Q. How Did Herod the Great Know the Timing of the Messiah’s Birth? A. HE DIDN’T

She’s at it again! I didn’t think she could come up with anything better than Jesus being the angel of the Lord but SJ Thomason has outdone herself again, this time putting up a post with the question How Did Herod the Great Know the Timing of the Messiah’s Birth? So obviously, you know this is going to be comedy gold, let’s see if we can answer this question… shall we?

To begin she argues:

When Herod the Great became aware of the birth of the Messiah, he ordered the slaughter of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem. But how did he know the Messiah was to be born at that particular time? Which prophecies in the Old Testament or other sources supported this claim?

Now let’s ignore the issue that nowhere other than the Gospel of Matthew reports Herod’s apparent “killing of the innocents.” While I have a lot to say about that, this not the issue at hand. So as much as I’d love to rant about this, let’s stay on track and not forget what this is all about how Herod would have known the timing of the Messiah’s birth. So she claims:

Jesus’ birth narrative fulfilled numerous prophecies in the Old Testament, which were written hundreds of years prior to his birth. The intention of this article is to present the prophecies fulfilled in Matthew’s birth narrative, along with the sources on the timing of Jesus’ birth and eventual crucifixion.

Again, we need to keep in mind that this is all about the timing of the Messiah’s birth. So let’s have a look at what she claims: “Jesus’ Birth Narrative Fulfilled Numerous Prophecies”

Matthew 2 (1-18) states: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the of King Herod, Magi form the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews” We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written’ (Micah 5:2) ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’”

Again, while I have a lot to say about this, I don’t want to digress and discuss other issues. So because this is not the topic of the current post, I will be analysing about whether this is a prophecy about where the Messiah will be born in another post. The simple answer is, this is not a prophecy which says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. But again, let’s keep focused because this is all about how Herod knew when the Messiah would be born not where. And it seems there is an answer to the question.

It seems, to answer the actual question she posed: how did Herod the Great know the timing of the Messiah’s birth, the answer is, the Magi asked him where the Messiah [the king of the Jews] was because because they came to worship him. Surely this means case closed and we have the answer to this question; he was tipped off by the Magi from the east that told him he had been born. However, this still does not tell us when the Messiah had been born, because the story assumes he already has been born. But this reveals a more interesting question and an important point: how did the Magi seem to know the Messiah had been born, yet Herod’s Jewish advisers did not know when the Messiah had been born?

Let us think about this for a second, this seems to come as a shock to Herod as it reports he was disturbed. What’s more, it seems the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law also had no clue, because one would imagine if they had known when the Messiah would have been born (although they claim to know where, hence why Matthew quotes Micah 5:2) they would not have been equally surprised that he had been born. Think about it, if Herod’s Jewish advisers had known and pinpointed specific prophecies saying “the Messiah will be born at time X” then Herod wouldn’t have been tricked by the Magi and made himself look a right knob by killing all of the innocent children. Instead, you’d imagine if the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law would have known precisely when the Messiah would be born, Herod would have known about this. This means, he wouldn’t have had to rely on the chance visit of the Magi for him to know of the Messiah’s birth and then cocked up by killing every other child other than Jesus. This reveals something startling, so let us think about this scene for a second.

Just imagine being there when the Magi left and didn’t return. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall; just Herod turning around to his Jewish advisers going: “you f*cking idiots, I hired you for one job and you couldn’t even do that. How could you not know when the Messiah would be born?!?” To which his Jewish advisers replied: “well we know he will be born in Bethlehem [1]”. A now furious Herod would then retort, “fan-f*cking-tastic, thank you sooo much for being as much use as a chocolate teapot. I didn’t ask where the Messiah would be born. I wanted to know when he would be born. Now I’ve got to kill all the male children because of you!

Anyway, I got a bit side-tracked there. But it is still an important point. Just think about it for a second; the story makes absolutely no sense because this seems to paint the picture that the Jewish advisers did not know the Messiah had been born and so seemed completely unaware of any prophecies concerning when the Messiah would be born, which surely defeats the point SJ is trying to make. Instead, all they seem to know is that when the Messiah had been born, they would merely know that he would have been born in Bethlehem.

Obviously then, this story makes no sense as a historical account, particularly when we consider how exactly the author of Matthew would have known any of this information. Given that Herod died shortly after this and we never hear of the Magi again. Yet it makes perfect sense as basically Matthew casting Jesus in the role of being a second Moses and so is included as basically a theological story. Now because this isn’t the purpose of this post, I will leave it until later to respond to the specific prophecies Matthew cites that Jesus apparently fulfilled; Micah 5:2, Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15. But all of this does not prove the important issue of how Herod knew when the Messiah would be born. As SJ later admits:

In summary, Jesus’ birth narrative fulfilled prophecies on the location of Jesus’ birth, his residence in Egypt, and the mourning surrounding the slaughters of small children. But we are left with the questions on the origination of the bright star prophecy and the timing of the Messiah’s birth and life.

In other words, there does not seem to be a prophecy in the Jewish Bible of the timing of the Messiah’s birth, which not only SJ seems to be admitting but the author of Matthew seems to be admitting this as well. Despite this, SJ asks:

Where did the prophecy of the bright star in Bethlehem originate?

She claims it comes from the The Book of Tobit, a book which is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canons but the Protestant version of the Bible excludes it. It is also important to not that it is also not part of the Jewish canon. She quotes:

Tobit 13:11 states: “A bright light will shine to all parts of the earth; many nations shall come to you from afar. And the inhabitants of all the limits of the earth, drawn to you by the name of the Lord God. Bearing in their hands for the King of heaven. Every generation shall give joyful praise in you, and shall cast you the chosen one, through all ages forever.”

Despite citing this, she offers no explanation connecting this to the Bethlehem star and so does not attempt to explain how this prophecy is related to when the Messiah would be born. What’s more, even a mere prima facie reading of this, it clearly is not talking about the same thing as Matthew’s star.

Firstly, this bright light will “shine to all parts of the earth” and that “many nations” will come to you (whoever this might refer to) from afar. This clearly does not refer to a star which was being followed to a specific location, as Matthew reports: “it stopped over the place where the child was” (2:9) and Matthew famously does not have anyone else in attendance at Jesus’ birth (remember that the Shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel). Not only this, but this again does not say when this would happen, only that something would happen at some point in the future. But this leaves the question, if this passage is not talking about the Messiah’s birth, what is it talking about?

Well, the answer is this is talking about the future conversion of the Gentiles. This passage is connected to Tobit 14 which talks about “the nations in the whole world will all be converted and worship God in truth. They will all abandon their idols, which deceitfully have led them into their error.” (14:6) As it reports here:

Of the deepest influence upon the development of the messianic idea were the prophecies of Daniel, the essence of which is the reign of the pious (see 2:44; 7:14, 27). The apocrypha of the Old Test. contain but few messianic allusions, because, for the most part, they are historical or didactic, and not prophetic. But this does not mean that the messianic idea was not entertained by the authors. Besides the hope of a return of the dispersed of Israel (Baruch 4:36-37; Baruch 5:5-9; 2 Maccabees 2:18), of a conversion of the Gentiles (Tobit 13:11-18; Tobit 14:6-7), and the-perpetual existence of the Jewish nation (Sirach 37:25; Sirach 44:13), we also find the idea of an everlasting kingdom of the house of David (Eccles. 47:11; 1 Maccabees 2:57).

So clearly this passage is not talking about a literal star guiding someone to the birth of the Messiah, nor does it provide a time of when the birth of the Messiah would occur. So we are again back to square one!

Now I don’t like making apologists look bad (they do that perfectly well themselves) but I will help her out. SJ could have chosen a passage from the Jewish Bible which seems to suggest that “a star shall come forth from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) which many Christians claim is a prophecy which talk about the Messiah being heralded by a star [2]. Equally, she could have argued that the star was actually a Shekinah that is, a physical manifestation of the glory of God in the form of a supernatural radiance (like Exodus 13:21-22). However, again none of these references provides the time of the birth of the Messiah. Instead, these are just saying that there will be some connection between the birth of the Messiah and a star but does not say when this would happen. So finally, SJ poses the question: “Where did the prophecy on the timing of Jesus’ birth originate?” Unfortunately, she claims this:

Daniel 9:25-26 states: “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off.”

The Anointed One is another word for the word “Christ.” If we multiply seven sevens, we get 49 years, plus 62 sevens, which is 434 years. So after 483 years, Christ would be cut off (or crucified). The ancients used 360-day calendars, so we must convert their figure to 476 years. The decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem came in 444 BC, as indicated by Nehemiah (2:2; 1:1-4; 6:15), which he dates as the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. If we add 444 and 476 (omitting the year 0, because there is no year 0), we arrive at the date of 33. Numerous indications have pointed to April 3, 33 as the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Now again, I have many problems with this interpretation of Daniel 9 [3]. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll just focus on one issue; it has nothing to do with the birth of the Messiah. Even if you adopt the Christian reading of the text, this is not giving the timing of the Messiah’s birth but his deathI guess, the closest thing she could say is that this means the Messiah will be born before he will be killed in 33 CE, but this wouldn’t explain how specifically Herod would have known when the Messiah will be born as he died decades before any of this this happened anyway. This means, when SJ concludes:

Herod the Great had several strong reasons to fear the coming of the Messiah, based on multiple prophecies from the Old Testament and the book of Tobit. Given the authorship on these prophecies occurred hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ birth and include specific dates and events, arguments that claim the gospel writers crafted the story to match the prophecies have zero weight. The gospel writers did not craft the year 33, the location of Jesus’ birth, the bright star, and Jesus’ residence in Egypt. They merely told the truth.

Now obviously, I disagree, I think that the authors of the New Testament did craft their accounts including the location of Jesus’ birth, the bright star, and Jesus’ residence in Egypt based on a misunderstanding and thus misapplication of Jewish prophecies. But even ignoring all of my objections to this, none of these provide support for the actual issue SJ was trying to argue in favour of; namely how Herod would have known the timing of the Messiah’s birth. So the answer is, he didn’t know when the Messiah was to going to be born at that particular time and that there are no prophecies which said when this would precisely happen. It seems the only reason he knew when the Messiah had been born was because the Magi came to worship him, but this story seems to create more problems than it answers!

NOTES:

[1] This is not a prophecy which says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, which I will be dealing with in another post.

[2] This is not a prophecy which says the Messiah’s birth will be heralded by a star

[3] This is not a prophecy which says the Messiah will be killed in a specific year

One thought on “Q. How Did Herod the Great Know the Timing of the Messiah’s Birth? A. HE DIDN’T

  1. When I first saw her post on this and read it I could not help but think it was written by a freshman Bible college student given its manifold problems. Like citing Tobit concerning the star instead of Numbers. The latter is *far* more famous than the former. And her interpretation of Daniel is just bizarre and doesn’t factor in context at all.

    In any event, great takedown. The Matthean text only answers the *where* of Jesus’ birth, not the *when.* More eisegesis from the keyboard of a PhD holding pop-apologist.

    Liked by 1 person

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