I wrote Mystery of the Magi – The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men not only to discover the true identity of the magi, but to show, if I could, how the gospel account of the nativity was rooted in historical events and individuals.
This is not an easy task because, for a long time, one of the orthodoxies of modern Biblical scholarship has been that the magi story is a complete fabrication. Raymond Brown, in his great book The Birth of the Messiah actually records the fact that within the circles of New Testament scholarship to hint that you think perhaps there really were three wise men who came to Bethlehem is to write your own career obituary. This was affirmed to me by privately by several contemporary New Testament scholars. Put simply, the magi story is a hot potato. If you want to be taken seriously you toe the party line, chuckle condescendingly to anyone who suggests the magi were historical and move on.
For the majority of Biblical scholars, to say you are on a quest to identify the three wise men is like saying to an English professor you are on a search for the historical Peter Pan.
So my quest was not only to identify the three wise men, but also to undermine the assumption that the magi story was a fabricated fable, and also to undermine the idea that it doesn’t matter. This is the other response one gets from the Biblical scholars. Even the conservative scholars will brush aside the question of historicity by saying, “Well, that may be interesting, but I’m really only concerned with the text.” However, if the stories which are presented as history are not, in fact history, then why be concerned with them at all except as literary pieces worthy of academic dissection?
To cut through the prejudice of the Biblical scholars, however, is not easy. It is understandable why they treat the magi story as a fantastic fable. This is because the magi story, more than any other Biblical tale, has been embroidered and elaborated over the centuries. I go into this in detail in my book, but suffice it to say that the intriguing story of wizards from an exotic land visiting the Christ child was just too spicy to leave to St Matthew. As early as the second century more elaborate versions began to appear, and as the apocryphal writings were influenced by Manicheanism and various Gnostic ideas the stories of the magi became more and more fantastical.
One example is the The Legend of Aphroditianus. This apocryphal writing from third century Syria where there was a strong Persian influence. The tale begins with the account of a miracle in the temple of a pagan goddess in Persia at the time of Christ’s birth. According to the myth, the statues in the temple dance and sing and announce that the goddess Hera has been made pregnant by Zeus.
Suddenly a star appears above the statue of the goddess Hera. A voice from heaven is heard and all the dancing statues fall on their faces. The wise men of the court take this to mean that a King is to be born in Judah. That evening the god Dionysus confirms their interpretation. Then the king sends the Magi to Judea with gifts, the star pointing them along their way. The story tells of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, and how they meet the Jewish leaders and finally Mary and Jesus. They return to Persia bringing a portrait of Jesus and Mary and put it in the temple where the star first appeared.
Another bizarre apocryphal text is The Revelation of the Magi. This story pretends to be told by the magi themselves. The wise men are residents of a mythical land called Shir in the Far East. They are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy from his father that one day a star of amazing brightness would appear to announce the birth of God in human form.
The story continues as every year the mystical magi of Shir ascended their Holy Mountain where the Cave of Treasures is located. This cave contains the wisdom of Seth and the treasures of Adam and it is there that the super bright star—brighter than the sun appears to them as a tiny, radiant human. The star child tells them to go on a long journey to Bethlehem. After long preparations they set off only to find that the star child accompanies them removing all obstacles and miraculously providing them with food and protection.
Through the Middle Ages the myth of the Magi continued to be elaborated and expanded. They were kings. There were three of them. They had names. They came to represent the three ages of man and the three primeval races of humanity. They came from Africa, Asia and Arabia. Their relics were discovered by Empress Helena. Their bones are at Cologne Cathedral…The development of the story through artwork, legend and culture was extraordinary and it is that developed myth that we take as gospel today.
The magi have become stock figures in our children’s nativity play, our Christmas creche, cards, carols and worship. The story of the foreign kings, the magical star and the long desert journey is romantic, exciting and wonderfully fantastic.
Therefore it is understandable that the scholars sniff at such a wild and wonderful tale. But to believe this is the true story of the Magi is equivalent to believing the Coca Cola guzzling Norman Rockwell Santa Claus is the true St Nicholas.
My book is the equivalent of cutting through the legends and myth of the jolly old Santa to discover who St Nicholas of Myra really was.
Why is it important? Because history is important and the historicity of the gospels is important. The approach we should take is not to assume that the stories in the gospels are fictional fables, but to assume first that they are historical. Why? Because the authors present them as historical. They do not give any impression that they are writing fiction. Is it possible that the evangelists recorded some stories and sayings with slight inaccuracies? It’s possible. Is it possible that some details were altered for theological purposes? I don’t think so, but we could allow it. Is it sometimes difficult to reconcile all the chronology and places? Yes, especially in the birth narratives, but then we must acknowledge our ignorance about many details of Judean life in the first century.
Mystery of the Magi attempts just that. It takes Matthew’s gospel at face value and then the book looks at the politics, religion, history, culture, economics and conflicts of the time to see how the characters who have become mystical, magical wizards from a far away land might actually have been ordinary men on an extraordinary mission from one kingdom to another, as well as spiritual pilgrims in search of the Messiah.
This quest for the historicity of the New Testament is more important than ever because the attempt to turn the gospels into nothing more than meaningful fairy stories has become the default setting not only among the academics, but now among most people with a college education. This has been the prevailing view for a century or more so it has now become the default setting. Few things are more destructive to the Christian faith than the attempt to de-mythologize it, remove the supernatural and relegate all the Bible stories to the realm of myth, fable and fairytale.
Why? because if the Magi story is not factual, then you can discount much of the rest of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and if Matthew was a spinner of tall tales, then Luke, Mark and John must also have been the first century version of the Brothers Grimm.
In fact, as I have shown, the magi story fits perfectly into the events and personalities in Judea and Arabia at the time of Christ’s birth.
I had fun researching and writing the book I hope, if you haven’t read it yet, you’ll get a copy for Christmas.