Why I Don’t Think the Magi Actually Happened, but Still Believe it’s True

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A 4th Century Carving of the Adoration of the Magi. Note that fifth person hanging around…and how Jesus is older. In Matthew this happened a few years after the birth.

The Gospel of Matthew has an agenda: it wants you to trust that the Jesus it speaks of is the same Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The writer (we call them “Matthew” but have no reason to believe a person named “Matthew” actually wrote it) is not unbiased.

The writer is not objective.

The writer is not very original, either.  Want to read an original writer?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are super original.  Matthew cobbles his Gospel together from a few places.

We know that the writer used the Gospel of Mark, and some other sources, in the writing of this Gospel.  The writer quotes Mark directly in some parts, and goes off writing on their own in other parts.  Some of these non-Markan passages are also found in the Gospel of Luke.

And some, well, aren’t found anywhere else.

Like the story of the Magi.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the writer as Matthew and “he” from now on, but know that the only definitive reason we call it “Matthew” is because someone in the ancient world named it that, probably so that it would get wide readership.  Booklets that were attributed to Apostles got wide readership (which is why you don’t see the letters of Clement I and Clement II [which are faithful and wonderful and should be in scripture!], and instead find the scurrilous book of James included in the canon).

Here’s the thing, though.  If you understand Matthew’s point, you can see how the Magi play into Matthew’s working theology.  And through that lens you get the meaning behind the Magi.

And that’s the important part.

What’s not important? Whether it happened or not.  In fact, that’s the truth about a lot of ancient tales and sacred scripture.  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it happens all the time!  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it’s true!

That kind of lens is, I think, one of the things missing from the faith in these post-enlightenment days.  We want things to be fact, equating fact with truth.  But fact is not always true, and true things sometime never actually happened.

I can go on in another blog about that, but back to the issue at hand…

If Matthew wants you to see that the Jesus he writes about is the same Jesus, he’s going to go to great lengths to get you to understand it.

And so one of the things that Matthew is going to do is make sure that you see that the arrival of the Messiah in the world will have a global impact.  Kings, Magi, will literally bow down before him.

They have to.  It says so in Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10…and other places.

And Matthew is very concerned that you see that the Hebrew prophecies come true in the life of Jesus.

See?  That’s why Luke doesn’t include it: it’s not important for Luke to prove that to you.  He has other biases.  And that’s why Mark doesn’t include it: Mark doesn’t care about that, either.

And John?  He’s a lone-ranger on this sort of thing.  It’s a miracle that Gospel even made it into the canon (especially because Jesus dies on a Thursday in John).

The Magi prove Matthew’s point: the prophecies of old come to fruition in Jesus, and so kings, Magi, have to bow down to him, especially since Herod (we know) won’t.

But even though I don’t think it happened, I still think it’s true.  Why?

Because the Jesus story has had a global impact.  And that star that the  Magi followed inspired a whole generation of cosmic exploration by Christian scientists who furthered astronomy more than most know.  And the beautiful foreshadowing that happens in Matthew, by design I think, leads you to understand the nature of Jesus: gold for kingship, frankincense echoing the sacrificial gifts of the old temple, and myrrh because he will die (it was kind of like giving Jesus a coffin).

And what’s more, Matthew makes this wonderful political statement with the story of the Magi!

If Herod, the puppet king (who was ruthless, but historically not a terrible ruler), wouldn’t bow down before Jesus, these kings would.  And when Herod tells the Magi to return to him and tell him where Jesus is, they catch wind in a dream (dreams are important to Matthew because they’re important in the Hebrew scriptures [think Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel]) that they shouldn’t, and the Magi disobey.

The point?  When your rulers tell you to do something that your conscience won’t allow, you disobey, by God.  Literally: by God.

There are all sorts of true nuggets in this story!

And here’s the thing: your pastors probably know this.  But we don’t talk about it. Instead we spend time trying to find out how the Magi traveled and where they came from and what their names were (I love that part of lore, actually…it’s fun and true, even if it’s not fact).

And all of that is, in the end, like trying to describe how a number smells.  You can go round and round and get nowhere because, well, numbers don’t smell.  The story isn’t told because it happened…don’t get wrapped up in that!

In all of that we miss the points, I think.

Because the story of the Magi is important for Matthew, and is so true in so many ways.

But did it happen?

Well, it happens all the time.

It happens when people lay down their power and agendas in deference to God. It happens when people disobey their leaders because they’ve been asked to do in moral things, and choose the path of peace instead.

It happens all the time.