Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Does The Behavior Of The People In Matthew 2 Make Sense?

Jonathan Pearce has been writing some posts lately about how the individuals mentioned in Matthew 2 wouldn't have behaved the way Matthew describes (see here, here, and the comments section of the thread here). Below are some of my comments on the subject, taken from my review of Pearce's book on the infancy narratives and what I've written elsewhere:

Pearce makes much of the alleged irrational behavior of Herod, the magi, and other figures in Matthew 2. He makes too many unreasonable claims for me to address all of them here. I'll just cite several examples. He asks why Herod would be so concerned about a child who probably wouldn't grow up to become king until after Herod was dead (142). But the attention the child was already receiving from the magi was a present threat and offense to Herod, even if the child wouldn't become king until significantly later. Pearce comments that Herod's inquiry about the timing of the star in Matthew 2:7 is "relevant if and only if they [the magi] were not to return to him [Herod]…As Strauss points out, his [Herod's] anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it!" (108) But Herod could have had any of multiple reasons for asking what he did in Matthew 2:7. Even if he considered it probable that he would successfully manipulate the magi, he could still desire to have another plan to fall back on if needed. And asking when the star appeared would be a highly natural response to the context of Matthew 2:7, since the timing of the star would be relevant to so many issues (curiosity about such an unusual phenomenon, why Herod hadn't heard any previous reports of the star, the degree to which the child was a threat relative to his age, etc.). The idea that Herod would only be concerned about the timing of the star when he had been betrayed by the magi is ridiculous. Similarly ridiculous are Pearce's assumption that the people of Jerusalem "knew of the birth of the Messiah" just because they were troubled at what some magi were claiming (105), his assumption that sending assassins with the magi (107) wouldn't produce too much of a risk of raising the magi's and the Bethlehemites' suspicions, his assumption that Herod would be able to discern how many assassins were needed to overpower any resistance by the magi and an unpredictable number of people in Bethlehem, etc. Remember, the magi were claiming to have been supernaturally led to Israel. They professed to have guidance that Herod's inner circle didn't have. If Herod thought he was dependent on the magi for confirmation that the child was in Bethlehem and which child was the one, and he thought it likely that he could manipulate the magi, then proceeding as he did prior to Matthew 2:16 would be an efficient way of finding and executing the child. As far as Herod acted irrationally, he also acted irrationally on other occasions that Pearce accepts as historically credible (129-130). In fact, on the pages just cited, Pearce suggests that those previous actions of Herod may have inspired Matthew's account. If the previous actions could so plausibly inspire Matthew's narrative, then why should we think Matthew's account is inconsistent with how Herod would have behaved? And Herod wouldn't be the only historical figure to have chosen the second, third, or worse option available to him rather than a better alternative. People often make bad decisions, for a variety of reasons, especially when they're as mentally unstable as Herod, acting under such unexpected circumstances, with a sense of urgency, etc....

What about Herod and the Jerusalemites in Matthew 2:3? [Raymond] Brown misrepresents the passage when he claims that they "knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem". Most likely, Matthew 2:3 refers to Herod and the Jerusalemites as "troubled" because of the political ramifications involved, not because they were convinced that the Messiah had been born. Herod didn't want a rival. And the people of Jerusalem didn't want Herod overreacting to a perceived threat. He didn't handle that sort of thing well. He had a bad track record, and the people of Jerusalem knew it. If they were reacting to a perceived birth of the Messiah, they might have been curious, amazed, or joyful, for example, but probably wouldn't have been troubled. They probably weren't reacting to what they thought was the birth of the Messiah. Rather, they were reacting to what might go wrong in Herod's response to the magi. Other reasons to reach that conclusion are the nature of the magi and the common Messianic expectations of the day. Jerusalemites at that time weren't expecting to have to be informed about the Messiah's birth by some Gentiles, much less Gentile magi. And they weren't expecting a birth star. To make matters worse, why hadn't they noticed the star and/or its implications? Why would Gentile magi have to inform them? The notion of learning of the Messiah's birth by such means probably would have been offensive, not something that by itself would have led the Jerusalemites to believe that the Messiah had been born.

Pearce approvingly quoted a commenter at his blog:

If they were really that troubled about it, a pretty big chunk of the population of the city would have followed the wise men down the road to Bethlehem to see their infant king! They would have seen the star. The lineup to the house/manger/inn would have been miles long. If Bethlehem is 6 miles or so from Jerusalem, it would have been a round trip done in a day, except of course for the time spent in the line of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands lined up to see the infant. Then, they would have over thrown Herod if he actually tried to kill the infants under two.

How does the term "troubled" in Matthew 2:3 suggest the sort of devotion to the child the commenter refers to? It doesn't. To the contrary, it's doubtful that all of Jerusalem believed that the Messiah had been born, for reasons I've explained above. Rather, all of Jerusalem was troubled by the potential reaction of Herod (and perhaps the later reaction of the Romans). It's perverse to criticize Matthew for not depicting the Jerusalemites as acting in accordance with their devotion to Jesus when Matthew never suggested that they were devoted to begin with.

The discussions among Herod, the religious leaders, and the magi wouldn't have been witnessed by all of Jerusalem. Matthew doesn't tell us how much the people of the city knew about what was going on. Some of what happened was of a highly private nature (2:7-8).

If the people of Jerusalem didn't think the Messiah had actually been born, and they were troubled by Herod's potential reaction to what was happening, why would they follow the magi to Bethlehem? That would make a bad situation worse. What would Herod think of people who were so interested in the newborn child that they wanted to follow the magi? And how would the Jerusalemites know that the magi were going to Bethlehem? If they knew what the magi had been saying in 2:2, it doesn't follow that they were aware of the later developments that led the magi to try to find the child in Bethlehem instead. Unless people knew what the magi had been discussing with Herod, they'd probably assume that whatever child the magi were looking for was in Jerusalem if the child even existed, since that's where the magi first went and asked about the child. Why would the Jerusalemites conclude that the magi were leaving to go to another city to find the child?

The commenter at Pearce's blog goes on to refer to "a big star that would have been visible to all resting over a house". The star seems to have been an object relatively close to the earth's surface, which appeared and disappeared, and was primarily intended to guide the magi, not to be visible or seen by "all". I've written about the nature of the star here.

I've linked my Triablogue review of Pearce's book above. If anybody is interested, I've also posted a shorter review at Amazon. And I've provided some arguments for the historicity of Matthew 2 in my review of Aaron Adair's book on the star of Bethlehem. My much shorter Amazon review of Adair's book is here. I've also written an article on the historicity of the Slaughter of the Innocents.


  1. Hi Jason

    I have responded here:

    Sorry it's taken me over a year!


    (my previous comment seems not to have gone through)

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for letting me know. I've replied again here.