We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
I was told, growing up, that this carol was completely wrong in all its details. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text.There were not (at least, not necessarily) three of them, they were not kings, and they were not, in the modern sense, Oriental (that is, Asian). We get three from the number of gifts that were given; they are called "Magi" in scripture, which to the best of our knowledge were a class of "wise men" from Media-Persia (i.e., northwestern Iran). And although nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and the movie The Nativity Story place them at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth, they most probably were not there.
I say "most probably," although many would dogmatically proclaim that they definitely weren't there, and that they arrived two full years later. It is that dogmatism that is the subject of my post. Old certainties that prove to be incorrect are often supplanted by new certainties that are also most likely incorrect. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text. One such is the statement that "It took 120 years for Noah to build the Ark." This is nowhere stated in the Genesis account. What is stated is as follows:
This is literally all the information we have. So if one assumes that the "120 years" in 6:3 refers to the time period between the judgment and the flood (it has also been thought to refer to a maximum life span, aside from extraordinary exceptions, of people born after the flood), and if one assumes that God immediately came to Noah and gave him the instructions, and if one assumes that Noah immediately began working on the ark as soon as he received the instructions, then yes, it took 120 years to build the ark. But that's a lot of assumptions. The most that is really warranted to say is, "It may have taken as much as 120 years for Noah to build the ark." We really don't know anything more than that.
So it is with the Magi's visit to Bethlehem. Here is what we are told in Scripture:
It is generally argued, based on the age of the children killed by Herod being linked to when the Magi saw the star, and also based on the fact that Jesus is described as a "child" (i.e., not a baby) and that they appear to be in a "house" by this point, that Jesus was two years old when the Magi arrived.
Once age again, this is based on a series of assumptions. The major one is assuming that the star appeared to the Magi at the same time that Jesus was born; we don't know that. God may well have placed the star ahead of time. The argument also assumes that Herod didn't add in a "cushion" of time when deciding the age of the children to be killed; that the "house" was Joseph's and Mary's house (rather than, for example, the inn, with the stable nearby); and that the word "child" is intended to be distinct from "baby." In fact, Matthew wants to stress the royalty of Jesus, so he minimizes the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth--he would naturally describe Jesus as a "child" rather than as a "baby," and refer to the "house" rather than to the "manger" (i.e., feeding trough) that Luke mentions.
Am I trying to argue that the Magi were at the scene of Jesus' birth after all? No. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see.I think it's likely that Joseph and Mary settled in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth, to get away from the stigma of illegitimacy that they would have had in Nazareth. I think that the Magi arrived some time later, although not necessarily two years later. But the key words here are, "I think." I don't know. And whether they want to admit it or not, neither does anyone else.
A little humility is a very good thing when we're about the business of interpreting Scripture. We need to recognize that Scripture doesn't tell us everything we might be curious about, and so there are things that we simply can't know for sure. One thing we can be reasonably sure of, though, is that if the Bible doesn't give us full information on something, it probably isn't crucial for us to know it. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see. It might be a good idea, this Christmas season, to forget about what we know of the whole Christmas story, and to read the individual Christmas stories once again, and see the different angles that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew and Luke to tell us about. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad thing to blog on....