The chief supporting actors in Matthew’s story are the “wise men from the east”. “Magi” weren’t kings, but practitioners of oriental magical arts, which would have included astrology. In Acts 8:9 there is a ‘Magus’ called Simon who “astounded the Samaritans with his magic”. Predictably, he gets a bad press in Acts, but this is not so with the Magi in Matthew. He provides no explanation, however, why these men from the east, (presumably Persia), should have linked a particular star with the imminent birth of a king, especially of an unimportant, distant little Roman province in Palestine, and why that should be of any interest to them. But it’s a story, so we’ll let this pass. It does, after all, facilitate some dramatic scenes involving “goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with much upset, deceit and murderous intrigue in high places. In the context of Matthew’s gospel as a whole, it anticipates the inclusion of non-Jews in the Kingdom of God.
Each year, without fail, there’s speculation about the ‘star of Bethlehem’ – was it a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a meteorite, comet, or supernova? What’s certainly the case is, that it isn’t a star. Stars are exceedingly distant, nuclear furnaces that follow fixed paths across the sky determined by the earth’s rotation. They don’t depart from these paths to guide people on earth nor, thankfully, do they descend and hover over (and incinerate) particular houses. It’s a symbolic star, suggesting the ‘star’ quality of Jesus, to be portrayed as Son of God and Saviour.
In order to link Jesus of Nazareth with Bethlehem, (the ‘messianic’ birthplace of King David), Luke comes up with the story of a “census taken throughout the Roman Empire”, with each person registering at the home town of their descendants. It’s an ingenious idea, but it defies both history and common sense. It would have blocked the roads, congested the sea ports, and brought the whole of the Roman Empire to a chaotic halt. In any case, registration makes sense when it’s carried out where families live, and where land and property are owned, rather than untold miles away.
The only census on record was held in 6 CE, when King Herod Archelaus was deposed, and a Roman governor, Quirinius, took control of Judea. This census, naturally, did not include Galilee, which continued to be ruled by King Herod Antipas, so would not in any case have applied to anyone in Nazareth. Luke has borrowed from, but extensively and imaginatively revised an actual happening, in order to give his story a historical flavour, but one which is in fact counterfeit.
The birth of Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, is heralded by the skies above Bethlehem suddenly becoming ablaze with dazzling light when “the glory of the Lord shone” above some shepherds and their flocks. This visual splendour was soon matched by an audible extravaganza, when “a great army of heaven’s angels appeared, singing praises to God.” I sometimes wonder – if I had been there at that time, complete with a video camera, would I have been able to record it all for posterity? Sadly, I have to conclude that my answer has to be in the negative.
There is something else I wonder about. This would have been a night to remember, and how! There might not be photographs or videos, but surely lasting memories. We’re told, indeed, that “Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them”. We’re also told that Jesus had brothers and sisters, so this must surely have been high on the list when family reminiscences were shared. How is it, then, that when Jesus began his public ministry, we’re told that, “when his family heard this, they set out to restrain him, because they said, He’s out of his mind’”. But hadn’t they been powerfully shown that Jesus was destined to be “the Saviour – Christ the Lord”? Had the memories faded, or do we simply have two richly colourful stories that emerged from the imaginations of Matthew and Luke?
In part (iii) of this series, accepting that we’re dealing with stories rather than histories, we’ll focus on meanings which can be drawn from them …..
Recommended Reading :
“The Nativity : History and Legend”. Geza Vermes. Penguin Books. 2006.