Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany

I've been good. I've not been doubting any of the Christmas stories over the past few weeks. Well, not doubting them in public anyway. But now we come to Epiphany and the visit of the Magi...

Who were these guys? And most importantly, did any wise men from the East actually come and visit the baby Jesus having followed a star to Bethlehem? Or is this just a myth?

On the face of it, it sounds like a myth. For a start, three of the gospel writers make no mention of this incident, only Matthew includes it. Then, there is the oddity of the star - the wise men see it and travel to Jerusalem. Only after they've asked about the baby king and are told to go to Bethlehem, does the star apprently give any guidance.

Also, if you look into it, you'll find that the pre-Christian god Mithras was visited by Magi from the east at his birth. Given that there are an awful lot of similarites between the stories about Mithras and those told about Jesus, might it not be that some stories had been muddled together in the oral tradition, and by the time Matthew heard it the story said that Magi visited at the birth of Jesus?

But supposing it did happen... Who were these guys? Not Jews, that's for sure. If they were star-gazers from the East, chances are they were Zoroastrians. Or possibly Hindus or Buddhists.

I read an interesting (and highly dodgy) book some time ago called 'The Lost Years of Jesus' by Elizabeth Prophet (new-agey type, her husband was possibly a cult leader) which supposedly presented the evidence that Jesus had gone on a pilgrimage to the east duing his lost years (the gospels say nothing of him between the ages of 13 and 30). Most of the book is nonsense, but there was one slightly compelling bit of reasoning why this should be. The reasoning went as follows: if the Magi came to see Jesus as a child, surely they would have come back to check up on him in later life. Apparently there was a tradition in certain Buddhist circles of identifying the 'chosen one' (who will grow up to be Dali Lama or equivalent) at birth, but not taking them away from their home for training until they are about 13. Perhaps Jesus was identified as a chosen one and trained in the east before returning for his ministry... This would explain some paralles in the teaching of Jesus with some earlier Hindu texts (although the parallels all fall in the gospel of John, so maybe John knew the Hindu texts, not Jesus). Anyway, I'm not totally convinced by the reasoning in this book, even if it was interesting. But the point remains, why don't the Magi return later in the gospel story?

Anyone got any insights here?

6 comments:

Mike Arthur said...

Hmmm.

Personally, I hold the gospels to be pretty accurate accounts, and from my perspective, perhaps the Eastern magi having similar stories in their history could be that there is still remnants in their religion of God's communication with them, remembering at this time, he had a plan for all peoples, not just gentiles.

Dunno though, interesting though not an overly big issue in my mind.

Ricky Carvel said...

Mike,

It's certainly not an overly big issue for me either, but worthy of doubting on Epiphany.

There's a whole host of doubts regarding Mithras which I haven't got around to giving any thought to yet; Mithras's birthday was celebrated on 25th December. He had 12 disciples. He shared a 'last supper' with them and said things like 'this is my body, this is my blood' and the iconography of Mithras involved a cross as one of its principal symbols - and all this a couple of hundred years before Christ. Makes you wonder...

R.

jojo said...

First, I must say YGBSM. Maybe you could make two lists, one for what you believe to be true in the Bible, and another for what you don't believe. Email the lists to me and I will address each one in turn. Second, John Macarthur recently addressed this issue. You can see or hear what he had to say about the magi if you click here

Ricky Carvel said...

Jojo,

YGBSM? This didn't mean much to me so I looked it up. To be honest it wasn't the sort of expression that I'd expected you to use. I thought you would probably have stuck to Paul's advice to the Ephesians when he said not to let any unwholesome talk come out of their mouths. I'm sure that applies to keyboards in this day and age. And even if you abbreviate, its not very wholesome.

Anyway, no I'm not, erm, kidding you. The visit of the Magi is one of the passages in the gospel which doesn't ring true with me. Unlike much of the stuff in there which seems real, this story seems highly mythological.

But I don't have the time (or inclination) to write you a comprehensive list of things I do believe and things I don't. And even if I was inclined to undertake such an exercise, I'd most likely share it with someone I know well in the real world. I don't know if you've noticed, but three of the reasonably regular posters on my blogs are ordained clergy and one other is bible-college trained. I'd be more likely to go to one of them than to trust the opinions of someone who posts to an anonymous blog (well, I know you're male and what state you live in, but that hardly narrows it down). Sorry.

Had a read through one of the transcripts on the website you mentioned. He doesn't really address the issue of if the magi were real. He just assumes they were, and assumes they were Medes. In fact there are an awful lot of assumptions in that sermon which are presented as truth. I'll read more tomorrow, though.

R.

Marcus G said...

You have to remember that the Parthians (and the Magi were Parthians - Persians) had in their 500 year past an interesting time when they had conquered Palestine, a time which transformed their culture. Many refer to the origins of Eastern monotheistic religion as obscure, but it seems fairly clear that this began coincidentally with the sojourn of the Jews in Persia. There are after all clear historical records of a young Jew rising through the ranks of the magi at that time to become chief amongst them. He made quite an impression, and left some interesting prophecies behind, which included one in which a human figure would be given the royalty of God and be rightly worshipped by all nations. Moreover, his rule would never end, signifying that death had no hold over him. How appropriate that from this prophecy later magi should choose gold, incense and myrrh as gifts to present.
Sorry - the young Jewish magi's name? Daniel. You'll find him after Ezekiel in the Old Testament. He's quite well known.

What isn't so well known is Herod's connection with the Parthians - he hated them. It's fascinating, and quite turns the whole thing on its head. This is no fairy story but a narrative of risk and faith and real danger. Imagine an Iraqi going to Jerusalem today and suggesting he knew of an alternative Jewish leader. Popular? About the same then as now! It was only 35 years earlier that Herod had lost control for two years when the Parthians had again briefly invaded and held power in Jerusalem - till the Romans had helped Herod out, and for his loyalty to the Roman cause, Herod had been rewarded with an upgrade from general to king. "We've come to find the king of the Jews" say these Parthians - and rarely had Herod heard such political heresy. These guys were speaking for their lives as his secret police haul them out of their beds in the middle of the night to drag them before Herod who asks what the hell they think they are playing at, sneaking onto his turf; only his greater desire to use them to destroy any possible enemy (his track record for using people to destroy enemies was legendary - not many of his own kids survived)got them out of that room alive.

I understand that the stained-glass, Sunday School version of this story sounds a bit weak, but the text of the Scriptures, backed up by the historical realities of the period, tells a fascinatingly believable tale which I for one deeply love.

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks Marcus!

Are you really suggesting that the Persians invented Mithras on the basis of the prophesies of Daniel?

I love that idea!

More thinking required...

;o)