Were there really wise men?

I preached this weekend at the 5:00 PM services on Saturday and Sunday night. The text was Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the magi visiting Jesus.

After the Saturday night service, a man from the congregation asked about the historical basis for the story of the wise men. He pointed out that I spoke of the magi as actual visitors who came to see Jesus and that he was more interested in the allegorical meaning of the story. I said that I would be able to give a better response on my blog, so here goes.

Do I believe that there were actual magi that actually visited Jesus? I do. However, I do not think that the significance of the story is reduced if the magi and their visit to Jesus were not actual historical characters and events. The following information has been gleaned from books and commentaries

The gifts that were given to Jesus have symbolic significance:

  • Gold – a gift that was fit for a king
  • Frankincense – a type of incense representative of priesthood
  • Myrrh – an oil used for embalming foreshadowing death and resurrection

The magi were not Jews (Thus, they were Gentiles) and they worship Jesus at the beginning of his life. This act foreshadows the final chapter of Matthew in which Jesus articulates a mission to all people of the world, Jews and Gentiles.

More information about the Biblical Magi

At the heart of this question may be one of how the Bible is properly interpreted. What do you think? Were there actual magi who visited Jesus? Does it matter?

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15 thoughts on “Were there really wise men?

  1. I preached (from the lectionary) the story immediately following the visit of the magi… Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents”. I actually pointed out the fact that the account of this incident appears nowhere else other than in Matthew, and then used that to draw attention to Matthew’s comparisons of Jesus and Moses. Long story short, it turned out a lot better than it sounds here.

    My point is that I agree with you, whether some of most incredible stories from scripture happened or not, that doesn’t diminish the meaning, and for me, that means there’s no reason not to believe them. I think there’s some occasions and times in preaching where we can call the historical validity into question, but we must use caution, for it can easily cause some people to shut off and miss your ultimate point in the message.

    On another note, what was it like preaching at Resurrection? Intimidating at all?

  2. My sense is it does matter, primarily because if we cannot rely on the historicity of the biblical accounts – both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, then the teleological and ontological messaging that we derive from the scriptures lose their cohesiveness and veracity.

    In essence it is clear that Matthew himself was relating what he believed to be a historical event. To say that it was not, undermines my confidence in not only the historical notions of Matthews gospel, but also the theological and informational elements as well. In other words – If Matthew is saying there were Magi, and there were not in fact Magi – what would lead me to believe that any of the words or actions Matthew attributed to Jesus had any historical basis. And without a Historical Jesus – well – I should go get a Real Job!!

  3. Dan – Preaching on the Holy Innocents, that was quite a task. I did not preach about the possibility that the magi were not actual historical figures, although I did mention it at the Sunday 5:00 PM, it was a small side note. Preaching at Resurrection was good. I was a bit nervous before hand, as for one it was the first weekend service that I had preached since I had arrived. I believe that there is a great increase in comfort and competency when one practices something on a weekly basis, so that made a difference. But really, it went great. I felt pretty comfortable leading and preaching. I would love to do it more often 🙂

    Chuck – Well written. Thank you for your response. I agree that Matthew was relating what he believed and what I also believe to be a historical event in the story of the magi. I see your point that if one begins to call in to question some of the events recorded in the stories of scripture, it may call into question other events as recorded in scripture. This is not my intention. Without a Jesus who lived, worked miracles, was really crucified and resurrected – it would be time for another job for me too! Thanks for your perspective and corrective.

  4. Matthew clearly believes he is telling us a story of actual, historical events. He is the most authoritative source available regarding the visit of the magi. In light of that, the question is, why would one suppose that this particular element of Matthew’s gospel isn’t historical? To use a legal term, the story must be presumed to be historical. The burden of proof would be on the person who says it isn’t historical. It would take overwhelming evidence to overturn the account of the most authoritative source we have.

  5. I would tend to agree that Matthew pretty clearly intended what he was writing to be understood as historical.

    The argument that certain information isn’t contained elsewhere in the scriptures is essentially an argument from silence. In regards to sheer amount and breadth of information, the gospels and the NT as a whole have realtively little information. The NT scriptures were never originally intended to be the exhaustive collection of the Christian faith- for the first 15 years, there weren’t even any NT scriptures and no Gospels for about 25-30 years or so. Thus, the information they contain was meant for a particular purpose and occasion, and shouldn’t be expected to be corraborated by the other NT scriptures. That the gospels share a lot of information isn’t surprising given their common origin from both eyewitnesses and possible literary sources. Likewise, the fact that they don’t have the same information would be expected given their differing audiences and purposes.

    The fact that Matthew alone relates the coming of the Magi seems to fit well with his initial Jewish audience and trying to present Jesus as king of the Jews. In fact, after going through the geneaology, the Magi’s conversation with Herod is the first time Jesus is refered to as King of the Jews. It’s an interesting literary juxtaposition- The Magi talk to Herod, the current king of Judea, yet acknowledge that the true King of the Jews has just been born. The scripture is then given concerning the prophesy regarding Jesus’ birth.

    Thus, this visit of the Magi underscores Matthew’s intent to show that 1. Jesus is the fulfillment of the messianic prophesis 2. The Gentiles will eventually be incorporated into those who will worship him. Many of the parables that Matthew relates strike right to the heart of this.

    I think it’s also important to note that the oral tradition had preceeded the writing of this gospel by at least (probably) 20 years or more. Thus, Matthew is writing to persons probably already familiar with some of the main faith traditions of early Christianity. If, as some of the church fathers suggest, Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that this Gospel was written for people in Judea who could possibly be in a position to verify the veracity of Matthew’s claims. (Many Jews outside Judea read only Greek; hence the prevalence, even within Judea, of the Septuagint. Also, Jerusalem was a major Christian center up until its destruction in AD 70.)

  6. Clif – I like your point of the burden of proof. I agree – there would need to be a great deal of proof to show otherwsie.

    deviantmonk – I appreciate the reminder of the intent of Matthew in Gentile worship and fulfillment of prophecy. I did not know about the suggestion was originally written in Hebrew – although Nicole seemed to think that this is common knowledge, so I think I must have missed that day in seminary. In any case, thanks for your gift of historical perspective, it really adds to the conversation.

    All – It would have been great if some of you had been able to respond to this member of the congregation in person. I think that he would have received a much more articulate answer than I was able to give. Thanks!

  7. Clif – I like your point of the burden of proof. I agree – there would need to be a great deal of proof to show otherwsie.

    deviantmonk – I appreciate the reminder of the intent of Matthew in Gentile worship and fulfillment of prophecy. I did not know about the suggestion was originally written in Hebrew – although Nicole seemed to think that this is common knowledge, so I think I must have missed that day in seminary. In any case, thanks for your gift of historical perspective, it really adds to the conversation.

    All – It would have been great if some of you had been able to respond to this member of the congregation in person. I think that he would have received a much more articulate answer than I was able to give. Thanks!

  8. Andrew,
    In regards to getting more comfortable in preaching, I often remember something I either heard or read somewhere along the way (if anyone has a direct source, I’d appreciate it)… that if we ever stand to preach and we’re not nervous, watch out. It could very well be our word that we’re about to preach and not God’s.

    Clif, the burden of proof is what I was trying to say above. However, I might use some caution on the word authoritative. You’re absolutely right, for those of us who believe scripture to be true, the burden of proof is on those arguing that it’s not. But I think it’s important to remember, especially in our increasingly post-Christendom age, that what is authoritative and even normative for us is not the same for everyone. Thus to start from an authoritative view of scripture (while not necessarily wrong) might just close the door on possible fruitful discussion. I think it has a huge implication in relational evangelism today. Remember, for the average unchurched/dechurched person coming to us, the burden of proof is turned around and is most often on us. Why not be vulnerable and say, “this might not have actually happened, but here’s why I believe it did and why it matters to me, and why it might matter to you.”

    The bigger point of it all is many of us get too wrapped up in did it happen or not to the point of distracting from greater matters of faith. Whether all biblical events are historical or not, believers throughout the centuries have had faith in them as demonstration of God accomplishing his purposes throughout human history. So why shouldn’t we continue in that same faith that his purposes will continue to be accomplished through us and into the future?

  9. Dan – I have heard that before about preaching. Thanks for sharing it. Do you think that there is a balance between being comfortable about the delivery and comfortable about the content? Maybe there is a difference, but I am not sure.

  10. Dan,

    Again I tend to disagree – The historicity of the scriptures are essential to maintaining any semblance of authenticity.

    I am comfortable with the hypothetical – It might not have happened, but if i actually came to that conclusion it would likely lead me to step away from the faith. From my perspective I would have to commit intellectual malpractice to do any different.

    Clearly the Magi are not nearly as central as, say, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, etc. But the issue is the veracity of the Cannon as a Whole. I am with Augustine – Who suggested, if the scriptures are shown to be false in any one instance, then they are fatally flawed from beginning to end.

    I think what is crucial is to understand the Authors Intent. If the author was writing history (Genealogy, The historical books, etc) then the historicity of the text is absolutely crucial. If the author is writing poetry (Job perhaps, proverbs, parables, etc) then historicity is not important. Its not as hard as you might think to tell the difference. Clearly Matthew was writing history in the section on the Magi, as was Luke speaking of the Virgin Birth. Thus historicity is crucial, and If I came to doubt it in either instance I would be considering the foundation of my faith. If I became convinced that either was a-historical – Id likely Leave the Faith altogether.

  11. Andrew, I think there is a difference between comfort with delivery and comfort with content. Certainly, after weekly practice for several years now, I am much more comfortable speaking from the pulpit-delivery wise… you wouldn’t have had enough fingers and toes to count the “ums” in my delivery when I first started!

    Then again, I think they are closely related at the same time. Certainly if a message convicts me as I prepare to deliver it, that will impact the delivery. Plus, we can’t discount the role of the Holy Spirit, for there have been plenty of sermons where I felt like apologizing to the people, yet after almost every one of those someone came up sharing how genuinely touched they were. Believe me, those were all God. Conversely, almost every time I felt like I hit it out of the park, almost everyone left church saying, “See you next week pastor.” 🙂 Therefore, my silent prayer each week before I preach is ‘Lord, speak through me, and in spite of me.” That really does help me place my focus where it should be, on God’s glory, not mine.

    On another note, I really admire you and Nicole. It must take some degree of patience and humility to play second fiddle almost year round in a setting like yours, at least in regard to preaching and leading worship. It’s something I’d have a hard time getting used to, for sure.

  12. Way to go Andrew on two big weeks of worship leading/preaching at Resurrection. I am glad they were positive expereinces for you, I wish you many more.
    I guess we shouldn’t ever be comfortable proclaiming the Word, but I do know frequency of preaching is what helps us to grow as preachers, both in our delivery (effectiveness of communication) and in content (maturing as theologians).

    As to the magi, I don’t find it so plausible myself. But I don’t think I have near the need for factual evidence as some. Stories are vehicles to convey truth, that can happen with or without solid facts. I guess that comment shows you that I find the Bible “authoritative” for reasons other than it being historically verifiable.

    Chuck, I don’t think the Bible near so fragile as you assume. One crack does not sink the whole ship.

  13. I didn’t mean “authoritative” only in the sense that for me Matthew is scripture. I also meant it in the secular sense. Matthew is the source closest in time to the events in question. By any reasonable criteria for evaluating historical sources, Matthew would have to be the most authoritative source of information about these events. His authority isn’t undermined by the fact that he’s writing with a religious purpose doesn’t undermine his authority. Even in a post-Christendom age, we shouldn’t be shy to cite biblical materials as reliable histories.

    Now, if we had another equally authoritative source that said the magi didn’t come, then a historian would have to sort that out. But we don’t.

  14. Dan – Thanks for articulating your thoughts on preaching and leading worship. We knew that about the preaching reality at Resurrection before we arrived and I think that there are pros and cons in the current set up – both personally and for the congregation.

    Amy – Thanks for your confidence. It was a very positive experience. I like your distinction and relationship between delivery and communication effectiveness as well as content and theology. Also, I think appreciate the description of the scripture as not fragile – I had not thought about it in those terms before. What would be a positive word in that description of the scriptures? – flexible? resilient? Interesting thoughts…

    Clif – Do you think that there is a difference between being authoritative in matters of faith and authoritative in matters of history? I think that these are tied together, but am not sure what I think about the distinction or lack thereof.

  15. The Bible isn’t a western-style, secular history. It’s a spiritual history, written with a primarily spiritual purpose. For Christians, the Bible has spiritual authority over those matters it addresses.

    My point was simply in response to Dan who presumed my use of the word “authoritative” was a reference to the Bible’s spiritual authority for believers, as a matter of faith. I meant it more broadly than that. Precious few written histories of that time period are available to us now. Even if one does not accept on faith the spiritual authority of the Bible, it is still a priceless historical document, written by people relatively close in time to the events reported. We don’t have any eyewitness histories from that time period written with the kind of rigor, sourcing, and attention to detail we would have with a 21st century, western history. Matthew is as good as it gets. As such, it should be accorded at least as much credibility by secular historians as other surviving documents from the period.

    That’s what I meant to convey by the notion of “burden of proof”. Matthew’s testimony is evidence. Even secular historians of today shouldn’t discount Matthew’s account based on nothing more than modern skepticism. They would need actual evidence that Matthew’s account is incorrect. As far as I know, no such evidence exists.

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