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We can approach the miracles and mysteries of the Bible, accepting the possibility of their essential historicity while allowing for elaboration, exaggeration, and the misunderstandings of the pre-scientific mind…

I have had a terrific time researching and writing my new book The Mystery of the Magi—The Quest for the True Identity of the Three Wise Men. My own attempt at Biblical sleuthing got started when Dr. Matthew Bunson asked for an article about the origins of the magi for a Christmas edition of The Catholic Answer.

Thinking that just maybe the Old Testament prophecies about the magi indicated their true origin, I began investigating to whom, where, what, and when the prophet Isaiah was referring when he wrote,

Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

 

All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
and I will adorn my glorious temple.

It turns out that “Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar and Nebaioth” are all Arabian tribes. That set me out on what has turned out to be an exciting quest to discover the historical basis for the Magi story—gathering evidence that they came from Arabia, not Persia, India, China, Ethiopia, the Himalayas, or the legendary land of Shir.

The quest to discover the historical wise men raised some interesting points about the question of historicity in the Bible. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien has Galadriel say, “History became legend and legend became myth.” For very interesting historical reasons, this is exactly what happened to the Magi story more than any other New Testament tale.

To explain how this happened I used the analogy of King Arthur. If you go to Somerset in the Damp Lands you can visit an Iron Age fort called South Cadbury, which some archeologists think might be the location of King Arthur’s Camelot.

If you climb the lane, cross the stile, dodge the cow pats, and avoid the stinging nettles, you can stand on the crest of a hill and look out across the Somerset lowlands to see the hill of St. Michael standing high over Glastonbury. We camped out on the fort, and in the morning the mists rise up so you can almost imagine mystical Glastonbury (where Arthur was allegedly buried) as the “misty isle of Avalon” that Tennyson mentions.

Most historians believe the Arthurian legends are based on the exploits of a Celtic chieftain who fought the Anglo Saxons or the Romans. However, through Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, Walt Disney, and umpteen other movie makers and storytellers, the Arthurian history became a legend and the legend became a myth. The Sword in the Stone has precious little to do with Cadbury hill fort, except that there does seem to be a mound in a field here and a chunk of a battle axe there, here a rumor and there a legend that reminds us that there really was a King Arthur—even if he had nothing to do with Launcelot, Guinevere, Merlin, or Madam Mim.

My research for The Mystery of the Magi took me back to the basic story and the simple historical facts. My work also introduced me to a new friend. Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is an eminent scientist from Cambridge University, UK. A physicist, he is president of the Institute of Materials Science, Goldsmith’s Professor of Materials Science and head of the Rolls Royce University Technology Center. He is also a fellow amateur investigator of biblical miracles and mysteries. I sent a manuscript of my book to Professor Humphreys, and he was kind enough to read it and express his enthusiasm.

Professor Humphreys’ main area of research has been a decades long investigation into the miracles of Exodus. In his book The Miracles of Exodus he explores, with a scientist’s thoroughness, all the natural explanations for the miracles in the Book of Exodus. Not only that, he painstakingly explains why the traditional site of Mt Sinai is incorrect and triumphantly identifies the real Mt Sinai. He also explains and locates the Israelites trek across the desert, pinpoints the Red Sea crossing, and discovers the secret of the quail, the manna, the water from the rock, and more.

Professor Humphreys is a kindred spirit because, like me, he takes a common sense view about the miracles and mysteries in the Bible. Never dismissing the possibility of a genuine miracle, he also understands that the stories of the Bible were experienced and recorded in a pre-scientific age. Furthermore, the history became a legend and the legend became a myth. Over the centuries, to a greater or lesser extent, the stories were elaborated or exaggerated. The extra Biblical traditions, the musings of theologians, speculations of spiritual writers, interpretations by artists and poets all contributed to a cultural and religious understanding of the stories which was often far from the simple facts recorded in the Bible.

When all the accretions are pared away, Matthew’s simple account of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem is very straightforward and historically believable. Likewise, Professor Humphreys continually points out how (after a bit of research) the Book of Exodus turns out to be accurate in its description of locations, customs, geography, politics, culture, and anthropology of its time. In fact, many of the details could only have been recorded by eyewitnesses.

Happily, there are an increasing number of writers who are researching the essential historicity of the Bible. It is refreshing too to find a new generation of Bible scholars who are taking the research seriously. The British Biblical scholar Margaret Barker has observed that over the last fifty or sixty years so many new discoveries have been made using advanced technologies, forensics, expert archeological techniques as well as new textual and manuscript evidence that the outworn skepticism of the typical liberal New Testament scholars is dwindling and dying out.

A careful path can be trod, therefore, between the unthinking, unblinking literalism of the fundamentalists and the unthinking, unblinking dogmatism of the liberal skeptical scholar who believes like Rudolph Bultmann that “we can know next to nothing about the historical Jesus.” Instead, we can approach the miracles and mysteries of the Bible, accepting the possibility of their essential historicity while allowing for elaboration, exaggeration, and the misunderstandings of the pre-scientific mind.

In other words, “We allow for miracles, but we always look for the natural explanation first.” This is a common-sense approach not only for Biblical interpretation but also for the pastoral care of the religiously hysterical, the superstitious, and the credulous.

In most cases, we can find beneath the accretions and elaborate traditions the simple foundation of historical facts. This is important because history matters, and history matters because if something really happened, then it was real, and reality matters because truth matters.

Insisting on the miraculous just because “the Bible says it, and that settles it” is unsustainable. Such an approach does not produce faith. It produces more doubt. On the other hand, dissing and dismissing the Bible as so much pious fiction also won’t do. The believers with blinders have had their day, but so has Bultmann and his blind devotees.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Although not a Catholic I enjoy studying history and the Bible.
    The Catholic Encyclopedia [newadvent] is one of my favorite sources for such things, and its take on the Magi is somewhat different from yours. [In my digital copy it’s in vol. 9, pp. 1342 ff.]
    What do you think?
    First, the Greek texts show “magoi”; CathEn adds, “pl. of L. magus”. My OED and other sources go on to show that it was first a loanword from Old Persian.
    CathEn disagrees with “magician” as a good definition, while admitting that Justin, Origen and Jerome used it. For many Christians it is a ‘heat’ word; I’m interested in light, so I won’t use it.
    CathEn shows that “wise men” [NJB] is apt, because of their great learning. It cites Herodotus [ca. 460 BCE] one of the few quality sources that far back, in saying that this learning was acquired in their role of “provid[ing] priests for Persia” and “ever [keeping] up their dominating religious influence.” As part of their practice they ‘read the stars’. This would be long before Alexander’s Persian victories ca. 330 BCE.
    Why is this relevant? Because God’s Law to his people, 1513 BCE, forbade any contact with other religions and their practices. Cf. De 18:10-12, which ends, “For anyone who does these things is detestable to Yahweh your God”. Ibid.
    Is it possible that Yahweh would entrust any part of the Messiah’s arrival to these men? And yet there they are in the record! Is the common belief that they are to be emulated true? Or is it another lesson that Matthew is giving us?

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