Why Are Mystic Magi in the Jewish Nativity Story?

Why do mystic Magi appear in an account written about a Jewish Messiah? Magi were scorned by Judaism for their mystical reputation.[1] How likely is it the Jewish author of Matthew would unnecessarily introduce the Magi…unless it was true?

MT 2:1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” (NIV)

MT 2:1 “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (NRSV)

Clearly not worried his reference to the Magi would ever be called into question by his contemporaries, Matthew’s account covered the Magi through 12 verses with at least 10 specific details.[2] He assumed his audience would recognize the Magi for who they were and the significance of their visit to Jerusalem.[3]

Matthew’s Greek text uses the word magos. Its Latin word equivalent is magus, its plural form is magi.[4] The word is sometimes translated into English as “wise men” – both are correct.

Babylonians, Medes and Persians viewed magos as an eclectic group of priests, physicians, teachers, soothsayers, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, and sorcerers. Not surprisingly, magi is the root word of the English word “magic.” It is easy to see how magi could be referred to as “wise men” – or just as easily, “mystics.”

Roman era Jewish society had a dual-perspective of magi. One was of the famed Daniel, a captured Israelite of royal descent whom Nebuchadnezzar placed into the elite Babylonian school of the Chaldeans which included an education in astronomy and astrology.[5]

Scripture says God gave “Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams,” a gift that landed him in Nebuchadnezzar’s royal council of wise men, the chakkiym.[6] Later, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of all the magi, a Rab-mag.[7]

After the Medes and Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire, Daniel’s “extraordinary spirit” again elevated him to a high level of government authority under Darius.[8] The main religion of the Medes and Persians during the reigns of Darius and Cyrus was Zoroastrianism. Its found, Zoroaster, was himself a magi.[9]

Setting the stage for the other Jewish perspective of magi began when Alexander the Great marched through Judea. The Greek Empire’s open-minded Hellenistic culture allowed the Jews religious freedom, but it also introduced Zoroastrianism intermingled with influences of the Babylonian chakkiym; its priests called magi. [10]

Over the coming decades the effects of Hellenism on Jewish culture was unavoidable much to the frustration of the Jewish Rabbis. Liberal philosophies of Hellenism permeated Jewish culture meanwhile Greek became the common language.[11] Next came the Roman Empire which was content to leave the prevailing culture in Judea alone.[12] 

As expert astronomers, the Magi used the legendary Babylonian astronomical science and charts to study of the motion of stars past, present and future. Their ability to plot upcoming cosmic events were scientifically predictive, not “mystical.” [13]

Toward the very end of the BC era a series of rare celestial conjunctions occurred, ones hard to ignore by astronomers – then or today. Witnessing just one such rare conjunction can be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine the scenario where, in a space of just 5 years from 7-2 BC, there were 13 rare conjunctions including two triple conjunctions! [14]  

Zoroaster beliefs held that celestial events served as signs with earthly significance. Signs of a newborn king observed by the Magi were so awe-inspiring, they set out on a month’s long quest to find and worship him.[15] If these signs visible across the entire Middle East were of such great magnitude, then why were only three magi inspired to begin such a quest?  Matthew does not say there were only three Magi…a Christmas legend.

Matthew’s introduction of the Magi into the Nativity story has a full historical basis behind its setting. Not just anyone appearing on the door step of the King’s palace would expect to gain entry. Yet, when the Magi arrived unannounced, they had no problem gaining direct access to King Herod who gave them his immediate and full attention. 

Herod did not question the credibility of the Magi when they gave him the alarming news about the birth of a king of the Jews. Neither did the King’s Jewish religious council who, instead, pointed Herod to Micah’s prophecy saying a Jewish ruler was to be born in Bethlehem.

Believing the prophecy to be true, Herod invited the Magi back for another meeting to investigate the timing of the star, directed them to Bethlehem, and slyly asked for their help in finding this newborn king. Angered when they didn’t return, Herod’s reaction by killing all the children 2 years old and under in the Bethlehem district testifies to his belief in the truth of the Magi’s message about a newborn king of the Jews.

If King Herod, his royal Jewish religious council and the author of Matthew believed the credibility and message of the Magi, should others believe it, too?


[1] Deuteronomy 4, 18.  Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  Sanhedrin 98a. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html> “Zoroastrianism – Magi.” Geni. 2016. <https://www.geni.com/projects/Zoroastrianism-Magi/13185>  
[2]  Matthew 2:1-12.
[3] Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. 2017. Chapter 2. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge.  <http://www.askelm.com/star/star002.htm#_ednref19>
[4]  “magus”  WordReference.com. <http://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=magus> “magi.”  WordReference.com. <http://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=magi> “magus.” Merriam-Webster.  <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magus>  
[5]  Daniel 1. Guisepi, Robert. “The Chaldeans, The Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian) Empire.” International World History Project.  2007.  <http://history-world.org/chaldeans.htm>  “Chaldea.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. 2014.  <http://www.britannica.com>  “Chaldea.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4213-chaldea>
[6] NKJV.  Daniel 1- 2.  “Magi.” New World Encyclopedia. 2014. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Magi>  Net.bible.org.  Daniel 2:12 Hebrew text “chakkiym” <02445>.  “Chaldea.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  Diodorus of Sicily. Mesopotamia: Ninus, Semiramis, the wonders of Babylon; Sardanapalus, Chaldaean astrology.  Vol. I.  Book II.  University of Chicago|Bill Thayer.  2017.  Page 431 # 24 ; p 447-457 #29-31. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html>
 [7] Jeremiah 39:3, 13.
[8] NASB. Daniel 6, 10-12.  Deuteronomy 4:19.  Gascoigne, Bamber.  “History of Zoroastrianism.”  HistoryWorld.net. n.d.  <http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab71>  “Zoroastrianism – Magi.” Geni. “Daniel, the Magi and the Luni-solar Calendar of Israel.” TryGod.com. 2017. <http://try-god.com/daniel-the-magi-and-the-luni-solar-calendar-of-israel.php
[9]  Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[10] “Hellenism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>.  Hooker, Richard.  “Alexander the Great – Hellenistic Greece.” Washington State University. 1999. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110104072822/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/ALEX.HTM>  “Zoroastrianism – Magi.”  Geni. “Zoroastrianism.”  BBC|The British Broadcasting Corporation. 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian>   Jafarey, Ali Akbar.  “The Achaemenians, Zoroastrians in Transition.”  CAIS|The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. 2015. <http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Zarathushtrian/achaemenian_zarathushtrian.htm>  Hooker, Richard.  “Mesopotamia:  The Persians.”  Washington State University. 1996. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110514001358/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/PERSIANS.HTM>  Hooker, Richard.  “Hellenistic Greece:  Hellenism.” Washington State University. 1999. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110104072353/http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/HELLGREE.HTM>   “Zoroastrianism.”  ReligionFacts.com. 2014.  <http://www.religionfacts.com/zoroastrianism/index.htm>  Reed, Vicky.  “The Religion of the Persian Empire.” EsthersLegacy.com.  2011. <http://estherslegacy.com> “Zoroastrianism.”  PersianEmpire.info. 2007. <http://persianempire.info/zoro.htm>  Gascoigne. “History of Zoroastrianism.”  Gascoigne, Bamber. “Iran (Persia) timeline.” HistoryWorld.net. n.d.  <http://www.historyworld.net/timesearch/default.asp?conid=static_timeline&timelineid=759&page=1&keywords=Iran+%28Persia%29+timeline>  Eduljee, K. E. “Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi.”  Zoroastrian Heritage. 2011. <http://zoroastrianheritage.blogspot.com/2011/04/greek-perceptions-of-zoroaster.html>  Leverington, David. Babylon to Voyager and Beyond – A History of Planetary Astronomy.  Chapter 1. 2003.  <http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/08408/sample/9780521808408ws.pdf>  Diodorus.  Mesopotamia: Ninus, Semiramis, the wonders of Babylon; Sardanapalus, Chaldaean astrology.  Vol.I, Book II. Page 457; #31. 
[11] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.
[12] Myrle, Winn. “The Impact of Hellenism On Rome.” The Ancient Nile Webring. n.d.  <http://kekrops.tripod.com/Hellenistic_Files/Impact_On_Rome.html>  Hooker. “Hellenistic Greece:  Hellenism.” Petrucci, Valerio. “Hellenization and Romanization – the Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Cultures in the 1st and 2nd Centuries.” 2017. Academia. <https://www.academia.edu>
[13] Eduljee. “Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi.”  Leverington. Babylon to Voyager and Beyond – A History of Planetary Astronomy. Chapter 1.
[14] Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.” Pulcherrima Productions.  1997.  Twin Cities Creation Science Association.  n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>  Phillips, Tony. “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000. <http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Birth of Jesus.” Navsoft.com. 2012. <http://navsoft.com/html/birth_of_jesus.html>  Martin.  The Star of Bethlehem. Chapters 1, 4.  Cain, Fraser. “Venus and Jupiter’s Upcoming Conjunction.”   Universe Today.  29 Oct. 2004.  <http://www.universetoday.com/10006/venus-and-jupiters-upcoming-conjunction/#ixzz2B6cvKJEt>  Sielaff, David.  “An Important August 2 B.C.E. Conjunction.”  A.S.K. (Associates For Scriptural Knowledge), 2005. <http://www.askelm.com/news/n051211.htm>  Clevenger, John. “Astronomy, Astrology, and the Star of Bethlehem.”  Lake County (Illinois) Astronomical   Society.  n.d. <http://www.lcas-astronomy.org/articles/display.php?filename=the_christmas_star&category=miscellaneous>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.”  Anglican Curmudgeon.  2009. <http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2009/10/star-of-bethlehem-and-nativity.html>  Newman, Robert C. “The Star of Bethlehem: A Natural-Supernatural Hybrid?”  Interdisciplinary Bible Research Institute.  IBRI Paper (2001).  <http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm>  Beatty, Kelly. “Venus and Jupiter:  Together at Last.” Sky & Telescope. 25 June 2015. <http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/venus-and-jupiter-a-dazzling-duo-062520154>  Ratnikas,  Algis. “Timeline 499BCE – 1BCE.”  Timeslines of History.  n.d. <http://timelines.ws/0D499_1BC.HTML>  Pratt, John P.  “The Star of Bethlehem’s Forerunner.” JohnPratt.com. <http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2000/xmas_star.html>  “Star of Bethlehem May Have Been Planets Jupiter, Venus.”  IU News Room. 16 Dec. 2003.  <http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/1203.html&t=Star%20of%20Bethlehem%20may%20have%20been%20planets%20Jupiter%20and%20Venus>  Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>  Flescher, Eric and Sessions, Larry. “Ten ‘Star’ of Bethlehem Myths: Part II.”  Space.com. 26 Dec. 2001. <http://web.archive.org/web/20041205014757/http://space.com:80/SpaceReportersNetworkAstronomyDiscoveries/flescher_Xmasstar2_122601.html>  Cain, Fraser. “Venus-Jupiter Conjunction, March 15th, 2012.”  Universe Today. 13 Mar. 2012. <http://www.universetoday.com/94113/venus-jupiter-conjunction-march-15th-2012 >  Fazekas, Andrew.  “Christmas Star Mystery Continues.”  National Geographic Daily News. 24 Dec. 2008.  <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/12/081224-star-bethlehem.html
[15] “Trade between the Romans and the Empire of Asia.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  National Museum of American History, “Trade Routes” >  “Major Trade Routes of 2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE.”  <http://web.archive.org/web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu:80/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm> “Iran Historical Maps Arsacid Parthian Empire, Armenian Kingdom.” Atlas of Iran Maps. n.d. Iran Politics Club. 2014. <http://iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps04/index.htm

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Caesar Augustus – Beyond the Nativity Story

Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor, is well-known for being named in the Nativity story of Luke, but he was also a factor in other aspects of the story of Jesus of Nazareth:[1]

MT 2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…”

LK 2:1-3 “…a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” (NKJV)

Adopted son of Julius Caesar, his birth name of Octavius was officially changed by the Roman Senate in 27 BC to Augustus meaning “the exalted one.” At that time, the Senate granted him full powers as Emperor of Rome, then reigning as Caesar until his death in 14 AD.[2]

Previously, Octavius was one of three Roman triumvirate rulers with Marcus Lepidus and Marc Antony.[3] It disintegrated when Antony split off to join forces with his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, to challenge the rule of Rome ending with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavius won, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Herod convinced Augustus to allow him to retain his crown as Judea’s king rather than be executed for his former allegiance to Antony and Cleopatra.[4]

In a drama that had future implications to the Nativity story, Herod had put two of his sons on trial for a murder plot against him. Cleverly, Herod asked Augustus for his official guidance documented by Josephus:[5]

“With these directions Herod complied and came to Berytus [Beirut] where Caesar had ordered the court to be assembled…The presidents set first, as Caesar’s letters had appointed, who were Saturninus, and Pedanius, and their lieutenants that were with them, with whom was the procurator Volumnius also…after whom sat the principal men of all Syria…”

Caesar named two Syria province Presidents and a Procurator as judges – three at the same time with governing responsibilities in Syria.[6] It opens the door to solving the secular historical timeline conundrum posed by Luke citing Quirinius as governing Syria in the BC era a few years later when Jesus was born while Herod was king.

Commencing with the thirteenth consulship of Augustus on February 5, 2 BC, the Roman Senate celebrated his Silver Anniversary as Emperor.[7] To mark the occasion, Augustus was proclaimed Pater Patriae, the “Father of the Country,” an honor he included in his self-authored “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” (Res gestae divi Augusti).[8]

Historians in modern times have uncovered evidence the 2 BC Silver Anniversary was marked by a special census of the entire Roman Empire. It was not one of the three Roman lustrum censuses Augustus claimed in The Deeds – one of two problematic historical Nativity timeline difficulties.  The closest lustrum to the birth of Jesus was taken in 8 BC several years earlier.

Dr. Earnest Martin’s research points to the special set of circumstances in 2 BC concluding that Augustus decreed a “registration” to be taken of the entire Roman Empire claiming allegiance to him as Pater Patriae.[9] From a different perspective, historian Gerard Gertoux also makes the case that Luke’s “census of the world” was not for taxation purposes; rather, it was a new type of “registration” census taken in the BC era by Quirinius in the Syria province, which included Judea at that time.  This registration census was intended to quantify the resources for the Breviarium, part of Augustus’s will to be read at his funeral along with the unveiling of Res gestae.[10]

Once more Augustus played into the timeline enigma of Luke’s reference to a census taken by Quirinius while Herod was king. Rome had annexed Judea as a province in 6 AD and Augustus assigned Quirinius as governor of Syria along with Procurator Coponius to implement the new Judea provincial tax laws. The resulting Jewish tax revolt is well-documented in history and mentioned in the Book of Acts.[11]

The longstanding problem for historians – the 6 AD taxation census under Quirinius cannot be tied to the timeline where Herod’s death and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth occurred no later than 1 BC.[12] That difficulty is resolved by Gertoux’s finding of the “registration” census administered by Quirinius in the Syria province while Herod was still alive.

Herod’s death again drew Caesar Augustus into circumstances impacting Jesus of Nazareth. The succession of the kingdom to Herod’s son, Archelaus, was challenged by his brother Antipas, who appealed to Caesar.[13]

Augustus decreed the former Judean kingdom to be ruled by the three surviving sons of King Herod as tetrarchs– half by Archelaus which included Galilee and the remaining half divided among Philip and Antipas.[14] Herod Archelaus, also known as just Herod in the Gospels, would continue to be a threat to Jesus throughout his adult life.[14]

Do connections to the historical life of Augustus increase the credibility of the Gospels or play into the claim by skeptics that the Gospels are a fabrication?

[1] Luke 2. “Augustus.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2014.  <http://www.livius.org/person/augustus>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 14 AD. Internet Classic Archive. 2009. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html
[2] Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. n.d. Book II. Chapter 94. University of Chicago|Bill Thayer.  2016.  <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>  “Augustus.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire.  United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2017.  <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php>  Augustus.” Livius.org.
[3] “Second Triumvirate.” Livius.org. 2015. <http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/triumvir/second-triumvirate>
[4] “Augustus.” UNRV.  “Did Caesar and Cleopatra really have a son?”  The Ancient Standard. 2010. <http://ancientstandard.com/2010/12/03/did-caesar-and-cleopatra-really-have-a-son>  Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Book XIV, Chapter 14; Book XV, Chapters V-VI. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Smith, Barry D. “The Reign of Herod the Great, King of the Jews (37-4 BCE). Crandall University. 2010. <http://www.mycrandall.ca/courses/NTIntro/InTest/Hist7.htm>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVI, Chapter XI.  Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews. Book I, Chapter XXVII.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>   “Herod the Great – King of the Jews.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODKing_of_the_Jews.htm>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters 9, 10; Book XVI1, Chapters 1, 5. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter 27.
[7] Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 12. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11>  Adams, John Paul.  “The Roman Festival Calendar:  Julio-Claudian Additions.”  California State University – Northridge. 2009.  <http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/feriae.html>   Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” n.d.  Academia.edu. <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>
[8] Augustus, Caesar.  The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). The Internet Classics Archive.  2009.  <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>   “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma.  2007.  <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma) >  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  2017.  <https://www.britannica.com/topic/pater-patriae> Martin.  The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13.  Mosley, John.  “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d.  <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>
[9] Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma.  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  Mosley, John.  “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.”
[10] Davis, William Steams, ed. “Ancient History Sourcebook: Res Gestae Divi Augusti, c. 14 CE.” 1912. Fordham University. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/14resgestae.asp>  “Augustus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2017.  Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Book XIV, Chapter III.  Josephus.  Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter XVIII.  Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 1854. University of Chicago. n.d. <http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.11:1:505.geography
[11] Mathew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25. Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. p151. 1981. Google Books.   <http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[12] Adams, John Paul. “Roman Census Figures.” California State University – Northridge. 2010.  <http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/romancensus.html>  Davis, John D. “Quirinius” (Quirinus), cwui-rin’i-us, Publius Sulpicious.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 1953.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2004. <http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc09/htm/iv.vi.xii.htm>  Schaff, Philip.  “Chronology of the Life of Christ.”  History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100. 1890.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.i.II_1.16.html> Ramsay, William M. “Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?” 2017. Biblehub.com. n.d. <http://biblehub.com/library/ramsay/was_christ_born_in_bethlehem/chapter_10_chronology_of_the.htm> Sieffert, F. “Census.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 1952. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2004. <http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc02/htm/iv.vi.ccxxx.htm
[13] Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter IX-X.
[14] Matthew 14:3; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:1, 19. Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapters VI, XII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[15] Matthew 2, 14; Mark 3, 6, 8, 12; Luke 3, 9, 13, 23; John 14; Acts 12.

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Rabbi Maimonides and Jesus of Nazareth – the Messiah?

Messiah or stumbling block? Famed Medieval Rabbi Maimonides had an opinion about Jesus of Nazareth on this question as well as his lineage, supernatural powers, and a comparison to the Messiah prophecies.

Affectionately known as Rambam in Jewish circles, he brought clarity to Jewish Law with some calling him “the second Moses.” Born in 1135, Moses Ben Maimon, later becoming known as Maimonides, authored Mishneh Torah. Considered a monumental Jewish work, it formulated the 13 principals of Jewish faith.[1]

Two chapters, sometimes called “The Laws Concerning King Moshiach,” focused on Messiah characteristics – what would identify the Messiah and what would disqualify anyone purporting to be the Messiah.[2] Controversial statements to the point they became a victim of the Censor .

King David’s lineage is a key requirement for the Messiah cited in multiple prophecies, by renowned Rabbi Rashi   and by Maimonides who went further adding anyone who denies the Messiah is denying the prophets, Moses, and the Scriptures:

“In the future, the Messianic king will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty.”

“Anyone who does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but those of the Torah and Moses…”

Calling out  Balaam’s (Bilaam) prophecy as messianic, unlike Rashi who stopped short, Maimonides explicitly referred to “Mashiach,” Hebrew for the Messiah:

“Reference to Mashiach is also made in the portion of Bilaam who prophesies about two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors; and the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel in the end of days. That passage Numbers 24:17-18 relates:

‘I see it, but not now’ – This refers to David;

‘I perceive it, but not in the near future;” – This refers to the Messianic king;

‘A star shall go forth from Jacob’ – This refers to David;

‘and a staff shall arise in Israel’ – This refers to the Messianic king…

Maimonides then addressed the supernatural powers of performing miracles, wonders, and resurrection of the dead without directly mentioning the Gospels or Jesus of Nazareth:

“One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.”

Paying close attention to what the Rabbi said … his view was that performing supernatural abilities would not definitively distinguish the Messiah; however, he did not deny that such miracles had occurred. Pivoting, he went on to describe characteristics that would identify the Messiah:

“If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.”

Next, he described things that would disqualify anyone who might otherwise be viewed as the Messiah. Maimonides pointedly called out Jesus of Nazareth by name:

“If he did not succeed to this degree or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: ‘And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.'”

“Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Mashiach and was executed by the court was also alluded to in Daniel’s prophecies, as ibid. 11:14 states: ‘The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.'”

“Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity?”

With a key requirement to be born into the lineage of David, Maimonides did not disqualify Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah on that basis – and he easily could have, if it were true, using the meticulous Jewish genealogy records maintained in the Temple.[3] Instead, in denouncing “Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Mashiach,” Maimonides acknowledged that Jesus was born in the House of David.[4]

Mishneh Torah launched Maimonides into celebrity status prompting Jews to send letters with questions. His response letters, known as Responses (Responsa or Teshuvot), have become additional important texts of Maimonides’ Scriptural interpretations.[5]

One response to Yeminite Rabbi Jacob al-Fayumi is known as the “Epistle Concerning Yemen.” In it, Maimonides established the “My Servant” parashah of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as a messianic prophecy by citing Isaiah 52:15 and 53:2 saying the Messiah could be identified by his origins and his wonders:[6]

“What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his first appearance? 

…there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and the signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, ‘Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. Vi. I2). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother or family being known, He came up before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc.”

“Jesus of Nazareth” as a name broke from traditional Jewish family name association where he would have been called “Jesus ben Joseph,” meaning Jesus son of Joseph.[7] Instead of being known by his family association, he is known for his standalone reputation and image as Jesus of Nazareth devoid of any family association. Moreover, born in the lineage of King David in his home town of Bethlehem, the name of Jesus of “Nazareth” belies his family heritage.

“But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth be thrown in terror at the fame of him – their kingdoms be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands to their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.

All four Gospels report Jesus performed many wonders and miracles; diligently taught the people of Israel to walk in the way of God; despised and reacted to the exploitations of the Temple and the Scriptures by its keepers. The circumstances of his birth and life are consistent with the Messiah prophecies recognized by both Rabbis and Christian authorities. 

Was Jesus of Nazareth a fulfillment of the Messiah prophecies or merely a stumbling block test sent by God?


[1] Maimonides.  Mishneh Torah.  Moznaim Publications.  Jewish year 4937 (1177 AD). Chabad.org.  2015. “Sefer Shoftim” > “Melachim uMilchamot.” <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682956/jewish/Mishneh-Torah.htm>  Rich, Tracey R.  “Jewish Beliefs.”  JewFAQ.org. n.d. <http://www.jewfaq.org/beliefs.htm>  “Moses Ben Maimon.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11124-moses-ben-maimon> Furst, Rachel.  “The Mishneh Torah.”  MyJewishLearning.com. 2010.  <http://mobile.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Rabbinics/Halakhah/Medieval/Mishneh_Torah.shtml>  Seeskin, Kenneth.  “Maimonides.”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006, revised 2017.  <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maimonides>
[2] Maimonides.  Mishneh Torah.     
[3]  Josephus, Flavius. Against Apion. Book 1 #6-7. The Complete Works of Josephus.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
 [4] Mangel, Nissen. “Responsa.” Publisher:  Kehot Publication Society. 2008. Chabad.org. 2014.  <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/107783/jewish/Responsa.htm>
 [5] Mangel. “Responsa.” 
 [6] Maimonides, “Letter to the South (Yemen)”. p374.  Neubauer and Driver.  The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=YxdbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP1&hl=en#v=onepage&q=advent&f=false>
[7] Rich, Tracey R. “Jewish Surnames.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/jnames.htm>  Weiss, Nelly. “The origin of Jewish family names : morphology and history.” p15. 2002. <https://www.scribd.com/doc/170261214/The-Origin-of-Jewish-Family-Names-Morphology-and-History-ebooKOID>

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