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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Herod – Profile of a Cunning and Cruel King

Infamous as King of Judea in the Nativity story, Herod the Great was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.  Was the King really such a villain?

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

MT 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (NKJV)

Hard to believe anyone, especially a king of Judea, would kill all the boys in a Jewish community the age of 2 years and younger. How could a king be so cruel to his own people? One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage – his father Idumean, his mother Arabian.[1]

Herod’s career began as governor of Galilee in 47 BC appointed by his father, an administrator of Judea under Julius Caesar. Josephus noted people quickly saw Herod’s harsh personality:  “…they saw that he was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.”[2]

As governor, he killed so many people in violation of Jewish law, the Sanhedrin put him on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod that he was about to be found guilty allowing his escape to Damascus.[3]

Aligning himself with Roman rulers, the Procurator of Syria, Sextus Caesar, appointed Herod as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” Bribery and expensive gifts would be effective to maintaining Roman relationships. Marc Antony “by money” named Herod as tetrarch and such persuasions helped avert a dangerous dalliance with Cleopatra.[4]

With more financial influences, Antony presented Herod to the Roman Senate which voted to make him King of Judea in 40 BC. Authority had to be taken by force in Judea over the course of 3 years with the assistance of Roman Legions provided by Antony.[5]

Politics were a life and death game, one Herod played very adeptly. After Antony’s defeat by Octavius, Herod figured his days were numbered whereupon he boldly presented himself to Octavius in Rome. Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned his loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if allowed to pledge him allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship for the remainder of Herod’s life.[6] 

Allowed more power by Rome than any other king in the provinces, Herod was positioned to acquire great wealth and fame. Wealth was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some illicitly. Josephus wrote that under cover of night, Herod robbed King David’s sepulcher of gold furniture and precious goods (Hycranus had already robbed the money).[7]

Herod is famed for rebuilding the Temple back to the grandeur of Solomon. He also built new cities including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar and Herodium in honor of himself; buildings in honor of his parents and other Roman friends; palaces, temples, theaters, amphitheaters, market places, aqueducts, harbors, and exercise facilities throughout Judea and beyond including Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Greece.[8]

Rome’s Hellenistic culture was more important to Herod than honoring Jewish laws. The King hosted international games in honor of Caesar every five years with naked competitors and large prizes; Roman-style arena spectacles with wild animals and men; and public displays of trophies of war. 

All these things caused great animosity among the Jews. Throwing fuel on the fire, Herod used Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the new Temple. One sacrilege was placing Rome’s golden eagle insignia over the Temple gate leading to a future incident marking the final days of Herod – and another atrocity when 40 insurrectionists were burned alive. [9]  

Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats to himself.[10] A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” where anyone excepting his family were subject to it. Josephus identified palace eunuchs, body guards, maids, friends of family members, soldiers, and anyone else possibly holding secrets who met a fate on the rack.[11]

Perhaps the biggest threat to Herod actually came from his own family. With 10 wives and children, the palace was constantly in turmoil full of people who bore hatred for one another with rivalries, slanders, lies, backstabbing, and murder conspiracies.[12]

Executions and murders were standard fare. Herod killed the 17-year old brother of his second wife, Mariamne, because he wanted someone else to be high priest. He killed Hyrcanus, her grandfather, former high priest, and old heir to the throne. Mariamne rebuked Herod, his sister Salome and their mother for the murders leading to her own execution from a ginned up false murder conspiracy.[13]

Mariamne’s sons were heirs to the throne stirring more jealousies, slanders and conspiracies by Herod’s first wife and oldest son, Antipater, born before he was king. Convinced Mariamne’s sons were guilty of a murder plot to kill him, Herod tried them in absentia and, without any hard evidence, they were still convicted. Both sons were strangled and others who condemned Herod’s actions were tortured and killed. Days before Herod died, he also executed Antipater.[14]

Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a gangrenous groin condition where his bowels protruded out of his body, he thought death would be a welcome relief and attempted suicide.

Knowing death was imminent, the King devised the most dastardly plan of his reign. Feeling sorry for himself, Herod summoned all the principal men throughout Judea under threat of death compelling a great number to travel to Jericho.[15]

Surmising they would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, Herod wanted to deprive them of such mockery and had them locked inside the hippodrome. Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were commanded to kill them with darts intended to place all of Judea in a state of mourning. Further, to ensure deep national mourning, one member of each family in Judea was also to be killed.[16]  

Such depravity was even too much for his wicked sister, Salome. Upon his death, the plan was aborted and the principal men released after informing the soldiers that Herod had changed his mind at the last moment.[17]

Does the historical profile of Herod strengthen the credibility of Matthew’s Nativity account or diminished it?


[1]Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>
[2] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIV, Ch. IX.  William Whitson.  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> Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book I, Chapter X. William Whitson.  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.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>   “Herod the Great – Governor of Galilee (47-37 B.C.).”   <https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Idumean>
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Ch. IX; Book XV, Chapter II.  Josephus. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X. “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016.
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapters IV, V, IX, XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter. XVI, XII-XIV.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters IV, XV – XVII.  “Herod I.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters VI-VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XIX-XX.
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXI, XXV, XXIV.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.  
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Edersheim, Alfred.   The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 1. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/default.htm>  Hegg, Tim.  “Separating the Most Holy from the Holy:  The ‘Veil’ in the Tabernacle and First & Second Temples” Torah Resource.  <http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Veil%20ETS%20Paper.pdf>  “Temple of Jerusalem.”  New World Encyclopedia. 2015. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Temple_of_Jerusalem>  “Herod’s Temple.”  Bible-history.com.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODHerods_Temple.htm>   “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism> “Asia Minor.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2010-asia-minor>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX. 
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII.  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities.  Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. 

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Are Today’s Gospels the Same as the Originals?

Gospel manuscript evidence dates back to the lifetimes of the Disciples with a fragment of Matthew whereas the earliest nearly complete Gospel manuscripts date to about 300 years later.[1] How can there be confidence today’sGospels are the sameas the originals?

Patristics is the science of comparing early Christian writings to Gospel manuscripts to help bridge the gap of the “dark period” – from the originals to the first complete manuscripts. Westcott and Hort, expert Bible textual critics, viewed patristics to be of “the highest degree exceptional” in their comparisons.[2]

Writing about the teachings of Jesus in the form of letters, called “Epistles,” was a common means of written communication by the second and third generation disciples, known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers.[3] Four – Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias – were taught personally by the Apostles, the original Disciples of Jesus.[4]

Within these Epistles appear quoted phrases and verses that correspond with Gospel manuscripts written after them. The premise of patristics is that quotes from the Epistles had to come from older, pre-existing Gospel sources. As such, these Epistles serve as “witnesses” that “attest” or “testify” to the content of older, now non-existent Gospel manuscripts, in some cases quite possibly the originals.[5]  

One, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, was written in Rome to the church in Corinth, Greece, around 96 AD. The Epistle is named for Clement of Rome, the reputed author, who studied under the Apostle Paul and knew Luke, the presumed author of the Gospel bearing his name.[6]

Another is The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians written in Smyrna, Turkey, to the church in Philippi, Greece. Named for its author, Polycarp, he was a disciple of the Apostle John, received instruction from additional Apostles, and met others who had witnessed Jesus. Date of authorship is unknown, but it had to be written before Polycarp’s martyrdom in the arena of Smyrna about 155 AD when he professed to have served his King for 86 years.[7]

An example of how patristics works can be seen using the three verses of Luke 6:36-38 quoted in both the Epistles of Clement Corinthians and Polycarp Philippians whose authors were separated by time and hundreds of miles. Their quotes as compared with two modern Bible translations:[8] 

The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [9]

“forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you;

as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you;

with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.”

Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians [10]

“Judge not, that ye be not judged;

forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you;

be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy;

with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again…”

King James Version, Luke 6:36-38:

Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful, v36

Judge not and ye shall not be judged…v 37

…forgive and ye shall be forgiven.v37

For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.v38

New American Standard Bible:  Luke 6:36-38:

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…v36

Do not judge, and you will not be judged…v37

…pardon and you will be pardoned. v37

…For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.v38

Attestations from these Corinthians and Philippians Epistles are not word perfect matches, but neither are the more modern KJV and NASB versions due to translator variations. Both Epistles referenced Luke to support the message of their letters – the quotes were not intended to be a transcription of Luke’s Gospel, yet they match very closely.[11]

Treasure trove of patristic attestation is found in Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) quoting from over 600 verses from all four Gospels and over 300 verses from other New Testament books.[12] Its author, a disciple of Polycarp, was Irenaeus who in later years moved to Lyons, France.[13]

Patristics has a secondary consequence – producing evidence that challenges the theory alleging the Gospels and Christianity evolved from legend over a long period of time.[14] Intuitively, what are the odds both Epistles quoting Luke were accidentally consistent with each other? Or did these authors quote from the same pre-existing Gospel of Luke?

If the Gospels “evolved,” why is their content consistently the same from the beginning until centuries later? The answers can be revealing.

[1]  “The Magdalen Papyrus P64: possibly the earliest known fragments of the New Testament (or of a book!)” University of Oxford | Magdalen College.  30 October 2013. <http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/libraries-and-archives/treasure-of-the-month/news/magdalen-papyrus>  “The Magdalen P64 Papyrus Fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (Year ~ 50 A.D.).”  Archaeology. <http://www.lavia.org/english/archivo/magdalenen.htm>  Smith, Ben C. “Gospel manuscripts – The manuscripts extant for the four canonical gospels.” TextExcavation.com.  13 Jan. 2014. <http://www.textexcavation.com/gospelmanuscripts.html
[2] Westcott, Brooke F. & Hort, John A. The New Testament in the Original Greek. “Introduction.”  CR page 112. https://books.google.com/books?id=0xtVAAAAMAAJ&pg=ACfU3U33CMW3331Vv20NgGvjyOs52I1mlA&vq=%22will+not+be+out+of+place+to+add+here+a+distinct+expression+of+our+belief+that+even+among+the+numerous%22&source=gbs_quotes_r&cad=2_0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[3] Richardson, Cyril C.  “Early Christian Fathers.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <http://eaglemissions.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/fathers.pdf>
[4] Foster, Lewis. “Quotations in the Apostolic Fathers.” The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary. 1969. Volume XV —  Number  4.  <http://www.dabar.org/SemReview/v15n4-Fathers.htm#N_23_
 [5] “Patristics.”  Merriam-Webster. 2017 <http://www.merriam-webster.com>   Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  <http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008728595>  Foster. “Quotations in the Apostolic Fathers.”
[6] Richardson. “Early Christian Fathers.”  Schaff, Philip. “Introductory Note to the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 13 July 2005.  <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.i.html>   Schaff.  “Introductory Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  2005.  <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.i.html>
[7] Schaff, Philip. “Introduction Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.”  Kirby, Peter. “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” Early Christian Writings. 2017. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/martyrdompolycarp.html
[8Kirby, Peter.  “Gospel of Luke.”  EarlyChristianWritings.com. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/luke.html>  Kirby, Peter. “Gospel of Mark.”  EarlyChristianWritings.com. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/mark.html
[9] Clement of Rome (aka Clement I). “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Classics Ethereal Library. 2005.  <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.html
[10] Polycarp. “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippian.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iv.ii.html>   Davis, Glen. “Polycarp of Smyrna.”  NTCanon.org. 2008.  <http://www.ntcanon.org/Polycarp.shtml>  Lake, Kirsopp. “Polycarp to the Philippians.” EarlyChristianWritings.com.  <http://earlychristianwritings.com/polycarp.html
[11] Polycarp. “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippian.”
[12] Davis, Glen. “Irenaeus of Lyons.”  NTCanon.org.  25 July 2008.  <http://www.ntcanon.org/Irenaeus.shtml>
[13] Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies.   Schaff, Philip. “Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.   <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.i.html> Schaff, Philip. “Introduction Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.” Goodspeed, Edgar J., “Irenaeus.  Proof of The Apostolic Preaching.” Ante Nice Fathers.  2014. <http://antenicenefathers.org/irenaeus>  Davis, Glen. “Irenaeus of Lyons.”  Westcott & Hort.  The New Testament in the Original GreekIntroduction; pages 113, 194-195.  Gloag. Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  “General Introduction.” 
  [14] Rochford, James M. “Legend Theory.’ Evidence Unseen. 2017. <http://www.evidenceunseen.com/christ/defending-the-resurrection/1-legend-theory>  Billingsley, Greg. “Alternate Theories To The Resurrection – The Legend Theory.”  2012.  <http://etheology.com/blogs/greg-billingsley/alternate-theories-to-the-resurrection-the-legend-theory>

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