Christmas repost: Wise Men from the East

I posted my speculations as to the wise men a couple of years back, but it seemed seasonally appropriate to post again:

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 Same God

Some employment dispute at Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant college, has attracted some commentary on whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God (with a staff member apparently being dismissed because they asserted this was indeed the case). There may well be more to the employment dispute itself, but I wanted to discuss the proposition itself that Christians and Muslims worship different “gods”, which has attracted a number of evangelical defenders. This defence should be little surprising to any Latter-day Saints who’ve come across evangelical claims that we worship a “different” Jesus. It is surprising, however, how otherwise thoughtful and level-headed commentators have sought to defend the claim, as David French does here. While I agree with this author here that one should be careful about allegations of bigotry, I do think a number of comments can be made in response, as follows:

  1. French argues his case, as a number of others do, on the basis that Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. The issue comes that Jews, at the very least, also do. Do Jews also worship a different God?
  2. Some evangelicals (such as Al Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist), accept that implication, which is at least logically consistent if supercessionist. That view, however, is inconsistent with what the New Testament itself says where, for example, Paul himself speaks of how he worships “the God of my fathers” and has “hope towards God, which they themselves [his opponents] also allow” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul recognises that the religious authorities in Jerusalem regard him as following “a heresy”, but doesn’t claim that he is worshipping a different God. In fact Paul goes further when addressing the Athenians, a pagan people, when he identifies the “unknown God” who they “ignorantly worship” with the True and Living God (Acts 17:23).
  3. Others, recognising the major problems of supercessionism, assert that Jews and Christians do worship the same God. However, this is logically inconsistent. Both Jews and Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarianism. Muslims at least accept the prophethood of Jesus, so might be seen to be preferable by those terms. If someone is making the claim that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God because the Muslims reject the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and yet rejects the same claim when applied to Jews who reject the same things, then there is clearly some logic being applied that is not being spoken out loud. It’s up to those making the claim to clarify their position.
  4. Of course, a number of Christians, while accepting the divinity of Christ, also reject Trinitarianism, including Latter-day Saints but also many others, including Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the present, and Arians and others at the time of the great controversies in the Fourth century (not to mention all those before Trinitarianism was formally defined). True to form, at least many evangelicals in the comments seem inclined to say they don’t worship the same God either. This in spite of the fact that the New Testament doesn’t teach Trinitarianism, and the fact that in my own personal experience many self-proclaimed Trinitarian evangelicals are actually modalists (i.e, they believe the persons of the Godhead are actually roles of one being, who manifests differently as the Father, Son or the Holy Ghost).
  5. Some base this claim on different texts: namely that as Muslims have the Qur’an (and, as some are quick to add, Mormons have the Book of Mormon), they must worship different Gods. To which doubtless Jews could add that the Christians have the New Testament too, and since Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have different scriptural canons, the implication is that they all worship different Gods. While there are evangelicals who pursue this approach, this is clearly nonsense.
  6. This is nonsense because one can believe different things *about* someone, and yet still be talking about the same person. Someone might believe Elvis got abducted by aliens and is still alive, but while that’s nonsense, they’re not talking about a *different Elvis*. As a Latter-day Saint, I definitely believe different things than an evangelical Protestant does (although they generally don’t understand, and sometimes misrepresent what those differences are). But when I talk about Jesus being the Son of God, being born in Bethlehem, and who was crucified for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, I’m not talking about some other guy who happened to share the name and did some of the same stuff.
  7. This is not to underestimate some of those differences, some of which are big and very important. I do not believe, for example, as some varieties of Calvinism do, in a God who created people so he could predestine them to hell. As a latter-day saint, I affirm the divinity of Christ, and believe Jews and Muslims to be mistaken on that issue. Likewise with those Christians who believe in a God without body parts or passions, or the many moderns who believe in a God who may exist but does not reveal himself or work miracles (the mistakenness of this opinion being one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon). But that doesn’t mean we’re not speaking about the same deity. Paul again goes even further, stating that God “hath made of one blood all the nations of men” and that “they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God wants us to repent, but will bless all those who humbly seek after him according to what knowledge they have.
  8. I have no idea why evangelicals in particular seem so keen to claim others worship “different gods” or a “different Jesus”. It’s doubtless behind whatever trend leads them – rather uniquely – to set up organisations and paid ministries dedicated not to preaching their own beliefs, but attacking the specific beliefs of other groups. One would hope in their desire to follow the Bible they’d recognise the example of Paul above, and consider that its more important to get right, and hopefully lead others in that direction, than to prove others wrong. That’s really for them to sort out though, although in my more mischievous or peevish moments I can’t help but wonder at how they claim the mantle of “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, when their beliefs and institutions are so much younger than the Catholics, Orthodox and so forth.

As for my own brief suggestions on studying the religions of others, they can be found here.