Tuesday, December 05, 2006

So When Did the Wise Men Get There, Anyway?

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:

  1. The LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years" (Gen. 6:3);
  2. "God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways" and therefore He gave Noah the instructions on building the Ark (Gen. 6:12-21).
  3. "Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth" (Gen. 7:6)
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:
  1. The visit of the Magi came "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod" (Matt. 2:1; we shouldn't press "after" too strongly; the Greek uses a temporal participle which may mean "after" or "when");
  2. "Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared" (Matt. 2:7);
  3. "After they had heard the king ... the star ... went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.... On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary ...."(Matt. 2:9-11).
  4. Herod "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (Matt 2:16).
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....


  1. Interesting post. I would also add that if I were in Herod's position, and if I thought Jesus was - say - aged one, I might order all boys aged two and under be killed. If I said all aged one and under, then it would be possible that the parents would say "no, he's two, not one. He is just small for his age". So a cushion would be necessary.

    When I say "I would" here, I obviously hope that were I making Herod's choices, I would choose quite differently. Although perhaps the unregenerate evil of our sinful natures argues against such a hope!

  2. Keith,

    I remember in one Church where I was Pastor, we were having our Christmas event including musical and drama. A great production, in fact.

    A couple of weeks prior to production, a young Mother came to me with deep concerns about the "theological" errors of the play. The error? "Why, Scripture teaches the Wise Men came a full two years after Jesus was born. If we let the Wise Men stay, we will confuse our children and teach false doctrine." She ended up dropping out of the production and pulling her children out as well.

    As I read Matthew, the Christmas narrative is one whole corpus, part of which, is the coming of the Wise Men. I cannot see, from my understanding, lopping off the Wise Men from the East as if insignificant to the Birth narrative.

    Any way, great post, Keith. With that, I am...


  3. Stephen,

    I recall seeing a movie about Jesus' life (don't know which one) in which Herod was played exactly that way. "Kill all the children one, er, better make it two years old and under...." It seemed very natural and made sense. (Also doesn't require a two-year journey from Persia to Jerusalem.) I think that's where I got the idea.


    Wouldn't you agree that one of the most frustrating things about pastoring is the silly things that people get bent out of shape about, things that have nothing to do with the mission of reaching the lost for Jesus?

    That's a good point you made about the visit of the Magi being of one piece with Jesus' birth in Matthew. Even if it didn't happen at the same time, the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to include the Magi in the birth narrative. So yes, it's all a part of the one story.

  4. Dogmatism is a destructive thing, yet something we all seem to be prone to if we're not careful. Thanks for the reminder, Keith.

    BTW, nice pull quotes. :-)

  5. Keith,

    I do agree in fact. I once had a crusader Deacon who did everything he possibly could to discredit me and my ministry for the lone reason I disagreed with him on ONE word in 1 Tim 3 about qualifications of deacons.

    As for the unity of MT 1 & 2, I cannot imagine reading them or slicing them apart. The Apostle doesn't blink going from Jesus' birth to the Wise Men coming...

    Peace. I am...