Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Herod and the magi

Jason Engwer has been responding to Jonathan Pearce's attacks on Matthew's nativity account. I notice that Pearce is very repetitive. He recites his talking-points, paraphrasing the same stump speech without advancing the argument. With that in mind, I'll comment on a representative example of how he proceeds:

To set the scene, Herod has been visited by the Magi who inadvertently get lost following a supernatural star (which God is in control of, so this seems by design) and end up in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. Remember, these are some wise Zoroastrian astrologer/astronomers (probably) who have come together and followed a star that no one else in the known world appears to have seen, thinking it will lead them to something special. What a huge risk!

i) There's no textual evidence that they were following the star at this stage. There's no textual evidence that the star was visible during their journey. To the contrary, the text indicates that the star was only intermittently visible. 

As far as the text goes, the star may have initially appeared for just a few days or less, around the time of Christ's birth. It may have appeared in the direction of Palestine, from their original location. It didn't point to Bethlehem. 

The function of the star at this juncture wasn't to continuously guide them from their country of origin to Bethlehem or even Palestine. Rather, the star had an emblematic significance for them, indicating the birth of a Jewish king. And it gave them a compass point (as it were). Head in that general vicinity. 

ii) Going to Jerusalem isn't just a detour. In the implicit theology of the narrative, the magi bear witness to the Jewish establishment. Their presence signals the birth of the Messiah. That puts the Jewish establishment on notice. 

iii) I don't know why he identifies the magi as Zoroastrians. 

iv) Others may have seen the star, but without a frame of reference, it held no particular significance for them. Unless you know what it signifies, seeing the star doesn't lead to a plan of action. 

v) Matthew doesn't bother to explain how they were able to interpret the star. If they were from Babylon, there was a major Jewish community in Babylon–a holdover from the Babylonian Exile. They might have gotten some information from that source.

Or, even if they weren't from Babylon, given the role of angels in the nativity account, an angelic apparition might have clued them in.

They end up wandering around Jerusalem, where word of their search gets to the king. Herod finds out that they speak of a prophecy which neither himself, his scribes, or anyone else in Jerusalem appear to have the first clue about. Apparently, it speaks of the Messiah being born in nearby Bethlehem. Who knew?!

i) What is even Pearce talking about? There's nothing in the text to indicate that the magi spoke of a prophecy about the Messiah's birth in Bethlehem. To the contrary, that's supplied by Herod's theological consultants. 

ii) Moreover, as an impious halfbreed Jew, there's no reason to think Herod was deeply versed in the OT Scriptures. 

Littered with these issues, the somewhat trusting (out of character) Herod lets the Magi go and assumes they will report back to him. 

i) Matthew doesn't present Herod as trusting, but devious. Herod is used to manipulating people. He doesn't expect the magi to double-cross him. He's the kind of man who prides himself on outsmarting his enemies. He lives by his wits, and that's served him well over the years. He was very cunning. A political survivor in a cutthroat world. 

It's the magi who are trusting. Unsuspecting. They intend to report back to him. It's the angel who warns them. Not something Herod could anticipate. So Herod's behavior is perfectly in character.

ii) But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it's out of character. So what? In the Bible, God sometimes messes with the minds of wicked kings. God makes them do rash, foolish things. Matthew's God isn't going to let Herod murder the Messiah–who happens to be his Son, no less! 

As I have pointed out, Herod is not likely to have troubled himself with the newborn since at the time he was very ill, very old (in his 70s), suicidal and we know he did not care for the future of his kingdom, leaving it not explicitly to any particular son, with no vision of what it should become. In this light, is he likely to care a fig about a child whose challenge will not come to fruition for another 20-30 years, if at all?

That's not what our extrabiblical sources tell us. To the contrary, they say that as he grew older, he become fanatically possessive and paranoid about his hold on power. 

Is it more probable, then, that the Matthean account of Herod did not happen? That the Magi were a literary and theological mechanism, a device for getting Herod involved to play the Pharaoh in a midrashic retelling of the crucial Old Testament story of Moses? That the firstborns dying is repeated in the Massacre of the Innocents at the hands of Herod, which leads Joseph and family to flee to Egypt only to “come out of Egypt” (“fulfilling” a prophecy in the meantime) like Moses to create a new kingdom of God? To believe this actually happened as reported by Matthew, to me, beggars belief.

i) The firstborn males aren't singled out in the Massacre of the Innocents. Moreover, the males are targeted because the Messiah is male. 

ii) Critics are conflicted on this point. On the one hand they claim that Matthew began with his OT prooftexts, then invented stories to illustrate his prooftexts. On the other hand, they claim that the prooftexts don't match the stories.  

One would certainly have good right to think that this is bizarre and that Herod would more likely accompany them or send troops with them to find the Messiah at risk of death, and kill him there and then.
This, of course, assumes that the Magi were real, which, as I point out in my book (and it is worth reading Adair’s superb The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). But Jason does have something of a point. However, Herod’s affront at the time would lead him, surely, to accompany the Magi by force. This would mean that there was no margin for error. On pain of death, those Magi would have led him to the baby. 

That's a fallacious inference. The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn't imply that he was still residing there by the time the magi arrived on the scene. That's simply his last known address. Neither Herod nor the magi know in advance if Jesus is still there. 

So it would make sense for Herod to let the Magi scout out Bethlehem to confirm his whereabouts. That's the logical place to start. If he had moved, they could query the neighbors. 

Moreover, the Star reappeared, so it would have been trivially easy to go there independently of the Magi. In fact, unless God only magically made the star visible to the Magi, the whole of Jerusalem could have gone to see the newborn Messiah; the entity they had surely been waiting to see for quite some time.

i) The star reappeared for the magi's benefit, not for Herod's henchmen. Why assume the star would compliantly light the way of assassins? It doesn't act like a natural object. It's very discriminating. 

ii) In order for the star to be visible to everyone, it would need to be high in the sky. If, however, it was high in the sky, it wouldn't point to Bethlehem in particular. And to position itself right over the house of Mary and Joseph, it has to be very low in the sky. And not on the horizon, but very localized. yet in that event, it's visibility is obscured by hills and trees. You can't see it by looking up. Rather, you can only see it by looking in the right direction. 

iii) It doesn't occur to Pearce that "all Jerusalem" is hyperbolic. In context, Matthew is probably referring to the religious establishment. 

iv) As the text says, Herod conducted his investigation in secret. It was very compartmentalized. He asked his theological consultants where the Messiah was to be born, and he asked the magi when the Messiah was born (assuming the appearance of the star coincided with the birth of Christ). However, he kept his theological consultants in the dark regarding the timing. Moreover, the general public wasn't privy to what either group told Herod behind closed doors. Only Herod and the magi know both the when and where. 

At best, it takes two coordinates to locate Jesus: time (his birthdate) and space (his birthplace). Even that's fairly roughhewn–which is why Herod allows himself a generous margin of error (boys two years old and under) to make sure he doesn't miss the target. 

v) What does Matthew intend the reader to visualize? What if it's more like ball lightning? It stays ahead of the magi, at about eye-level or a little higher. It illuminates the dark road. It leads them to Bethlehem, then singles out the house of Joseph and Mary. 

I'm not saying it is ball lightening. I think it's likely the Shekinah. My point is simply to consider what the reader is supposed to imagine. 

This concerns the idea that Herod, whilst talking to the Magi, was fortuitous enough to gain the exact information of where the star was at the time, etc etc... 

How's that "fortuitous"? He's posing specific questions to pinpoint the time. And they'd be in a position to know when they first saw the star. 

…so that, when the Magi failed to return, he was amazingly able to triangulate the position and age of the child and go about killing babies unbeknownst to any contemporary historian or recorder of events.

i) How is that "amazing"? He got the birthdate from one source and the birthplace from another source. Those are two key coordinates. However, that's time-sensitive. Indeed, as it turns out, his information was slightly out-of-date. So he just missed his quarry.

ii) Who says the death of the children was unknown to any contemporary historians? We only have fragments of some ancient historians. And the works of other ancient historians, like Nicolaus of Damascus, are completely lost to posterity. 

iii) Moreover, ancient rulers routinely wiped out whole villages. That's so commonplace that we wouldn't expect ancient historians to record it. Ancient historians don't care about the little people. 


  1. Goodness, lot's of dubious claims here to get stuck into...

    Your politeness in labelling me a village atheist is hardly going to endear me to respond, though.

    I would suggest reading Adair's excellent "The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View" as he is not the go-to guy on the subject, especially given his appearance and success at the recent SOB conference in Europe.

    1. Endearing myself to you was never my priority.

      Jason has responded both to Adair's book as well as the conference. So you're way behind the curve: