A mythicist ponders the origins and allegorical meaning of Matthew’s Nativity.
I am sure you have all seen the traditional Nativity Scene. Mary and Joseph shelter in a stable, flanked by an ox and an ass and with Baby Jesus lying between them in a manger. Three kings kneel on one side of the manger offering gold and jewel encrusted gifts to the infant, their camels in the background. On the other side humble shepherds bow their heads, offering fluffy lambs, and perhaps a little shepherd boy plays on a drum. The sky above is filled with floating angels, sometimes holding up a scroll that reads ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ and above them is a dazzling star.
As we saw in Part One of this essay, this touching scene is a conflation of the only two birth narratives in the four gospels, those of Matthew and Luke. However, despite what the traditional nativity scene attempts to convey, these two narratives barely overlap and are in fact so different as to be virtually mutually exclusive. Furthermore, not only do they contradict each other, neither story has any basis in historical fact. The only way to reconcile the two stories to each other and to history, is to accept them both as total fictions written as allegories but for different didactic purposes.
In this post we’ll examine Matthew’s Nativity and Luke’s in Part Three. We’ll ask, ‘Where does Matthew’s story come from?’, ‘What is the meaning behind his story?’ and ‘What is its purpose?’ (For a summary of Matthew’s Nativity, see Part One)
Wise Men from the East
Central to Matthew’s Nativity is the arrival of the ‘Wise Men from the East.’ Matthew tells us nothing more about them. However, the Greek word he uses is ‘magoi’ which derives from the Persian ‘mogh,’ a Zoroastrian priest. Most translations of Matthew’s Nativity call the visitors ‘magi’ which is the Latin transliteration of the original Greek, and the etymological origin of the English words, ‘magic’ and ‘magician.’ No doubt, some translators prefer to translate the term as ‘Wise Men’ so as not to tarnish Jesus’ visitors with any association with magic, an anathema to Evangelical Christians. Or perhaps it is to obfuscate the fact that Judaism was not the only monotheistic religion at the time.
Based on the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), Zoroastrianism is the first documented monotheistic religion in the world. It was the dominant religion of the Parthian and Persian Empires for over a millennium, from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE, and only declined with the 7th century Muslim conquest of the Middle East. By that time, it had become the foremost religion of an area that stretched from Anatolia to Afghanistan. Fleeing the Muslim conquest, many Persian Zoroastrians emigrated to India where they became known as the Parsi and continue to follow their ancestral religion to this day. Only a small Zoroastrian community survives in Iran, while many have fled persecution there and resettled elsewhere.
During the Babylonian captivity, Judaism absorbed several of the unique features of Zoroastrianism, such as its concept of a creator god and his evil nemesis, its belief in free will and divine judgement after death, its understanding of angels and demons, its construct of heaven and hell, its anticipation of a saviour figure, and its apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. It was after their return from captivity that Jewish scholars wrote much of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, Zoroastrianism can be seen as a parent religion to Judaism, and through it, to Christianity.
In this light, we can see the significance of the Magi coming from the east to bow before Jesus and worship him. Matthew is telling us that even the great and ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is subordinate to and transcended by Christianity.
Wise Men to Three Kings
Matthew’s text does not state how many Magi arrive in Jerusalem. However, it does tell us that they offer Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts which proclaim Jesus’ status and his destiny. Gold signifies Jesus’ kingship, frankincense is an incense burned to honour a god, and myrrh, a resin used in embalming the dead, anticipates Jesus’ sacrificial death.
Medieval Christians expanded on this story, inferring from the three gifts that there were three visitors. Further accretions to the story derive from what was most likely the origin of Matthew’s story in the book of Isaiah:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land… And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. [Isaiah 60, 1–6]
Having become three, the Magi now became kings riding on camels. By the 5th century, the three kings had been given names – Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchoir – and made to represent the whole of the known world – Europe, Africa and Asia.
Thus, the meaning of Jesus’ visitors changed from a spiritual one – signifying Christianity’s supremacy as a religion – to a political one – signifying the Catholic Church’s earthly supremacy.
The Star of Bethlehem
Probably the most queried aspect of Matthew’s Nativity is the Star of Bethlehem. Even Bart Ehrman, an avowed historicist, finds the story of the star patently absurd. In his examination of the Gospels, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradiction in the Bible, Ehrman asks:
What kind of star would this be, exactly? A star that moves slowly enough for the Wise Men to follow on foot or on camel, stops, starts again, and stops again? And how exactly does a star stop over a house?
To be fair, however, Matthew’s text does not actually state that the Magi follow the star across the desert to Jerusalem as most Christians imagine. It says:
… Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ [Matthew 2:1–2]
Astrology was a central practice in Zoroastrianism and its priests were renowned for their knowledge of the stars and their significance. What this text actually tells us is that the Magi saw an astronomical phenomenon which they interpreted to mean that a King of the Jews had been born. Where else would they go to search for that king than Jerusalem? Jerusalem was a major city, so all the routes to it would have been well-known. Therefore, we can infer that the Magi were able to travel to Jerusalem without the aid of the star.
According to the text, it is only after they leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem that the Magi see the star again:
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. [Matthew 2:9]
However, even this short journey presents the same problems. Bethlehem is only about 10km from Jerusalem, a two-hour journey on foot. Would the Magi have undertaken such a journey by night, that they could see a star? Would they really have committed the discourtesy of dropping in unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, on a mother with a newborn? Not that they would have needed the star’s guidance. Having sent them to Bethlehem, would Herod not have given them directions? Failing that, they could have asked the way of anyone in the street. Moreover, we still have the biggest problem of all. How could they tell which house a star in the sky had stopped over?
It is obvious, therefore, that the Star of Bethlehem cannot be taken literally and must be interpreted allegorically. Stars and lights in the sky are often associated with the birth or manifestation of a god, even a Christian god. In one of his letters, written around 115CE, Ignatius of Antioch cites an unidentified gospel in which Jesus himself manifests to the world as:
A star [which] shone forth in heaven above all other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment.
It is likely that Matthew is tapping into the same tradition, so that the birth of Jesus is manifested to the Magi by the appearance in the sky of a star which astonishes them. This would also explain why the star reappears as they leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem and approach closer to Jesus himself.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
As we saw in Part One of this essay, despite his nefarious reputation, there is no historical evidence that King Herod ever sent his men to slaughter every baby boy in and around Bethlehem. The story must therefore be fictional, but even as fiction, it does not make much sense.
The Magi tell Herod that they are looking for the newly born rightful king of the Jews. Herod consults his religious advisors who tell him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. He sends the Magi there, asking only that they return and tell him where the child is living so he can go worship him. However, the Magi are told in a dream to return home by another route and so not report back to Herod. Without precise information, Herod has no other way to eliminate his rival except to send his men to Bethlehem to slaughter every eligible baby boy. Forewarned of the danger in a dream, Joseph takes his family and flees to Egypt.
The story can be queried on almost every aspect. Are the Magi so naïve that they would, not only, announce to a reigning king that he has a rival, but also ask his help in locating him? Why would Herod tell the Magi the child is in Bethlehem, when he could fob them off and send his own people there instead? If Herod has decided to eliminate his rival, would he really rely on the Magi voluntarily reporting back to him? If he must send the Magi to Bethlehem, would it not be more sensible to offer them an escort, or at least have them followed? Would the Magi really not see the potential danger themselves and need divine intervention to stop them reporting the child’s whereabouts to Herod?
Except for Joseph getting his family out of danger, no one acts sensibly or logically in this story.
Again, we must accept that, as with the Gospel of Mark, we cannot expect to see the logical cause and effect one would find in history or naturalistic fiction in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is writing allegory, and so the rules of allegory must apply. Matthew has an endpoint in mind, and to achieve it, he must manoeuvre his cast of characters into place, regardless of how unbelievably naïve or evil they might appear.
In this case, Matthew is invoking the Exodus story in order to cast Jesus as the new Moses. We need only look at two important points in Moses’ life to see the parallels.
The Birth of Moses
Even after being used as slave labour, the Israelites in Egypt have become too numerous. Therefore, the Pharoah decrees that every boy born to them must be thrown into the Nile and drowned. When Moses is born, his mother hides him for three months. When she can hide him no longer, she places him in a basket and floats him down the Nile where he is discovered by the Pharoah’s daughter, who adopts him as her own. [Exodus 1:8–2:10]
The Exodus from Egypt
Moses conveys God’s demand to the Pharoah to let the Israelites go. However, the Pharoah continues to refuse, even after God inflicts several plagues on his kingdom. Finally, God decrees that every firstborn son in Egypt will be struck dead, except those of the Israelites who will mark their houses with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. When God carries out his threat, the Pharoah relents at last and liberates the Israelites who are free to leave, an event celebrated every year at Passover with the sacrifice and ritual consumption of a lamb. [Exodus 6:10–12:42]
Therefore, in Matthew’s Nativity, we have an evil king ordering the slaughter of baby boys. We have the escape of the saviour figure from the slaughter. We have a flight to freedom between Egypt and Israel, albeit in the opposite direction.
The parallels continue in the Mark’s Passion Narrative, which Matthew follows closely. There Mark equates Jesus’ death and the eucharist to the sacrifice and consumption of the Passover lamb. (See Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory)
The Virgin Birth
As early Church father, Epiphanius of Salamis, writes in his Panarion, Matthew’s gospel was read by Torah-observant Jewish Christians, the Nazarenes and the Ebionites (See INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews – Part 1) While Epiphanius was not certain if the Nazarenes accepted the Virgin Birth, he was adamant that the Ebionites believed that Jesus ‘was conceived by sexual intercourse and the seed of a man, Joseph’.
This throws some light on an anomaly in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Christian apologists find hard to explain. Despite the differences between them, both gospels contain genealogies that trace Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph rather than Mary, even though they both claim that Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father as he was conceived on Mary by the Holy Spirit.
Given their beliefs, it is hard to imagine that the Ebionites would embrace a gospel that proclaimed the Virgin Birth. However, while the Virgin Birth is central to Luke’s Nativity, it is referred to only briefly in Matthew’s. In fact, that reference is so short, and fully self-contained, that it leaves open the possibility that it was added later.
Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham and ends with Joseph. According to the current text, the last verse of the genealogy reads (which I render in the King James Version for reasons that will become apparent):
… and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. [Matthew 1:16]
This is followed by a self-contained vignette in which an angel tells Joseph that he can marry Mary as the child ‘conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.’ [Matthew 1:18–25]
Following directly after this vignette are the words:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea… [Matthew 2:1]
As the text now stands, it is entirely feasible that the opening words of Chapter 2 could come directly after the end of the genealogy. Furthermore, at least one early Syriac manuscript preserves an earlier version of the ending of the genealogy which makes it clear that, while Mary was a virgin at their betrothal, Joseph is Jesus’ biological father:
… Jacob begat Joseph. Joseph, to whom was espoused Mary the virgin, begat Jesus, who is called Christ. [Matthew 1:16]
I would therefore propose that, just as the reference to Nazareth was added later to Mark’s gospel to bring it into line with Matthew’s, so too was the reference to the Virgin Birth added to the Gospel of Matthew in order to bring it into line with the Gospel of Luke.
According to Scripture
One characteristic that distinguishes Matthew’s Nativity, and indeed the whole of his gospel, is his recurring citations of verses from the Hebrew scriptures which he claims prophesise moments in Jesus’ life. In the nativity story alone, we can find:
- ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel. (which means ‘God is with us’)’. [Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14]
- ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ [Matthew 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2,4]
- ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ [Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1]
- ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ [Matthew 2:18, quoting Jeremiah 31:15]
- ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’ [Matthew 2:23, source unknown]
As we can see, these verses come from a wide range of books of the Hebrew Bible and seem to be unrelated. However, this culling of citations from many different scriptural sources is not unique to Matthew. In fact, it is a common practice in Hebrew religious commentary. The Gospel of Matthew could be referred to as a ‘pesher’ which Richard Carrier describes as:
…a document attempting to discover hidden messages in scriptures by finding secret links among disparate and previously unrelated verses which together communicate God’s plan, most commonly his plan for the coming messiah…
However, while Hebrew scholars might have been putting citations together to create a new narrative, Matthew’s approach is not as straightforward.
His method does reflect the traditional pesher in one way, certainly. His citations are previously unrelated to each other, and their original contexts are unrelated to the birth of the Messiah. However, Matthew’s citations can be called into question as they are often misquotation of his sources, or even have no recognizable source at all. Furthermore, while writing for a Torah-observant Christian congregation, Matthew’s source is not the Hebrew Bible itself, but the Septuagint, its Greek translation.
Let’s take a closer look at the prophecies listed above:
The correct translation of Isaiah 7:14 should be ‘Behold, the young woman has conceived – and bears a son and calls his name Immanuel. (Yahweh is with us).’ In the original context, set in the 8th century BCE, Isaiah is reassuring King Ahaz of Judah that his line will survive because his pregnant young wife will bear him a son. However, the Septuagint has incorrectly translated the Hebrew ‘almah’ or ‘young woman’ into the Greek ‘parthenos’ or ‘virgin’.
Matthew has embraced this error, as well as changing the tense from the present to the future. Thus, a prediction that has a 50/50 chance of being correct, becomes a prophecy of a miraculous birth. Not that you will easily find a correct translation of the original text, as most biblical translations have copied Matthew and translate Isaiah 7:14 in his exact words, no doubt to avoid ‘confusion’ for literal-minded Christians.
Furthermore, as we know, the angel who announced the Virgin Birth also decreed that the baby should be called Jesus, not Immanuel. In fact, Immanual, meaning ‘God is with us’, reflects Jesus’ final words that close Matthew’s gospel: ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ [Matthew 28:20] These words complete the structure of Matthew’s gospel, a literary construct called a chiasmus, a rhetorical device in which the elements of the first half of a text are repeated in reverse order in the second half.
This is a misquotation by Matthew, as his source, Micah 5:2, is referring to a clan rather than a place. The text, which, again, relates to events in the 8th century BCE, actually reads, ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…’
Here Matthew has manipulated this text to come up with a prophecy that will fulfil the Jewish expectation that the Messiah will be descended from King David who, according to 1 Samuel 16, came from Bethlehem.
As we saw earlier, Matthew has constructed the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt as an invocation of the Exodus story. This quotation from Hosea 11:1 is not actually a prophecy, but comes from God’s lamentation over the sinfulness and ingratitude of the Jewish people as he recalls what He has done for them. The sentence reads in full, ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’
The ‘son’ the text refers to is a metaphor for God’s Chosen People and does not actually refer to one child.
This quotation from Jeremiah 31:15 is set during the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BCE and is part of a long discourse by God on how he will restore his people to the land of Israel. So, while in verse 15, He describes Rachel ‘weeping for her children’, in verses 16 and 17, He urges her to dry her tears as her ‘children will return to their own land.’
In this case Matthew is using a vivid image from scripture to illustrate a dramatic but, as we have seen, entirely fictional scene, while at the same time, ignoring the message of hope which is the true meaning of the verses he quotes.
Matthew states that, on returning to Palestine from Egypt, Joseph was warned not to return to Bethlehem where he and Mary were living when Jesus was born, but instead settle in Nazareth, thus fulfilling the prophecy ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’
However, there is no known source for this prophecy. There is no mention of a ‘Nazarene’ in the Hebrew scriptures. The closest that can be found is the term ‘Nazarite’, ‘he who vows to grow long hair and serve god’, of whom there were several. One, for example is Samson, whose mother is told:
You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. [Judges 13:5]
Nazarites were a form of religious order who vowed to live by strict rules described in detail in Numbers 6:1–21.
As we saw in an earlier post (INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – Part One) I believe that Matthew introduced the idea that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to counter Mark’s characterisation of Jesus as a Nazarene – a Hebrew term for Christians who, in Jewish eyes, were heretics and dissenter from Judaism – and instead depict him as a faithful Jew. However, Matthew may have also intended to associate his Jesus with the devout, Torah-observant Nazarite order.
Many Christians will claim the fact that the gospels fulfil Old Testament prophecies as proof of their veracity. However, even as a schoolgirl I could see the flaw in that argument. Even then I could see that it is easy to make your story fulfil prophecy when you are writing the story yourself. Having studied Matthew’s gospel more closely I can see it is even easier to do so when you distort your ‘prophecies’ to fit your story, or make them up altogether.
The Meaning of Matthew’s Nativity
Biblical scholars have long recognised that large parts of the Gospel of Matthew have been copied from the Gospel of Mark. Matthew retains much of Mark’s text word for word, but also expands on and makes changes to Mark’s stories as well as adding further stories and more discourses which attribute new teachings to Jesus. Among the stories he adds is the Nativity.
Matthew’s changes seem to have four main purposes:
- To improve on Mark by correcting his mistakes regarding Palestinian geography as well as Jewish lore and scriptures
- To distance Jesus from Pauline Christianity and bring him more in line with Torah-observant Christianity
- To make explicit Jesus’ divinity
- To demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah that has been predicted by the Jewish prophets
Matthew’s Nativity certainly fulfills the last two of Matthew’s purposes. Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit clearly shows his divine nature, while Matthew’s citations from and invocations of Jewish scripture go towards demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets.
However, we might also ask, what is the greater purpose of the Gospel of Matthew? Why was it written at all? Why rewrite Mark’s gospel rather than compose an original gospel from scratch based entirely on the traditions and beliefs of the Ebionites and Nazarenes, who seem to be its intended audience?
According to the church fathers, Irenaeus and Epiphanius, the Nazarenes and the Ebionites had a version of Matthew’s gospel in Hebrew. However, this claim raises several questions.
Was their version of the Gospel of Matthew the canonical Greek version translated into Hebrew, or a version originally written in Hebrew? Would Torah-observant Christians have accepted a gospel based so clearly on the Gospel of Mark which was a vehicle for teaching Paul’s version of Christianity, to which the Torah-observant Christians were so opposed? Would the Ebionites, who did not believe in the Virgin Birth, have accepted Matthew’s Nativity narrative?
Rather than maintain that the Nazarenes and Ebionites read the canonical Matthew, I would suggest that, on the contrary, they had a gospel of their own, from which Matthew drew some of its additional stories and discourses. I would also suggest that the author/s of the Gospel of Matthew re-wrote the Gospel of Mark, likely over a period of time, with the intention of appealing to Torah-observant Christians, reconciling them with Pauline Christianity and bringing them into the proto-orthodox fold.
© Pauline Montagna 2024
Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, HarperOne (2009)
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Kenneth Humphreys Matthew: A Gospel for Messianic Jews on his website Jesus Never Existed