A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Is the Story of the Magi a Legend?

Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury, has suggested in a recent interview that the story of the wise men in Matthew 2 is not historical. Williams states, "Matthew's gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told. It works quite well as legend."
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Without focusing specifically on the Archbishop's comments, since I have not read the entire interview and want to be careful not to assume that the media have quoted Williams in context (Bishop N. T. Wright has said that journalists are great at putting two and two together and coming up with seventeen.), I want to suggest that it is not necessary nor is it preferable to assume that Matthew either made up the story of the Magi or that he simply appropriated the "legend" from somewhere else. It make perfect sense to understand the visit of the Wise Men as an historical event that actually did take place. Consider the following:
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1. The caste of Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars for signs of impending events certainly existed. Herodotus and Philo gives us important information on the Magi.
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3. The Magi were from Persia, which had once been ancient Babylon. In the time of Jesus' birth, there was a significant Jewish population in Persia, descendents of the Babylonian exiles, who no doubt had passed on the messianic expectations to their children. It should not come as a surprise that the Magi had heard of these promises from their Jewish neighbors. A heavenly phenomenon in the west would have peaked the curiosity of the heaven-watching sages, who would have very reasonably concluded that they were witnessing a sign of the birth of this long-awaited Jewish King. This also makes sense within the story of Matthew when the Magi, arriving in Jerusalem, inquire as to the exact birthplace of the Messiah, suggesting that they have enough knowledge of Jewish messianic expectation to know what to ask the "experts" in Jerusalem.
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4. There is evidence that some special celestial activities had taken place in that period of history. The star of Bethlehem could have been an alignment of planets, or possibly a comet (my preference). Whatever, the star was, such heavenly phenomena would have attracted the attention of these Persian heaven-watchers.
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5. Since the story of the Magi is told in the context of a figure we know to be historical, Herod the Great, it appears that Matthew's intention is to tell the story of an event that actually took place. Thus he means for us to read this as an event that actually took place. Those who assume the legendary nature of the story must conclude that Matthew was simply mistaken, or that he was telling a fable and deceptively attempting to pass it off as something else.
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It is the case that misunderstandings of who the Magi were have developed throughout the history of the church. They were not kings, despite what the Christmas carol says, and Matthew does not tell us how many Magi there were. The traditional number of three likely comes from the three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh).
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Nevertheless, while the "legend" theory ultimately cannot be ruled out, those who would take such a position bear the burden of proof. A hermeneutic of trust demands that those who would take issue with the text have to make their case.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

For clarification what Williams "states" is That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.

A full transcript of the interview can be read at The Daily Telegraph web site. Wright was right; sadly it seems that a lot of people have then compounded the error by adding on 42 and coming to a completely different answer to what Williams said.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Anon:

Thanks for the clarification and for the link to the interview.