New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #3


So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

The Question: What popular traditions related to the birth of Jesus have no evidence in the scriptural account?

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

Look, I have to play Scrooge this week. (At least this lesson occurs in mid-January.) There are all sorts of traditions and embellishments that have adhered to the story of Jesus’ birth over the years that have absolutely no basis in the scriptures. For example, you can sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all you want, but we have no idea how many wise men there were (people assumed three, I think, because there are three presents), there’s no evidence that they were kings, and while the term “Orient” might be vague enough to cover the possibilities, we don’t really know where they are from.

I don’t think these traditions are malicious, but I think it is good to be aware of them because it can help us know enough to want to scrape away the accretions and return to the actual text with fresh eyes.

Here’s the most important lesson I take from Matthew 2 when I do that: a big theme in the Hebrew Bible (=Old Testament) is that Jewish learning is superior to Gentile learning (see Genesis 41, Exodus 7–10, and Daniel 2). And Matthew is very, very concerned with situating Jesus’ life in its Jewish setting. So here we have wise men who are Gentiles and they know enough to find Jesus–that’s a big deal. But even more significantly, in Matthew 2:5-6, the chief priests and scribes are able to rattle off where the messiah will be born, but they don’t seem to care. They have the right words down pat, but have no interest in, you know, actually checking to see if the messiah is there. Those creepy pagan wise men (literally) walked the walk; the scripture experts couldn’t even be bothered to see what was happening. It is a stinging indictment of the traditionally learned.

This is scary. You, dear reader, almost certainly fit into the category of the traditionally learned. You, too, can most likely spout the correct answers for any question lobbed your way at church or by your curious co-worker. But Matthew has something challenging to say to people like you (and me): are you content with merely reciting the answers, or are you behaving in a manner that reflects your knowledge?

29 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #3

  1. Thanks Julie. I look forward to these every week. Your book’s comments on the generations listed in Matt. 1 begins the thinking. That passage isn’t even in the lesson. For those who want a unique take on the Christmas Story, I recommend Margaret Barker’s The Christmas Story. Fascinating takes on the wise men, Anna and Simeon in the temple.

  2. Julie, I used your “gender pair” ideas from last week in my gospel doctrine class and have been waiting with baited breath for the next installment. I appreciate your insight and so did the class. Thank you.

  3. Identifying the wise men as gentiles and pagans is not supported by the text. Being from the east would not preclude them being Jews. There were thriving Jewish communities in the east (many descended from those who did not return from the Babylonian captivity). It is much more probable that the magi came from these communities than that they were gentiles.

  4. Daniel Smith, I disagree. Their geographical origin does not preclude their being Jewish, but Mattthew’s use of “wise men” almost certainly does.

  5. There is no other context in which Matthew uses the word magos so I would be hesitant to insist that he intends the reader understand the magi were gentiles. If that were his intention though , I would expect he would have been more explicit because magos can be used to refer to Jews as demonstrated in Acts 13.

    I do like the lesson you draw from the story. I think it could work just as well as an orthodox vs unorthodox contrast rather than the Jew vs. gentile contrast that depends on injecting more specificity into the story that actually exists.

  6. “I would expect he would have been more explicit because magos can be used to refer to Jews as demonstrated in Acts 13”

    I’d submit that the dual description in Acts 13 (Jew and sorcerer) is because the audience would not have assumed he was Jewish without the qualifier, thus supporting the notion that an early audience for Matthew would not have taken it as a reference to Jews.

  7. Astronomer Karlis Kaufmanis insisted in his “Star of Bethlehem” lecture that they were Jewish astrologers, who would have understood the astrological arrangement of planets at the time as heralding the arrival of the Messiah. (“Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces,” if I recall, from a recent post possibly at BCC and a lecture I heard as an undergrad 30 years ago.)

    What evidence Dr Kaufmanis put forward for thinking them Jewish, I am not sure. I haven’t listened to the lecture again from the site above, although I probably should. He may simply have assumed no one in Persia or Babylon would have cared about the King of the Jews except Jews.

    Julie, I’d be interested to know if you’d ever encountered the astrological hypothesis and what you think of it. I’m hanging my ignorance out here in the hopes of learning something. ;)

  8. The full description of Barjesus in Acts 13:6 is magos pseudoprophetes Ioudaios. If pseudoprophetes weren’t included in the description in question, your case would be stronger. Unfortunately I don’t have a critical edition handy. I’m curious to see if this string is an accretion of different sources and if there are any alternate readings that support your interpretation.

    With the scant evidence for either case, five uses in only two narratives, I doubt either of us could ever convince the other of the superiority of their case. I would actually be quite happy if it could be shown that the magi were definitively gentiles. Unfortunately, I find it much more probable that a minority religious community in exile adopted some unorthodox practices (or even developed differently in isolation) than any of the historical explanation I’ve heard for gentile magi.

    I did think it was ironic that a post beginning with an appeal to reading the text narrowly would conclude with reading where I found the text ambiguous.

  9. New Iconoclast, I’m not familiar with Kaufmanis’ work. But I am, in general, suspicious of efforts to align Matthew’s account with astronomical events–not because they are necessarily wrong but rather because I don’t think that’s the point of the text or the direction in which Matthew is interested in taking it, so any amount of time we spend discussing precisely which event it was is a distraction from Matthew’s story, just as it would be if we got into a lengthy discussion over what color tunic Mary was wearing.

  10. “Their geographical origin does not preclude their being Jewish, but Mattthew’s use of “wise men” almost certainly does.”
    I have no academic credentials with which to argue this, but I had thought that Daniel (he of the OT, not the commenter), along with his 3 friends, was specifically selected and educated to become one “wise men” of the royal court during period of captivity. He certainly appears to have been in training when Nebuchadnezzar orders all his wise men be killed (the dream story). Daniel, as one of the trainees and included in the edict, requests he be allowed to intervene. So why wouldn’t there have been Jewish magi?

  11. Hedgehog, of course someone of a Jewish background could become one of them, but at that point you have to ask if you can still rightly call them Jewish (if you are using the term to refer to their religious commitments and not ethnicity/heritage) since the meaning of the word is “pagan priest” or “magician” or “sorcerer” or similar. The rabbinical tradition states that Jews must avoid them.

    It’s kind of like if a Mormon became a shaman. You could argue that Mormons can be shamans because you knew this one Mormon who became a shaman, but at that point, should they really be considered Mormon anymore? And I don’t think that the Daniel story can be used to argue the point since he’s not exactly in control of his own circumstances and chooses to retain his identity, so it’s not analogous to anything that might have happened to Matthew’s wise men.

  12. I’ll add: while I think there was an older trend in scholarship to emphasize that we ultimately cannot know whether the wise men are supposed to be Jewish or pagan or whatever, the more recent consensus is summed up by Eugene Boring: “The magi are Gentiles in the extreme, characters who could
    not be more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in heritage and worldview.” If someone wants to argue that Matthew’s wise men were racially Jewish but culturally/religiously pagan, I suppose I wouldn’t argue, but that is ultimately irrelevant: Matthew’s point is that the worldview/knowledge/skills/info of these wise men is superior to Jewish learning. Matthew isn’t making a racial argument.

    I suspect that most of the effort to argue that the wise men were Jewish stems from discomfort that “magicians” or “astrologers” would be presented as “good guys” in the scriptures. (I accidentally found a squirrely article online once arguing that astrology was useful for Christians per Matthew 2, so I suppose I can understand the fear of opening the floodgate.) But the discontinuity is precisely Matthew’s point, as I explain in the OP.

  13. I agree that Matthew is upsetting his audience’s stereotypes by presenting devoted astrologers and apathetic scribes. I continue to disagree that this would require they be gentiles. In fact for an audience contemporary with Matthew, the contrast is heightened if the magi are viewed as apostate/unorthodox rather than just foreign.
    At this point in the argument conceding that the magi could be racially Jewish, that they would worship the Messiah/King of Israel, and that they would accept the authority of the scribes identification of the place of His birth, but that the magi are still not Jews smacks of the no true Scotsman fallacy. I find that particular definition of Jew hard to defend when divination has been accepted by Jews as tolerable if not orthodox at different points in their history, I am not part of the ancient community trying to maintain boundaries and exclude the magi, and the majority of modern Jews would sooner exclude the magi for worshiping Christ than for engaging in astrology or being from the east.

  14. It’s probably wild conjecture and easily refuted and dismissed, but I’d occasionally wondered if there was a connection between the Magi and China’s Journey to the West (which was written in the 16th century and believed to be about a real monk in the 6th century, but stories echo in time).

    That’s the thing about this story; it lends itself extremely well to ex-Biblical interpretation. Why not 12 wise men? Why not women? How far East can they come from?

  15. Julie

    A small question: do you think Jesus was born in Bethlehem or in Nazareth? Of course, the latter option does not detract from your interpretation of Matthew, on the contrary (though it does makes a discussion on the magi-provenance rather obsolete). I prefer the Nazareth option, and you know I am not alone.

    Walter van Beek

  16. Hi there, greetings from Europe. I’m also teaching the Sunday School class, and last week I used the example of the dual visit of the angel. Thanks for your posts. By the way I think the magi were more into astronomy than astrology, also that they could be from anywhere in the former Achaemenid Empire, from the current Syra to China (by the way Christian Chinese believe the magi came from China). They probably were acquainted with Jewish religion, but they were not Jewish scripture scholars as the Herod advisers who told them about the Bethlehem scripture. But anyways… Jewish vs. Gentiles… maybe a false dichotomy? Kevin Barney, thanks for the links.

  17. Walter, one of the advantages of thinking that Mark is the One True Gospel is that I don’t have to worry about where Jesus was born. :)

    In all (or, at least, a little more) seriousness, I tend to be so focused on literary questions that I devote very little attention to historical ones–they just don’t interest me because of their ultimate unsolvability. I really have no opinion.

  18. I think you are right, it is unsolvable. Also, quite unimportant (unless one has a Bethlehem-axe to grind). Same holds for the date.

  19. Julie:

    I’ve been following this blog for almost 10 years now, though I rarely comment on anything. I was called in December to be the gospel doctrine teacher for my ward and have found these pieces, along with the pieces from Jim F in 2011 to be extremely useful to our discussions. In particular in yesterday’s lesson I more or less stole your material and I have never in my life seen a group of Saints so interested and engaged in a topic. We came nowhere close to getting through the material thanks to this supplemental material. So thank you so much! It probably didn’t hurt that my ward hosted celebrities yesterday, the missionary mom Dawn Armstrong and her family were in our ward yesterday (from Meet the Mormons), and she in particular found me after the meeting and mentioned that the lesson blew her away.

    Please don’t stop with these and, if possible, release them sooner in the week so I have more time to prepare!

    Thanks again.

  20. Chadwick, thanks, I really appreciate it.

    I’ll be posting on Tuesdays, but if you really need it early, drop me an email [my first name AT timesandseasons DOT org] and I can get them to you. I’ve got a bunch already written, so it’s no trouble.

  21. Julie- thank you so much for your thoughts- I am always looking for great insight into scriptures we’ve read many times. Could you or someone else point me in the right direction to find the lesson material by Jim F that Chadwick is referring to? Many thanks!

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