Matthew 2’s Christmas story, no part of which is found elsewhere in the New Testament, contains some of our most dramatic and enduring Christmas images: the magi following a moving star to visit and venerate the young child and future king Jesus, the ensuing Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt. This is because the stories and their symbols have resonated in people’s minds down through the ages, traveling through different cultures, countries, and languages. When mythologists see this happen, they begin to look for myth. So here goes!
As we saw in yesterday’s post, one element of the “birth of the hero” mythological motif is omens or other divine portents marking the hero’s birth. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, stars and comets were commonly viewed as broadcasting messages from heaven, and in particular as portending the coming of a new king (sometimes connected with the death of the old one) (Miller 102; Davies & Allison 233). Pliny the Elder, for example, wrote that the birth of an important man was heralded by the apparition of a star (Nat. Hist. 2.28). Seutonius wrote that a star marked the impending birth of a king, who would be Caesar Augustus. In response to that sign, the Senate forbade the rearing of infants, but the boy was saved from those who sought his life (reminiscent of Matthew’s account) (Augustus 94). Similarly, the death of Nero and coming of a new emperor were said to have been portended by a comet (Tacitus, Annals 14.22). Plutarch also reported strange astral phenomena at the birth of Alexander the Great (Alex. 3). A star also was said to have marked the ascension of Caesar into heaven (Seutonius, Jul. 88). In Virgil’s Aeneid, Jupiter sent a “star” (probably a meteor) to show the way of travelers, Aeneas and his father, so they could escape Troy when it was overrun by the Greeks (2.680-705). One suspects that, in the case of the star as elsewhere, Matthew was aware of and felt a need to compete with Mediterranean mythical traditions, and so he made sure that Jesus more than measured up against these Roman emperors and heroes by including an amplified version of the motif.
Matthew as usual also drew on Hebrew Bible prophecy in writing this account. New Testament scholars believe that he drew from the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 (e.g., Brown 190-96; Davies & Allison 234-35), which itself was probably another myth. In that story, the king of Moab retained a foreign pagan seer, Balaam, to pronounce a curse on the Israelites who were about to invade the land. Balaam, however, encountered Yahweh, who led him instead to pronounce a blessing on Israel and also prophesize, “A star will come forth from Jacob, and a scepter will rise from Israel” (24:17). The original story was about a particular military situation in its own day and had nothing to do with a messiah centuries later, but the Qumran community nevertheless used this episode to refer to the expected messiah (Davies & Allison 234), and apparently so did others. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writing about a generation after Matthew (ca.107-08 CE) while being taken under guard to Rome to be martyred, wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, in which he included the star which he had presumably learned about at some earlier point:
How was Jesus revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars, and its light was indescribable, and its novelty caused astonishment. All the other stars together with the sun and moon formed a ring around it, and yet it outshone them all with its light (19.2).
This is interesting for several reasons. First, biblical scholars find no evidence that Ignatius was aware of or using Matthew’s Gospel (Miller 103), which indicates that there was an independent tradition of the star story that may have predated Matthew and which both used. Second, here the star’s “novelty” echoes Matthew’s portrayal of the star as unique. Third, making it brighter than everything else in the sky and having the sun, moon, and the other stars move to form a ring about it in a way that defies observation and natural law (as did Matthew), made the event sacred and signaled the star’s (and thus Jesus’s) superiority. A typically mythical approach.
Matthew also may have been inspired and aided by reports of certain historical celestial phenomena that occurred roughly within the time period of Jesus’s birth. Halley’s comet appeared in 12-11 BCE, and there was an alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in 7 BCE, although the planets would not have been close enough to appear as a single star. Matthew, however, wanted to describe something truly miraculous and unique. Thus, the magi moved westward toward Jerusalem following the star, it apparently stopped while they were meeting with Herod in Jerusalem, and after the meeting it started moving south to Bethlehem (only about 6 miles), and then stopped and hovered over the house where Jesus was born (Matt 2:2, 9). No one sees heavenly bodies moving in such a way, thus giving the story the aura of myth.
The Magi, The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt
New Testament scholars do not regard Matthew’s stories of the magi, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt as historical (Miller 100), but, as in the case of the star, historical events might have inspired the part about the magi. In 66 CE, probably a few years before Matthew wrote, the Armenian King Tiridates I, who was also a Zoroastrian priest and magus, traveled from the east to Rome accompanied by other magi to pay homage to Nero and vow fidelity to him, and Nero held a coronation ceremony for him (Brown 174, 192; Davies & Allison 252). Here again Matthew may be setting up a contrast and competition between the Roman emperors and Jesus, part of his portrayal of Jesus as the true king. The hint here may arise from the fact that Tiridates and his magi were known to take a different route home, because Matthew likewise specifies that his magi did the same (2:12), a detail that otherwise seems spurious.
Since Matthew’s largest audience was gentiles, it was important that his Gospel resonate with them and embrace them in the good news. One way in which he did so was to place gentiles (the magi) at the center of his adoration story, in order to show how gentiles “from the east” had recognized Jesus as savior at the outset, and how any gentile could be saved by belief in him.
In order to effect this outreach, Matthew structured this story using rich mythological traditions from the Hebrew Bible. First, from the very beginning of his Gospel, (1:1-2) Matthew is keen to portray Jesus as the son (descendant) of Abraham and to connect Abrahamic traditions with Jesus, including in his infancy story and especially in 2:1-12 (Brown 181, 184). After Abraham had shown willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to Yahweh, Yahweh told Abraham, “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:18). Thus Matthew can have Abraham’s “son” Jesus similarly promise, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11).
Matthew’s introduction of magi from the east bearing gifts for Jesus carries this idea forward. Here he made use of Isaiah 60:3, 6, 10, which prophesized that gentile nations shall come to Zion bearing gold and frankincense, praise Yahweh, and submit to its king, much as foreign royalty had given gifts (including gold and myrrh) and honors to Solomon. Similarly, Psalm 72:11 said, “May all kings all fall down before him [the Israelite king], all nations give him service.” Matthew’s adoration story thus shows that this prophecy has been realized, with Jesus as king. By implication too, since the submitters were magi, eastern religions were being superseded by Christianity. Further, this event constituted what Davies and Allison called “an inaugurated eschatology” because the above-mentioned movement of nations had commenced, implying that the promise of Micah 5:2 has been fulfilled and that the end times have dawned (Davies & Allison 253). Interesting in this regard too is an analogous detail from a pagan source, Plutarch’s account of Alexander the Great’s birth. On the day of Alexander’s birth, the magnificent temple to Artemis in Ephesus (then within the Persian Empire) burned to the ground. Magi were there that day, who interpreted the event as portending the end of the empire and the coming of a new kingdom, which turned out to be Alexander’s (Alex. 3.5-7). For Matthew too, magi saw Jesus as the newborn future king who would overturn the existing order.
A third Hebrew Bible tradition that inspired the magi story was the story of Balaam, already mentioned above in connection with the star. Balaam, considered a magus (Philo, Moses I, § 276), also traveled from the east at the invitation of the Moabite king Balak to destroy Moses, and ended up embracing Yahweh and blessing the Israelites, thus saving Moses and his people. This is important because Matthew’s story of the Massacre of the Innocents and Flight to Egypt are meant to parallel the story in Exodus where Moses is saved by spiriting him away after Pharaoh had ordered the murder of all Hebrew baby boys. Moses eventually leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, and Hosea 11:1 had said, “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15). Matthew thus portrayed the evil Herod as Pharaoh, and Jesus the Son of God in parallel with Moses. In the story of the Flight to Egypt, Matthew gets Jesus to Egypt so that he can come out of Egypt in fulfilment of scripture. As we have seen, in mythological terms, the attempt to kill the newly born hero and then spiriting him away is a standard element in “the birth of the hero” motif.
The gifts that the magi presented to Jesus also have been taken to hold symbolism. For a long time Christians told that the gold represented Jesus’s kingship, incense represented his divinity since it is used in worship, and myrrh represented his death and resurrection since it is used to embalm the dead (as intended in John 19:39), but biblical scholars do not accept this theory. For one thing, Matthew has no myrrh in his death and resurrection account; in fact, he changed Mark’s “wine mixed with myrrh” (15:23) to “wine mixed with gall” (27:34). Davies and Allison instead adopt an apocalyptic interpretation, viewing the gifts as the culmination of the magi’s trip representing the “first fruits” of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to Yahweh as foreseen in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 above (249-50).
The magi story was further mythologized over the centuries. Matthew did not say how many there were, but they became three to match the number of gifts. They became kings, again through reliance on Isaiah 60:3, 6 and Psalm 72:10-11 above. And they acquired names and descriptions: the young and shaven Caspar, the bearded old Melchior, and the black Balthasar. The tradition arose that they rode camels, though Matthew does not mention the means of transport.
Matthew’s Christmas story is artfully constructed both as literature and as myth because of how well it conveys sacred truths. It is the place where the Hebrew Bible and New Testament meet, so that the most important story in human history can begin. The story incorporates perennially resonant characters and motifs: the star; mysterious magicians from the east bearing fabulous gifts; the threat to the newborn hero and saving him; warnings in dreams; and appearances of angels in dreams. These figures and symbols serve as the vehicles of sacred truths. It is no wonder that this story remains popular and central to our culture, and that it inspired and still provides trimmings to our Christmas holiday.
Sources and Bibliography
Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).
Davies, W., and Allison, D. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, Matthew 1-7. New York: T&T Clark (1988).
Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).
Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).