Epiphany and History

Having attempted to do away with contradictions between Matthew and Luke for Christmas, Ian Paul has now offered a blog post claiming that Matthew’s story of the arrival of the magi can be treated as historical.

I am not persuaded. Infancy stories featuring miracles are a common feature in ancient literature, and are consistently devoid of reliable historical information. To try to pretend that the Gospels are an exception is not going to be persuasive without some very strong arguments. Splitting hairs about terminology does not help – sure, such stories are not strictly speaking “parables,” but they are symbolic in character and unhistorical. The star is a fairy-tale element, doing what no star can do, and getting many children killed as it behaves in this blatantly implausible manner.

One does not need to make “unwarranted assumptions” in order to reject the story of the magi in Matthew as unhistorical. One simply needs to use the same methods that historians do in relation to all texts. That is a topic I’ve wanted to blog about in relation to N. T. Wright, who has tried rewriting the rules of history in order to be able to give Jesus special treatment. There have been interesting posts on the Jesus Creed blog about Wright’s treatment of this topic, as well as a recent book by Samuel Adams.

The point of the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is, of course, Jesus coming to us, and those who should be ready not being ready while others surprisingly are. That is why the magi are included, to make that point, and Ian ought to acknowledge that they are there to be challenging, to make Jewish readers feel embarrassed for being less ready for the arrival of the Messiah than these pagan astrologers were.

This cartoon that Richard Hall shared makes the point in a comical fashion:

This year they are coming to us

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • Phil Ledgerwood

    For your information, I have seen stars behave the way described in Matthew. Well, they weren’t so much stars as they were the lights at Kauffman Stadium. And I wasn’t so much a mage as I was drunk.

  • histrogeek

    There are some ways to make the story more reasonable, mostly assuming that the star was just some prophetic junction that the magi interpreted as the birth of a king in Israel. That doesn’t make the story historic of course. The moving to a specific location in Bethlehem though, that’s just messed up.

  • Shiphrah99

    The cartoon makes me think about the negotiations in Jewish families over who-goes-where for the sedarim. 😉