Grown-up Christianity Part 1: Wise Men

This is the first of an occasional series of blogs about being a grown-up Christian. It was written for the feast of the Epiphany.

If you look at the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for the 6th of January in the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England, they are headed: ‘The Epiphany – or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. A nice, snappy title for the day! But at least they were making an effort to explain what it’s about.

Epiphany is a Greek word which literally means ‘to appear to’. Manifestation is from a Latin word meaning ‘a public showing or demonstration’.

But enough of the Greek and Latin for now. The more important questions are: What is the significance of the story of the wise men for us? Why was the story included in the Matthew gospel in the first place? And did it actually happen?

I was looking at the same sort of questions on the Sunday after Christmas when we read the story of the Holy Innocents – the children of Bethlehem slaughtered, according to Matthew, by King Herod.

Most traditional-minded Christians will say: ‘Well – it’s in the Bible, so it happened.’ But – in the words of the old song – ‘it ain’t necessarily so’. In fact, some biblical scholars have questioned whether we can regard any of the nativity stories as historical fact at all. They think that Jesus may well have been born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, and that there wasn’t anything particularly unusual or spectacular about his birth.

Now – I don’t want to start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I think it’s important for us, as grown-up Christians, to ask some hard questions and examine the evidence.

The nativity stories only appear in Matthew and Luke – no mention at all in Mark or John – and St Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about them either. There are key differences between Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem; Jesus was born there; and they were visited by wise men from the East. Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus made a speedy move to Egypt to escape the Herod massacre. After a couple of years, Herod died and they went back to their own country, but not to Bethlehem – they settled in the small village of Nazareth in the North.

But Luke says that Nazareth was their original home, and that they had to go to Bethlehem for a census during the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Just after Jesus was born, some local shepherds came to visit.

So – two rather different stories. And when historians look at some of the details, they find several problems. There’s no record anywhere else of a massacre in Bethlehem – or of a census taking place during the reign of Herod, who, incidentally, died in about the year 4BC. There was a census in 6 AD, but there’s no reason to suppose that everyone had to go to their ancestral home.

It looks, then, as though Matthew and Luke – writing 60 to 70 years after the birth of Jesus – were trying to fit the nativity stories to some historical events they’d probably heard about. But they got most of it wrong.

We need to remember that the four gospels are not biographies – or historical text books. They are theological books. Each has a very different purpose. Each has a different audience in mind. Each took some of the stories which were being passed around by word of mouth, and wove them together in their own way to put across a particular view of who and what Jesus was. The choice of stories and sayings, the order in which they appear, and the extra bits they added all came together to create four very different and distinct theological views of one person – Jesus.

For instance – in their own ways and for their own reasons – Matthew and Luke were each trying to make the stories fit with ancient prophecies from the Old Testament. So firmly had they both come to believe that Jesus was the fulfilment of those prophecies, that they hunted through the Hebrew scriptures to find bits that would support that view. Then they created a back-story to fit those prophecies.

Bethlehem was the home-town of David. Lots of Old Testament writings talk about the hope that one day a descendant of David would come and restore Israel’s fortunes. This would be the Messiah, the anointed one. Micah had foretold that a new ruler would come from Bethlehem. Put all this together and Bethlehem is the place where they think they that Jesus should have been born. It wouldn’t do at all for him to be born in an obscure little village like Nazareth.

The reality is that we just don’t know for certain where Jesus was born. But we do know that he was usually referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. So quite possibly the scholars who support the Nazareth theory are right.

Does it matter? Well – no. If they are right, then the Christmas stories we’re all so familiar with are myths. That’s not the same as putting them in the same category as fairy stories or Father Christmas. Human history if full of myths – stories intended to convey truths about our beliefs, our history, our culture.

The ancient world was quite used to the idea. One simple example – the creation stories in Genesis. They’re not historically or scientifically accurate. But they are an attempt to convey truth about why we are all here on this planet.

The nativity stories are intended to pass on truths about the nature of Jesus Christ – who and what he was. Again – not necessarily history or science, but valuable to us nevertheless.

As for the wise men and the feast of the Epiphany – the truth that story tells us is that Jesus if for all humankind – not just one ethnic and religious group – the Jews. By the time the Matthew gospel was written down, the Church had come to accept that, in the words of St Paul: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

So we don’t have to jettison the nativity stories. What would Christmas be without ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, the traditional nativity play and crib scene, and such wonderful poems as John Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’, T.S.Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, and Laurie Lee’s ‘Twelfth Night’? The music, the poetry and the stories all enrich our celebration of the birth of Jesus. But all must be balanced by a grown-up, 21st century faith in Christ.

(In writing this blog, I am grateful for the help provided by a section of Mark Tully’s Penguin/BBC book ‘Lives of Jesus’, which I recommend for further reading. It’s based on a 1996 TV series with the same title, and examines the different pictures of Jesus which emerge in the four Gospels – Jesus the God; Jesus the Jew; Jesus the Rebel; and The Hidden Jesus. The book is out of print now, but Amazon has used copies available.)

If you have found this blog interesting or helpful, please pass on the link to others.

3 Responses to “Grown-up Christianity Part 1: Wise Men”

  1. 1 John Merrick January 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    As excellent and sensible as ever, Geoff.

  2. 2 Val January 7, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Not sure whether I’m a “grown up” yet, but I found this very interesting and balanced.

  3. 3 Richard January 7, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    This would be so confusing to children, but, in fact is most enlightening!

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