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Ignatius and the Star of Bethlehem (Guest post by John C. Evans)

(The post below has been provided by my on-line friend, Roman Catholic theology student John C. Evans of Book and Spade. It was first published there. The ideas in it are John's. I provided only some light editing. In fact, I have given John pushback on some of the theories therein, but I am happy to provide him with a wider forum to share his interesting thoughts on the subject. LM)

The letter to the Ephesians attributed to early second-century martyr Ignatius of Antioch conspicuously stands out from the six other epistles generally believed by mainstream scholars to be authentic. This is largely due to a famous or infamous passage toward the end of the letter, comprising chapters 18 and 19, in which Ignatius, on his way to execution in Rome, seemingly diverges from the flow of his discourse to expound the events surrounding the passion and nativity of Christ.

The minimalist scholar will inevitably hold to the conviction that these references constitute merely one layer in a series of “ecclesiastical traditions” of dubious origin, with little to no foundation in the person of the historical Jesus. Such a conviction, however, is founded on the presupposition that either the apostolic memory died before Ignatius gave his life in Rome toward the very dawn of the second century or that the successors to the Apostles had little concern for historicity as we would conceive of it. However, such a presupposition ignores two steady streams of evidence branching from a wealth of patristic sources.

Most would place the death of John, the last surviving apostle, to circa A.D. 90 in Ephesus, hardly twenty years before the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch. John was active in Asia Minor toward the end of his life. According to the second-century father Irenaeus, a well-known student of Polycarp, John was responsible for combating heretical sects toward the close of the first century which sought to distort the memory of what the rest of the twelve witnessed and died defending. John was an eyewitness of the crucifixion of Jesus, was caretaker for His Mother in Ephesus, until her passing or assumption, possibly in the 60s, and is listed as a pillar of the faith by Paul alongside James, the brother or cousin of the Lord. There is also the witness of Papias. Papias authored an “exposition on the oracles of the Lord,” which is now lost. However, fragments survive. Papias claims to have faithfully passed on what he learned from a series of eyewitnesses of “the truth” and to have an interest in truth as it factually happened, and he references the name “John” twice. As we read:

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith and proceeding from truth itself. If then, anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be found from books was not as profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

From the second to through the fourth century, there was no doubt whose “living and abiding voice” Papias was referring to, since during that time consensus held that Papias was a student of John the Apostle. Doubts arose later due to Papias’ commitment to a literal millennial reign of Christ as described in the Apocalypse, which became unpopular.

However, a secondary fragment of Papias states that many in the early church referred to one another as “children,” a term that repeatedly appears in the vocabulary of 1 John and partially in the upper room farewell discourse of John 14 through 17.

As we read in Papias, “[The early Christians] called those who practiced a godly guilelessness, children.” In the first fragment, the terms “the truth” and “witness” are employed by Papias and are favorite terms of the apostle John in his canonical Gospel. The historical grounds for pressing a wedge between Papias and the last surviving apostle seem to be contrived and in discontinuity from these internal shards of evidence and the consistent body of external evidence until the fourth century.

If then Papias was indeed, as Irenaeus claims, a “hearer of John” (a term employed for a professional scribe), and if Ignatius was indeed, as tradition holds, a student of the apostle, it is more than probable they could have crossed paths. Therefore, the claim that apostolic memory generally died before the time of Ignatius’ martyrdom is suspect and should be soundly rejected on strictly historical grounds.

Fourth-century tradition universally names Ignatius as an associate of John the Apostle and second successor from Peter in Antioch. Some narratives go so far as to claim that Peter ordained Ignatius to office; others remain relatively vague. Given the traditional date of Ignatius’ birth in A.D 36, and the universally Petrine and Johannine associations made with this figure, it seems chronologically probable that Ignatius had access to John in his passing on the apostolic teaching to a new generation, which had never seen Jerusalem before 70 A.D. Also, given the rapid succession of Peter’s martyrdom, and likely that of his successor, Evodius, in Antioch, it seems that Peter may have well selected a younger man, such as Ignatius, as a successor in the mid-60s so that a clear line of teachers could be maintained without dispute or factionalism in the Church.

From 1 Clement, composed between the 70s and 90s, disputes over who had the right to hold clerical office and institute the sacraments appear to have occurred. Could Peter have foreseen this difficulty and insured that the next two successors of his in Antioch would be assured by personally partaking, in some mode, in their ordination? The chronology, motivation, and patristic sources speak in a unified chorus. Polycarp, who, according to Irenaeus, was a student of John, received a letter from Ignatius in which he instructs him in his office. This is the equivalent of a member of the USCCB writing a treatise on how to be humble and live charitably in tones of undeniable authority to the chosen pupil of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Clearly, anyone who would dare to speak in such a manner would either themselves be remarkably presumptuous or would have to share at least a comparable, if not greater, level of authoritative standing in the community of believers.

Irenaeus states in his work that Polycarp knew “apostles” in the plural. There is some debate as to how Irenaeus employs this term: whether he includes the 70 or just the 12. However, in either case, we see a body of eyewitnesses alive and well during the lifetime of Ignatius of Antioch. Therefore, what he has to relate about the person of Jesus, his birth and death, the arranging of church government and the liturgy, should be approached with some interest. Plutarch’s biographies are distanced from their sources, often by a much wider margin and with much greater political pressure. Ignatius, on the other hand, writes like a man who knows he is going to die. That he had motivations for dishonesty is psychologically implausible. Ignatius is undeniably sincere and writes within living memory of those who stood at the foot of the cross and witnessed the empty tomb.

This leads us to the text of the famous, or infamous, passage on the Nativity Star. I have opted to quote the whole of chapters 18 and 19 as recorded on New Advent. This is because Ignatius’ reference to The Star must not be taken out of context. Until now, Ignatius has offered his readers an explanation on right and wrong teaching, true and false worship, reflections on conduct, and makes reference to a secondary work he hopes to write that he will never get the opportunity to attempt. Nowhere, until now, has Ignatius been concerned with advancing a Christology as the primary focus of his work as in the creed of Philippians 2, nor is he attempting to provide an apology of the faith as in the work of Justen Martyr. Instead, up until this point, Ignatius is passing on encouragement even as he is being led away to be fed to the lions in the arena. Therefore, this makes any biographical information about Jesus precious and striking. It also makes Ignatius’ sudden mention of the Nativity of Christ a seemingly startling departure from some of the themes he introduced throughout the work. What is Ignatius’ motivation and more importantly who is Ignatius’ primary source? The passage is as follows:

Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block, (1 Corinthians 1:18), to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal. Where is the wise man? Where the disputer? (1 Corinthians 1:20) Where is the boasting of those who are styled prudent? For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb of Mary, of the seed of David, by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water. (First Epistle to the Ephesians)

Now, the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. How, then, was He manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven, above all of the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence, every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished. God Himself was being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning, which had been prepared by God. Henceforth, all things were in a state of tumult because He meditated the abolition of death. (Chapter 19. Three Celebrated Mysteries)

First, let us note what Ignatius does not say. He does not state, “As is piously believed,” nor does he use the formula Paul employs in 1 Corinthians to describe how Eucharistic traditions were passed on to him. Also, notice that Ignatius does not begin with the manger, but instead approaches the crucifixion as his preamble, quoting Corinthians. He does this by pointing out that the “wisdom and power of God” who appeared in the manger is “God” and “appointed by God […] to take on human flesh.” He also links this with baptism, a sign of participating as Paul reminds us in Romans in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This sacramental focus seems to imply on implicit grounds that just as the believer descends into the depths of the waters, so too did the eternal Creator descend into the depths of His creation toward “the abolition of death,” toward the exodus from death to life.

Water is seen as a sign of the netherworld in Semitic cultures. Leviathan, a type of Luciferian monster, dwells coiled in the great deep. As Jesus “purifies the water” so too does God hallow even the grave by His self-offering on the Cross. Remember that it is Ignatius of Antioch who calls The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper the “medicine of immortality” and refers to the host as the “flesh” of Christ, echoing John 6. This is a man who sees his own upcoming death in the arena as a participation in the death of Christ, a death that paradoxically abolishes death. Immortality is acquired by willingly undergoing in communion the self-emptying of Christ, in conformity with the will of God, the same God who appeared in Bethlehem heralded by a star. Further, notice that Ignatius speaks of the star at some length and does not address it as a symbol. It is a star that shines more than the “moon and sun.” These are details that soundly place Ignatius’ reference outside the realm of a private vision to the Magi and well beyond a natural convergence that was only knowable to astrologers. Ignatius’ star is widely visible, is as historical as the crucifixion, and intimately connected with the mystery of The Incarnation. This gives the aforementioned passage the general mood of a creedal statement, although there is no evidence that it would be employed as such.

The fact that Johannine Christology is assumed as the Christology of the Synoptic Jesus is clear evidence that the Apostolic Church was already engaged in harmonizing the Gospel portraits of The Messiah. It is also evidence that this appeal to the “whole counsel of God,” as Paul explains in Acts to the Ephesians, is employed with concern for the historicity of the events described and not in spite of them. The Gospel of Ignatius is the Gospel of Nicaea. There is no discontinuity between the Christianity of the first and early second centuries with those of the past two centuries.

The great question should arise, who is Ignatius’ source? Ignatius was born in the 30s and could not have witnessed the Christmas star in person. He could have made use of Mathew’s Gospel already in circulation. However, the Gospel of Mathew in its extended form makes no mention of the star shining brighter than the moon and sun. A sound argument could be made that much of Matthew 1 and Luke 1 are a product of Luke interviewing Mary as an eyewitness while in Ephesus. (But Matthew’s account may preserve the memory of the experience of Joseph, perhaps preserved in writing by the Holy Family.) If so, John may have remembered as Mary’s caretaker details about the Christmas Star, and he may have passed them on to Ignatius. This is certainly plausible and lends further credibility to the survival of the apostolic witness into the close of the first century. However, there is yet another hypothesis, one dependent on Ignatius’ confident tone and the chronology of his life. Ignatius was born circa A.D 36 and seems to have become a Christian at a fairly early age. Mary, the only surviving eyewitness of The Star, could have walked on this earth as late as A.D 70, although her passing or assumption is more likely between the 50s and 60s. If we place Mary’s assumption to the mid to late 60s, this means that Ignatius could have personally met Mary as a neophyte. If Ignatius was as close to John as 4th-century authors heavily imply, and if this association began while Ignatius was only in his 20’s, then a meeting with Mary would have been a primary desire for anyone seeking to grow in knowledge of the person of Jesus. Of course, such a hypothesis remains strictly speculative when we are confronted with source material believed authentic by most mainstream scholarship. The fact that John could have easily acted as the intermediary of this data is highly probable. Beyond that, the historian can only raise the inquiry if this is all that presently exists.

But, as with all Ecclesiastical Traditions, there is more. A 12th-century text, later codified in the Golden Legend, reports a short exchange between Ignatius of Antioch and Mary. The full text of the brief exchange is copied below from New Advent.

Her friend Ignatius to the Christ-bearing Mary:

You ought to have comforted and consoled me who am a neophyte, and a disciple of your [beloved] John. For I have heard things wonderful to tell respecting your [Son] Jesus, and I am astonished by such a report. But I desire with my whole heart to obtain information concerning the things which I have heard from you, who was always intimate and allied with Him, and who was acquainted with [all] His secrets. I have also written to you at another time and have asked you concerning the same things. Fare well; and let the neophytes who are with me being comforted of you, and by you, and in you. Amen.

Reply of the Blessed Virgin to this Letter:

The lowly handmaid of Christ Jesus to Ignatius, her beloved fellow disciple. The things which you have heard and learned from John concerning Jesus are true. Believe them, cling to them, and hold fast the profession of that Christianity which you have embraced, and conform your habits and life to your profession. Now I will come in company with John to visit you, and those that are with you. Stand fast in the faith (1 Corinthians 16:13), and show yourself a man; nor let the fierceness of persecution move you, but let your spirit be strong and rejoice in God your Savior. (Luke 1:47). Amen.

The text does not appear in any known form before the 12th century and is found only in Latin. It is also clumped together with other epistles largely condemned as “spurious” or pseudepigrapha. However, the text is unadorned with rhetorical flourishes, employs the Marian title “Christ bearer” rather than “Mater Dei,” and is filled with Old Testament allusions which would have been formed in the mind of an early Jewish Christian. The title “Christ bearer” was employed by Nestorius in opposition to the title, “Mother of God,” which would become enshrined as the more accurate honorific owed to Mary in the wake of Chalcedon. A 12th-century monk is therefore unlikely to have employed these terms. An additional blog entry of mine is dedicated to the possibility of the texts’ authenticity. Regardless, no scholar, conservative or otherwise, treats the text as genuinely of the 1st century A.D. What does this tell us then? At most, we may be looking at a missing epistle recording a bond between Ignatius the Martyr and the source for his mention of the Christmas Star, the Mother of God herself.

At least, even if the opinion of the scholarly community is accurate and the epistle is among the pseudepigrapha, we are witnessing a tradition which places Ignatius as a witness to apostles who had direct access to the disputes he discusses. In either case, the reader is compelled to hear the ring of authenticity in Ignatius’ reference to the Star over Bethlehem as a historical phenomenon as comparably tangible as the crucifixion of the King and God whom it foretold.

Finally, circumstantial evidence regarding the passing of Ignatius should be considered in light of our discussion. In A.D. 108 or 110, as Ignatius was being led to execution, delegations from the churches he passed arrived and supposedly greeted him. There was no wide persecution in 108 in Asia Minor, although this does not rule out a local persecution. Nevertheless, it is odd that one bishop among many should be dragged to Rome, the capital of the world, for the death sentence and not executed nearer to home. Why drag a political prisoner across the breadth of the whole Eastern portion of the Roman Empire, when it would be just as easy to send him to an arena nearer to Antioch? Polycarp, a known student of John, was not treated to a full military escort to Rome. Instead, he died in Smyrna. In his letter to the Romans, Ignatius had to beg his contacts there not to arrange for his release. How does this lowly bishop from the Eastern portion of the empire have contacts high enough to change the mind of the emperor in Rome? These are hallmarks of no ordinary prisoner. These are efforts akin to those employed against Paul in Acts. A document reporting to be an account of Ignatius’ martyrdom still exists outlining a dispute he had with the emperor, Trajan. This is often read as an allegory for a more local dispute between a local representative of Caesar and Ignatius. However, given the strong patristic tradition of his apostolic connections, and the unusual lengths the empire went to transport this prisoner, one can only wonder if there is more to this tradition than meets the eye. This should lead us to conclude that perhaps Ignatius was indeed an associate of John and of Peter, that he was widely respected as a friend of the earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus, that he was responsible for accurately preserving their teachings, that he had no incentive to lie about the Christian star given his near proximity to death, and that he recognized that it was his mission to insure a written record was left behind of these largely oral traditions.

Comments (12)

I strongly welcome an approach to Matthew's account assuming at least the possibility and even likelihood of "the star" being a real event that was visible to others besides the 3 kings. I also welcome the consideration of the possibility that it was not only a real and widely visible event, but also that it was a true miracle, rather than a fortuitous concatenation of natural events (such as a particularly strong concurrence of planets), and as a miracle, we could not even potentially locate some natural event that "accounts" for it. I have grown weary at the constant barrage of scholars who deem it absolutely necessary to identify some ordinary astronomical event that "could have been 'the star' that the Magi saw". It is not necessary, and treating it so is a methodological mistake.

Yet I have to admit that a claim that goes even further and that it outshone the sun and moon presents some challenges. The most obvious being: why aren't there LOTS of other accounts of it? Surely there would have been some sort of references made to it in literature of the time. Even if it was visible only in a fairly small area for some reason (i.e. if one were to suppose that it was not literally up in the heavenly arena with the other stars, which would have made it visible to effectively the entire world), even if it were, say, visible only in the Middle East, or only in the Syria / Palestine / Judea area, that would still represent being seen by more than a million people. How could it NOT have created some sort of mention - such as the Roman officers or proconsul mentioning it in letters home? Why would it have left the court of Herod to be surprised at the announcement of the Magi of a sign of a new king - would they not have wondered at the very same sign themselves, even before the Magi arrived?

I have long had additional concerns over how the star seems to have led the Magi first to Jerusalem, possibly paused while they consulted at the court of Herod, and then moved on leading them to Bethlehem, and then stopped again. Since this is hardly ordinary behavior for a star, it is much easier to conceive of it as a simply miraculous star with no natural penchant for obeying ordinary physical laws. But then why bother with Jerusalem at all, and why not simply lead the Magi to Bethlehem? (Arguably, to make sure Herod knew about the portent's meaning - a new king born.) Why, after the Magi were told about Bethlehem, did they need the ongoing movement of the star to help them know where to go? Why didn't the scholars and astronomers of Herod's court simply observe the star's movement toward Bethlehem themselves (instead of relying on the Magi to report back)? I suspect that the answers to all of these hangs on a basic possible facet of the event: The star itself, and (especially) its "movement" in the heavens, was not entirely obvious to the uninitiated; it took knowledge of the heavens and knowledge of how to read change from one night to the next to even register movement of a star, and still more skill in grasping the direction thus entailed. The casual observer (such as, say, the shepherds) might have noticed "hey, there's a new star" without having any way to read it as moving in a specific direction different from the nightly rotation of all night sky objects across the sky.

I remember reading something a number of years ago that argued that the "star" may have been just as much an astrological event as an astronomical one, given that in ancient times there was no strict separation between the two. In other words, it was a true astronomical event in which the Magi saw an astrological meaning. By interpreting the thing strictly astronomically we are projecting our scientific prejudice back upon ancient peoples who had no such prejudice. Unfortunately it's been ages since I read the book and I can remember neither the title nor the author's name.

NM, while the hypothesis is possible, it runs into one rather obvious difficulty: in order for the astrological meaning of the astronomical event to represent something highly unusual - e.g. the birth of an otherwise unannounced king - it needs to have been something that is itself unusual in the heavens. It can't have been "Mars continues on its regular path around the heavens, per usual", because that would imply the birth of a new king (or some such mundane event) all the time. So, it STILL resolved down to locating some sort of unusual astronomical event. (That's aside from the purely imaginary and unsubstantiated nature of the hypothesis, in that there might have been ANY NUMBER of oddnesses resident in ancient astrology that we wouldn't recognize today that could have led the Magi to infer both the basic meaning "a king born" and a direction/location out of it. Yes, there might have been, but without even a shred of a detail as to one specific oddity it's mere speculation that would suggest it being applicable here.)

John is hoping to interact soon with these comments and is grateful for them. Due to visual impairment, he's going to be working with an assistant to post responses.

I'd like to refer readers to the following articles (all of which are available online), which provide an in-depth treatment of Ignatius' Starhymn, as it is known in scholastic circles:

Brown, Charles Thomas, "The Gospel and Ignatius of Antioch" (1997). Dissertations. 3708

Khomych, Taras. "Conflicting Choreographies? Dance as Doctrinal Expression in Ignatius' Ephesians 19 and Acts of John 94-96." Mohr Siebeck; Tübingen 402 (2018), 217-229.

Stander, H. F. "The Starhymn in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (19:2-3)." Vigiliae Christianae 43 (1989), 209-214, E. J. Brill, Leiden. [Only the first two pages can be viewed online.]

Brown (1997, 49) disputes the claim that Ignatius' star is the same as the one described in Matthew's Gospel. In support of his contention, he cites the following observations from Peder Borgen's article, "Ignatius and the Traditions on the Birth of Jesus," in Paul Preaches Circumcision and Pleases Men and Other Essays on Christian Origins (Trondheim: Tapir, 1983):

"1. There are few linguistic similarities between Ignatius and Matthew 2, apart from the word 'star.' 2. It is not the case in Ignatius, as it is in Matthew, that a king's star appears in the sky, but the King/the Messiah is himself described as a star. 3. The kingship motif is common to both, but its development is quite different in the two cases. In Matthew, king Herod and the Christ Child are contrasted with each other, whereas Ignatius depicts the old monarchy and the new kingdom in a mythological framework." (1983, 160)

Brown argues that the contrasts between Matthew and Ignatius, coupled with the existence of other possible original sources (e.g. Num 24:17 which declares that "a star shall come out of Jacob") establish that Matthew's account of the star of Bethlehem and Ignatius' Starhymn "are two different interpretations of the motif of the star of the messiah." [The quote is from Borgen (1983, 161).] In a footnote [47], he adds: "Koester believes that the myth of the star in Ignatius is in a much more original form than in Matt 2 and is in no way dependent on Matthew. Koester, Synoptische Uberlieferung, 31-32."

I would also argue that the wording of Ignatius' Starhymn points against its referring to an actual historical event. Consider the following excerpt:

"All the other stars
with the sun and moon
gathered in chorus round this star,
and it far exceeded them all in its light."

When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Joseph's dream, narrated in Genesis 37:9 (NIV): "Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. 'Listen,' he said, 'I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.'"

The Starhymn goes on to say that "[t]here was perplexity, whence came this new thing, so unlike them." However, there is nothing in the passage to link this perplexity to King Herod and his court, as in Matthew's Gospel; rather, the wording of the passage appears to suggest that it is the stars themselves which are perplexed at the new sign and wonder that has appeared in their midst, which is "so unlike them" (emphasis mine). (In the ancient world, there were many who believed that the stars were animate beings: Origen is a noteworthy example.)

In his post, John Evans suggests that Ignatius got his story about the star at Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary herself. Even fairly traditional scholars would take such a proposal with a grain of salt. For instance, here's what conservative scholar Richard Bauckham has to say about the once-popular suggestion that Luke's Infancy Narrative is derived from Mary, in his essay, “Luke’s infancy narrative as oral history in scriptural form” (in The Christian world around the New Testament, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017, Volume 2, pp. 131-142):

"Of course, in the case of his infancy narrative, readers would not expect Luke to have had direct contact with eyewitnesses. That he was lucky enough to meet Mary before her death is unlikely, even if not completely impossible." (2017, p. 132)

Luke's Infancy Narrative was written decades before Ignatius' Starhymn. I respectfully submit that if it is highly unlikely that Luke got his account from the Virgin Mary, it is even more unlikely that Ignatius ever spoke to her. I might add that while the date of Mary's death is uncertain, the traditions that we have (which are admittedly very late) place her death no later than 48 A.D., when Ignatius would have been only 12 years old (assuming he was born in 36 A.D., as Evans suggests). The last Biblical mention of Mary is Acts 1:14 (i.e. around 33 A.D.). I might add that James the brother of Jesus was martyred in 62 A.D., and there is no tradition of Mary having witnessed his martyrdom. Evans' contention that she could have been alive as late as 70 A.D. is therefore improbable - all the more so when we recall that she was born around 18 B.C.

Lastly, there is uncertainty as to the date of Ignatius' death. The commonly accepted date of 108-110 A.D. is based on the fourth-century writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, whose reliability has been questioned by some scholars, who consider him to have had a strong ideological motive for dating church leaders as early as possible, in order to demonstrate their apostolic lineage. In recent years, Richard Pervo and Timothy Barnes have independently argued for a date of c. 140 A.D. as the date of Ignatius' martyrdom. If that were the case, then Ignatius could not possibly have met Mary.

Matthew is not offering an *interpretation* of anything, Vincent. Brown is badly off-base in suggesting that Matthew is making up a story based on some Old Testament passage. Matthew himself *certainly* intends his story to be historical. You may think he's wrong, you doubtless do, but that's a different matter from insinuating that he's just making stuff up.

Your quotation from Bauckham is taken out of context. Bauckham goes on in that same article to take quite seriously the theory that Luke talked to members of Jesus' family. He seems to favor James as the most likely. Here is a further quotation:

However, in my view there are two reasons at least for thinking that Luke may after all have based his narrative on traditions he learned from the family of Jesus. Both are controversial. The first depends on the view, which I hold, that the ‘we’ passages in Acts indicate the presence of Luke, the author, at the events. In that case, Luke himself tells us that he met James the Lord’s brother when he accompanied Paul on Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem. In the succeeding period he would have had ample opportunity to speak with James and quite plausibly also with other relatives of Jesus.

I respectfully submit that if it is highly unlikely that Luke got his account from the Virgin Mary,

While Luke's early history (before traveling with Paul) is rather uncertain, it is fairly believed that he had been a Christian for some time, and it is widely believed that he had been at Jerusalem in the 30's. (Some hold that he may have even been one of the original 70 sent out by Jesus, but we need not put any stock in such a position.) I respectfully submit that any Christian who in the 30's spent a significant amount of time in the same small community of Christians as the original disciples and Mary, and who was a highly educated and traveled man, almost certainly WOULD have met Mary at least a few times. Alternatively, if he was with Paul when Paul visited Jerusalem and had high-level meetings with the Apostles then at Jerusalem, it is again not "unlikely" he met Mary, even if it does not become thereby "probable".

I submit also that the writing of Luke's Gospel and Acts clearly presents a picture of a man who, besides being educated, was a writer at heart, one who was regularly to be found putting thoughts and experiences to paper, and, possibly, had already been a bit of a "travelogue writer" for the benefit of his far-flung friends. A person like this, and one who clearly likes to get the facts straight and to record the details, is far from unlikely to have (a) carefully questioned those who were primary witnesses of the life-altering events of the gospels, and (b) even to have written up his own personal notes of those discussions at that time. This could have included not only questioning Jesus' own relations such as James to get accounts of Jesus' infancy narrative, but to question the actual persons involved in various events - including talking to Mary about the infancy events, and talking to john about his being called to discipleship, etc. That is to say: while we have no SPECIFIC evidence that Luke took pains to question participants of the events when possible, we can make an educated guess that when available he took advantage of the opportunity. And there is every reason to believe he had the opportunity.

Somehow creating "unlikely" and "lucky" out of sheer NON-information is rather ridiculous as a method. We don't know when Luke became a Christian, nor where he spent most of his years before traveling with Paul. But "don't know" isn't anything like "probably nowhere near Jerusalem". He was, after all, clearly not averse to doing some traveling. And, after all, the single largest event increasing the size of the Christian community was Pentecost Sunday, so (on probabilities) it is not UN likely Luke could have met Mary. We don't know when Mary was no longer on Earth, but even the most confident skeptics cannot say more than that it was "no later than 48 AD", (though there is a common belief Mary later went with John to Ephesus), which can't preclude Luke meeting with her when with Paul, even if he had not met her earlier. And while there is some reason to think the number of Christians was in the thousands by, say, 40 or 45 AD, that does not mean that it was in the thousands in Jerusalem, so the possibility of a traveling Christian meeting up with Mary may not have been particularly unlikely even aside from considering any special standing he may have had.

We need to stop making pseudo-information out of non-information. Not having positive information doesn't always constitute negative information.

I don't see why Luke couldn't have conversed with Mary in the 50s when Paul was in prison in Caesarea. In fact, that's probably when he conversed with Peter as well, as the journey to Jerusalem is not that far. We are all (including the authors of those "admittedly very late" traditions) about when she died. I see no reason at all why she could not have been alive and in Jerusalem in the latter half of the 50s.

Hi All,

Thank you for your thoughtful response, and I agree with you in your affirmation that the event seen above Jerusalem and Bethlehem was a supernatural rather than an astronomical event. Stars don’t generally “stand” over houses as we read in Matthew-2 or precede Magi out of the East. However, given how widespread the astronomical and astrological reading is in the minds of even many “conservative” Biblical voices, I too before diving deeper, once held entirely to a purely natural explanation. This being said, the grounds for the miraculous here which you have articulated also makes sense of Ignatius’ claim of the star’s brilliance.

Revisiting the passage more closely, we notice some additional details which might expand our exploration of the historicity of this event. As we read,

A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.

Ignatius informs us that the star shown greatly “above” the light of the sun and moon. But he never states when this occurred or even if this was a consistent phenomenon. The passage that leads up to this description begins by informing us that “the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world.” So it is the virginity of Mary and the Incarnation which is in view in this passage. Therefore, if this context actually reflects a Marian eyewitness, is it possible that this “novelty” was not ongoing to this level of brilliance but occurred during a particular point in the star’s circuit toward Bethlehem? Perhaps the “star” shone brightly but increased in luminosity over a general geographical region, shining either at a consistent or steadily growing rate, until reaching the Manger in Bethlehem. Therefore, the extreme luminosity Ignatius describes may have been a vision only isolated to the particular evening of the nativity or over a limited period of time in which the Magi visited the lodgings of the Holy Family. This means distinguishing between the general miracle of “the star,” as recorded by Matthew, which occurred over a lengthy period of time, with the particular miracle of “the star” shining in an unusual manner on, or near, the Magi’s arrival in Bethlehem. This may have occurred in a localized manner. We see something similar to this in the events of October 13th, 1917 in Fatima. Here, the sun appeared to increase in size, dance wildly in the heavens, turn blood-red and appear to nearly collide with earth. The event was local. Some estimates place 75 thousand to 100 thousand persons at the sight of the field and it was widely reported on by spectators who were anti-Catholic, atheistic, or simply curious who arrived to examine the data for themselves. From a strictly materialistic paradigm, the miracle of the sun defied all laws of physics. Therefore, it is logical to assume a non-material cause. In the same way the “star” in Mathew-1 and Ignatius’ epistle to the Ephesians-19 can shine more keenly than the other luminaries, and move freely through the heavens like an ancient satellite precisely because it is a non-repeatable miraculous event. Yet as some have articulated in their generous responses, this event could only have meaning in association with the cultures who beheld its occurrence, interpreting the event of “the miracle of the star” in continuity with the milieu in which they were set. Jesus’ statement, “Before Abraham was, I am,” only possesses meaning in light of His audience understanding the divine context of the phrase “I am that I am.”

As for the lack in primary sources, this also was once something which bothered me. In fact this was one of the primary reasons why I began my own search into the “I am” statements in the fourth gospel. However, in light of Tim and Lydia’s work on undermining the argument from silence, I believe we have firm grounds for assuming that simply because documentation hasn’t survived doesn’t mean it never existed.

Ignatius’ reference strongly validates Mathew’s description of the Christmas Star. Before Ignatius’ reference in his letter to the Ephesians-19, we possessed no other allusion to the event within the apostolic era. Given Ignatius’ proximity to John, Peter, and potentially Mary herself, such an allusion is certainly encouraging and bolsters Mathew’ credibility as a historian. While it is true that an event of the “novelty” Ignatius describes well could have been recorded in other sources, the fact that they have not survived is no bar to the events’ historicity. Many of the shocking events of the birth of our Lord, such as the slaughter of the innocent, the Magi’s existence, and Herod’s knowledge of the nativity, are only contained in Mathew. Does this mean that they never happened? Certainly not. Mathew was writing presumably before 70 A.D, and I would place the writing of his gospel in the 40s during the lifetime of Mary and other friends of eyewitnesses of Jesus. It is unlikely that fabrications on a large scale could have been perpetrated. In the same way does this mean that Luke, Mark, and John never make mention of the Christmas Star or the additional miracle of some localized “chorus” of luminosity as described by Ignatius? Such an event admittedly does not appear in the canonical books attributed to them. However, do we assume that these are the only documents, sermons, or histories they ever composed? Certainly not. Regular communication had to have been made between Paul and the various churches he planted throughout Asia Minor. We know from Irenaeus that John as an older man had an active ministry in and around Ephesus stamping out heresies which sought to distort the living memory of the apostolic era with gnostic innovations. Had the Christmas Star been, at one point in its journey, as uniquely luminous as Ignatius records, John could have easily mentioned this in public discourse with any one of the seven churches he alludes to in Revelation 1 and 2, over which he held some sway from at least the 60s through the 90s. Perhaps this active ministry was prompted by the death of Peter and Paul towards the close of the 60s. Perhaps this was partly due to the reality that many other eyewitnesses were being martyred. What is clear from Irenaeus, which we presume was handed on from Polycarp, is that John may have had a massive literary output during this period in which several of these non-repeating Biblical episodes may have been discussed in greater detail. The fact that these sources don’t survive should not surprise us. Under Diocletian and perhaps as early as Nero, evidence related to the life of the Nazarene could have been willfully destroyed or hidden never to be recovered. This appears to have been the fate of the autograph of the fourth gospel though copies survive. I have pasted below quotations regarding the survival of autographs of the gospels—original hand-written manuscripts composed by the apostolic authors themselves.

Tertullian born nearly fifty years after the death of John and writing within the lifetime of Irenaeus states in no uncertain terms to his opponents,

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves).

Peter, Patriarch of Alexandria, martyred in A.D. 311, claims the autograph of the Gospel of John survived in Ephesus, the place of John’s death in A.D 96. Peter was writing nearly 200 years after John’s death and the final redaction of the gospel.

John, the divine and evangelist, teaches us in the Gospel written by him, where he thus speaks: “Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.” And after a few things more. “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment-seat, in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Tabatha. And it was the preparation of the Passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.

The fact that the autographs themselves survived for nearly 200 years when discussing the gospel of John, and for nearly 100 years in the case of Pauline writings as recorded by Tertullian, suggests that care was taken to preserve these texts and that it is likely that much more was preserved by “the thrones” of the apostles Tertullian makes mention of. This statement alone implies Apostolic Succession. If such a vast literary output existed, then mention of the event Ignatius mentions is plausible and even probable. It is a miracle, therefore, that even this much has survived from John and the other eyewitnesses of Jesus in light of not one, but at least three ruthless roman persecutions of the church before the Edict of Milan in the 4th century.

So in conclusion, I would argue that the vast numbers of people Ignatius seems to imply witnessing the Christmas Star’s unique brilliance may have indeed led to primary sources, sources which may have been preserved like the autographs of the gospels. Justen Martyr makes mention of a report Pilate sent back to Rome about the events of the crucifixion. The fact that such a document is lost does not mean it was never composed. Also—and this is potentially perilous to write in these days of skepticism—it is possible that just because such a document was lost does not mean it cannot be rediscovered or come to light. The discovery of the Qumran library in 1947 clearly demonstrates this. So I will dreamily keep digging and perhaps one day we may discover a Roman historian’s mention of the Christmas Star or realize that sources such as the spurious letter of the Virgin Mary to Ignatius are authentic. What I love about this discourse is the potentiality to broaden our horizons beyond the limiting scope of the minimalists and materialists—a beautiful quest in which I am blessed to find allies in both of you. My goal is that many other souls will benefit from such an odyssey.

May God bless you both.


"Yes, there might have been, but without even a shred of a detail as to one specific oddity it's mere speculation that would suggest it being applicable here."

Tony, the book I read posited a specific astronomical event that astrologers of that period may have interpreted in the manner you describe. The idea is that God used this event to speak to certain Gentiles in the same way that the angel choir spoke to certain Jews. Thus the miracle would have been not so much the astronomical event itself, but the fact that by grace God allowed the Magi to understand its meaning. Unfortunately, as I said, I read this book in the early 90's and can remember neither the author nor the title.

NM, thanks for clarifying. I suppose that pointing at a specific astronomical event that we know happened is one facet of what I meant by "a shred of a detail as to one specific oddity", but what I mainly intended to refer to was a specific astrological conceptual model that was used at the time - even if only by "some" astrologers. Such as, for example, a "near" concurrence of Jupiter and Mars, less than 10 degrees but more than 5, gets interpreted differently than if their approach is closer than 5 degrees".

Yes, I think you're right. And if memory serves my author took that into consideration by describing what were the prevailing views in the astrology of those times. Certain signs represented royalty, others meant birth or divinity, etc.

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