Tuesday, December 27, 2016

“The things that you’re liable, to read in the Bible, just ain’t necessarily so.”— Ira Gershwin (Porgy and Bess)

         Three wise men showing up the night of Jesus birth is just most likely not true, no matter how many nativity scenes have them in it.  Matthew doesn't say how many wise men came from the east, doesn't mention their names, and doesn't provide any details about how they made their journey.  It has generally been assumed that the wise men (or magi) were three in number because Matthew 2:11 makes mention of three gifts: ". . . they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh." The number of wise men is not specified in the Bible, however, and some Eastern religions have claimed up to twelve of them made the journey to Bethlehem. The names of the wise men, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, do not come from the Bible and did not appear in Christian literature until over five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Nothing in the Bible says the wise men rode camels (or any other animal); they may have made their journey from the east on foot for all we know. And despite the familiar lyrics of the Christmas carol "We Three Kings," no biblical source depicts the three wise men as kings. (They were most likely learned men, perhaps astrologers.)  The wise men came "into the house," not the stable, and they saw a "young child," not a newborn. This passage indicates that the wise men didn't arrive until quite some time after Jesus' birth.  Since we now know that Herod the Great died in 4BC, it makes sense that this story (whose truth I don’t doubt) did not coincide with the birth of Christ but happened when he was one or two years old.  This does agree with Herod’s order to kill all one or two year old infants.  The scripture does tell us that they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they didn’t.  The scripture does tell us that Joseph, Jesus, and Mary went to Egypt and stayed until it was safe to return home.  Scripture does not tell us how all this was financed, but the gifts surely would have helped and if used up on this trip and time in Egypt, it would also explain why the gifts were never mentioned again.  The main thing to remember is that this is a thing that really happened—just most probably not on the night Christ was born.  It does remind us that His birth was globally seen and important enough to have these men travel quite a distance to pay tribute.  The fact that we don’t know how many there were, or how much gold was given, or how old Jesus was does not diminish the story in any way.  Lots of stories are embellished by tradition, and there is certainly the possibility at least, that the embellishments were accurate (probably not, but it could have happened that way).  Centuries of Christian art works, Sunday School lessons, and Christmas carols have pretty much cemented the number of wise men and their camels, but none of that is in the scripture.  If you want to use the missing elements to disregard the story, you can, but you don’t need missing elements to do that.  History tells us more than we want to know about Herod and no historian doubts his existence or his cruelty.  What I know for sure is that if you want to be wise, you should seek out Christ however far you have to travel literally or metaphorically to do it.  
      Now if you want a really fresh and inspirational look at this story, read “The Fourth Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke or see the 1985 movie version starring Martin Sheen.  Either will reward you with self-reflection that just might change your life.  Now, surely that’s worth some of your time.  You can get the book on Amazon.com and the full movie is available on YouTube, a little over an hour long.  This experience will make you think anew every time you see a nativity scene and my guess is that you will see quite a few over the next few years.  Take a chance, read a book, see a movie—maybe both are true.  What have you got to lose?
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