Were the Magi sources for Matthew's Gospel?


#1

Interesting theory in J.P.Holding’s book “Christmas is Pagan and Other Myths” which I hadn’t run across before, that helps reconcile differences in the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. It does make sense.

We know that the Gospel of Matthew was composed in Antioch, Syria. If members of the Magi (who could have been from Syria, not Persia according to some scholars), either the aged originals who journeyed to Bethlehem, their sons, or members of their priestly line with whom the oral tradition was passed down, were Matthew’s informants, they would have imparted knowledge that only they would be likely to know - about the events and conversations in Herod’s Court. They would not have had knowledge of the events on the night of Jesus’ birth (which would have occurred about two years before their visit), and if told about the shepherds, would not have considered their witness as important as members of a priestly aristocracy (rather like being told a garbage man or maid was a witness, in their eyes.) They would not know about the Roman census (as they were in a non-Roman country), or anything about John the Baptist, or the twin pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth, or Zecheriah.

Matthew alluded only obliquely to Mary’s visit from the angel (she “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit”), but then, Matthew’s audience would be less likely to credit the witness of a woman, Mary. Luke shows great regard for women and their thoughts (possibly due to his profession as a physician, and the greater experience he had in tending to women’s needs and suffering), was more likely use them as informants, and focuses more on Mary and her cousin.

Luke, who was writing a Gospel that was “Roman Friendly” for the gentiles, and to convince the Romans that the new Church was no threat to them, would have based his narrative on Jesus’ and John’s family sources including Mary and others. The Magi were from the Parthian Empire, one of Rome’s deadliest enemies, so he would be unlikely to mention them - or the flight to Egypt (Rome’s other biggest foe). (It’s been suggested that the Gospel of Luke was written as a court brief for Paul to use in trial before a Roman magistrate.) Luke would not have wanted to show Jesus as receiving gifts from the emissaries of a hated enemy, or taking refuge in the country of another enemy from a puppet king of the Roman Empire (Herod).

The Magi would have been, as members of another patriarchal culture, likely to have spoken directly to Joseph and obtained information from him rather than Mary (then as now in the mediterranean, one did not speak directly to young women if not a family member, in most circumstances, out of delicacy and respect.) In that culture, it would have been expected that the paterfamilias would have been the one to receive the honor of the first angelic vision, so perhaps Joseph did not want to share that information with the Magi.

Luke may or may not have known about Joseph’s vision, but as his focus was on women, he may not have included it (or Joseph had passed away by this point, and was not available to Luke as a source.) Luke does not record any major objections by Joseph, which is a little unusual unless there was something he knew about that convinced him that Mary’s honor was not in question.

Luke also seems to know something that Matthew did not - Nazareth was the actual hometown of Mary and Joseph. This would be a detail he would know from family informants, but the Magi might not have known, or they just presumed the family was originally from Bethlehem, or they were simply not told by Joseph (Joseph might not have been comfortable sharing that detail with the Magi - he may not have known if they were trustworthy or what they might tell Herod.)

The flight into Egypt, and the events afterwards, would be unlikely to be known by the Magi after they returned to Syria, so it is unikely that this was information Matthew received from them. Most probably this was information Jesus told directly to his disciples. Luke would also have wanted to avoid allegations that Jesus learned magic in Egypt, which was an accusation later used by Roman critics against the Christians.

As Luke did not include the flight into Egypt, he could not mention the killing of the Innocents, because it made no sense unless in the context of that event.

To make a very secular comparison, I own about 30 biographies of Houdini, and it’s interesting to compare how different biographers describe different period in his life - birth, childhood, the vaudeville years, etc., based on which source each biographer interviewed. There’s rarely a conflict, but different biographers may not include certain events because sources were unaware of them, or because they had different foci.


#2

Let’s not forget that Mary was among the disciples (especially John) for many years after the Ascension. She could have told the Apostles a lot of this information (and Jesus as well). The Magi could have also explained their story to Mary and Joseph when they met. Same goes with the shepherds.

But I would think that you’re right about certain parts being included or excluded based on who the Gospel was being written for. In the same way, the writing style was different based on who the Gospels were being written for.


#3

Jesus is thought by many scholars to not have been born in Bethlehem. The Jews at the time believed the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem to be the legitimate. So it is thought the story was made to convince other Jews that Jesus was the Messiah based on a sentence in Isaiah.
Also the Romans or Jews never required a person to return to their town of birth to be counted in a census.

The bible writers wrote things to make a point and they were not accurate or exactly truthful in their versions.
Most likely many of the deeds that are attributed to Jesus are true and his speeches were thought to have come from a scribe who wrote them down then the Gospel writers copied them for their books.

IMHO YMMV


#4

“…is thought…” “it is thought”

Can you cite the scholars who think this?

Also the Romans or Jews never required a person to return to their town of birth to be counted in a census.

Nonsense. If a professor taught you that in college, you should consider asking for your tuition back.

Go to the British Museum and ask to view Inventory Item P.London 904. It’s an official Roman census edict issued in 107 A.D., written in Greek (the lingua franca of the Roman provinces) on a papyrus, 21.3cm high and 15.2cm wide, discovered in Egypt in 1905. Here’s the translation:

**Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Prefect of Egypt the Prefect was the Roman military governor over all Egypt - AZM], declares:

The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their nomes a “nome” was a provincial administrative district - AZM] be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration and apply themselves to the cultivation which concerns them. Knowing, however, that some of the people from the countryside are required by our city, I desire all those who think they have a satisfactory reason for remaining here to register themselves before . . . Festus, the Cavalry Commander, whom I have appointed for this purpose, from whom those who have shown their presence to be necessary shall receive signed permits in accordance with this edict up to the 30th of the present month E . . .**

So no, yours is not a valid objection.

Empires do not care about the convenience or dignity of those under their control. Picture living in the lobby of the Motor Vehicle Department, all your life, tjones, if you want a sense of what life under occupation is like.

Augustus Caesar was notable for his anal retentive nature and bragged about how each blade of grass in his empire was inventoried. What makes you think he would hesitate to order a bunch of Jews in a far away land to take an inconvenient journey?


#5

One scholar (since you asked;) ) is John Dominic Crossan. I’m not defending him, but i enjoyed his work while in college. He is arguably among the MOST liberal scholars out there. But he makes the point in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography that Luke and Matthew include a birth narrative because it it necessary to place Jesus in Bethlehem because he must be from the line of David to be the king. He comments that in antiquity biographies rarely contain a birth narrative (unless it is an emperor) because most people don’t care where you came from but rather what you did that made you famous. That is why it is "normal"for St. Mark and St. John to not include a birth story…


#6

The op’s book sounds like a great read and I’m adding it to my list!


#7

It’s on Kindle, at I think about $3.95.

Also, I apologize to tjones80 for the snarky nature of my response last night.


#8

Raymond Brown also raises difficulties with the historicity of the Bethlehem birth. While Brown is regarded as a liberal by lots of folks on this forum, he is a very careful and conservative scholar by the standards of the field as a whole (I’m not saying that means he’s right, only that this is someone who obviously tried to be faithful to Catholic teaching and did not go out on speculative limbs out of some kind of heretical agenda–in contrast, I’d have to say, to Crossan, who very clearly does have a theological bias that leads him to opt for the more “unorthodox” interpretation in many places).

Edwin


#9

Keep in mind that since there are no extra-biblical accounts of the birth, life and death of Jesus that either directly corroborate or contradict the Gospels, the above is all speculation by modern critical scholars based on a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls it). Some details that are commonly cited as historical inaccuracies by skeptical scholarship (most famously the census of Quirinius) can and has been explained satisfactorily since the days of St. Jerome. And to say that the Gospel writers were “not exactly truthful” (i.e., liars) is outright slander, perhaps even blasphemy.

For a remedy to this type of error, I highly recommend Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, especially the first volume.


#10

I am amazed of how even Christians will try to reconcile Scripture in only human terms and not consider that the Gospel writers were given inspiration by the Holy Spirit. It all was not made an account for by word of mouth but the Spirit spoke through the Gospel writers in the same way He did through the prophets of the OT.


#11

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