As the shepherds watched their flocks during the night of Jesus’ birth, an angelic host appeared to them, telling them that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem. These shepherds were rugged men and not held in high esteem socially. Yet, they were chosen by God and invited to witness Jesus’ birth while kings and the privileged of society slept. Indeed, not even the scribes or Pharisees, or any of Jewish religious leaders were consulted or told of what had transpired, unless they heard the rumor that was begun by these chosen shepherds. Yes, this is how they had to have found out, for the shepherds repeated what the angel had told them to all who would listen and all who heard were astonished (Luke 2:17-18).
Yet, what was begun by the shepherds might have been passed off as mere stories by men not to be trusted, if it had not been for the sudden appearance of the magi from the East a little over a month later. These men were probably from the royal court of the king of Persia, and most likely of Jewish descent, for not all Jews in the Persian Empire returned to Israel from the land of their captivity. Many stayed and those in the court of the king had to remain, unless given special permission as was the case of Nehemiah centuries earlier. This royal visit caused quite a stir among the elite in Jerusalem. Herod was worried, and the Pharisees began to seriously consider the angelic message begun by the shepherds, for these politically conscious authorities imagined elaborate plots against Herod and prophesied that his reign would soon be over, and his kingdom would go to a powerful miracle worker. Notice this account in Josephus:
These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them (the Pharisees refusing to take the oath), Pheroras’s wife (Herod’s sister-in-law) paid their fine for them. In order to requite which kindness of hers, since they were believed to have the foreknowledge of things to come by Divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it; …These predictions were not concealed from Salome (Herod’s sister), but were told the king; as also how they had perverted some persons about the palace itself; so the king slew such of the Pharisees as were principally accused, and Bagoas the eunuch, and one Carus, who exceeded all men of that time in comeliness, and one that was his catamite. He slew also all those of his own family who had consented to what the Pharisees foretold; and for Bagoas, he had been puffed up by them, as though he should be named the father and the benefactor of him who, by the prediction, was foretold to be their appointed king; for that THIS KING WOULD HAVE ALL THINGS IN HIS POWER, and would enable Bagoas to marry, and to have children of his own body begotten. [JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews: Book 17; Chapter 2; Paragraph 2; —parenthesis and emphasis mine]
One would have to wonder why the Pharisees at this time predicted such an occurrence. Were they actually cognizant of the times, or had they reconsidered the shepherds’ tales in light of the coming of the magi? Notice what Josephus says of the “king” who should come. The Pharisees foretold that a eunuch named Bagoas would be miraculously healed of his infertility and be gifted by God to sire this new King who would have all things in his power. Notice, too, that though yet unborn, he would enable Bagoas to have children. This implies that the King or Messiah predated his human birth! Another point to consider is could this prophecy recorded in Josephus be what the Pharisees understood about Isaiah 7:14? It doesn’t fit completely, but it does show a Jewish understanding of the Messiah having a miraculous birth.
Of course Herod was livid. The magi didn’t return and after learning of the Pharisees’ prophecy, he went on a murdering spree, beginning with his own family. He had his two sons by Miriam executed; the Pharisees who were known to have spread this tale were slain, and so was Bagoas, the one through whom this king was supposed to come. Yet, not only these but Herod also killed about a dozen or so young baby boys under the age of two. Now, many critics will say that history doesn’t record such an event, but, really, when one considers the fact that Herod killed his two sons that he had intended to give the kingdom after his death, who were also loved by the Jews because they were descended from the Hasmonian family through their mother, and then killed a number of prominent Pharisees, it is not incredibly astonishing that Herod’s friend and historian, Nicolas of Damascus (from whose works Josephus’ account is taken) overlooked the slaughter of the innocents. Yet, history has not completely overlooked the incident as this 5th century CE record shows:
“When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.” [Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia, book II, chapter IV:11(emphasis mine)]
The implication is that a pig in Herod’s palace would live longer, since he practiced the kosher eating habits of the Jews. A peculiarity concerning Ambrosius’s remark is that he does not mention Christianity in any of his writings. He writes of Roman life and pagan rituals. If he doesn’t speak of Christianity, why would he endorse one of the teachings of the Christian faith surrounding the birth of the Messiah? It doesn’t make sense that Ambrosius learned this from Matthew’s account, since his works show no interest in Christianity. He must have learned it from another, probably secular source now lost. Notice the he even identifies the children from Syria, the Roman base of authority, rather than the Bethlehem precincts where the children actually lived. In this short excerpt of his works, Ambrosius shows little similarity to Matthew, having only the actual event in common. Everything else seems to come from another source. Therefore, his knowledge of the event probably comes from other histories written about those times from which Ambrosius could have gotten the whole story.
So, we see how the message from heaven committed to a few shepherds finally ended up in the hands of some prominent Pharisees, whose political ideologies and fertile imaginations got a lot of people killed by a powerful tyrant insanely suspicious of anyone thought to rival his throne. It would seem that Matthew’s account of the visiting magi and what transpired afterward is fairly well substantiated by what is recorded in history, despite arguments to the contrary by some modern Biblical critics.