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Matthew & the Infancy of Jesus

Matthew & the Infancy of Jesus


The chronological problems in the two stories of Jesus’ infancy in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are well-known to scholars.



Jesus born before the death of Herod I in 4 BCE

Jesus born during or after the census of the newly-annexed Iudaea Province in 6 CE

Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem

Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, but travel to Bethlehem because of the census

The family remains in Bethlehem for (at most) two years, flees to Egypt for an unknown amount of time, then moves to Nazareth to stay out of reach of Herod’s son Archelaus

The family visits the Jerusalem temple for Jesus’ circumcision when he is eight days old, immediately returning to their existing home in Nazareth

From a historian’s perspective, this conflicting information casts serious doubt on the historicity of either infancy narrative. My focus here, though, is not Luke’s story, but Matthew’s.

The story told in Matt 1–2 is straightforward. Matt 1.1–17 provides Jesus’ genealogy. Matt 1.18–25 tells how Joseph learned of Mary’s virgin conception, ending with the brief statement of Jesus’ birth. Matt 2.1–12 tells the story of the Magi who inform Herod of Jesus’ birth and bring the child gifts. Matt 2.13–18 tells how Herod attempted to have Jesus killed, with the family fleeing to Egypt. Matt 2.19–23 concludes the infancy narrative with the family leaving Egypt after Herod’s death, but settling in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.

On a surface-level reading, Matthew’s account of the birth and infancy of Jesus is not that problematic. This has led some scholars to boldly defend the ‘historical probability’ of Matt 1–2, ‘assum[ing its] genuine historical reminiscence’.1

This does not mean Matthew leaves us without questions.

Jesus’ Genealogy

The genealogy given in Matthew differs from the one in Luke 3 at several key points, which comes with its own set of problems. The two do not even agree on who Joseph’s father was. A traditional explanation for this contradiction among Christian interpreters is that one of the two genealogies follows Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, the other through Mary. However, both specifically state they are tracing the ancestry through Joseph (Matt 1.16; Luke 3.23). An alternate explanation is that Joseph was the son of a Levirate marriage. Here, his ‘biological’ father would not be his ‘legal’ father, so the two genealogies happen to diverge on this point. Neither Gospel actually says any of this. (And, of course, neither of them deal with the obvious problem that Joseph’s genealogy can’t also be Jesus’ genealogy, since Jesus was born of a virgin.2)

Setting aside Luke’s version of the genealogy, we still have some puzzles in the one from Matthew. One is the threefold division the author draws our attention to, which he lists this way:

01 Abraham (Ἀβραὰμ)

02 Isaak (Ἰσαὰκ)

03 Iakōb (Ἰακὼβ)

04 Ioudas (Ἰούδας)

05 Phares (Φάρες)

06 Hesrōm (Ἑσρὼμ)

07 Aram (Ἀράμ)

08 Aminadab (Ἀμιναδὰβ)

09 Nahassōn (Ναασσὼν)

10 Salmōn (Σαλμών)

11 Boes (Βόες)

12 Iōbēd (Ἰωβὴδ)

13 Iessai (Ἰεσσαί)


15 Dauid (Δαυὶδ)

16 Solomōn (Σολομὼν)

17 Roboam (Ῥοβοὰμ)

18 Abia (Ἀβιὰ)

19 Asaph (Ἀσάφ)

20 Iōsaphat (Ἰωσαφὰτ)

21 Iōram (Ἰωρὰμ)

22 Ozias (Ὀζίας)

23 Iōatham (Ἰωαθὰμ)

24 Achaz (Ἀχὰζ)

25 Hezekias (Ἑζεκίας)

26 Manasses (Μανασσῆς)

27 Amōs (Ἀμὼς)

28 Iōsias (Ἰωσίας)

29 Iechonias (Ἰεχονίας)

30 Salathiēl (Σαλαθιὴλ)

31 Zorobabel (Ζοροβαβὲλ)

32 Abioud (Ἀβιοὺδ)

33 Eliakim (Ἐλιακὶμ)

34 Azōr (Ἀζὼρ)

35 Sadōk (Σαδὼκ)

36 Achim (Ἀχὶμ)

37 Elioud (Ἐλιοὺδ)

38 Eleazar (Ἐλεάζαρ)

39 Matthan (Ματθὰν)

40 Iakōb (Ἰακὼβ)

41 Iōsēph (Ἰωσὴφ)

42 Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς)

Matthew typically uses the existing Greek (LXX) versions of the Hebrew scriptures where his source material doesn’t already provide a scriptural quotation,3 and the author’s Greek spelling of these names corresponds to the LXX in most cases.4

Matthew’s three sets of fourteen generations come up short in the first set. Oddly, this problem wouldn’t exist if the author had not selectively excluded names from his genealogy. Between generations 21 (Joram) and 22 (Uzziah, aka Azariah) our author skipped three generations (Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah). Between 28 (Josiah) and 29 (Jeconiah, aka Jehoiachin) the author skipped one generation (Jehoiakim, aka Eliakim). It is puzzling that he could easily have solved the imbalance of having only thirteen generations in the first set if he had simply kept any one of those four generations he omitted. Instead, his desire to force the genealogy into three sets of fourteen draws our attention to his list coming up short.

Two genealogical traditions in the Bible diverge after Jeconiah. First Chronicles identifies Zerubbabel’s father as Jeconiah’s son Pedaiah, then traces nine more generations, none of which match Matthew. Instead, Matthew follows the tradition found in Hebrew Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Greek Ezra, that Zerubbabel’s father was Jeconiah’s son Shealtiel. From there, between Zerubbabel (31) and Joseph (41), our author’s version of the genealogy is not corroborated by any known source. Where did he get the names of Zerubbabel’s descendants?

Abioud (Ἀβιοὺδ)

From Abihu or Abihud, a son of the first high priest Aaron (LXX Exo 6.23).

Eliakim (Ἐλιακὶμ)

The name (אליקים) of three men in the Hebrew Bible, including a priest (Neh 12.41).

Azōr (Ἀζὼρ)

Possibly from the name Azzur (עזור), the father of a prophet of King Zedekiah (Ἀζὼρ, LXX Jer 35.1), or shortened from Azariah, a son of the priest Zadok (Αζαριου, LXX 1 Kings 4.2).

Sadōk (Σαδὼκ)

From Zadok (צדוק), an important priest in David’s time (2 Sam 8.17ff), and ancestor of the Zadokite priestly line.

Achim (Ἀχὶμ)

Probably abbreviated from Achimaaz (אחימעץ), a son of Zadok and also a priest (Αχιμαας, 2 Sam 15.27ff). Also similar to Achiam (אחיאם), the name of one of David’s warriors (1 Chr 11.35).

Elioud (Ἐλιοὺδ)

Possibly from Elihu or Elihud (Ἐλιοὺδ, LXXA 1 Chr 12.21).

Eleazar (Ἐλεάζαρ)

The name of a son and successor to the first high priest Aaron, brother of Moses (Num 20.25–26).

Matthan (Ματθὰν)

The same as Mattan (מתן), a priest of Baal (Ματθὰν, 2 Kings 11.18; 2 Chr 23.17). Compare also Mattan, father of a royal official of King Zedekiah (Μαθαν, Jer 38.1), and Mattaniah, the pre-regnal name of Zedekiah (Μαθθανιας or Ματθανιας, LXX 2 Kings 24.17) and the name of a Levite (Μανθανιας, LXX 1 Chr 9.15).

Iakōb (Ἰακὼβ)

Grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac, and father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Iōsēph (Ἰωσὴφ)

One of the twelve sons of Jacob, who had prophetic dreams (Gen 37.5ff).

None of them match Zerubbabel’s lineage in Chronicles, but several of the names are connected to Israel’s priesthood.

While Luke 3’s version of the genealogy would take too much space here, it suffers from similar problems: omitted generations, invented generations, and duplicated generations. Between these problems, and that the two genealogies contradict between David and Shealtiel, and between Zerubbabel and Joseph, it is doubtful either one represents Jesus’ actual ancestry.5

The prevailing interpretative theory for how the author of Matthew constructed this genealogy is based on his interest in Jesus as the ‘son of David’, a messianic title going back a century or two before Jesus.6 He uses David to frame the genealogy (1.1,17), as one of the dividers of the three sets (1.6), and to identify Joseph when the infancy narrative proper begins (1.20). In ancient Hebrew, letters had numerical value, which results in the name ‘David’ (דוד) equating to 14. Artificially creating a genealogy of three sets of fourteen comes from this gematria.7

Given that Matthew was written in Greek, it could be asked whether the author expected his readers to recognize this gematria.8 It’s not without precedent that a Greek-writing author would use Hebrew gematria,9 but another possible explanation is that Matthew was loosely borrowing from the waxing and waning of the moon over twenty-eight days. According to this theory, the first fourteen ‘days’ (Abraham to David) correspond to Israel reaching its height, the next fourteen ‘days’ (up to Jeconiah) correspond to Israel’s decline and eventual exile to Babylon, followed by fourteen ‘days’ (up to Jesus) resulting in Israel’s revival in its Messiah.10

Immanuel, Son of the Virgin

After the genealogy, Matthew shifts into the actual narrative of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy. Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem — unlike in Luke, the two do not travel or move to the city, they are already there — betrothed, when they learn Mary is suddenly pregnant. Betrothal was a step higher than being ‘engaged’ in modern Western society; they were legally bound to one another, but the wedding had not taken place and they were not living together yet. This meant any infidelity would be met with just as strict punishment as if the two were married: death by stoning. The narrator notes Joseph was ‘a just man’ because he did not seek Mary’s humiliation; he is merciful, perhaps in anticipation of Jesus’ later teaching. However, stoning was not commonly practiced at the time anyway.11

This leads to the first of Matthew’s scriptural quotations, introduced with his normal formula ἵνα πληρωθῇ, ‘so to fulfill’. When the author wants to show his readers how Jesus fulfilled something from Israel’s scriptures, he grabs a quote to prove it.

Isaiah 7.14

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Immanuel.’

Matthew’s questionable use of this verse is well-known. Isa 14 concerns the Judean king Ahaz, who was concerned for the survival of his kingdom under the impending threat of his neighbors, Israel and Syria (Isa 7.1–9). Isaiah informs Ahaz that a ‘young woman’ (ʿalmāh) has conceived and will give birth to a son, who will be given the prophetic name ‘God-is-with-us’ (7.10–14). Before this son is old enough to understand morality or eat solid food, Assyria will have conquered Israel and Syria, ending their threat to Judah (7.15–19). Through this action, Judah will know that God is with the kingdom (7.20–8.10). Put simply, Ahaz’s problem will be resolved within just a few years, and the development of a newborn into a toddler able to recognize moral decisions will be the deadline. In context, this prophecy has nothing to do with the Messiah, nor a future eight centuries away.

A key point of contention is that within Isaiah’s prophecy, the ‘young woman’ is not a virgin: she has already conceived, and the parallelism with Isa 8.3–4 strongly implies that the woman is Isaiah’s own wife, and the child is Isaiah’s own son. While the Greek word παρθένος normally would mean ‘virgin’, it could also mean ‘young woman’ (e.g. Gen 34.3, where Dinah is called παρθένον by the narrator immediately after she was raped). Except for a small change in verb tense (more below), the Isa 7.14 quotation in Matthew is identical to the LXX.12

While we don’t know the precise relationship between Matthew and Luke, the great differences between their infancy narratives show neither is likely to be dependent on the other here. If we remove all the contradictory information in these narratives, they share just a few common items, one of them being that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin. This suggests the author of Matthew did not invent this detail on his own, as sometimes suggested by overly-critical skeptics. The virgin birth came from an existing tradition which the author shaped into Matt 1.18–2.23. However, because the quotation of LXX Isa 7.14 came from Matthew and not his source,13 it shows that he specifically searched for a verse to justify the tradition of Mary’s conception of Jesus while a virgin. He found a sentence that, in the wider context of Isa 7, could not possibly be about a virgin, but contained παρθένος, a word which allowed a degree of interpretive ambiguity.

Matthew does make one change to his use of LXX Isa 7.14, changing the verb καλέσεις (‘you shall call’) into καλέσουσιν (‘they shall call’).14 This was necessary for the sake of narrative context.15 In Isa 7, Isaiah was speaking to Ahaz, addressing him individually: he, Ahaz, would call the child ‘Immanuel’. In Matthew, readers already know the the name that Joseph must give to Mary’s son, Jesus, so the author could not have the prophecy address Joseph individually. Hence, he changes it from the second person singular to the third person plural: ‘they shall call’ Jesus ‘Immanuel’.

The author’s use of Isa 7.14 here forms an inclusio with the end of his gospel.16 In Matt 1.23, Jesus will be called the name which means ‘God is with us’. In the very last words of the Gospel, Matt 28.20, Jesus assures his disciples that ‘I am with you always’. This does not mean that Matthew’s author intended for his readers to identify Jesus as God.17 (This understanding of Jesus’ identity does not seem to appear in Christian literature until the second century CE.) Rather, just as in Isa 7–8, the point is that God reveals his enduring presence with his people through the agent of his activity on the earth.18

A New Moses

One of Matthew’s more unique themes is his identification of Jesus as a ‘new Israel’, partially seen in his use of ‘new exodus’ typology. The latter concept is ancient, going at least as far back as Deutero-Isaiah, which subtly compares the return of the Judeans from exile in Babylon to their escape from slavery in Egypt. Some theories also see parallels between the ‘suffering servant’ and Moses. The way the ‘new Israel’ manifests in Matthew is primarily found in the way he arranges his material to mirror highlights from the Torah:

  • A man named Joseph has a prophetic dream (Gen 37.5ff)
  • An evil king secures his power by killing male infants (Exo 1.15–22)
  • One son escapes the slaughter (Exo 2.1–10)
  • God calls his son out of Egypt (Exo 4.19–23)
  • The chosen son reveals God’s law on a mountain (Exo 20–24)
  • Jesus’ teachings are arranged into five main discourses (Gen, Exo, Lev, Num, Deut)
  • Jesus’ final public discourse is to proclaim God’s wrath over Israel and their holy place (Deut 28–30)

These purposeful similarities between the story of Jesus and Moses run deeper than these broad strokes.19 In some cases, the author’s dependence on Moses’ story in LXX Exodus is explicit.20

Matthew 2.19–20

Exodus 4.19

Go into the land of Israel, for those who sought your child’s life have died

Proceed, go forth into Egypt, for all those who sought your life have died

πορεύου εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου

βάδιζε ἄπελθε εἰς Αἴγυπτον τεθνήκασιν γὰρ πάντες οἱ ζητοῦντές σου τὴν ψυχήν

In the eighth century BCE, the Assyrian king Sargon II spread propaganda elevating his namesake, Sargon of Akkad, who ruled fifteen centuries before him. The story being told was that Sargon had been rescued from death in his infancy:

My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me.21

The story of Moses’ survival in Exo 2 was based directly on the legend of Sargon of Akkad,22 and it received embellishments in the ages after it was written. By the first century CE, a larger mythology had been built up so that the pharaoh did not have the male Israelite children killed simply because of a vague fear they might eventually revolt and escape slavery (Exo 2.9).

One of those sacred-scribes, who are very wise in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites23

In Josephus’ story the pharoah’s adviser is called a ‘sacred-scribe’ (ἱερογραμματεύς), while Matthew identifies Herod’s advisers as ‘chief priests’ (ἀρχιερεῖς) and ‘scribes’ (γραμματεῖς), the two parts of Josephus’ compound word.24 As a consequence of his advisers’ information, Herod orders that every boy in Bethlehem who is under two years old must be killed, but Joseph and Mary escape with Jesus before he is caught in the mass murder. Herod’s actions make him directly equivalent to the pharaoh, and so Jesus to Moses.

A common feature in legendary birth narratives was fear or awe of the child by their family. A story of Noah’s infancy has him born glowing, terrifying his father Lamech.25 Comparable to Joseph receiving dreams from God, both to confirm Jesus’ importance and to instruct Joseph how to rescue Jesus (Matt 1.20; 2.13, 19), Moses’ father Amram receives a similar dream from God on how to save Moses from the pharaoh.26 In one form of the story, Amram even divorces his wife, but takes her back because of divine mandate.27

Moses is also made a ‘king’ in parabiblical legend, adding one more point of commonality between him and Jesus.28

The Magi

Alongside the priests and scribes, Matt 2 depicts a group of men called μάγοι (magoi), singular μάγος (magos). Many readers today are aware Matthew never specifies how many there were, nor that they were ‘kings’.29

The common translation of ‘wise men’ is a poor choice,30 since it doesn’t at all convey the complexity of this word. It is sometimes transliterated as ‘magi’, a word that has very little clear meaning in English; the connection to ‘magic’ is unnoticed by many readers. They are introduced into the narrative with the word ἰδοὺ, meaning ‘see’ or ‘behold’. Some think the intrusion of this word into the narration here shows the author was marking the μάγοι as ‘extraordinary’ to his readers.31

Where Josephus says that the pharaoh was advised by a ‘sacred scribe’, the Targum tells the story differently.32

And the pharaoh told that he, being asleep, had seen in his dream, and, behold, all the land of Egypt was placed in one scale of a balance, and a lamb, the young of a sheep, was ill the other scale; and the scale with the lamb in it overweighed. Forthwith he sent and called all the magicians of Egypt, and imparted to them his dream. Immediately Jannes and Jambres, the chief of the magicians, opened their mouth and answered the pharaoh, ‘A certain child is about to be born in the congregation of Israel, by whose hand will be destruction to all the land of Egypt.’33

The pharaoh’s advisers are ‘magicians’, named as Jannes and Jambres (cf. 2 Tim 3.8). While the pair’s antagonistic role in the narrative is not identical with the helpful μάγοι in Matthew, both the Targum’s magicians and Matthew’s μάγοι help inform the evil king of the birth of a divinely-chosen son, and both are associated with prophetic dreams (Matt 2.12).

The Greek word μάγος is an Old Iranian loanword of unknown meaning. In specific terms, a μάγος was a Persian fire-priest of Zoroastrian religion, ‘who specialized in interpreting dreams’,34 and who encountered Greek civilization in the late sixth century BCE. In general terms, μάγος was often used to refer to someone as an astrologer, a dream-interpreter, a magician, or a sorcerer.35 Because this ‘magic’ of the μάγοι was held in suspicion by the Greeks,36 the term μάγος also came to be used pejoratively: a μάγος was a conman or a fraud. All these uses of the word are attested equally early, so we don’t know when the general usage of μάγος evolved away from its original, specific definition.37 This makes it difficult to know who the μάγοι in Matthew are supposed to be identified with: Zoroastrian fire-priests, magic-users, or frauds? Some commentators even insist we can’t tell if the μάγοι are supposed to be identified as fellow Judeans or foreigners.

Though there are theories that Matthew intends to disparage the μάγοι,38 the narrative does not have anything clearly negative to say about them.39 They faithfully seek out the true ‘king of the Judeans’ to ‘worship him’ and offer gifts. This, at least, rules out identifying Matthew’s μάγοι as ‘frauds’.

Matt 2.1 mentions that the μάγοι came ‘from the east’. On its own, this would make a compelling case that these μάγοι should be identified as Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia or Babylon, as some ancient interpreters did (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Celsus, Jerome, Augustine).40 However, others found ‘east’ to mean Arabia (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Epiphanius), since the region is described as ‘east’ in parts of the Hebrew Bible (Gen 10.30; Judges 6.3; Ezek 25.4,10).41 The latter interpretation has found support from the choice of gifts the μάγοι bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which apparently derive from the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 60.6

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of Yhwh.

Even if the connection with this verse is correct — and possibly also Psa 72.10–1542 — it may not yet be strong enough to single out Arabia as the origin of the μάγοι. Isa 60 consists of a long poem describing many nations bringing gifts to Jerusalem, across both land and sea. This does pressure us to identify the μάγοι as non-Judeans, but Matthew may be borrowing from the verse loosely, not with the intention of identifying them as Arabian. The myrrh, absent from Isa 60.6, was used in oils for kings and would be a normal gift for royalty.43 The two remaining details provided about the μάγοι are that they follow a star (Matt 2.2b, 10) and receive a prophetic dream (2.12). This makes it sufficient to understand them as interpreters of dreams and stars, but did the author have in mind Zoroastrian priests specifically? We don’t have enough information to make that conclusion, and it may not have even mattered to the author.44

Within the context of Matt 1–2, a reasonable translation choice for μάγοι might be ‘astrologers’, though something like ‘mages’ or even ‘magicians’ would still work better than ‘wise men’.

At most we can determine that the author of Matthew intended the μάγοι to represent ‘the best wisdom of the Gentile world’.45 They stand in stark contrast to the Judean ‘chief priests’ and ‘scribes’ (2.4), who are painted in an extremely unflattering light throughout Matthew (5.20; 7.29; 9.3; 12.38; 15.1; 21.15, 23, 45). Jesus twice identifies the ‘chief priests’ and ‘scribes’ as the ones who will kill him (16.21; 20.18), his final public discourse entirely consists of him denouncing their leadership (Matt 23), they lead the crowds in demanding Jesus’ crucifixion (27.20–26), and they mock him on the cross (27.41).

the Jewish leaders reject their Messiah, [but] the Gentiles from outside the land of Israel are anxious to greet him46

As a narrative device, the μάγοι’s function is not restricted to only the infancy narrative. They are also a part of the author’s inclusio framing the whole book. The infancy narrative shows μάγοι from foreign nations eagerly seeking out Israel’s Messiah, while Israel itself is ‘afraid’ (2.3). Over the course of the Gospel, Jesus restricts his disciples and himself to an Israel-only mission (10.6; 15.24), but Israel so persistently and emphatically rejects Jesus (concluding with Matthew attributing the shocking statement in 27.25 to ‘all the people’) that upon his resurrection the first thing Jesus does is change the disciples’ mission to focus on converting foreigners (28.18).

The Star

The astrologers, of course, follow the iconic Star of Bethlehem. There have been many attempts to find the star in astronomical events plausibly observable across the Near East in the late first-century BCE. The three most common suggestions are that it was a supernova, a comet, or a planetary alignment.47 Neither of the first two are corroborated by contemporary sources, but the planetary alignment is actually within the realm of possibility.

Matthew implies Jesus was about two or three years old when Herod I died in 4 BCE. This places his birth around 7–6 BCE. In these years there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (regarded as ‘wandering stars’ at the time), which was rife for symbolic application because of Jupiter’s status for royalty.

Celestial events like eclipses, comets, or planetary conjunctions were universally interpreted as omens of what was unfolding on the earth, good or bad. Stars in particular were generally interpreted favorably.48 There was legend of celestial events at the births of Abraham.49 The Judean king Alexander Jannaeus was born in 126 BCE, also during a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.50 Herod may have seen himself as the Messiah.51 He funded and built temples for Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, and he was ‘aggressive’ in throwing down perceived threats to his rule during the 7–6 BCE conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.52 He was, after all, ‘constantly concerned with real or imagined usurpers’.53

Yet another conjunction of these two planets happened in 134 CE, during the Third Judean-Roman War.54 This time around, the revolutionary Simon bar Koseba was renamed Bar Kokhba, meaning ‘son of [the] star’,55 and he minted coins showing a star above Jerusalem’s temple. At this time, the temple had been destroyed for about 64 years; the coin’s twofold iconography was a statement on Bar Kokhba’s aspirations to restore Israel’s political and religious independence.56

A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud connects Kokhba’s new name to a prophecy from Balaam, in the Book of Numbers. In fact, late traditions about Balaam identified him as a μάγος,57 and early Christians connected Jesus to this prophecy as well.58

Numbers 24.17

‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Sethites.’

Even before the Bar Kokhba Revolt, this ‘star’ prophecy had a long-running association with messianic thought in Second Temple Judaism,59 seen especially in the way the verse is handled by different texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.60

A Targum explicitly interprets it messianically, tying it to eschatological prophecies in Ezek 37–39 about the Davidic king and a final battle with ‘Gog’.

I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but it is not near. When the mighty king of Jacob’s house shall reign, and the Messiah, the power-scepter of Israel, be anointed, he will slay the princes of the Moabites, and bring to nothing all the children of Seth, the armies of Gog who will do battle against Israel and all their carcasses shall fall before him.61

As seen with Alexander Jannaeus and Bar Kokhba, the ‘star’ prophecy could be interpreted quite literally during an era when the movements of lights in the sky were fully believed to reflect happenings on the earth. Within this conceptual framework, it is reasonable to identify the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ with the 7–6 BCE conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, retrospectively interpreted by Jesus’ followers as a sign he was the Messiah after they determined he was born in that time period. Herod’s violent response in the infancy narrative also works within this context, probably based on his elimination of those he thought might challenge his throne. This included two of his own sons in 7 BCE, and a third son in 4 BCE.

There is one nagging problem, however. The Star of Bethlehem moves, in a completely impossible way. It first leads the astrologers westward from their home country to Jerusalem in Judah, then south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It even pinpoints the specific house Jesus’ family lives in.

Matthew 2.9–11

they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother

The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction may have contributed to the story’s setting,62 but we can hardly say the author intended to keep the story firmly within the bounds of real history. The narrative is more concerned with astral symbolism in a general sense, filtered through a commonplace messianic interpretation of Num 24.17 (even if it remained unquoted in Matthew).

Matthew’s Source

Between the details and themes that emerge in Matt 1–2, and the literary independence from Luke 1–2, scholars think we can outline a narrative tradition that stands behind Matthew’s infancy story. The genealogy in 1.1–17 is attributed to Matthew’s author, but 1.18–2.23 are isolated as adapting an existing source the author had available.63

Some scholars think the block with the astrologers (2.1–12) came from a source separate from the rest of the infancy narrative (1.18–25 and 2.13–21),64 but if this is the case it leaves a major hole in the plot: how did Herod learn about the birth of Jesus? The astrologers are integral to the overarching story; without them and the star, the jealous Herod has no reason to inquire from his scribes about the birthplace of the Messiah, which subsequently means Jesus’ family is not driven out of Bethlehem. Without the astrologers moving the plot forward, the author of Matthew can’t get Jesus into Nazareth. Herod and the astrologers are too tightly interwoven as literary devices to be separated coherently.65

As mentioned, Matthew tends to quote the LXX where his source does not already provide a scriptural quotation. There are five quotations in Matt 1–2.

Matt 1.22–23 quotes LXX Isa 7.14, with one small purposeful modification, explained above.

The citation of Mic 5.2 in Matt 2.5–6 does not conform to the LXX, nor the Hebrew, though the final clause (‘who is to shepherd my people Israel’) is lifted verbatim from LXX 2 Sam 5.2.66 Hos 11.1 in Matt 2.15 partially matches the LXX, but not enough to require dependence. Confusingly, the direction of movement is reversed in the context.67 Hos 11.1 is a summary of the exodus (cf. Exo 4.21–23), with God bringing Israel away from Egypt. Matthew’s use of the verse has God bringing Jesus to Egypt. Matt 2.17–18 quotes from a text only somewhat similar to LXX Jer 38.15 (Hebrew 31.15).

Matt 2.23 contains the final quotation, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean’. This quote doesn’t exist anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, and scholars struggle to explain how Matthew came by it. If the author had a specific text in mind, it would need to be LXXA Judges 13.5, 7, which translate ‘Nazirite’ as Ναζιραῖος.68 This would require only a single vowel change to become Matthew’s Ναζωραῖος, but has absolutely no contextual similarity. Otherwise, if ‘Nazorean’ came to Matthew from his source, it could be a corruption of Hebrew neṣer (נצר) in Isa 11.1, referring to a ‘branch’ descended from David’s father Jesse. Matthew may hint that the author didn’t know where the quote came from, since he blandly attributes it to ‘the prophets’ plural, rather than ‘the prophet’ singular (let alone citing which prophet by name).69

Another issue with Matt 2.22–23 is the passage contains text nearly identical to parts of 4.12–14.70

Matthew 2.22–23

Matthew 4.12–14

he withdrew into the district of Galilee

he withdrew into Galilee

arriving he dwelled in a town called Nazareth

arriving he dwelled in Capernaum

so as to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets

in order to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet

ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὰ μέρη τῆς Γαλιλαίας

ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν

ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ

ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ

ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν

ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου

The latter passage is Matthew’s own text, so for the former to be so similar is a solid indication the two verses come from the author and not his source. Matthew evidently uses the word ‘Nazorean’ (Ναζωραῖος) as a synonym for ‘Nazarene’ (Ναζαρηνός), marking 2.22–23 as ‘a very artificial addition’71 to get Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth for the next chapter. This may also be a conscious etiology for why Christians were called ‘Nazoreans’ about that time (cf. Ναζωραίων in Acts 24.5).72

While 1.22–23 and 2.22–23 can be removed without harm to the narrative,73 since they are Matthew’s most blatant editorial interpolations, the rest of Matt 1.18–2.23 is still written in a very ‘Matthean style’, which is ‘a sign of the evangelist’s thorough editing’.74 This has been taken to mean that Matthew’s source was most likely an oral tradition, not a written document.75 Though Matthew received this tradition and wrote it in his own style, most of it is still detectable.

The common features in Matt 1–2 and Luke 1–2 are separated by so much other material, and the intertextuality between the two is so ‘minimal’,76 that the tradition behind either of them would need to have diverged at a very early stage in its development. The only features the two have in common are the names of Jesus’ parents, his birth in Bethlehem, and that Mary was a virgin.

Where did the source come by this supernatural origin for Jesus? We don’t have any clear answer to this, but the most likely inspiration would be the birth narratives in Genesis and Judges. Philo of Alexandria talks about the patriarch’s wives as virgins, but this is more an idealization of their virtue purifying them than it is a literal claim.77 Other possible parallels of a ‘virgin birth’ concept in late Second Temple Judaism might be found in 1QSam 2.11 (from Psa 2.7) and 2 Enoch 71.1–23.78


It is difficult to reconcile the phenomenal story in Matt 1–2 with Jesus’ depiction in Matthew’s other, primary source, the Gospel of Mark. In this earlier book, Jesus’ family show no awareness that he has been specially chosen by God, even saying he was ‘out of his mind’ when he became a public figure (Mark 3.19b–21). Jesus in turn insists that his spiritual family (‘whoever does the will of God’) is more important to him than his biological family (Mark 3.31–35).79

In parallel, the Gospel of Luke contains internal contradictions regarding Jesus’ mother Mary. Its infancy narrative has angels and prophetic announcements exalting Mary beyond all other women (Luke 1.28, 42), but when someone tries expressing the same idea to Jesus (‘Blessed is the womb that bore you’), he rejects the notion (‘Instead, blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it’, Luke 11.27–28).

The story that both Joseph and Mary were directly told that Mary had been specially chosen and blessed by God to give birth to Israel’s ultimate savior can’t be reconciled with these other episodes, where Jesus’ family doesn’t know his importance and he consistently distances himself from his mother and siblings.

Because Matt 2’s story of Jesus’ infancy borrowed so heavily from folklore embellishing Moses’ infancy story (albeit indirectly),80 which was itself derived from an even earlier legend about Sargon, this necessarily removes Matt 2’s story from the realm of history.81

When did this oral tradition emerge? If Matthew was written around 90 CE,82 it could not be after this date. In 66 CE the Zoroastrian king of Armenia, Tiridates I, arrived in Rome. When Tiridates — called a magi by Pliny the Elder83 — approached Nero, he bowed down to the Roman emperor and addressed him as his god. A few scholars suspect the story of the astrologers seeking out a Judean king to bring him gifts and worship him may have been invented out of a rivalry with the stories about this event.84

The idea of Jesus being born of a virgin is completely unknown in Paul’s letters. He doesn’t so much as hint at it, even when it would serve his argument. For example, an opportune moment to mention it would be Rom 1.3–4, written circa 58–60 CE. He was well-traveled, and had a highly developed Christology; it would be surprising if the virgin birth concept was contemporary to Paul and yet he never mentioned it. We might infer the concept either didn’t exist yet, or was so new that Paul hadn’t picked it up. It is completely absent from the rest of the New Testament, as well as contemporary non-canonical Christian texts, from the first and early second centuries CE. While 1 Peter probably used Matthew,85 the first mention of the virgin birth outside either Matthew or Luke comes from Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1.4, altering Rom 1.3–4 to combine it with Matt 1.22–23 and 3.13–15.

The information we have available suggests the core ‘virgin birth’ idea emerged as an oral tradition in the 60s or early 70s CE. Sometime in the 70s or early 80s one form of this tradition had evolved under heavy influence of legends about Moses. The role of the astrologers was perhaps developed in conscious response to Tiridates’ journey to Rome. Matthew’s author took this oral tradition in the late 80s CE and wrote it in his own style, adding a few extra details to polish it off and fit it into the narrative he received from the Gospel of Mark.


1 William F. Albright & Christopher S. Mann, Matthew, 13 and 16.

2 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7, 86.

3 Ibid., 91.

4 Ibid., 79–80, footnotes 1–17.

5 Ibid., 82.

6 Psalms of Solomon 17.20, ‘See, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David’; cf. William D. Davies & Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1–7, 156.

7 Davies & Allison, 163–164.

8 Luz, 85.

9 Cf. Revelation 13 and 3 Baruch

10 Luz, 85.

11 Ibid., 94.

12 Albright & Mann, 8.

13 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 91.

14 Albright & Mann, 8.

15 Nolland, 100.

16 Davies & Allison, 213.

17 Nolland, 101.

18 Albright & Mann, 8–9; Luz, 96.

19 Contrary to Albright & Mann, 18.

20 Davies & Allison, 193.

21 E.A. Speiser, ANET (ed. James Pritchard), 119.

22 Timothy Finlay, The Birth Report Genre in the Hebrew Bible, 236; Danny Mathews, Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses, 148.

23 Josephus, Judean Antiquities 2.9.2.

24 Davies & Allison, 192–193.

25 First Enoch 106.1–3; 1Q19.

26 Josephus, Judean Antiquities 2.9.3.

27 Luz, 93.

28 Davies & Allison, 193.

29 Albright & Mann, 12.

30 Ibid.

31 Davies & Allison, 227.

32 Ibid., 193.

33 Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Exo 1.15.

34 Dickie, ‘Magic in Classical and Hellenistic Greece’, A Companion to Greek Religion (ed. Daniel Ogden), 358; Davies & Allison, 227–228.

35 Dickie, 358; Albright & Mann, 14; Nolland, 108.

36 Dickie, 359–360.

37 Albert de Jong, ‘Matthew’s Magi as Experts on Kingship’, The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy (ed. Peter Barthel & George van Kooten), 273.

38 Albright & Mann, 15–16.

39 Davies & Allison, 228–229.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Albright & Mann, 13.

43 Ibid.

44 Nolland, 108.

45 Davies & Allison, 228.

46 Ibid., 229.

47 Luz, 105.

48 Ibid., 104.

49 Luz, 76 and 104; Albright & Mann, 14.

50 Kocku von Stuckrad, ‘Stars and Powers: Astrological Thinking in Imperial Politics from the Hasmoneans to Bar Kokhba’, Star of Bethlehem, 392.

51 Ibid., 393.

52 Ibid.

53 Albright & Mann, 15.

54 Kocku, 395.

55 Albright & Mann, 15.

56 Kocku, 395.

57 Philo, Life of Moses 1.276; cf. Nolland, 111; Luz 104 and 131.

58 Luz, 104. There were even traditions identifying the magician Balaam as the father of the pharaoh’s magicians Jannes and Jambres; cf. Luz, 105.

59 Davies & Allison, 194.

60 Kocku, 399–418.

61 Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Num 24.17.

62 Luz, 105–106.

63 Davies & Allison, 190.

64 Davies & Allison, 229; Nolland, 106.

65 Luz, 103–104.

66 Albright & Mann, 13.

67 Luz 118–119.

68 Ibid., 123.

69 Ibid., 123–124.

70 Davies & Allison, 191.

71 Ibid., 190.

72 Luz, 124.

73 Ibid., 91.

74 Davies & Allison, 191–192; Luz, 90–91.

75 Davies & Allison, 192; Luz, 75; Nolland, 91.

76 Luz, 75.

77 Ibid., 92.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid., 106.

80 Luz, 93; Davies & Allison, 193.

81 Luz, 93.

82 Ibid., 58–59, advocates for the early 80s, but this seems too early to me, given that Matthew uses Mark, which was not written until about 75 CE. If the space between the two Gospels is only about five years, this would be an exceptionally quick turnaround by Matthew to take his sources and rewrite them into a new narrative.

83 Pliny, Natural History 30.6; cf. Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, 102.

84 Vermes, 102; Roger Beck, ‘Greco-Roman Astrologers, the Magi, and Mithraism’, Star of Bethlehem, 286–287.

85 Luz, 58–59.


  1. Anonymous27.5.23

    Hello Mark!,

    I noticed just one small error on the article. In the section entitled “Jesus’s Genealogy”, number 14 is missing in the list of names. I just thought I would point that out.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Number 14 is missing intentionally! The reason why is discussed in the article.