Debunking the Nativity: Daniel’s Magi

Debunking the Nativity: Daniel’s Magi December 14, 2019

My book. Dig it.

It’s that time of year again. I have, at different Christmases, run some series debunking the historical claims within the Bible (specifically the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) to show them as wanting, running alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination (UK here). My book is a one-stop-shop for all things skeptical concerning the Nativity. I really wanted to put all the counter-arguments in one, comprehensive and succinct place.

Here, I am going to look at the Magi – those wise old men who travel from the East.

The Magi are copied from Daniel and are clearly a theological mechanism

Despite what popular culture decrees, the three wise men who visited Jesus in the manger were not kings. The word used to describe them is magi (magoi) and is usually understood to mean that they were astrologers/astronomers and this implies a title of wise men. We are not entirely sure that there were, indeed, three of them since this is implied from the fact that Matthew lists three gifts given to Jesus. They arrived from the East, stopping off at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem on his behest. They were then sent to Bethlehem to praise the newborn king with Herod’s hope that they would return to him with information:

The Visit of the Magi

 1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:


 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

It can also be said that the use of the three gifts is itself symbolic and carefully thought out by Matthew. The queen of Sheba, in the Old Testament, paid homage to King Solomon with Sheba being the southern end of the Incense Route and the source of frankincense and myrrh. Gifts good enough for King Solomon are good enough for Jesus, it would seem.

Being from the East, the magi were probably from the Parthian Empire and thus would most likely be Zoroastrians by religious persuasion. This looks to be a capitulation of Zoroastrianism to the wonder of the Almighty, to Jesus. The wise men of Zoroastrian beliefs realise that Jesus is the Almighty, and they leave the heartland of their religion to praise Jesus.

Richard Carrier, in his essay Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story, shows a motif in Matthew, an attempt to link Jesus with Daniel. Daniel, as an Old Testament prophet, was a very popular figure in early Christian art with which to compare Jesus. It is worth referring to Robin Jensen’s Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature who declares:

The magi’s visit to the crib was thus their moment of conversion and the renunciation of their misguided, idolatrous practices. And so Justin reads Matthew’s story as a sign to the world that Christianity was the true and pure faith… This popular interpretation is reflected in art, which often links the three magi with the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and with Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6)—all easterners (Daniel and the Hebrew youths lived in the Persian court) who used their gifts of prophecy, dream interpretation and perhaps even magic to resist the evil of pagan idolatry.

Let me set out a little background information about Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel, whilst in Babylonian captivity where he remained loyal to Yahweh, was made “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48) by the King Nebuchadnezzar and was a prophet of great integrity. In fact, so much so, that he was a more upright and righteous man than Solomon or David who both disobeyed God. Daniel never disobeyed or argued with God. Daniel named three Babylonians (from the East) as assistant governors. The three wise men of Daniel were thrown into a fire for refusing to worship a massive statue to a Babylonian God. Nebuchadnezzar then said of this, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” In most other translations this reads as “Son of God”. Nebuchadnezzar himself has direct parallels with Herod – both disobey the will of God, both are insecure and forthright, and both order a massacre of sorts (Nebuchadnezzar the wise men and Herod the infants).

There are many parallels between the two accounts. Firstly, let me refer to Richard Carrier (2006) who points out the relationship of Daniel to Jesus both in birth and death:

The parallels here are far too dense to be accidental: like the women who visit the tomb of Jesus, the king visits the tomb of Daniel at the break of dawn (6:19); the escape of Jesus signified eternal life, and Daniel at the same dramatic moment wished the king with eternal life (6:21; the identical phrase appears in reference to God in 6:26); in both stories, an angel performs the key miracle (Matt. 28:2, Daniel 6:22); after this miracle, the guards become “like dead men,” just as Daniel’s accusers are thrown to the lions and killed (6:24). Matthew alone among the Gospels ends his story with a commission from Jesus (28:18-20), whose power extends “in heaven and on earth,” to “go and make disciples of all nations” and teach them to observe the Lord’s commands, for Jesus is with them “always.” Curious, then, that the same author who alone creates a parallel with Daniel, is also alone in borrowing language from the same story for this commission: for King Darius, after the rescue of Daniel, sends forth a decree “to all nations” commanding reverence for God, who lives and reigns “always,” with power “in heaven and on earth” (Daniel 6:25-28; the Greek phrase is identical in both cases: en ouranôi kai epi tês gês). The stories thus have nearly identical endings.

This sets the scene for how Matthew borrows from Daniel. The motifs and theological overtones seem to be fairly obvious to the reader, especially (as the early Jewish Christians would be) the reader who is well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament. Matthew is using Midrashic[1] techniques to rewrite Daniel in the context of the Jesus narrative. Or more precisely, to write the Jesus narrative in the context of Daniel. Does this necessarily mean that what Matthew writes about is false? No, it doesn’t. It could be that he has a set of historical events which he wants to deliver in a symbolic manner to give it historical gravitas and theological reference. Some apologists call this history “scripturalised” and insist that there is a truth to the claims even if the truth isn’t one of factual events and chronology, but one of theological truth (see John R. Hinnells  in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, p.403-5). However, the problem here is that in order to have some kind of symbolic truth to an account, one has to have some nugget, some element, of actual truth to the account upon which to hang the symbolic truth. If we go back to the genealogies of Jesus and agree with Foster that there is some kind of truth to the claim that Jesus was of Davidic heritage, that he was special; if we are to believe that which Matthew or Luke says about the heritage of Jesus; then there must be at least some truth to this. The point is that these two genealogies are the only evidence of this. Thus to insist that he is of Davidic lineage, but the only evidence that one provides is symbolic and not factual, seriously raises the question as to whether he actually was of Davidic lineage. If there is no nugget of truth underlying the symbolic claims, then the symbolic claims are meaningless.

In the example of the magi and Herod, if the events are supposed to fulfil a theological or symbolic objective, then there must be some truth underlying this to which the symbolism refers. But here it seems that every verse referring to the magi or Herod is fraught with issues. There simply is no truth underlying this potentially symbolic overlay other than, potentially, the assertion that ‘Jesus is special’. Therefore, the claim that there is a symbolic truth to these accounts, or some other truth, is simply misplaced. Either there is some veracity to Jesus’ heritage, to the magi and Herod interacting over the birth of Jesus, or there isn’t. If there is, then where is it? As such, we have no basis for any belief that some magi or Herod were involved with the birth of Jesus and with that, we are left wondering exactly what must be learnt from the whole account. As John R. Hinnells in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (p. 403) illustrates:

This tendency to find in the scripture whatever the community needs for its continuing development is remarkably widespread. This is in effect the purpose of all forms of figurative or non-literal interpretation, namely to enable the community to find there what it must. In many traditions this approach has been taken to considerable lengths, often through elaborate theories of multiple senses of scripture. In Christianity, there were sometimes as many as seven, but most often four: the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogic (or relating to the end times).

None of which helps the case for the factual understanding of the events of the nativity, or in this case the magi and Herod. If it is a non-literal understanding, then it is for the development of the Christian tradition without regard for whether it is true or not. “Whatever the community need” is really what these accounts are about, and not “whatever might be true”. Thus the “whatever the community need” becomes a sort of arbitrary guideline as to what is included in such scriptures, and has detrimental effect as to whether they might have any kind of historical or even theological verisimilitude.

With regards to the reflection of Daniel, it could be that God made these events transpire in such a way that one reflected another, but that both were historically veracious. On the other hand, it could just be that Matthew was trying to give the person of Jesus a theological deference and a biography that was not accurate by elevating him above the Old Testament prophets and kings through having him piggy-back on the events of the Old Testament. This reflective symmetry is, in this case, not an accurate account of events, but either an evolution of theology and biography that was originally very different, or an outright falsehood. Thus it is a case of probability. What is the most likely reason for the fact that there is a much later account of a potentially disputed man-god which entirely reflects an earlier account of a biblical great?

Let us begin to conclude this section by returning to Richard Carrier. Carrier continues, now exposing further comparative features with regards to the magi (Carrier 2006):

In both texts (Matthew and the Septuagint text of Daniel) the stories have in their beginning the verb “to seal” (sphragizô), and in their endings the noun “eon” (aiôn, Daniel says “Oh king, live through all ages,” Darius decrees “He is the living God through all ages,” Jesus says “I am with you through all days until the end of the age”). Furthermore, in earliest Christian art, Daniel was the hero with whom Jesus was most commonly equated (cf. Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the Gods, 1993, pp. 77ff.), and Matthew alone depicts Magi visiting Christ at birth, whereas in the whole of the Old Testament the actual term “Magi” only appears in Daniel–for Daniel was most commonly associated with miracle working in the East. Since Matthew is clearly creating the guard story to create a seal and thus link Jesus with Daniel in death as in birth, the story is even less likely genuine than I grant above… The guard-placing account also involves the Sanhedrin both holding a meeting and placing a seal on a tombstone on the Sabbath, which is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. Thus, Matthew shows them violating the Sabbath to work against the good, after having shown them attacking Jesus for violating the Sabbath to do good (12:1-14). So Matthew may be deliberately crafting a story to create a symbolic contrast, another reason we cannot be sure it is true.

This motif of sealing is the common thread between the two biblical narratives, according to Carrier. The magi both refuse to bend to the will of the insecure ruler and fulfil God’s will. In an online essay/blog post (The Luxor Thing), Carrier affirms the following[2]:

In the Daniel narrative, kings are troubled by omens and summon their wise men to explain them, including the magi and a foreigner, a Jew named Daniel (whom Christians regarded as among their principal prophets…). In Matthew, a king is again troubled by an omen and summons his wise men to explain it, including the magi, who this time are the foreigners, and (in reversal of type) are the ones who get the omen right, and have come, in obedience to the decree of their ancestral king (Darius the Great, or so we’re to believe), to worship the one true God, as all nations ought, thus fulfilling Daniel’s message in Dan. 6:25-28, thus confirming Jesus is the Son of God, the very same God who rescued Daniel from the lions (and who will thus rescue Jesus).

As a result, I would posit that the magi are indeed a mechanism with which Matthew can bring in Herod in order to satisfy a theological objective of reflecting Moses’ flight from Egypt, as I will later point out. Without the magi, there is no Herod. Furthermore, the magi provide another mechanism with which he can compare and liken Jesus to the much favoured Daniel to give Jesus (to a Jewish audience) a lofty position (in other words, better, even, than Daniel). This is prevalent since we also know of his Davidic heritage. In the eyes of the Jews, then, Jesus is the greatest man imaginable. Jesus is, in fact, God.


[1] As we will see later, this is a technique used by Jewish rabbis to reinterpret meaning in older narratives in new and contemporarily relevant ways.

[2]Richard Carrier, “The Luxor Thing”, Feb 20 2012,  http://freethoughtblogs.

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