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Around 66 A.D, the Armenian King Tiridates I, who was also a Zoroastrian priest and magus, traveled from the east to Rome accompanied by other magi (Mάγος) to pay homage to Nero and vow fidelity to him. The emperor Nero even held a coronation ceremony for him. Tiridates I addressed the emperor:

My Lord, I am a descendant of Arsakes and the brother of the Kings Vologases and Pacorus. I have come to you who are my god; I have worshipped you as the [sun];I shall be whatever you would order me to be, because you are my destiny and fortune. (See here.)

A Wikipedia article states a skeptical viewpoint:

It has been suggested that the visit of Tiridates I, an event that greatly impressed contemporaries, was adapted by Christians to become the story of the adoration of the Christ Child by the Three Magi. (See here)

The late bishop John Shelby Spong, argued a few years back about how to understand the account of the magi of Matthew's Gospel. In his book, Born of a Woman, he writes how the universal assumption of people he knows, associated with New Testament study, is that the magi were not actual people. He states: "Matthew was clearly writing Christian midrash." (Born of a Woman, pages 89-90)

Of course, Spong is not clear on whether the concept of Matthew using forms of midrash necessarily implies the use of fictional stories to illustrate spiritual truths. The definition of midrash (midˊ-rash) is that of noun, from a root meaning “to study,” “to seek out” or “to investigate.” Midrash stories elaborate on incidents to derive a principle or provide a moral lesson. So, in theory, one could write non fictional midrash.

It is unlikely that Matthew's Gospel contains made up fictional stories to convey spiritual truths, as this was clearly addressed by the apostle Peter. He writes in 2 Peter 1:16 that:

...we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

Daniel Wallace gives a good defense for attributing 2 Peter as an authentic letter of Peter. It can be found here.

In the early church, Tertullian (215 A.D.) writes about a church leader who wrote fictional accounts and attributed them to the apostle Paul. He writes about the dim view that the early church had in regards to those making up stories and wrongly attributing them to the apostles:

...let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul's fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office. (On Baptism, 17)

With the above in mind, could a late editing of Matthew's Gospel include a non fictional midrash story of the Magi specifically because of the events in 66 A.D.?

Charles Hill believes he’s found another fragment of Papias in one of Origen’s Homilies on Luke, which would suggest John had reviewed the other gospels in their final form as part of the final canonization process:

There is a report noted down in writing that John collected the written gospels in his own lifetime in the reign of Nero, and approved of and recognized those of which the deceit of the devil had not taken possession; but refused and rejected those of which he perceived were not truthful. (Charles E. Hill, “What Papias Said About John (and Luke): A “New” Papian Fragment,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 49 (1998), p. 585)

Matthew's original "oracles of Jesus" were written in the Hebrew dialect. See Papias in Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.16. So, the Papian quote from Hill could be taken in a general sense for how the apostle John selected Matthew's longer Greek version for the final canon that he authorized.

A longer version that contained the account of the magi visiting Jesus at his birth would have been very helpful in Matthew's mission journeys later in life. According to Hippolytus (170-235 A.D), Matthew wrote the Gospel in Hebrew and published it at Jerusalem, and died at Hierees, a town of Parthia (Hierees is near modern day Tehran in Iran).

That the writing of multiple editions of books in other languages was a practice in the first century can be demonstrated by reference to Josephus’ first work, Bellum Judaicum (History of the Jewish War). He wrote seven books between AD 75 and 79, toward the end of Vespasian’s reign. The original Aramaic has been lost, but the extant Greek version was prepared under Josephus’ personal direction. See here.

Josephus writes in his Jewish Wars (Book 1, Preface, Paragraph 1):

I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians.

Would a longer edition of Matthew contain this story after 66 A.D., as the Persians were then seen in a more favorable light at least by Rome? Or, would the longer version of Matthew's Gospel be more likely written prior to 66 A.D.? Perhaps a little after Artabanus III, king of Parthia died in 38 A.D., and before the next war with the Parthians in 58 A.D. - as the coming of the Magi to worship Jesus would be less controversial at the time?

It has been suggested that one of the reasons why Luke's Gospel does not include the story of the wisemen (magi from Parthia) is that it would have been distractive to include it at the time of its composition, as there was a Roman conflict with the Parthians going on.

Lucian of Samosata, the 2nd century Greek rhetorician, drew up a set of rules for the budding historian in his book How to Write History. In it he writes (emphasis added):

Rapidity is always useful, especially if there is a lot of material. It is secured not so much by words and phrases as by the treatment of the subject. That is, you should pass quickly over the trivial and unnecessary, and develop the significant points at adequate length. Much must be omitted. After all, if you are giving a dinner to your friends and everything is ready, you don't put salt fish and porridge on the table in the midst of the cakes, poultry, entrees, wild boar, hare, and choice cuts of fish, simply because they are ready too! You forget the cheaper articles altogether. (56)

The dates of the various conflicts with Rome and Persia run as follows:

The decision of the Parthian King Artabanus III to place his son on the vacant Armenian throne triggered a war with Rome in 36 AD, which ended when Artabanus III abandoned claims to a Parthian sphere of influence in Armenia. War erupted in 58 AD, after the Parthian King Vologases I forcibly installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. Roman forces overthrew Tiridates and replaced him with a Cappadocian prince, triggering an inconclusive war. This came to an end in 63 AD after the Romans agreed to allow Tiridates and his descendants to rule Armenia on condition that they receive the kingship from the Roman emperor. (See here)

I have a final thought that I picked up from Louis Sweet. He points out that the use of the phrase “Herod the King” by Matthew suggest an earlier dating, as the later signification “Herod the Great” was not yet in use.

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  • Some clue: From Hagner's 1993 WBC Technical commentary: "In spite of the widespread hesitancy concerning the historicity of this pericope (e.g., Brown, Birth; Hill; Luz), there is no insuperable reason why we must deny that the tradition used by Matthew is historical at its core (see E. M. Yamauchi, "Episode")." Found Yamauchi's paper here. Jan 7, 2022 at 18:51
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    Another clue: a 2010 Southeastern Baptist dissertation History driving theology: a literary, theological, and historical analysis of the Matthean Birth Narratives which contains a survey of research (including possible haggadic and midrashic elements). It references Hagner's WBC commentary as well as a later Spong book Jesus for the Non-Religious (2007). Jan 7, 2022 at 18:55
  • GD thanks. Your reference quotes Spong: “It is, therefore, essential to begin this search for the reality of the man Jesus by looking at the biblical narratives that purport to tell of his birth, which for far too long have been mistakenly read as history.” I think the pendulum has swung since Spong was around. For too long the majority of scholars have read the nativity accounts as made up fiction. Now is a good of time as any to challenge that skeptical viewpoint.
    – Jess
    Jan 7, 2022 at 19:56
  • In the same article a reference is made to Crossan who gives his view of the magi story: "In plain language, it’s a parable..." Maybe this question needs to be addressed over in the hermeneutics section of stack exchange?
    – Jess
    Jan 7, 2022 at 20:09
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    "Now is a good of time as any to challenge that skeptical viewpoint." That's why I +1 the question. "Maybe this question needs to be addressed over in the hermeneutics section of stack exchange?" I was about to suggest that :-). Jan 7, 2022 at 20:10

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That's an impressive amount of research you have presented, and is fascinating. You ask if a 'longer version of Matthew's Gospel' could have been written prior to 66 A.D. or between 38 A.D. when Artabanus III, king of Parthia died, and before the next war with the Parthians in 58 A.D.

Well, I've never heard of any 'longer version of Matthew's Gospel' being found, but let's just concentrate on the date of writing for Matthew's Gospel.

My NIV Study Bible notes say this:

The Jewish nature of Matthew's Gospel may suggest that it was written in Palestine, though many think it may have originated in Syrian Antioch. Some have argued on the basis of its Jewish characteristics that it was written in the early church period, possibly the early part of A.D. 50.

Others think that Matthew wrote his gospel in the late 50's or in the 60's.

Although some people think that Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark's gospel, another view suggests that the other two Synoptics drew from Matthew as their main source.

To suggest that Matthew added to his gospel at a later date and 'modified' historical events just to come up with a good story is pure speculation.

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  • The idea of Matthew putting together a longer Greek version would be an inference based upon Papias who writes how Matthew originally wrote the “oracles of Jesus” in Hebrew/Aramaic and others followed. Josephus had different linguistic versions. So the precedent is there.
    – Jess
    Jan 7, 2022 at 15:56
  • 2 Peter 1:16 is an example of how the early disciples did not intend their writings to be interpreted in a fictional sense. Defending 2 Peter as an authentic letter of Peter, the apostle, is easy to do.
    – Jess
    Jan 7, 2022 at 16:02
  • Thanks Lesley, I took your comments to heart and edited my question a bit more.
    – Jess
    Jan 7, 2022 at 19:58

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