Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The biblical magi

The story of the wise men who visited Jesus shortly after he was born is one of the most beloved stories of the entire Bible. It's a staple of Christmas reading (for those branches of Christianity that embrace Christmas,) and in fact in some Christian cultures it's really big deal (such as in Spain, where the three wise men, or "kings," are much more celebrated figures than Santa Claus.)

Not many people stop to actually think about this story too much. When you do, you actually realize that it reads exactly like a fable, a mythological fantasy story, even in the context of the Bible itself. Just consider these points:
  • The story is only mentioned in one single book, that of Matthew. There's absolutely no mention whatsoever of it anywhere else, not even in passing.
  • It is never mentioned who was witnessing these events and how the writer came to know about them (which is typical form of fable storytelling.)
  • The story does not mention where these men came from (other than a vague "from the East.") This is unusual even in the Bible itself, where place names are very often dropped when introducing new people or when telling about their travels. This kind of allusion to a vague, unnamed place, is something more typical of fables than to chronicles.
  • Likewise it does not specify their names or any other details about them (such as social status or profession.) They are solely vaguely referred to as "wise men." Again something more typical of fables.
  • According to the story, these wise men wandered around asking: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." This is a really odd thing in the context of the Bible, such as:
  • There's no mention or explanation whatsoever about how they supposedly knew about this event, what the star in question has anything to with it, and why they thought the star was any kind of indication. This "sign" represented by the star is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, nor are there any precedents or allusions to it.
  • Moreover, this story gives a very strong allusion to astrology. While it does not explicitly say that the men were astrologers or that they predicted the event using astrology, the way the story is told and the mention of "wise men" in this context is a quite strong indication that the writer was thinking of astrology when he wrote it. (The word used for "wise men" here was typical of "scientists" of the era, which usually meant practitioners of astrology among other things.) "The East" is also a strong indication of the author thinking of it when he wrote the story.
  • Astrology in itself is usually considered one form of divination condemned by the Bible, and Christians don't very often like to admit that astrology was involved in this because of its negative connotations. (Those who do, often try to explain it away with some rationalizations.)
When you think about it, even in the context of the New Testament itself, and the Bible in general, this story stands out as a sore thumb for its oddity. It seems out-of-place in its tone, content and narrative style. It comes out of nowhere, is very non-specific (not specifying any places of origin or names), it reads a lot more like a fable than a chronicle, and is never mentioned again anywhere else.

The story makes a whole lot more sense when we consider the hypothesis that it was simply the author of the book in question letting his imagination run wild and adding some personal embellishment to the narrative he was copying (probably from the book of Mark and a possible other source.) He got quite carried away with his imagination, I must say.

It's quite ironic that the vast majority of Christians actually never stop to think about this. They don't dare. (After all, if it's in the Bible, it must be true and accurate.)

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