The refusal to consider the possibility that the Magi were historical figures and not mythical magicians reflects the bias of both modernists and conservative believers. For Saint Matthew’s Gospel to actually be true rocks both their boats.
My friend Sir Colin Humphreys wrote a book some time ago called The Miracles of Exodus. Sir Colin is a world-famous scientist and a Christian believer who enjoys researching the historical and scientific basis for Bible stories.
In The Miracles of Exodus for example, he discovered that quail migrate from Northeast Africa to Europe in the Spring and by the time they reach the Southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula they are so exhausted they flop on the ground and can be picked up. This is the area of Midian where Moses wandered with the Israelites after their escape from Egypt.
Sir Colin went on to chart out a different (and very believable) route for the exodus and this led him to an alternative location for Mt. Sinai. He very ingeniously shows that all the recorded phenomena describing Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus can be attributed to a volcano. So, for example, the terrifying “trumpet blasts” which were heard are caused by hot air being forced through fissures in the rock as the volcano erupts.
What I find curious is the reluctance of both modernist and conservative Christians to consider the theories of a researcher like Sir Colin. First, there is the snobbery of the Biblical scholar who disdains the efforts of the amateur sleuth. “Who does he think he is, coming into our territory with his theories about the historicity of the Bible!” The modernist dismisses a writer like Sir Humphreys because he might prove the Bible to be rooted in historical and scientific fact, and this would disturb his extravagant theories about the mythological origins of the text.
This is to be expected, but what is very odd is the reluctance of the conservative scholar to countenance the findings of someone like Sir Colin. So, when I discussed the theory that Sinai might have been a volcano, and that the natural phenomena were understandably described in supernatural terms by writers several millennia before Christ, a well-known, very scholarly Catholic priest shook his head. “No. Not possible.”
“But why not?”
“Such theories undermine the preternatural display of God in the world. They undermine the miraculous” was the curt reply.
When I asked whether it was not good Catholic practice, when confronted with allegedly supernatural phenomena to always look for the natural explanation first, the subject was changed.
I have found similar reluctance among both modernists and conservatives to my findings about the magi who visited the Christ child. First it should be observed that it is a received and undoubtable given amongst New Testament scholars that the Magi story is pure fantasy. In his monumental study, The Birth of the Messiah Biblical scholar Raymond Brown admitted that to even hint within the Biblical scholarship academy that the wise men might have been historical figures is to write your career obituary. After smirking at your naivety your colleagues would consign you to teach Bible stories to seventh graders in Butte, Montana.
The refusal to consider the possibility that the Magi were historical figures and not mythical magicians reflects the bias of both modernists and conservative believers. The modernists refuse to consider the possibility that there is a historical basis for the Magi simply because it cannot be.
I had a conversation with one such scholar. He could barely contain his disdain:
Bright Scholar: “But you are approaching the question from entirely the wrong presupposition. There is no historical basis for the Magi.”
Fr DL: “Yes. I know. That’s what my book is about.”
BS: “You don’t understand. There IS no foundation historically for this tale. It is a later midrash, a fable, a fabrication.”
Fr DL: “That’s what I have tried to learn more about. My book shows that it is not.”
BS: “I’m sorry. You don’t seem to understand…”
Fr DL: “I do actually. That’s why I wrote the book…”
BS: “Stop. Really. You don’t get it…”
Fr DL: “Do you think it might rain later today?”
He treated my proposal as an English professor might deal with a crackpot who said he was on a quest to identify the historical Peter Pan.
This obstinacy is in the modernist’s unshakeable preconceptions about Biblical origins. If the bright scholar were to accept the historical basis of the Magi story he would have to revise his entire theory about the historicity (or rather lack of it) of the New Testament.
The opposite obstinacy of belief is just as tenacious. This is among the traditionalists who wish to cling to the mythological accretions to the Magi story. Of all the stories in the New Testament, the tale of the wizards from a far away land has been embroidered and embellished more than any other. My book strips away the non-Biblical accretions and uses only Matthew’s bare bones account as the basis for my research.
Therefore, much loved details of the story were weeded out. Matthew doesn’t call them kings. He doesn’t say they came from Persia and India. He doesn’t say there were three. He certainly doesn’t name them Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. He doesn’t say they rode camels or that they went on a particularly long journey following a magical mystery star. Neither does he say the Empress Helena discovered their relics in Persia and that their bones are now enshrined in the cathedral at Cologne. There is no reference to that part of the story prior to the twelfth century.
Nevertheless, there is an obstinacy of belief just as tenacious if not more so among those who do not wish to lose all the delightful, mythical details which make up part of the Christmas traditions. This too, is understandable. The loveliness of the traditions and the affection we have for them clouds our vision. That the discoveries in my book actually confirm and support the historicity of Matthew’s Gospel seems to be lost on the conservative doubters. They need to cling to their lovely traditions and mythological accretions as much as the modernist holds stubbornly to his narrative.
For Saint Matthew’s Gospel to actually be true rocks both their boats.
The Mystery of the Magi is therefore a book that has something to offend everyone. Now that the book is coming into its third Christmas, it will be interesting to see if my findings and conclusions start to be noticed. It would be gratifying for someone more scholarly than me to pick the theories to pieces. It is discouraging to find that the various forms of obstinacy of belief have kept that from happening.
This essay first appeared here in January 2020.
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The featured image is “Adoration of the Magi” by Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.