About this time in 2017 my book The Mystery of the Magi was published. I had high hopes for it. Of all my books it was the one I had spent the most time on. I had actually done something like RESEARCH believe it or not. I mean, the darn thing had footnotes and a bibliography!!!
Seriously, I had worked hard on the book and thought I had made some important discoveries about the historical basis of the Magi story in Matthew’s gospel. I hoped New Testament scholars and historians of the period might at least read it and that it might be critiqued and if I was wrong in my speculation, that the book would raise the issues of the possible historicity of the story of the wise men.
I was not prepared for how difficult it would be to dislodge centuries of myth about the magi.
Whoa! I hear you say, “Myth! Father, are you a liberal after all? You don’t believe the Bible? You think the Magi story is a myth?”
Yes and no and not quite so let me explain.
First of all, I don’t think Matthew’s account of the magi visiting Bethlehem is fiction. I think the story is based in real events with real historical characters. However, I’m aware that most Biblical scholars think the whole thing is a fanciful fairy tale. In fact, thinking that the Magi story is a fairy tale is a kind of test of whether you are a serious Bible or scholar or not. Raymond Brown admits it and even jokes about it in his big fat book The Infancy Narratives. I was told the same thing by several well known conservative Bible scholars–both Evangelical and Catholic.
“Whoa!” they said, “Don’t you know that if I even suggest that the Magi story might have some basis in historical truth I’ll be laughed out of my job and relegated to teaching Sunday School in North Dakota!” (no offense intended towards the good people of ND)
I had a conversation with one condescending scholar on the phone who said, “But you are beginning from entirely the wrong premise. There is no historical basis for the Magi story.”
“Uh. That is what my book is about. The historical basis for the magi story.”
“You don’t seem to understand. There is NO historical basis for the magi story.”
“No, YOU don’t seem to understand. That is what my book is about.”
The conversation ended.
So why do the scholars think the magi story has no historical basis? Because, of all the stories from the New Testament, the Magi story actually has become rather mythical, magical and mysterious. I explain in my book how the Magi story began to be elaborated by the Gnostic writers in the third and fourth centuries and beyond. They were very influenced by Manicheanism, and with their emphasis on secret knowledge and magical lore, the magi story was tailor made. The gnostic magi became the heroes of far out and fanciful gnostic apocryphal writings.
Soon they had names, they were kings and they followed a magical star and rode on camels on a long trek across the desert. Add a few more centuries and a lot more story tellers and soon they came from India, China and Africa. One was old, one middle ages and one young. Then they represented the three main racial groups – African, Caucasian and Asian.
But none of that is in Matthew’s gospel. This mythical version became the received version and it is still the version we tell ourselves at Christmas.
In rejecting this elaborated mythical version, (which they were right to do) the scholars threw out the magi with the magic. They decided the magi story was nothing but a fanciful fable made up long after the birth of Christ by Christians who wanted make him seem more special.
In rejecting the myth they went ahead and created their own myth–the myth that the magi story can’t possible be historically true, and that myth is even harder to shift than a myth that is fanciful and magical.
So I decided to dig past all the myths and explore the culture, history, politics, geography and religion of first century Judea and Arabia. As I did the research I kept asking why nobody had done this before. What I was discovering was truly ground breaking and fascinating. Then I realized, the reason no one had bothered to do the homework was because they all believed the myth.
The traditional folks continued to believe the myth about three wise men named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar going on a long desert journey on camels following a magical star while the liberals continued to believe the myth that the whole thing was a myth. Consequently neither side bothered to look into the question whether there might have been such characters and where they might have come from and why they might have been motivated to go on a quest to find a newborn King of the Jews
The result was The Mystery of the Magi. Most of those who read it thought highly of the book. Unfortunately many did not read it.
Why? Because they already figured that they knew about it already. In other words, the were not concerned with the Mystery of the Magi because they believed the Myth of the Magi.
Anyhow, Christmas and Epiphany are coming around again, and if you want to read the book and get the lowdown, check it out. You can read some reviews and get it from Amazon here.
If you would like a signed copy, buy the book from my website- if you order from the website and want the book signed make sure to include a note in the purchase form.
“(no offense intended towards the good people of ND)” LOL!! No offense taken, Father! I’m still chuckling over your admiration of the monks working in cold Oklahoma winters at the Abbey!
All the best,
For anyone interested in the historical context of Jesus birth, your book is a worthy read. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which many people tend to mostly read those things that support their established opinions and biased preferences. The beauty of scholarly investigation (and associated travel) is to learn new perspectives on old ideas. Thanks for your contributions, Father.
I read the book and reviewed it last year and greatly enjoyed it. I was impressed with the research and footnotes backing up your theory. As an individual with an undergraduate degree in History, I am in the habit of flipping to the footnotes and checking it out. I also did my own look into the Nabateans and learned alot about their history.
In fact I found your book so interesting that my small men’s group is starting it this week for our next book.
Thank you for your work on this thesis.