Monday, December 22, 2014

More About Matthew 2

Jonathan Pearce has written another response to me on the historicity of Matthew 2. He comments:

Jerusalem was troubled with Herod. Why? Well, Matthew continues in the next sentence that Herod gathered the scribes to inquire where the Messiah was to be born. It seems there is causal connection to being troubled and the Messiah being born.

Herod is responding to a claim that the Messiah has been born. Asking the religious leaders where the Messiah was to be born is relevant regardless of whether Herod and the other people of Jerusalem believed the magi. Herod's question about where the Messiah was to be born doesn't select for Pearce's interpretation. I gave a few reasons why it doesn't make sense to conclude that the magi were believed by the people of Jerusalem, and Pearce isn't addressing any of those reasons. The Jerusalemites in Matthew 2 probably weren't expecting a birth star, knew that they hadn't seen the star the magi claimed to have seen, hadn't heard about any significant birth having recently occurred within their city, hadn't believed that the Messiah was supposed to come from Jerusalem, and probably weren't expecting to have to be informed about the Messiah's birth by a group of Gentile magi. To the contrary, the idea of finding out about the Messiah's birth in that manner would have been offensive. The religious leaders were among the Jerusalemites who were troubled, and they knew that the magi were in the wrong place, Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem. Herod asks where the Messiah is to be born rather than assuming that the magi had come to the right place. Ancient Jews probably wouldn't have been troubled if they thought the Messiah had been born. Pearce criticizes Matthew for not portraying the Jerusalemites as acting in accordance with a belief that the Messiah had been born (e.g., they didn't follow the magi to Bethlehem), but the failure of the Jerusalemites to behave that way is further evidence that Pearce is misreading the passage. The reason why Herod, the religious leaders, and the other people in Jerusalem don't act as if they believe that the Messiah has been born is because they don't believe that the Messiah has been born. To suggest that Herod's question in verse 4 outweighs all of the considerations I've just mentioned is unreasonable.

Pearce continues:

Now, if this was a false prophecy, this would have been announced by priests and Herod alike. But no, this is announced and believed, by implication here. The priests even back this up with recourse to the OT. There is no wriggle room from a simple reading of the text to make Engwer’s interpretation probable. It is most ad hoc. To think otherwise is to call all of Jerusalem heretics for not believing an OT prophecy which is proclaimed by the scribes and chief priests, and by Herod himself, it seems.

I don't deny that the Micah 5 prophecy was accepted as Messianic by the religious leaders in Matthew 2 and other Jews involved.

He goes on:

The language states that “then” there was secrecy. In other words, secrecy was not on the agenda beforehand.

I said that some of what happened in Matthew 2 was of a highly private nature. I cited verses 7-8. For Pearce to respond by saying that there wasn't secrecy prior to verse 7 doesn't refute anything I said.

And there wouldn't have to be secrecy in verse 4 in order for the events at that point to not involve all of Jerusalem. Verse 4 refers to the gathering of the religious leaders, not the gathering of all of Jerusalem. Herod wasn't addressing the entire city.

Pearce writes:

Engwer seems to think that the prophecy proclaiming Bethlehem as the place of birth was kept secret; that all the Jerusalemites were told about an impending Messianic birth, were troubled, and said “meh” whilst all of the chief priests and scribes were able to keep it secret, even though Matthew states none of this, and implies that the priests, scribes and even Herod (publicly) admitted the truth of this proclamation!

I didn't say that the prophecy was "kept secret". It was in a book, Micah, that had long been considered scripture by the Jewish people. The book had been publicly read, studied, discussed, etc. for generations. The Messianic reading of the passage in question was already widely known, as the religious leaders' response to Herod illustrates.

Pearce seems to be confusing issues here. Whether the people of Jerusalem were familiar with the Micah 5 prophecy is a different issue than whether they knew what happened during Herod's exchange with the religious leaders in Matthew 2:4-6. Even if they did know of what happened during that exchange, whether they knew of the events in verses 7-8 is another matter.

Pearce comments:

If it was this supernatural star that only they could see, then there is little point talking about it, or anything else for that matter, because this approach indicates that God can do anything ad hoc to get around any problem.

Other people could see the star. But it seems to have been a highly local phenomenon, much like the angels' appearance to the shepherds in Luke 2.

Pearce says:

But if it is visible to anyone else, then the massive plethora of problems this raises needs to be answered by Engwer.

I've already explained why I don't think the people of Jerusalem would have seen the star, don't think they would have expected it to reappear, and don't think they would have followed the magi. There may have been exceptions, but speaking of Jerusalem in general, I doubt that they would have believed the magi, known that the magi were leaving to look for the child in Bethlehem, or have been willing to risk Herod's antagonism by following the magi.


  1. Your last paragraph contains the phrase 'don't think' 3 times, the words 'doubt' and 'may' once each. That doesn't suggest to me an especially compelling case?

    1. Travelman,

      The significance of a phrase like "don't think" depends on the context, and you aren't addressing the context. And my case doesn't have to be "especially compelling" in order to be likely or preferable to an alternative. You're ignoring almost everything I said while putting forward a trivial objection to one of my paragraphs. If either of us is acting as if he doesn't have much of a case, it's you.