At the end of the Christmas season as we celebrate the Visit of the Magi to the Christ Child born in Bethlehem, we often hear the saying, “Wise men still seek Him.”
Outside the church walls, skepticism purports to be the only true wisdom and has the sheen of cool to boot. Still, believers of intelligence and grit are all around us. The fruit of their study is worth the attention of anyone serious about truth.
Can a believer brave the the world of historical scholarship without losing his faith? Can he tell a story that simultaneously debunks myths Christians have come to accept as part of their heritage while confirming the historicity of the New Testament?
It doesn’t happen every day, but Dwight Longenecker has made the cut in choosing to sift fact from fiction to discern whether there is any evidence for aspects of the Magi’s story that don’t appear in the Bible. Mystery of the Magi: the Quest to Identify the Three Wisemen turns out to be a good old fashioned debunking of some elaborations we’ve come to take for granted and a rock-solid affirmation of historic Christianity at the same time.
Noting that the story Christians celebrate with their Nativity plays and Christmas crèches contains details not found in Matthew’s gospel, Longenecker decided to investigate the details, and the process as he relates it in this Youtube video hooked me into adding Mystery of the Magi to my Advent reading list.
I wasn’t expecting just how much this book, a fun, fact-filled journey into the past, would reaffirm my faith. It was a true Christmas gift.
I loved that Longenecker establishes the need to sift legend from truth with a nod to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:
Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.
But that was just the beginning. Chapter 1, “Is the Bible true?” is worth the price of the book. Longenecker takes care of first things first by addressing skeptics’ attempts to cast doubt on the historicity of the gospels. He establishes why the New Testament documents are reliable. Indeed, the gospel writers’ accounts of the story of Jesus of Nazareth stand up to historical criticism and are the best explanation of the facts concerning Christ that can ascertained even from extrabiblical sources.
The gospels are true because they happened. They are also true in the sense that they communicate the deepest truths about purpose and ultimate meaning. They deserve our utmost attention as well as our devotion.
You can find more academic affirmation of New Testament reliability in F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright, Brandt Pitre and many other biblical scholars, but laymen looking for a good summary of the evidence can get it very accessibly right here, and then follow Longenecker as he sifts and sleuths his way around the Magi.
Matthew’s gospel, Longenecker notes, doesn’t say there were three Wise Men and it doesn’t say they were kings. It doesn’t say the Wise Men rode camels. It doesn’t say they traveled all the way from Persia. Matthew neither gives their names nor describes the color of their skin.
Longenecker scrutinizes the “facts” taken for granted as we sing “We Three Kings” or when we cast the kids in this year’s Nativity reenactment, and the result of his study are surprising.
Matthew’s gospel does say the Christ child’s visitors were magi (“seekers of science, wisdom and knowledge”), that they were “from the east” (for Matthew’s audience, more likely Arabia than Persia), that they had seen his star and that they brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Longenecker makes a convincing case that the Magi were “astrologers and counselors” from the court of Nabatean King Aretus, a nearby Arabian land famous for trade in gold, frankincense and myrrh, with diplomatic and familial ties to King Herod the Great. His theory is admittedly speculative, but everything about it has the ring of truth. Including a connection he makes with the apostle Paul…and that too, is worth the price of the book.
The Mystery of the Magi also lays out the astronomical evidence concerning the Star of Bethlehem. Longenecker provides a helpful presentation of available theories and a convincing case that the Star was actually “a particular planetary alignment―confirmed by computer models―that in the astrological lore of the time portended the birth of a Jewish king.” Yes. Science and history merging to confirm the historicity of the gospel.
Whether or not each of Longenecker’s conjectures are spot-on, he’s a fantastic history teacher able to take us down unfamiliar roads and broaden our knowledge of biblical history and geography.
I was reminded, reading the final section concerning the St. Paul connection, that the apostle to the Gentiles’ defense before King Agrippa in the 26th chapter of Acts was absolutely rooted in history. Paul appealed to the events about Christ as common knowledge: “these things,” he argues, “were not done in a corner.”
Affirming the historicity of the biblical narrative, Longenecker can urge us along similar lines even now:
The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the most history-shattering events of all time. If the gospel is historical then it is true, and if it is true, then we must confront the reality of Jesus Christ. And if we encounter Jesus Christ as a historical figure, then we must also deal with the question of who he is and what he accomplished.
Only when we forget things that should not be forgotten does history become legend. But things that were not done in a corner are history and can still be affirmed by those who roll up their sleeves and do the work. Longenecker is to be commended for doing his part.
Because truth matters. And wise men still seek Him.
Reads and Other Seeds
If you enjoyed this post you might also like The Case for Christ an Improvement Over God’s Not Dead, a Sparrowfare film review.
Longenecker’s lovely website contains much more. See, for instance, “Did the Magi ride camels?” and his interview with Robert Hutchinson (Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth–and How They Confirm the Gospel).
Learn about six criteria historians use to examine historicity and how they apply to Jesus’ miracles at the Magis Center’s website here.
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