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Matthew's Magi

The birth of Christianity, part 01


Almost a century after the alleged death and resurrection of Joshua the Anointed, an unknown author redacts and adds two entire chapters to the gospel called proto-Luke. In those two chapters, the "forger" fabricates a birth narrative of Joshua. But in doing so, he contradicts the author of the earlier gospel according to Matthew who added a completely different birth narrative to the story of Jesus.


Matthew on the other hand [as we shall call the author of the other birth narrative for brevity], is equally writing a lot of seemingly fictitious material into his story, as he tries to make his main character fit Old Testament scenes. In this first part I will show how a literal reading of this narrative exposes a lot of absurdity, unhuman like behavior and inconsistencies. I will mock such a literal interpretation as a means to break down the façade of allegory the author is using to hide some very real events. Spoiler alert: the one event the story does not include, is the birth of a baby in a stable.

Somewhere between 37 and 6 BCE, three Magi departed from the Parthian empire on a journey to meet the freshly born human incarnation of a god they did not believe in. Known and attested as early as the late 6th century BC, the Magi were highly influential counsellors of the Persian / Parthian kings and responsible for the princes’ education. Like Joseph, the son of Abraham and Joseph, the father of Joshua, they were known for their interpretations of dreams. They were respected astronomers, alchemists and esteemed as wise men in general.


One particular night, a remote controlled star appeared in the skies above Ecbatana or Ctesiphon, which led the three Magi to conclude that somewhere a king was born. So they informed their own king, either Phraates IV or Phraates V that they would leave to give tribute to another king who may someday rise to replace their current king, which was totally fine with the Parthian emperor. Thus they were free to leave and pack up provisions for three months, pardon, six months, or perhaps nine months as they had no idea where the star would lead them. There are so many kingdoms after all. If only the star could have told them how long they would be traveling. So forget provisions altogether: who needs those if you have a talking, divinely operated guiding star?


As it turned out, the star seemed to conspicuously follow the ancient trade route and Persian Royal Road to the west, so you can imagine the speculation of the three knowledgeable men, as they asked themselves whether they were going to recognize a future Armenian king, or perhaps a Nabatean prince. It is unknown whether they would have expected it or not, but after three months the priests of Ahura Mazda, bringer of light and darkness, found themselves approaching the Roman client kingdom of Herod the Great’s Judea.


One would think that being Parthian nobility, the Magi would travel the Herodian kingdom as discretely as possible since the Roman and Parthian empires were and would remain enemies for decades to come. But not so according to Matthew. The divine star could have led them straight to their destination, but it seemed that the author quietly made the star disappear for a while so he could work in an Old Testament motif a bit later on. Whether the star was still guiding the Magi or not, what we read is how they asked everyone in Jerusalem where they could find the new-born king of the Jews. Being regarded as wise men, it is quite the assumption to make that every citizen in Jerusalem would have known about the birth of a new king of Judea. First off, the Magi seemed to assume that everyone had or could still see the same star as they did. But the bigger assumption within that is that everyone who would have seen this star would automatically link this astronomical event with the birth of a king, as if every Jew in Jerusalem was an equally educated astronomer or astrologer. Clearly this does not reflect a high degree of wisdom on the Magi’s part.



A drachma minted under Phraates IV, King of Kings, ruler of the Parthian Empire from 38 BC to 2 BC. [See also part 2.]









No less strange is Matthew’s allusion to these Parthian noblemen coming to worship a Judean crown prince. The first and biggest question here is of course: why? And once in Judea, why would they assume anything else than that this new king would be a son of Herod the Great? The latter had been ruling Judea for more than three decades. The Magi, if they can be accredited with any basic knowledge about the world they lived in, would have known this. They would also have known that Herod was an intimate friend of the Roman emperors. So why go bow down to the son of your enemy king? Or did they know that the new-born king was not a son of Herod? If so, advertising your arrival and openly asking about this child, whom they may have seen as a future king who would overthrow the Herodian dynasty and align himself with the Persians against Rome, was the surest way to get that child on the hit list. Again, not so wise at all! The Magi made a big booboo by openly asking everyone about this new king they could not find in spite of being guided by a remote controlled star. They caused quite the disturbance, as Matthew puts it, in all Jerusalem and not the least, with king Herod the Great. How did they expect he’d react? Luckily for Joshua the Anointed, Matthew turns the most astute and ruthless king of Judea ever into a fumbling idiot and the story just becomes weirder and weirder.


Herod hears about those Magi asking all over Jerusalem about this new king and calls a meeting with the entire priesthood of the city. The conversation was short and probably something like this:

  • Herod: “Where is this new king supposed to been born?”

  • Priest 1: “Oh that’s easy, sire, in Bethlehem, the little hamlet you can see over there. We already knew this since Mica prophesized it. We just figured we could get away with not telling you about it because you might not have read the most important literary works this kingdom has ever produced till now."

  • Priest 2: “What’s more, sire, is that we would have gotten away with it, if only this future Christian god would not have stopped that star from guiding those Parthians directly to his birthplace. But luckily for you, this god is giving you the chance to immediately eliminate this usurper as Bethlehem is only a two hour walk away. In forced march, a platoon of your troops could even be there in one hour, if it so pleases your lordship.”

  • Herod: “Nah, it’ll be fine. You can all go back to whatever it is you were doing at whatever time of day this is.”

As soon as the priests are gone, Herod calls the Magi to his palace (*) in such absolute secrecy that everyone not only knew about this meeting but even knew what Herod told the Magi. Having so many witnesses to this secret meeting explains how the oral tradition about it could have finally reached the author of the gospel. Neither the author nor any of those witnesses seemed to have noticed the absurdity of the content of this meeting. For Herod asks the Magi to go look for the child and report back to him as soon as they found him, forgetting that he was just told where he could find the child: in Bethlehem. And where is Bethlehem? Just ten kilometers south of Jerusalem. Perched on a hilltop higher than Temple Mount, anyone could see the hamlet with the naked eye from Jerusalem. What the Magi and Herod could also see from Jerusalem is that Bethlehem was no bigger than some twenty huts and a few houses. Fifty soldiers would have been enough to comb through the entire place of 200 souls (at most) in less than an hour. Having ruled for so long, Herod doesn’t know this of course and must have mistaken Bethlehem for the 21st century city it now is: a major town of 25,000 residents in the foreign territory of the West Bank. So what does the ruthless Herod the Great do? Nothing: he goes back to whatever Great Kings do at whatever time of day it was at that point. He completely trusts the Parthians to come back and present him with a detailed map of the megalopolis, with an X marking the spot of Jesus’ birth.

Panoramic view of Herodion, Herod the Great's fortress palace, from which both Jerusalem and Bethlehem are perfectly visible.


Now that the Magi have learned from Herod where to find the Anointed, they embark on their last two hour leg of the journey and to their great joy, the now utterly useless star decides to guide them again. At this point however, this star could have only been seen by the Magi themselves. If Herod or any of his soldiers would have, they would have been led straight to Joshua’s infamous manger. But even without the star, could Herod not have sent two or three men to follow the Magi?

"Nah, it’ll be fine. Let’s wait a while, because we still have to allow the Old Testament rewrite into the narrative."

And although everyone in Jerusalem has been made aware of the birth of a new king, no one seems to take any interest whatsoever. Not a single person of the city decided to join the Magi for a walk and get a chance to meet the baby said to become a king. As absurd this already is, the caravan of these splendid three Magi would have been quite the attraction by itself, and there’s no way none of the approximately 5,000 Jerusalemites would have tagged along; if only to try and sell them some food or other local products. Another group of people who would be very interested to go and see this long awaited and prophesized king, were the chief priests and teachers of the law. But it seems they too couldn’t care less about the king they themselves confirmed to be the fulfilment of the supposed prophecy they quoted to Herod. Maybe they too already knew that they would condemn him to death for blasphemy later on, so why take any interest now, right?


With Matthew 2:11, the Magi finally arrive at the house where Joshua is born. Yes, HOUSE, people, not inn, stable or cave! It is important to note also that prior to chapter 2, Matthew does not say anything about Joseph’s and Mary’s whereabouts, so it is quite reasonable to state that Jesus was born in his parent’s house. After all, isn’t that where the vast majority of children have always been born up until the first half of the 20th century? Anyway, the Magi drop on their exhausted knees, worship the king who will never be theirs and dote on him with some 100,000.00 USD worth of trinkets. Incidentally, this treasure seems to have magically disappeared by the time Joshua is an adult. I surmise that Joseph stole his not-his son’s fortune and went on an empirical cruise, settling down in the French Riviera. That’s why we don’t hear much about him ever after. Or maybe the Magi transported it back into their own pockets, with them being Magi and all.


After Herod had to tell the Magi where Joshua is born; after the star has guided everyone who would have possibly cared straight to his birth place; after it first left the Magi hanging so they had no choice but to inform every one of the birth of the new king; after all that, the Magi dream a dream that tells them not to go back to Herod and go home via a different route. It is a very good thing that the Magi were renowned dream interpreters, because they could never have figured this out on their own. It makes you wonder though: when did they have this dream? Well, it can only have been after their meeting with Herod, for it says clearly in Matthew 2:12 that they should not go back. Either the Magi had their dream during the two hour walk or camel/horse/donkey ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (and who’s to say they were not able to sleep while traveling), or the dream appeared to them after they had already visited the house where Joshua was born. Whatever the case, the dream warning about the storm came after the ship had already sunk. The Magi returned home taking a different route, this time apparently not guided by a star. They must have known their way around, pointing out once again the utter uselessness of the divine GPS-guide; neither could they have asked any locals for directions or secret travel paths none of Herod’s uninterested soldiers could have known about, for that would have blown their cover. It also explains, once again, why so many witnesses were able to pass on this little piece of information all the way down to Matthew, who eagerly gobbled it up.


Once gone, it was Joseph’s turn to get another dream, in which an angel warned him to flee. I suppose the three wise men were not wise enough to already warn Joseph that Herod was looking for them (not really, at least not yet). God informed Joseph only after the Magi had left. If he had done before, maybe the holy trio could have simply joined the Magi to Persia. But that would make it hard for Matthew to fit the story in some Old Testament text, as I am not aware that any prophet uttered “Out of Persia I have called my son”, even though I think a case could be made for it, with Abraham being from Ur. So Joseph escaped with the child and his mother to Egypt (note how the text specifically avoids calling them his child and his wife).


It is unclear how many days Herod waited for the Magi to return from their supposed investigation. With Herod’s misgivings about his kingdom and the size of the enormous city in eyesight of Jerusalem, he could hardly blame the Magi for needing a few weeks to investigate the postal stamp sized village, especially with the quite unreliable GPS tracker sent by god to confuse them. But after a few weeks, even the dumb Herod realized he was outwitted by the three dumb men and ordered all the male infants up until 2 years old in Bethlehem and vicinity to be killed. This allowed Matthew to hang his story on another irrelevant prophet, because he needed the wife of the patriarch Jacob, Rachel to weep over children in Ramah. Matthew doesn’t seem to understand that Jeremiah is talking about the Babylonian captivity in the verse he references, but either way, Ramah is about 20 km north of Bethlehem and hardly in the vicinity that was targeted by Herod.

At this point we also have to mention the other idiot in the story: god. If god can communicate with Joseph through dreams telling him to save Joshua’s life by fleeing to Egypt, could he not also have done so with the fathers of all the less-than-two-year-old boys in Bethlehem and vicinity? Or if god was not potent enough to do that, could Joseph not have pondered about this with his fellow villagers? But as god is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, a third explanation is that as throughout the Old Testament, the god in the New Testament is still the same narcissistic, self-absorbed, blood thirsty prick who’d rather see babies and infants butchered to increase his glory.

Or as we know, this never happened and Matthew just wanted to emulate the birth story of Moses (**).


How the most wanted and slowly traveling trio, persecuted by the entire political and military might wielded by Herod the Great could have made it safely to Egypt is completely left to speculation by Matthew, as is where the nouveau rich would have found refuge. Maybe they found a happy home in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria. There Joseph could have debated with Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, whose Greco-Judean philosophy, terminology and ideas about the Logos would be a direct source of Christianity. But the blissful vacation would soon end. In another dream god informs Joseph that Herod the Great had died and that it was safe to return to Judea. Although we’re at the very end of the birth narrative, there’s not quite an end to the nonsense yet.


God tells Joseph that “those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” But when Joseph arrives in Judea, he finds out that Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great was installed as the new ruler and he becomes very afraid that they may yet be in danger (god could not have warned Joseph about this new Herodian ruler for some reason). Up until that point, Joseph has done everything god made him dream. He married his adulterous betrothed and mother of someone else’s child; named the child Joshua as instructed by the angel of the lord [This very same angel predicted that everyone would call the child Immanuel but somehow no one ever did]; he left his home for an unknown destination and returned home by mere word of god; all this without question or the slightest raise of an eyebrow. But now, when god tells him that everyone who wants the child dead is dead themselves, he is not so confident in god’s mental abilities anymore, and he becomes afraid for his and his family’s life. His doubt seems justified though. God did lie to Joseph, because god knows that Herod Archelaus wants Joshua dead too and Herod Archelaus clearly isn’t dead. This is confirmed when god sends Joseph yet another dream to warn him about the still present danger. From Matthew’s verses 22 and 23 it is unclear who is the dumber of the two, god or Joseph. Joseph withdraws to Galilee. Whether this choice was his own is not specified. Did god tell him to settle in Nazareth in the fore mentioned dream? Or did he leave it up to Joseph to decide this destination? If it was really Joseph’s decision, than he must not have been the most intelligent step-dad of god, for Galilee was equally ruled by a son of Herod the Great. That would also explain that Joseph needed to be told every step of the way what to do through a dream. But the second half of verse 23 indicates that Joseph really had no choice, as Matthew needed to “fulfil another prophecy by unspecified prophets” so that Joshua could be called a Nazarene. So was it a divine foreknowledge that took away Joseph’s free will to settle anywhere he wanted to keep himself and his family safe? First off, Matthew is not quoting any Old Testament prophecy here as there is no such prophecy linking the Messiah to a place called Nazareth. Depending on the modern version of Matthew's gospel, the last word of chapter 2 reads Nazorean (Ναζωραιος), while most will mention Nazarene (Ναζαρηνος).


Matthew's second chapter is so full of absurdity and unhuman like behavior , that it almost seems he is introducing it on purpose to draw our attention. Well, he certainly got mine. In part two, I will delve a bit into the historicity of Matthew’s second chapter, after which I will broaden the scope. In neither part I present a unifying field theory that accounts for all the mysteries the birth of Christianity is still steeped in; I’ll just throw out some thoughts that may or may not be worth exploring. It is just as much a path of inquiry and discovery as it may be to you reading this. For now, I conclude with the following thoughts:


If all gospels have their Joshua teach by way of parables or allegories, would it be such a farfetched notion that maybe the gospel authors are equally teaching their philosophies or “religion” by use of parable or allegory? Is the birth narrative of Matthew not describing the birth of an actual person, but the birth of (his form of) Christianity? Is the birth of the new religion which was to become Christianity indeed directly linked to a single human preacher, or was it already rooted and nurtured by preceding thoughts and teachings?



Darryl P.A, 01 April 2022

 

Notes:


(*) Although Matthew clearly has the Magi visit Jerusalem, the text leaves the possibly open that the secret meeting between Herod and the Magi would have taken place in Herodion, Herod's fortified palace just 5 km southeast of Bethlehem. It would however still contradict "the secrecy" of the described meeting and secondly, would have it made even easier for Herod (or his troops) to have found Jesus ahead of the Magi.


(**) There is no corroboration of Matthew's account that Herod would have ordered the murder of all male infants of Bethlehem, although Herod may very well have served as the inspiration for the anecdote. The simplest explanation remains the Exodus rewrite, but in part 2 we offer similar sources of inspiration.


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