The birth of Christianity, part 2
1. More than meets the eye
Defending the literal truth of Matthew's birth narrative is bound to receive some justified criticism. None of the characters in Matthews’ second part of the birth narrative seem to act in a way that can be ascribed to actual living people.
Joshua’s step-dad Joseph does not make any decisions on his own. He is a mere plot device: every action taken is introduced by a dream and I think that his name is not a coincidence. Another clear indication that this is about more than a corporeal baby is that there is no biological relation between Joseph and Joshua. The same is through in Luke’s gospel even though both are at odds with each other over important philosophical / theological issues. Mary is said to have become pregnant before being married and this would have posed a major problem in a real life situation, especially in a tiny rural community where everyone would have known everyone (*). Because of a dream however, the faithful and Mosaic law abiding Joseph throws the entire Torah out of the window and still marries and later adopts the child of an unknown father. While this is technically still possible, it is portrayed as the most normal thing in the world and as if no man would have any problem with finding out his fiancée whom he did not yet had sex with one day shows up pregnant.
Mary herself is only mentioned three times in the story and this is only because most babies are born of mothers. Like Joseph, she is not portrayed as an active person and she may just as well not have been there at all – which kind of applies to the entire early Christian literature. It is worlds apart from the traditions and importance that would be attributed to her in later centuries.
The Magi, in spite of the wisdom attributed to them, are stripped of any intelligent behavior and are completely dependent on the deus ex machina used by Matthew, which by itself is at the very least a very capricious guide, if not to say totally useless.
Even Herod, the one historical character Matthew uses to anchor his story on, is nothing like the real Judean king. The real Herod the Great was smart, cunning, shrewd and decisive. He ruled his kingdom for more than 30 years and that should tell you that he certainly was no fool. He did not hesitate to kill anyone who threatened his position, whether it was his wife Mariamne and her brother Aristobulus III, the last heirs of the Maccabean dynasty, or even his sons with her, Alexander and Aristobulus IV. In Matthew’s story however, he stands idly by while he has every opportunity to kill the alleged ‘real’ heir to the throne of Judea. “His massacre” of the innocents comes ridiculously late, and in fact the entire portrayal of Herod is ridiculous. No one would have openly mocked any Herodian this way if any of them were still alive.
The story is in fact so absurd and ridiculous that perhaps Matthew is explicitly saying: “Do not take this story at face value”. Matthew has his main character Joshua say this very thing, first in chapter 7 where Joshua uses the famous ‘pearls before swine” analogy and even plainly in chapter 13 where he has Joshua explain why he teaches by use of parables.
Matthew’s ending of the birth narrative is quite peculiar. In the last verses he has Joseph move to Nazareth in Galilee and this is the point we ended with in part one on Matthew’s birth narrative. Moving to Nazareth would not have fulfilled any Old Testament prophecy, as there is no Old Testament prophecy mentioning Nazareth…anywhere. Any member of his audience who was intimately familiar with the Old Testament would have known this or at least have been able to find out, so why run the risk of being exposed as being wrong or ignorant in the best case, or a liar in the worst case? Perhaps he was counting on his audience to have a better understanding than we would now because we are not familiar with the events, ideas and politics of the author’s world.
If this is the case, then what is Matthew telling us? This is the question that leads us to a fork in the road. On the one hand, we could ask whether Matthew was giving us a historical account of a man named Jesus. On the other we are open to the possibility that he may have been promoting his philosophy [or ‘his religion’ in simplified terms]. Maybe the road lies in the middle of the former and perhaps Matthew was both promoting his religion by pointing at its authoritative history. Neither of these possibilities would explicitly deny the possibility of a historical Joshua being at the basis of it all, although it doesn’t give any evidence for a historical Joshua either. The obvious ‘absurdity’ of many of the events surrounding his character would lead a neutral reader to lean to the “allegorical Joshua”. However, if there was this Joshua, this also raises the question of the chicken and the egg. Was Christianity a product of the existence of Joshua, or was Joshua the product of an early “Christian” philosophy as expressed by the Nazarenes?
2. The star and the Magi
I limit this part to the exploration of the “history road”, particularly the possible historical echoes reflected in the birth narrative of Matthew’s chapter 2. The historical facts we are referencing may not be widely known anymore, but the stories of the people who witnessed them would have gone instantly viral throughout the Roman Empire and been talked and told about for many generations after. You can read more about the first historical fact by consulting Wikipedia’s page about it and dig deeper into its subsequent sources, so I’ll only give a rough outline.
A clearly visible traveling star appeared in the skies in 12 BC. We now know that this wasn’t really a star, but the comet Halley. It was recorded by the Chinese astronomers of the Han dynasty, who tracked the traveling “star” from August to October of that year. The Roman historian Lucius Cassius Dio recorded it as well, but described it as being suspended over Rome for several days. As mentioned by Wikipedia, this apparition of comet Halley is heralded by theologians as support for the historicity of the gospel birth stories… at least the one from ‘Matthew’, as Luke makes no such connection in any way. To reconcile this either traveling comet or ‘hovering star’ with the gospel, you have to dig a little deeper than Wikipedia. As the Chinese observed correctly, this comet would have indeed appeared to travel from August to October, but for a few days around the 7th of the latter month, it would appear to stagnate.
In opposition to Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s gospel allows the 12 BC appearance of Halley to match up with his suggested time frame of Joshua’s birth, falling within the reign of Herod the Great. You can see why Christian theologians love this factual history, but it is really strange none the less, for in doing so they completely invalidate the birth narrative in Luke. That aside, does this lead us to conclude that this 12 BCE appearance of Halley is the appearance Matthew uses to underpin his story? It is certainly a possibility, but I do think that this is not the event Matthew is writing about, because there is another more likely candidate.
You may not immediately make this connection through Wikipedia’s page on the comet Halley, but our second historical event matches both elements of Magi and star in the story much better. You may have found out by now that Halley appeared again in 66 AD, which incidentally falls within the lifetime of the author of the Matthew gospel, as well as the journey of a real life Magi, that could have been equally witnessed by the author himself.
The 66 AD Halley-apparition was witnessed by some other well-known figures connected to first century Palestine. One of them was the former Judean rabbi and army commander during the First Jewish Revolt, Titus Flavius Josephus. This author describes the comet of 66, which he would have personally witnessed in the exact same manner as Matthew and Cassius Dio: ‘standing over’ Jerusalem. Later on, I will mention another first century reference to this astronomical event.
Similar to the Joshua of the gospels, Tiridates I of Armenia was both a priest, a king and the son of (a) god. His very name means given by (son of) Tir. Tir being the Zoroastrian god of literature, science and art was equated with the sun god Apollo by Hellenists. The 21st century country Armenia may not rank high on people’s attention nowadays, but in the 1st century AD it was not only quite large, it was of enormous importance to both the Roman and Parthian empires. Whether there is a direct connection of this god with the name of the Phoenician city of Tyre is unclear and I will not delve into that, even though it is still worth remembering that Phoenician and Aramaic are very closely related languages and that in both the name means ‘Rock’. “Let those with ears hear” is where I will leave this for now.
Prior to his first ascension to the throne of Armenia, Tiridates’ brother Vologases I became the King of Kings of the Parthian empire, while another brother, Pacorus ruled as king of Media Atropatena. Tiridates’ initial reign was an arduous process as it became the subject of international conflict between the two superpowers. Although Nero still preferred to maintain a Herodian family friend on the Armenian throne (Tigranes VI), political developments forced him to cede the throne to Tiridates around 63 CE; on the condition that the latter would recognize the Roman emperor as his superior and receive his coronation in person.
Thus it was that a real Zoroastrian Magi set out on a mission of peace from the east to worship a “king’ in the west. Accompanied by his retinue consisting of family members, other magi, 3,000 horsemen, the children of other and former kings and a number of Roman officers and soldiers, the parade took more than a year. The scale and splendor of the event would leave a lasting mark on thousands of people’s memories and had profound political consequences that would resonate well into the second century. By the time Tiridates and his enormous circus arrived in Naples (October), he would have also been guided by the star as it seemingly hovered over all the Italian cities including the capital Rome, signaling an era of universal peace between Rome and Parthia for the next fifty years. This peace between Rome and Parthia boosted trade and subsequently, the exchange of ideas and culture. While perhaps not the immediate cause, his visit may very well have popularized Mithraism in the Roman Empire, most noteworthy among the legionnaires. Another intriguing part of the historical event is that our Magi’s journey to Rome would have been witnessed by tens of thousands across the eastern Roman Empire, causing indeed quite the disturbance as remarked by Matthew; but one leg of his return trip could only have been witnessed by a few, as the king sailed back across the Adriatic Sea from Brundisium (Brindisi) to Dyrrachium (present day Dürres, Albania), the starting point of the Via Egnatia which led him through Thessalonica and Byzantium back to the Asian continent. Warned in a dream to return home via a different route?
On a side note: Tiridates’ travel between Byzantium and Dyrrachium would have led him twice over the same Via Egnatia used by the apostle Paul some 3 decades earlier as this important Roman road also connected the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica. I’m not saying this is in some way a conspicuous coincidence because everyone traveling between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire over land would have made use of this road.
The Wikipedia page on Tiridates devotes no more than three lines on this possible connection between the real “adoration of the wise man” and Matthew’s gospel, but more oddly, makes no mention of comet Halley appearing simultaneously. If you lean to the 12 BC apparition of Halley as the inspiration for Matthew’s story, you lack the historical visit of the Magi. If you opt for our above described 66 AD event, you have both story elements taking place in real life and real history at the same time.
Coin struck in 66 under Nero's reign depicting the gates of the Temple of Janus closed.
3. Three Magi?
We have found a very good candidate for at least one of the three Magi immortalized by the gospel according to Matthew. I am well aware that the year 66 AD can in no way be linked to a traditional birth year for the Jesus of mainstream Christianity. Then again, the only way to place a historical Jesus’ birth at 12, 6… or 4 BC is by employing Matthew. And if he is using a historical event of 66 AD to illustrate a birth 70 years earlier, then who is to say that he may not just as well have altered the time line of his main character? I am certainly not the first to propose this possibility.
At the same time I have my own confession to make. As critical as I may be towards religion and Christianity, the traditions of the latter that I grew up with have certainly left their marks. One of those is the blind spots I still seem to have when it comes to studying the very source texts of Christianity. Even while writing these articles, I caught myself thinking in a “traditional Christian way”. As I myself just wrote a few lines earlier to have found a candidate for the historical Magi, I set out to find candidates for the other two Magi. But hold on, where does Matthew say that THREE Magi came to visit Jesus? Well, he doesn’t. And it baffles me how in spite of that, this idea still imposed itself on my own critique of the “literal interpretation” of the bible. I suppose that the number three, with its omnipresence in all cultures and literature, has such a symbolic power that I seem unable to escape it myself.
Matthew does not enumerate how many Magi visited Jesus. All we can deduce from the text is that it would have been more than one, since all manuscripts (all those I can consult online) use the Greek plural. But as we learned from Tiridates’ visit, his retinue already comprised several Magi. We may not even have to look for any other Magi to match the story.
In spite of the last, there may be a small lead if we turn to the last tractate (Horayot) of the Seder Nezikin in the Mishnah. In this tractate, Horayot 10a not only makes the first ever documented reference to the cyclical nature of comet Halley, it connects it with a sea voyage of two wise men (Tannaim, sages): rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, son of Simon ben Hillel and Yoshua, son of Yohanan. I will get into these two (and other) historical figures further on. Aside from this reference (full citations in reference section), I have so far not come across any more details about this sea voyage of the two sages, but it does imply that this sea voyage would have to take place in 66 AD for it to make sense. Lastly, a possible third Magi – although not necessary to complete the traditional view of the ‘three wise men’ – may be the peace mission of Philo of Alexandria to Rome in 40 AD. It is just a thought and I will not die on this hill defending it. After all, it is impossible to determine whether “Matthew” would have known about the second and third example, but there is absolutely no way he would not have known about Tiridates’ visit to Rome. [Conversely, being a Pharisee, one Joseph son of Matthew aka Josephus may very well have, so why not ‘Matthew’].
4. The massacre of the innocents
Matthew has Herod the Great slaughter all the male infants of Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate a possible contender for his throne. While we have no evidence in historiography that this event occurred, there certainly is precedent that could serve as inspiration to Matthew. In part one we referred to the story in Exodus 1 where the king of Egypt ordered all male Hebrew newborns to be killed at birth. The reasons for pharaoh may not have been entirely the same as Herod’s, but the similarities are obvious. Moses is the sole surviving baby of the intended massacre, as is Joshua. Moses would therefore be able to give Israel its laws as an adult, whereas Joshua would be fulfilling the law through his life and ministry (adding a few new “laws” of his own). Moses grew up in Egypt, as did Joshua (**). The parallels are definitely there. After all, according to Christians, Joshua is greater than Adam, Abraham and Moses, so it would only be fitting for his birth to be surrounded by similar, if not more impressive events.
That doesn’t exclude Herod the Great’s real life actions fitting the same motif. As pointed out earlier, Herod was anything but the docile king depicted in Matthew’s chapter 2. Herod was married to at least 10 women and had children with most of them. You can imagine the palace intrigues and competition going on in this harem and their offspring, all vying for succession to the power of Herod. Herod killed more than a few family members. Most noteworthy are of course his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus IV, who were both executed in 7 BC. His firstborn son Antipater II lost his head in 4 BC. All three fit perfectly within the traditional timeframe of Joshua’s birth. Matthew could therefore have easily been referencing these executions at the same time as the Exodus story. Contrary to the last however, Herod’s family members were all adults at the time of their execution. Secondly, they couldn’t be described as innocent, as they were indeed found to be conspiring to overthrow Herod.
Matthew would have had ample choice of historical precedents to use in his “Bethlehem massacre”. Killing off family members in a race for or retention of a throne seemed almost to be standard practice. Herod the Great became king of Judea in 37 BC (or 36), the same year Phraates IV became King of Kings in Parthia. One of the latter’s first acts was to kill all his half-brothers to safeguard his “legitimate” claim to the throne. Another incident that combines both a massacre and the year 66, is the slaughter of the Jewish community in the city of Damascus, reported on by Josephus. Josephus’ first version of his book was written around 75 AD and it is certainly possible that Matthew had read it before writing his gospel. Mirrored in the order of books of the New Testament, Matthew’s gospel was long believed to be the oldest, but the majority of biblical scholars now date it between 80 and 90 AD, after Mark. But even without access to Josephus as a source, the precedents and parallels are all around Matthew, in real history. I don’t mean to imply that Matthew is incorporating every single historical parallel into his birth story. As said, the most obvious models used by Matthew are the Exodus story and the last decade of Herod’s reign.
5. The year 66
Finding a historical, real life human Jesus is something no historian has been able to do so far, even though very few would exclude the possibility or even probability of such a man having existed. In spite of Christians' claim to the contrary, we simply don't have a lot of reliable historical data to build a case on. As such I too leave any position or view on the historicity of the Joshua character completely open. The Magi’s visit to Jerusalem can however be firmly placed in actual history. The year 66 would literally have been a year to be remembered. Not only because this year matches up the star with the Magi, but because it was a crucial year for the author, the audience and the characters in it. It would also support the possibility that Matthew did indeed shift his characters back in time, because it would be prudent to do so if he was writing about real, biological characters.
Interpreting “the star of Bethlehem” as a bringer of positive news seems to be an a posteriori interpretation; for throughout most of history the appearance of a comet was feared by people as an omen of catastrophe more than it was hailed as a bringer of good news (although this is mostly a double edged sword: the defeat of one is the victory of another). It is difficult to say to what extent the apparition may have influenced their beliefs, but it may have led some Judean and Galilean zealots to think that it was a divine sign promising them victory over “the forces of evil”. We could think of it both ways, because in 66 AD the Judean and Galilean zealots and sicarii did in fact successfully revolt against the Roman and Herodian co-rulership, forcing Herod Agrippa II to flee Jerusalem and crushing the Legio XII Fulminata. Within the year their victory would turn into tragedy and to many Jews it would have indeed been the long awaited end of days… only not the kind they were counting on. The revolt was systematically quelled by the four horsemen of the apocalypse or rather the four legions under Vespasian’s command, destroying entire villages and of course, god’s own residence: the Temple of Jerusalem.
Promoting therefore a Jewish Messiah, as is believed – in general terms - the gospel writers’ intentions were, had to be done in stealth. Or, if the reality had caused to you to change your beliefs and expectations, the literary products of those changed beliefs would reflect that. All three synoptic gospels reflect and agree on the historical fact of the destruction of god’s own residence, the Jerusalem temple. What they differed on was how this should be interpreted or how this could be reconciled with all they knew or believed before. What may have already been clear to all those affected, was that a literal liberation from foreign rule and an independent Jewish theocracy - “a divine kingdom on earth” - was no longer part of the immediate possibilities and would have to be postponed to a more opportune time. It didn’t quell Messianic expectations however. If anything, it strengthened the yearning for a Messiah, a Savior to set things right. In 132 AD the Messiah finally came and once again established an independent Judea. By 136 AD however, the Jewish dream of god’s kingdom on earth was over. The Messiah, called Son of the Star by rabbi Akiva, was killed once again and in the Talmud, his name was changed into Son of the Lie. Perhaps if Simon postponed his revolt another 9 years, he could have started under the more promising guidance of Halley’s comet (141 AD) and thus gotten divine approval of his messianic status.
Matthew is the first of the two gospels authors writing a birth narrative of “a Nazarene”, but his visitation of the Magi connects this birth with imminent death, in particular the death of traditional Judean temple worship and the established order. The star may not only have been announcing the former, but may have signaled the birth of something new. The seeds of Christianity had already been sown as far back as the 3rd and 2nd century BC, with the works and thoughts of Ben Sirach, Greek philosophy and the syncretism of the former by Philo of Alexandria, Nicolas of Damascus and certainly Pharisaic Judaism. But up until 70 AD, the sprouts of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were still overshadowed by the fig tree of 2nd Temple Judaism. Only when the latter was cut down and thrown into the fire were both “new” religions able to receive the light and come to full fruition.
Whether a historical Joshua can be identified in the murky waters of first century Judeo-Roman politics or not; whether there even was a historical Jesus isn’t the most important aspect of this birth narrative. More than the traditional birth year of a possible Jesus, the year 66 AD - start of the First Jewish-Roman War - marks a major shift in human history in tandem with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Even if Jesus was never real, the belief in his existence and message through life, death and resurrection had very real, political consequences; probably more profound even than a biological Jewish Messiah would have caused by his own actions, no matter how successful. Maybe we will come back to possible candidates for a historical Jesus. In the following parts I would first like to “briefly explore” the world that led to Christianity, whether that includes a real Jesus or not.
Darryl P.A, 07 April 2022
Notes, sources, references:
(*) "Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." - Matthew 1: 19 Matthew does not make this comment for nothing. By Mosaic Law, Joseph would have had grounds to bring Mary before the Sanhedrin, where she could have been found guilty of adultery and be sentenced to death, along with her baby. But even divorcing Mary quietly would have changed nothing about the fact that Mary would be publicly disgraced. A pregnancy is not something you could keep secret for long, especially not in a small rural village. Mary's father would not have accepted her back in his household as he would have been unable to marry her off to another man. If Joseph therefore would indeed have been a compassionate and/or righteous man as the gospels say depending on the translation or version, the best way to protect Mary was to marry her, regardless of a dream sent by god.
(**) Dr. Lena Einhorn proposes the possibility that Jesus came back from Egypt as an adult. Matthew opens chapter 3 about John the Baptist with the words "in those days". The question, and it may remain a question, is whether he is referring back to 'in those days that Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Israel". The time John the Baptist began preaching can be estimated upon the information given in the Gospel of Luke and is usually placed between 27-29 AD. If therefore "in those days" is a way of linking John's preaching to Jesus' return, then Jesus would have been well in his thirties upon his move to Nazareth. To do this we of course have to trust Luke's chronology is correct. Importing Luke however to corroborate the chronology of Matthew is highly problematic, as both gospels are so at odds regarding Jesus' time of birth. If Luke is correct, placing Jesus' birth at 6/7 AD and Jesus started preaching when he was around 30 years old, then his ministry would have started around 36/37 AD, a decade after the traditional date. Importing Matthew into Luke, would make Jesus at least 41 years old at the start of his ministry. Following the above interpretation of Matthew's words "in those days", would indeed have Jesus be in his 40's when returning from Egypt (and you can see why he could be called 'the Egyptian'). But if we are talking about a biological, human Jewish preacher called Jesus, he can only be born once: either in the time according to Matthew, either in the time according to Luke.
On Halley's comet:
Rigge, W.P. “The apparent path of Halley’s comet in the sky”, Popular Astronomy Journal, vol. 18, pp.165-169, March 1910, Bibliographic Code: 1910PA.....18..165R, SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) https://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1910PA.....18..165R/0000167.000.html
Jenkins, R. M. “The Star of Bethlehem and the comet of AD 66”, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Vol. 114, No. 6, p.336, Bibliographic Code: 2004JBAA..114..336J, SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) https://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2004JBAA..114..336J
Comet P1/Halley, as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch Large Scale Penomena Network https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Lspn_comet_halley.jpg/1024px-Lspn_comet_halley.jpg
Roman coin struck in 66 under Nero's reign depicting the gates of the Temple of Janus closed. Retrieved from Wikipedia, "Tiridates I of Armenia", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiridates_I_of_Armenia Description: Nero. Æ As Struck 66 AD. Nero Æ As. NERO CAESAR AVG GERM IMP, laureate head right / PACE P R TERRA MARIQVE PARTA IANVM CLVSIT S-C, the Temple of Janus, latticed window to left, garland hung across, closed double doors right. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, File:Nero closedJanus.jpg, Uploaded: 21 December 2006