Wise Men from the East

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?

The Myth of Progress

Very often – both in mainstream news commentary and in the undergrowth of internet comments – one hears remarks about the ‘right side of history’. Likewise there are frequent assumptions about ‘progress’ – that certain things will be utterly accepted a hundred years from now, or rejected or whatever. Underlying all this is an assumption that history is progressing in a linear direction towards some destination. This is not a new assumption – both the Whig and Marxist theories of history did the same thing, and both arguably took religious predecessors and stripped them of their theology. Yet the assumption is also false.

The idea of continuous and inevitable progress can’t even be sustained in the field of technology, where perhaps one could make the greatest case. It takes longer to get to New York from London than it did 30 years ago, and technological progress in aviation was far more startling in the 40 years from 1929 to 1969 than in the 40 from 1969 to 2009. Technological improvements have their sudden spurts, but also have their plateaus. They also have their regresses, as the loss of certain techniques following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire demonstrates.

The assumption of ‘progress’ in political or social fields is even more questionable. Something can be socially acceptable in ancient Greece, unacceptable in Medieval Europe, and accepted again centuries later. Which was the move in the ‘right’ direction? Democracy can appear in ancient Greece, be disdained as akin to anarchy for millennia, and then reappear again – is it on the ‘right side of history’? Empires rise, but they also always inevitably fall. The very assumption that one set of political or social standards is ‘right’ presupposes an absolute scale of values – but many of those who use such language reject the existence of any transcendental being or state that would necessarily have to underpin those values.

For those of us who do accept such a transcendental reference point, there’s nothing to imply that humanity is always moving in that direction. To take a more specific example, the scriptures show a humanity that drifts in every which direction – a humanity that fell from the presence of God, and then moves even further away as mankind becomes ‘carnal’ and ‘devilish’ (Alma 12 & Moses 5). A mankind that then engages in a cyclical pattern of history of pride and apostasy, on a national and I would argue an individual level. Neither the Deuteronomic History nor the Book of Mormon depict an ‘onward and upwards’ glorious pattern of progress, but rather an constant cycle that if anything trends downwards. Nor are the scriptures positive of our own period in history (D&C 1 & 45), and likewise the record of our own recent history should humble us: the record of totalitarian genocide in the 20th century and the world wars are a stumbling block to anyone who concludes we’re inevitably making ‘progress’.

Appeals to ‘progress’ or the ‘right side of history’ are founded on a myth, and attempt to short-cut any arguments of reason or morality by effectively arguing ‘this is inevitable, this is the way it’s going to be, why fight it?’ But history twists and turns on itself, and just because something is going to happen doesn’t make it right, or mean we should concede to it, or mean that ultimately there is no turning back. And – however long it takes (and it may take centuries or millenia), sometimes it takes turning back to make ‘progress’, if one has been moving in the wrong direction.