For earlier discussion, see
11 How many wise men came to visit the newborn Jesus?
None, according to Luke. The wise men appear only in Matthew’s account. The whole birth of Jesus is mentioned very quickly by Matthew (1:18, 25). By contrast, the dark story of the slaughter of boys aged two and under dominates Matthew’s narrative (Matt 2:1–12). It is in connection with that part of the story that the wise men appear.
We are not told their names, nor how many they were. They are described as magi, probably meaning that they were astrologers. Only in later church tradition would they be identified as the three men, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the magi, many believe that the number of the gifts he notes is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men—and, of course, they then needed to gain names (as do many anonymous biblical figures in the evolving church tradition over subsequent centuries).
These magi appear to have come from Gentile lands. They could be seen as exemplars of faithful obedience, travelling far to “adore the child”. But they are very mysterious figures in Matthew’s account. The gifts they bring were valuable items—reflecting a standard of gifts that might be offered to honour a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense (incense) as perfume, and myrrh as anointing oil.
It is claimed that these same three items were among the gifts that the Seleucid ruler, Seleucus II Callinicus, who ruled for 20 years (246–225 BCE), offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 BCE. (I found this claim often in online articles, but I can’t trace any of them back to the actual historical source.) More significant, in Matthew’s mind, would be the fact that two of the gifts resonate with a Hebrew Scripture passage, late in the book of Isaiah. Jerusalem’s restoration is portrayed as a time when nations and kings will “bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
Matthew, who portrays Jesus as the new Moses throughout his Gospel, considers that his mission was solely to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24)—and to them alone. The visit of the magi from the East represents a Gentile acknowledgement of the high role that Jesus will play, bringing to fulfilment the intentions of God for the covenant people. So this element, told very early in the narrative, is simply a literary technique to introduce a key theme which will reach fulfilment in the time beyond the tale that the narrative offers.
12 Were the baby boys in Bethlehem really slaughtered by Herod’s troops?
In the opening chapters of this Gospel, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. Many of these characters and events are “types”, imitations of an earlier story—for in his narrative, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking—deliberately shaped that way by the author of this Gospel, I would maintain.
Moses, for instance, was in danger of being killed as a small boy, as the Pharaoh instructed the midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live” (Exod 1:16). The child Moses was rescued by midwives who “feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (Exod 1:17).
Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents” is generated by his Moses typology. This grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. But it raises our suspicions about whether this event actually took place. There is no other evidence for it in any ancient writing, apart from Matthew’s Gospel. Can we be sure that it took place? Not by any standard of historical assessment.
(I recognise that some claim that a report by Josephus in book 2 of his account of the Jewish War, about an uprising related to a certain shepherd named Athrongeus, might be telling of consequences that flowed from a presumed slaughter of children under Herod. However, this event took place after the death of Herod, not while he was alive, and it took place in Jerusalem, not in Bethlehem, as Matthew’s account maintains. And, of course, Matthew has no shepherds in the story, so the connection is even more diffuse. The search for a parallel account in another ancient source is undertaken in vain.)
So we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event; yet his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
13 Did the family flee to Egypt with a newborn child?
There is no other evidence for this journey outside of Matthew’s book of origins, so the evidence is scant and biased. The Moses typology we have noted is also relevant here. Matthew emphasises the many ways in which events in the early years of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies found in Hebrew Scripture (see Matt 1:22–23; 2:5–6, 15, 17, 23; and for the adult Jesus, see 3:3; 4:12–16; 12:15–21; 13:14–15, 35).
So many parts of the early life of Jesus as Matthew recounts it are presented in a way that makes them consistent with these prophecies—although one of them (2:23) cannot actually be found in the Bible! It is most likely that Matthew has constructed his story so that it fits with these scriptural prophecies. They provide him with a familiar framework for telling the story.
Only Matthew tells about Herod and his slaughter of the innocents. Such an event is unknown from any other ancient literature. Had it actually taken place, it is likely that it would have been reported elsewhere. This event, and others in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ early life, mirror the pattern of events at the start of Moses’ life. There is the slaughter of infant males under 2 years by a tyrannical ruler, and the flight into another country by the boy’s parents, so that the boy is saved. In this way, Matthew presents Jesus as “the new Moses”.
14 If we can’t be sure about so many parts of the story, why do we still tell it each year?
The Christmas story is a myth. That is what gives it an incredible narrative power. Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life.
Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world.
As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity. So it is worth telling, and hearing, and singing, and acting out, year after year: because it touches the deep places of our lives, because it resonates with our hopes and aspirations. We don’t have to work to ensure people see it as history. It is myth. That is enough. That is its power.