stable, but there may not have been that big a difference back in those days.

    Herod must have considered this possibility, since Matthew says Herod had male children two years and under in and around Bethlehem killed, not just boys two years of age.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      It actually doesn’t say stable! But yes, Herod is calculating that the boy may be as old as two.

      • Avatar
        hankgillette  January 2, 2020

        You are right, of course. Even Luke does not say stable; he only says that Jesus was laid in a manger (but where else would a manger be?). Almost all of the popular nativity scene is interpolated from the manger.

        From Matthew’s account only, one could assume that he was born in the house where Joseph and Mary were living.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 4, 2020

          The old tradition is that the manger was in a cave. (!)

  11. Avatar
    Rpkruger  December 30, 2019

    I understand Micah 5:1 to mean that the messiah would be descended from David, who came from Bethlehem, not that the messiah would necessarily be born in Bethlehem himself. Mathew and Luke took this verse too literally and so felt the need to come up with stories to explain how someone from the Galilee came to be born in Bethlehem. Is that your understanding, as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      Actually I never thought of that. I thought Micah 5:2 meant that a new David literally from Bethlehem would come.

  12. Avatar
    NTDeist  December 31, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I’d like to know what you think of this. I believe the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew was a counter to the historical visit of Tiridates I, king of Armenia, who came to Rome to pay homage to Caesar Nero in 66CE. Tiridates brought with him gifts for Nero and he brought Parthian court astrologers (Magi) which apparently were popular with the Romans. The author of Matthew, who wrote his Gospel years after the Tiridates visit, adds the visit by the Magi in his birth story of Jesus to show that Jesus (as a King) is also worthy of a Magi visit just like the Caesar. This style is much like the comparison between Jesus’ birth and Moses’ birth in the rest of Matthew’s birth story. The whole message in the birth story found in the Gospel of Matthew is a parable to show that Jesus was superior to Moses and the Caesar.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      My view is that it is events *like* this that inspired the story, but that there’s no one event in particular that is being alluded to (since usually the differences are as striking as teh similiarities in direct comparison, one account from the other)

  13. Avatar
    Cwa83  January 27, 2020

    In Matthew, the gentiles are viewed as being the ones who understood who Jesus was better even than the Jews. It sounds, superficially, at least, like it may have been influenced by Paul, or Paul’s subsidiaries. Does Matthew show evedence of having been written by someone who might have been familiar with Paul’s letters? I’m thinking, specifically of Corinthians.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2020

      My sense is that this was a widely held view among followers of Jesus as soon as they came to be rejected by other Jews — it wasn’t just an idea in Paul’s churches. And once gentiles started joining it became an increasing phenomenon.

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