Tag Archives: Magi

Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History”

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. . . .  All Litwa review posts are archived here.

This post covers chapters 7 and 8, “Magi and the Star” and “Child in Danger, Child of Wonder”. Even though I often disagree with Litwa’s interpretations and conclusions I do find the information he presents and questions raised to be very interesting and informative.

Litwa’s theme is that even though the authors of the canonical gospels composed narratives that to moderns are clearly mythical, by ancient standards of historiography such “mythical” episodes were part and parcel of “what happened”. Similar fabulous happenings are found in serious works by ancient historians, Litwa claims. Such types of events belonged to the “thought world” of that broad culture throughout the Mediterranean and Levant.

[I agree: ancient historical works do contain “mythical” elements but I have certain reservations about authorial intent and gullibility since, in my reading, they generally found ways to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were committed to the veracity of those sorts of stories.]

Ancient authors meant for readers to understand them as part of history, not myth, Litwa insists: the stories were indeed fabricated but their presentation was in the form of historical narrative. Ancient readers would have accepted them as historical — which is exactly what the authors intended.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Litwa points out that ancient Persians, in their Zoroastrian beliefs, had a similar myth about a future saviour figure. The Magi are Persian figures, so it is interesting that in Matthew we find a story of a virgin birth of a saviour with magi present. No, Litwa is not saying one story directly derived from the other and he notes significant differences between them. That is Litwa’s point, recall. These sorts of stories were part of the cultural backdrop in the world that produced our gospels.

Litwa refers to Mary Boyce’s study and for interest’s sake I will copy a relevant section from one of her books:

The original legend appears to have been that eventually, at the end of “limited time”, a son will be born of the seed of the prophet, which is preserved miraculously in a lake (named in the Avesta Lake Kąsaoya), where it is watched over by 99,999 fravašis of the just. When Frašō.kǝrǝti is near, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, giving birth to a son, Astvat.ǝrǝti, “he who embodies righteousness”. Astvat.ǝrǝti will be the Saošyant, the Saviour who will bring about Frašō.kǝrǝti, smiting “daēvas and men”; and his name derives from Zoroaster’s words in Y. 43.16: astvat ašǝm hyāt “may righteousness be embodied”. The legend of this great Messianic figure, the cosmic saviour, appears to stem from Zoroaster’s teaching about the one “greater than good” to come after him (Y. 43-3)21, upon which there worked the profound Iranian respect for lineage, so that the future Saviour had necessarily to be of the prophet’s own blood. This had the consequence that, despite the story of the Saošyant’s miraculous conception, there was no divinisation of him, and no betrayal therefore of Zoroaster’s teachings about the part which humanity has to play in the salvation of the world. The Saviour will be a man, born of human parents. “Zoroastrianism … attributes to man a distinguished part in the great cosmic struggle. It is above all a soteriological part, because it is man who has to win the battle and eliminate evil”.

(Boyce, 282)

Magi and births of future kings

https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/2019/10/15/episode-21-the-faith-of-the-magi/

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale of Magi interpreting a dream to mean a future king has been born:

Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits – though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank. 

Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.

(Herodotus, 1.108)

With this second dream the king is fearful enough to order the murder of the infant. The infant survives, however, and when the king learns his order has been defied he brings the magi in again for consultation. The king accordingly slew the innocent child of the servant who had disobeyed him.

Litwa identifies similar structures in the accounts of Herodotus and the Gospel of Mattew concerning

  • magi who inform a king that a child is born who will replace him,
  • the king ordering the child to be killed,
  • the child “miraculously” escaping,
  • and the king subsequently killing an innocent.

What interests Litwa, though, is that both “accounts are presented as historiography” (p. 107). Herod was known to be cruel, so even though there is no evidence that he did order the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, the tale in Matthew’s gospel “sounded enough like historiography to be accepted as true” (p. 107)

That sounds reasonable enough on its own, but what are we to make of the fact that Pilate was also known for his cruelty but all the evangelists, Matthew included, present him — most UNhistorically — as benign and soft when he meets Jesus and is cowered by the Jewish priests and mob into doing their will against his own will? Yet that story has also been accepted as true: despite what was known of Pilate’s character, it also “sounded enough like historiography”.

Litwa addresses other ancient tales involving magi (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, in relation to Alexander the Great), informing us that those tales, too, are implausible to moderns (no persons can predict the future of an individual from dreams), so if the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is likewise implausible, no matter, since that’s what the historical narratives of ancient historians looked like. There certainly are many accounts of dream interpretation in various historical works but they are “add-ons” and the overall narratives of historians are not one series of miraculous events after another, as we find in the gospels.

Magical guiding stars

Litwa finds ancient stories of guiding stars to be more useful explanations for the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Jesus than the various extant attempts to identify astronomical observations of that period. Again, Litwa is not arguing for direct “mimesis” but a more general influence of stories and concepts that were “in the air” throughout the Mediterranean cultural world.

We read of ancient sources that speak of magi interpreting dreams of astral bodies in ways that spoke of rulership; of the historian Pompeius Trogus writing of an unusual star appearing at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus who would challenge Rome, and again at his ascension to the throne. What I found of most interest in Litwa’s discussion is not his thoughts on “long-haired stars” or comets but his references to stars that were said to point to very specific places on earth — as per the star being said to stand over the house where the infant Jesus was to be found.

  • A sword-shaped star hung over Jerusalem just prior to its fall to the Romans (Josephus)
  • The Torch of Timoleon, a fiery “star” that led the fleet the Corinthian general Timoleon before falling down to mark the exact part of Italy to be beached (Plutarch)
  • The scholar Varro interpreted Virgil’s poetic account of the goddess Venus guiding Aeneas to Italy as Aeneas being led by the planet Venus (Servius)

(Source-author links are to the relevant passages describing the events.)

Many ancient people believed in omens and yes, they found their way into “history” books. Omens were even more integral to mythical stories and other forms of fiction. That point raises questions about the strength of Litwa’s attempt to explain why the gospels were believed to be historical by certain readers but not all.

Chapter 8

Jesus is part of a crowd of famous infants in danger

read more »

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region; if so, see http://jokes.cc.com/funny-god/9xm00l/cathy-ladman–gold–frankincense-and-myrrh). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...
St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however: read more »

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

One of the earliest known depictions from a th...
One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.

The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.

The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.

Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.

First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.

  • Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
  • It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
  • In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangersshepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
  • When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
  • The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
  • Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).

(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting) read more »