I say mixed blessing because it means I have had to face that serious hard work called research. Usually content to tap out inspirational, short essays for online journals and other websites, or pen shallow opinion pieces, I’ve had to change gears, dig through the stacks, hunt for obscure tomes, pick through footnotes, wrinkle out little clues, follow leads, track down experts, and make notes: pages and pages of notes.
So far my journey has taken me into the history of Persia, the economics and politics of the Ancient Levant, the intrigues of Parthians and Romans, the languages of the Bible, apocryphal texts, Zoroastrian theology and the astronomical, astrological, and hydrological technologies of the Arabian tribes.
While it has been hard work it has also been my idea of rest and relaxation. Vacation? Nothing bores me more than sitting on a beach or going to a strange place to sleep in a hotel, pay too much for bad food in a dull restaurant, while trying to convince myself that I am having a good time.
I was happy as a clam taking a few days last week to stay in my local Benedictine monastery and hunker down in the library—taking breaks for the Divine Office, decent meals, intelligent conversation, and silence.
Modern Biblical scholars generally regard the infancy narratives of Christ as fanciful stories embedded into the gospels at a later date in order to make Jesus of Nazareth more special. My book begins with the premise voiced by Galadriel in Lord of the Rings that “history became legend and legend became myth.” The story of the Magi following the star to worship the Christ child certainly illustrates that point. Matthew’s bare bones account was soon embellished and exaggerated, misunderstood and manipulated. Much of what we accept about the story today is the product of centuries of history becoming legend and legend becoming myth.
My mission has been to cut through the myth to discover who the wise men really were and from where they came. Doing so has been an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, but like that debonair archeologist, the work has been full of wrong turnings, false assumptions, out of date knowledge and that strange blend one always finds in academia of ignorance and arrogance.
When learning about the ancient Middle East, it is not long before you find contradictory theories built on the quicksand of speculation of scholars long dead. No sooner do you think you’ve got a solid grasp on a matter than you uncover an obscure philologist who demolishes your theory by pointing out that “the identification of the Habiru with the ancient Semites called the Hebrews is incorrect because manuscript 4397 from the Athonite collection contains a typographical error in the Ugaritic translation which means that the ‘Habiru’ are in fact to be identified with the ‘Jabiro’ tribe which we know occupied what is now the Yemen plain rather than the highlands of Judea.”
But then as soon as you accept the testimony of Dr. Neville Terrier of the Oriental Studies Institute of Newcastle University you discover that Dr. Helmutt Dobermann of Frieburg University’s department of Semitic and Near Eastern Languages not only argues persuasively for exactly the opposite position, but proposes that the manuscript in the Petroline collection of the Russian Orthodox monastery of Vladivostok (which was a seventh-century translation of the Sinus periscope) presents the possibility that neither are correct, but that the Napiru are, in fact, a marauding tribe from Nepal who invaded the Pakistani highlands in the seventh century B.C.
You get the idea.
For an amateur sleuth like me, coming up with something like facts becomes increasingly slippery, and one understands why academics end up specializing. Once you begin the hunt it soon becomes obvious that there is simply too much information for one person to gather effectively. So scholars resign themselves to the pursuit of one particle of truth, thereby, too often missing the big picture.
This is one of the ailments of our times. We are all in danger of becoming specialists—knowing more and more about less and less. One of the antidotes is a traditional liberal arts education, which provides a broad basis of learning, but the other is to operate within an ancient, stable, and comprehensive intellectual tradition.
This is why it was an especial joy to conduct my research while ensconced in a Benedictine monastery. The monks, like old trees, have deep roots. Those roots enable learning and inquiry to proceed with confidence and with the larger perspective always in view. That larger view is universal, and universal, of course, means Catholic.
Rather than giving all the answers, being Catholic provides a foundation and context for the discovery of truth. It provides, if you like, a solid rock in the quicksand of research.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.