The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find a newborn King of the Jews.[1] All they knew, he was expected to be somewhere in Judea. It made perfect sense to start in Jerusalem with the King of Judea – Herod.

Immediately the Magi gained direct access to the King, their reputation as Magi making that possible. First words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?(NASB, NKJV)

No doubt, it was shocking news to the reigning king who knew nothing about this royal birth. After all, this child certainly was not Herod’s son. The question assumes two facts – the child is predestined to be the King of the Jews and he has already been born. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew this to be true saying:

MT 2:2For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.(NKJV)

Now the second shock wave – not the star; no, it was the fact that they came to worship this newborn King of the Jews! No one worshiped the great Herod, yet these Magi traveled hundreds of miles from a foreign land emphasizing their personal conviction – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways. The Magi certainly shook things up with their declaration which undoubtedly also got the attention of everyone else in the palace.  Herod and all of Jerusalem were “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2]

Throughout history palaces of kings and queens have been notoriously unable to hold their secrets. Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Many times it was the royal family members who could not keep things to themselves – good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. Herod’s family was scandalously known for their loose lips.[3]

A newborn king of the Jews – who was the father if not from the House of Herod?  A child worthy of worship by Magi?! Now this was newsworthy! It must have been the hottest topic of conversation in Jerusalem.

Herod was widely hated so the news undoubtedly raised hopes, yet at the same time, it was just as troubling – would the new king be worse than Herod or hopefully a good king? Either way, it would be years before he would begin his reign.

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod this whole affair, true or not, would be an embarrassment and no king should ever be embarrassed. As the story unfolds, the King came to quickly view this child’s birth as a threat that must be dealt with such as Herod had done many times before using whatever means necessary.[4]

Processing in his mind the Magi’s alarming news, after they left the palace the King immediately assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.”[5] Not just a select few, but all of the Jewish religious experts – the King was leaving no stone unturned as was his reputation.

Herod made it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation by asking the chief priests and scribes to determine “where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born.”[6] The King specifically asked “where” – not ifChristos was to be born using the specific Greek word for Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah 5:2.[7]

Up to this point, the actual appearance of the star witnessed by the Magi astronomers had been only incidental information. Had the star been the most attention-getting news from the Magi, a cynical Herod would have been expected to question it, even scoff at it – he didn’t. It was a detail; however, that did not pass his attention.

Matthew’s account does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know the exact date. Events in the sky would likely have been a relatively petty matter to the King prior the Magi’s visit, especially considering his bigger political problems in the kingdom, with Rome, and his scheming family affairs.

Upon hearing of Micah’s prophecy from the Jewish religious experts, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded in the response by the chief priests and scribes although as religious experts they were likely fully aware of Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming forth from Jacob signifying a ruler of Israel.[8] Maybe they mentioned this to Herod, maybe not.

One thing is for certain, Herod had a new fixation:  when did this star appear? There could be only one reason why it was now important – knowing when the star appeared would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since the word was out all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, why did Herod want their next meeting to be secret? It strongly suggests the King had something to hide.

Herod now possessed two details of interest to the Magi – Micah’s prophecy corroborating the birth of a Jewish ruler and the general location of Bethlehem where he could be found. This information would serve as leverage to learn when the star had appeared.

One other thing… Herod wanted the Magi to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship him. But Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Duped by the Magi who went back to their homes by avoiding Jerusalem, the enraged and paranoid King believed he still had a threat that must be eliminated. Herod ordered all the children 2 years and younger to be killed in the district of Bethlehem based on the timing of the star’s first appearance learned from the Magi.

Hard to believe anyone could be this evil?  This is the same King who, among many murders, killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather and her two sons who were strangled, and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] Moreover, from his death bed he would summon all the principal men of his kingdom to Jericho, lock them in the hippodrome, and give orders to have them killed so as to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

Does Herod’s provocation by the Magi’s declaration ring true that the Messiah, King of the Jews, had been born in Bethlehem?


[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  <>  “Major Trade Routes of 2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE.” Smithsonian. Map.  n.d. 2016. <>  
[2] Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <> Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “tarasso <5015>”  Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1990.
[3] Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XV, Ch.VII-VIII; Book XVI, Ch. VIII, XI, IX, XIII, XVI. Book XVII, Ch. I, V. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XVIII, XXII, XXIV, XXXI, XXXIII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Ch. 1; Book XV, Ch. 1, 3, 6, 7; Book XVI, Ch.VII, VIII, X; Book XVII, Ch. IV, VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXVI, XXII, XXIV, XXVI, XXX, XXXI. “Herod the Great.” 2017. <
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.” n.d. <>   Rich, Tracey R.  “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Ch. III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Ch. XI; Book XVII, Ch. IX.
Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII, XXVII, XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Ch. VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXXIII.

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Are the Gospels Merely Recycled Material?

Eyebrow-raising Gospel characteristics are the similarities between certain passages of one Gospel found in another, sometimes word for word. It fuels conspiracy theories saying this is evidence of Christian collaborators making up a Messiah story.

Matthew, Mark and Luke – called the Synoptic Gospels – contain “parallel passages” where content similarities typically appear.[i] On full display is the distinctive Jewish literary practice of grouping content by topic instead of chronologically.[ii]

Most authorities agree the Gospel of John is an authentic eyewitness account written independently of the Synoptic Gospels and as such serves as a calibration source.[iii]Writing he did not intend to cover all the things Jesus had done, still some critics use John’s omission of events found in the other three Gospels to challenge its credibility.[iv]

Are the Synoptic Gospels merely recycled material? An excellent point of comparison are the major Jewish works written during the same era – Josephus, the Talmud Mishnah, and other New Testament books.[v]

In literary circles of Antiquity, written materials were considered communal property available to be freely used by other literati with or without citations.[vi] The Synoptics use of common source or sources is a reflection of legitimate writing protocol of the times.[vii]

Luke’s author openly acknowledged using “handed down” information, a practice common to Jewish and other cultures. Rabbi sages “handed down” oral interpretations of the Law over many generations until committed to writing in the Mishnah.[viii] Josephus wrote that he used expert sources “for the proof of what I say” in support of his writings.[ix]

Jewish literary works used quotations as a means to cite sources in a time before footnotes or endnotes came into existence.[x] Throughout the New Testament quotations of the Jewish Scripture Septuagint translation can be seen preceded by the phrase “it is written.” Quoting was a practice also used in the Talmud and by Josephus.[xi]

Literary authenticity and integrity, Josephus wrote, could be achieved by following the role model of Moses who took unexciting legal topics and made them meaningful and understandable while not adding or taking anything away.[xii]  Moses took the source material of God’s Law handed down to him at Mt. Sinai and committed it to writing while interweaving it with factual, interesting Hebrew stories thereby producing a distinct literary work.[xiii]

Unique qualities found through simple literary analysis are obvious at the beginning of each Gospel.[xiv] Matthew, written for a Jewish audience, starts the genealogy of Jesus with Abraham. Luke, written to a Gentile audience, worked the genealogy of Jesus backward to Adam.[xv]

Mark begins by immediately declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then ties a prophecy to his introduction of John the Baptist. John’s well-known opening says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[xvi]

Quantifying the differences through deeper literary analysis, over 35% of the content of Matthew is unique to the Synoptics – not found in Mark or Luke.[xvii] Nearly 50% of the verses in Luke are not common to either Matthew or Mark.[xviii] Slightly less than 40% of the content of Mark is not shared by Matthew and Luke while nearly 8% of Mark is unique content.[xix]

A fascinating characteristic of authenticity is demonstrated through miracles and parables. Contrary to popular perceptions, they have less in common among the Gospels than they have in common.

Of the 35 miracles recorded in the Gospels, only one is common to all four – the feeding of the 5000. One of the most, if not the most, famous miracle is Jesus walking on water and it does not appear in Luke![xx]

Only 10 miracles, less than a third, are common to all three Synoptics. Almost half, 16 in all, are uniquely reported by a given author – 3 by Matthew, 2 by Mark, 5 by Luke and 6 by John.

Parables can be tricky to quantify (was it an illustration or a parable?) so the lists vary somewhere in the range of 30.[xxi] Only 5-7 of the parables are common to all three Synoptics.[xxii] Instead, about 70% of the parables are unique to either Matthew or Luke alone –  Matthew with 10-12 and 15-17 by Luke. One parable is exclusive to Mark while John does not recount any.[xxiii]

Gospel authors produced literary works about Jesus of Nazareth that are distinctive yet corroborating. Are the Gospels no more than recycled information or do they meet the standard of authenticity?


[i]  Smith, Ben C. “Gospel manuscripts.” <> Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Page 5. < “Synoptic Gospels.” < “The Book of Matthew.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. Mareghni, Pamela. “Different Approaches to Literary Criticism.” < >
[ii] Reed, Annette Yoshiko.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity. Pages 478 – 489. <>  Last accessed 9 May 2014.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 9, 23-38. <>
[iii]  “Gospel of John.”  <>  “The Book of John.”  Quartz Hill School of Theology.> Smith, Barry D. “The Gospel of John.”  <
[iv] John 20:30.
[v] “Josephus, Flavius.”  <>  Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah. “Introduction to Mishneh Torah.”  <>   A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud.  Glossary:  “Mishnah.:  Ed. A. W. Streane.  <>  Segal, Eliezer.  A Page from the Babylonian Talmud.  “The Mishnah” and “The Gemara (Talmud).” <>  Spiro, Ken.  “History Crash Course #39: The Talmud.” 4 Aug. 2001.  <>   Valentine, Carol A. “The Structure of the Talmud Files.” <>  Chase, Jeffrey S. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” <>
 [vi] Josephus, Flavius.  Against Apion.  Book I. <>   “Custom Cheating and Plagiarism essay paper writing service.” <>  Cummings, Michael J. “Did Shakespeare Plagiarize?” <>
[vii]  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages 50-51. 
[viii] Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah.  <>   Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.”  Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I, #6-7.
[ix]  Josephus. Against Apion. Book I.
[x] Pearse, Roger, ed.  “Tacitus and his manuscripts.”  <>  “Septuagint.”  Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. <>
[xi] Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I.  Reed.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity.  Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” Fausset, Andrew R.  “New Testament.”  Fausset Bible Dictionary. <>  Irenaeus of Lyons.  Against Heresies. Book III. Chapter XXI.3, also XXI.2.  <>  “Septuagint.” 2014.  <>  Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.1-6, 13-1.  < Babylonian Talmud.   Rodkinson translation. Book 4, Tracts Megilla Chapter I.  <>  Benner, Jeff A. “Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text.” <>  Lundberg, Marilyn J. “The Leningrad Codex. <>   “Septuagint.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. <>
[xii] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jew. “Preface” #3
[xiii] Carr, A.  The Gospel According to Matthew, Volume I.  Page XIX.  <,%20The%20Gospel%20According%20to%20St.%20Matthew&f=false>
[xiv]  “The Four Gospels.” <
[xv]  Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Book III.  Chapters I, IX, XXI.   “New Testament.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  <>  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages ix, 39.
 [xvii] “Matthew.”  Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary.  <>  “Gospel of Matthew.”  <>  Carr. The Gospel Accouding to Matthew, Volume I.  Pages XVIII – XIX.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 32-33.
[xviii] “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>
[xix] “Mark, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>  Swete, Henry Barclay.  The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices.  Pages XIX, LXXIV.<>  
[xx]  “Luke.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.   Ryrie. Charles C., ed.  Ryrie Study Bible.  “The Miracles of Jesus.” 1978. Aune, Eilif Osten. “Synoptic Gospels.” <
[xxi] Sween, Don and Nancy.  “Parable.”  n.d. <
[xxii] “Parables” Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <> “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  “Parables.”  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. <> Ryrie. “The Miracles of Jesus.”  Aune.  “Synoptic Gospels.” 
[xxiii]  Smith, B. D. “The Gospel of John”, F. 5.3.3.  Sween.  “Parable.” Swete. The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices.  Pages LXXIV, 83.  “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary. “Parable.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.  Ryrie. “The Parables of Jesus.”

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Turn of Events – a Resurrection?

In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus of Nazareth was broken. What happened? For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday, the third day of Passover, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.

Anyone trying to steal the body would encounter an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb was sealed in the presence of the Roman authorities and the Jewish leadership to ensure that didn’t happen.

The case of the Resurrection on or about sunrise of Nissan 17 enters the final phase in the sequence of events preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark attributes a significant number of eight verses and Matthew seven verses to describe the first series of events. Luke paraphrased it this way:

LK 24:1  “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)

Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place on Friday evening by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples, and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.

At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all were witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes that a great earthquake struck. At this moment the four women and the koustodia saw the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:

MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the individual responsible for opening the tomb as an “angel” or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two husband-aged men in dazzling apparel.[i]These two angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of a great earthquake, the angelic being who rolled away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Some may ask how it can be known the koustodia witnessed the event? Simply by their actions and their own report. Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in the same manner as the four women.

Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people were scattering in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]

Headed for the location of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling – what could have happened that would cause professional soldiers to abandon their posts? 

Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. In Wars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day.  Reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night – falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv]

Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership who had implored Pilate to secure the tomb is the very same group who was now compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures…something they had witnessed being put in place less than 24 hours earlier. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:1? “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep.’

If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story is told among the Jews to this day.”(NET)

Bribes are only used to cover up an undesirable truth or to promote a deception. The council even promised to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirming the guards were ultimately under the Roman authority of Pilate.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location of some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s excited announcement to the disciples. He quotes Mary Magdalene blurting it out:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET) 

Mary’s excited utterance is truth telling. An “excited utterance” is such a compelling statement of truth, it is considered under United States Federal Law to be an exception to the legal hearsay rule. Because the “excited utterance” is made spontaneously under the influence of a startling event before the witness has had an opportunity for reflection; it is, therefore, considered to be a truthful exclamation.[v] 

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was broken. Each party reacted differently to the information, but neither party called the reports false.

One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish council had the basis for a legal complaint to Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead chose a cover-up option. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why?  The turn of events – a Resurrection?


NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

 [i] Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.com> 
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. < “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” <>
[v] “Excited Utterance.”  Cornell University Law School. <>  and “Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.  Rule 803.  Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay.”  <

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