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In The Mystery of the Magi, Fr. Dwight Longenecker provides a great service by differentiating legend from Gospel and arguing that the Scriptural record is trustworthy and accurate…

Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men by Dwight Longenecker (320 pages, Regnery, 2017)

Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s newly-released book, The Mystery of the Magi, is a refreshing and readable work that explores not only the story of the Magi in the Gospels but the arena of Scriptural exegesis and the history of the Middle East from ancient days to New Testament times. It is rigorous enough to satisfy the scholar yet accessible enough to be enjoyed by the casual lay reader. 

Fr. Longenecker’s point of departure is the assumption that the Scriptures are historically reliable when they profess to be recounting history. They may not have all the facts arranged as we modern Western thinkers like our facts arranged, and they may not include all the details we’d like to have, but if Scripture records that something happened, we can trust that events truly happened that way.

In some quarters, this viewpoint is startling almost to the point of scandal (or mockery), but Fr. Longenecker sticks to his guns, pointing out that if we dismiss some aspect of the supposedly historical account of the Gospels as mere myth or fable, then we undermine the reliability of all Scripture. The early proclamation of the Gospel was grounded in the assertion that the events being recounted had been actually witnessed by the proclaimers, and that their account was not only reliable but verifiable (see Luke 1:1-4, Acts 2:22-32, Acts 26:25-26, John 19:33-35). If we dismiss portions of the Gospel as mere legend, then how can we judge what actually happened and what is just imaginary? And what are the implications for our faith? To address this problem, Fr. Longenecker squarely addresses probably the most difficult of Gospel passages to defend: the account of the Magi in the Second Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. His work attempts to bolster the historical credibility of the Gospel while paring away aspects of legend and fable that have accrued over the centuries, helping the reader to appreciate the importance of what the Gospel was trying to convey while setting aside unnecessary legendary additions.

In the process of discussing the Magi, Fr. Longenecker also provides a charitable but devastating critique of the historical/critical school of Scriptural exegesis. Fr. Longenecker examines the underlying assumptions of this popular modern school of thought, deftly explaining how a proper approach to Scripture is neither overly rationalistic nor overly credulous. Avoiding both extremes, he carefully lays out what is known about the origins of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and why it has always been trusted as a reliable source about the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Then he turns his focus on the extra-Biblical legends surrounding the Magi—when they started to appear, what the likely sources were, and even how some of the legends have unsavory roots in Gnostic thought. He fully acknowledges that much of what we think we know about the Magi is, in fact, myth and fable, drawn from a variety of sources over the centuries. He traces how these legends crept into the recounting of the story, overlaying and sometimes even occluding the Gospel account.

Having differentiated between the legendary framework and the Scriptural text, Fr. Longenecker then provides a succinct historical survey of the ancient Near East from Persian days to Roman times. He builds a solid argument that what most modern scholars consider the expectable candidates for being the Magi—Zoroastrian scholars from Persia—were unlikely to have been the actual visitors. Instead, he starts building a case for another group to have been the source of the mysterious astrologers (you’ll have to buy the book to find out who they are.) He soundly develops his theory over several chapters, using both Scripture and secular history, addressing questions like why these Magi would care about the king of the Jews, and what might the star incident might have involved. He closes by interweaving his theories with the Scriptural text, to show how they respect and illuminate divine revelation.

The Mystery of the Magi does a masterful job of supporting the reliability and historicity of Scripture while differentiating it from pious legend. Fr. Longenecker acknowledges that pious legends have a place, even a favored place, in our hearts and culture. Devout storytellers have made good use of the classic framework of the Magi to instruct and edify the faithful (Van Dyke’s classic The Story of the Other Wise Man comes to mind.) He has no problem with this, or with the familiar camels, turbans, and caskets of treasure found in the legends. There’s nothing wrong with sentiment, so long as we don’t confuse it with historical and Biblical truth. Fr. Longenecker provides a great service by differentiating legend from Gospel, and arguing that the Scriptural record is trustworthy and accurate. His well-researched theories demonstrate the plausibility of the Gospel account, and even if they’re not 100% accurate (which he never claims), they’re probably much closer to the actual events than any other theories available. It is thorough but readable work, carrying the reader along easily with an engaging instructive style. If you want a good exploration of Scripture by an intelligent, skilled author, pick up The Mystery of the Magi.

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2 replies to this post
  1. It is always enlightening to read the words of Roger Thomas, an Old Western Man if there ever was one.

  2. This work touches on a fundamental blind-spot in much modern scripture scholarship; it is possible for a story to both be literally true and hold symbolic meaning at the same time. As a modern example, it is possible that 500 years from now historians will hold that the “Rudy” story must necessarily be only legend – it was simply a “morality tale” to show the value of hard work and perseverance. There was no way he could have gotten a sack on the final play, that would have been too good to be true. Yet while the movie changed and exaggerated a few things, the fundamental story did in fact take place.

    As an example, modern scripture scholars are certainly correct in showing that the Transfiguration did have multiple, incredibly powerful symbolic aspects. However, that does not necessarily mean that it did not actually take place.

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