Jesus, Moses, and Cyrus the Great

In light of the Christmas season, I thought that I would try my hand at blogging and write about the myth of the prophesied child that must be killed. This story is familiar to most of us in the Christmas story of the birth of Christ, but what is less known is that this story is by no means unique in the ancient world.

Today, I’m only going to address the Matthew birth narrative since the gospels give different accounts of the birth of Jesus. In Matthew, we find the story of the magi, the star, and King Herod’s attempt to stop the advent of the “king of the Jews” by murdering male children under two. Of course, we know that Joseph is warned in a dream to flea to Egypt and Baby Jesus escapes.

What is interesting about this story is that it is very similar to a number of other ancient birth narratives.

The first obvious similarity is that of the birth of Moses (Exodus 2:1) where the the Egyptian Pharaoh has ordered the killing of male Hebrew babies due to the Hebrews becoming too numerous. Here Moses is hidden in a basket among the reeds of the Nile. Moses is noticed by the daughter of Pharaoh and thus ironically raised up by the household of Pharaoh.

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us some additional information about this story. In his version the sacred scribes tell Pharaoh that a child is to be delivered who “if reared would bring the Egyptian dominion low” (Antiquities 9:2). Pharaoh decides to kill the male Hebrew babies to prevent this. This is not mentioned in Exodus but is similar to what we find in Matthew.

Also interesting is a rabbinical midrash in Exodus Rabbah explaining that pharaoh is told of the birth of Moses by his astrologers. Unfortunately, this text dates late around the 9th century C.E. So it’s not clear whether this Jewish tradition existed prior to Matthew but is still worth noting.

Yet another more historically relevant story is that of the birth of Cyrus the Great which is told by Herodotus. Here Magi interpret a dream about the birth of Cyrus. The Magi predict Cyrus will overthrow his grandfather and become king. The grandfather orders Cyrus to be killed as an infant, but the child is instead saved and raised by a herdsman. Interestingly enough, Cyrus is called the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

Although I won’t go in to the details, there are a few other noteworthy birth narratives with children that threaten those in power. These include the births of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, and the story of Oedipus.

The writer of Matthew is drawing on a number of these ancient stories to craft his account of the birth of Jesus. Jesus, like Moses, is to deliver the Jewish people and, like Cyrus the Great, will be called the Mashiach, Hebrew for Messiah or anointed one.

Merry Christmas.

Additional links


Birth of Moses

Moses and Jesus: the birth of the savior;col1