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The Magi's Visit


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The past few days I've been wondering about when the Magi visited Jesus. I know that it was not right at His birth and that it could have been when Jesus was two years old, but was it before Mary and Joseph went to Egypt to escape from Herod?

He finds no mercy

And he's lost in the crowd

With an armoured heart of metal

He finds he's running out of odd-numbered daisies

From which to pull the petals

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Yes. It is the Magi, in fact, who alert Herod to Jesus's existence, thereby putting his life in peril.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Oh yes, of course, but I suppose my next question would be, if it was as late as Jesus being two years old when they visited Him, would Joseph and Mary have stayed in Bethlehem for those two years? That seems very unlikely.

He finds no mercy

And he's lost in the crowd

With an armoured heart of metal

He finds he's running out of odd-numbered daisies

From which to pull the petals

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Does the story itself ever say that Jesus was two years old? I think it says that Herod killed all the infants up to the age of two, possibly just to be on the "safe" side, but I don't think it necessarily follows that Joseph and Mary had been in Bethlehem for two years.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Oh yes, of course, but I suppose my next question would be, if it was as late as Jesus being two years old when they visited Him, would Joseph and Mary have stayed in Bethlehem for those two years? That seems very unlikely.

A prolonged stay in Bethlehem would seem unlikely from Luke, where we learn that Joseph and Mary only came to Bethlehem from Nazareth because of the census -- but of course Luke doesn't mention Herod or the Magi, or anything to suggest a prolonged stay in Bethlehem.

All of that is in Matthew; and from Matthew you wouldn't know Joseph and Mary had ever lived anywhere but Bethlehem, until they were driven by Herod into Egypt -- and when, after Herod's death, they return from Egypt, Matthew seems to suggest that they would have gone back to Bethlehem, if not for Herod's son, and so they came to settle, as if coming there for the first time, in Nazareth.

In other words, from Matthew's Gospel you might think that both Egypt and Nazareth were simply places to which the Holy Family was driven from Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophecy -- not that Nazareth was a place Joseph and Mary had lived before.

We do know from Matthew that when the Magi visited the Holy Family, they found them in a "house," not a stable. (Of course, Luke doesn't specifically mention a stable either, only a manger.)

What actual sequence of events might lie behind these two stories is difficult to say.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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It is nice to be able to treat the two nativity stories separately rather than trying to fit them together. Luke tell his one way for a reason. Matthew has a reason for telling it his way. I try to honor the storyteller's intent rather than our tendency to have things fit nicely. Keep in mind also that they didn't set out to write biography. They are writing theology.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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It is nice to be able to treat the two nativity stories separately rather than trying to fit them together. Luke tell his one way for a reason. Matthew has a reason for telling it his way. I try to honor the storyteller's intent rather than our tendency to have things fit nicely.

All of this is fair enough, as far as it goes. FWIW, note that I didn't say anything about trying to "have things fit nicely," but only "What actual sequence of events might lie behind these two stories is difficult to say." (Not that you said I was; I'm just being clear.)

Keep in mind also that they didn't set out to write biography. They are writing theology.

I would say that the first sentence is at least somewhat true. I would say that the second sentence is … significantly less true, or at least significantly more problematic and potentially misleading, especially when juxtaposed with the first sentence.

The Gospels have theological perspectives and motivations, but they are not "theology." They certainly are not theology divorced from biography, or from history, both of which they resemble, and at least partially comport to. It is certainly within the Evangelists' intentions to provide relevant information with real biographical and historical validity, within the framework of their theological vision and motivations. The genre of biography is far from a perfect fit for the Gospels, as is the genre of history, but it will hardly do, after passing over these labels, to settle on "theology" as the correct category.

The Gospels are biography, and they are not; they are history, and they are not. It may be said that they are a relatively unique literary form comprehending elements of biography and history, written from a theological perspective.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I think Luke is certainly writing within the tradition of Greco-Roman historical narratives. This may or may not mean that, like Thucydides, he invents some of the speeches that he gives some of his characters, especially in Acts; and this may or may not mean that he passes on certain rumours or legends as fact, just as his Jewish contemporary Josephus did. But I think Luke, at least, clearly saw what he was doing as "history" and thus as "biography" in some sense, however theologically informed it might have been.

Interestingly, in the Eastern churches at least, the author of the fourth gospel is called St. John the Theologian precisely *because* he brings the theological significance of Jesus' life story to the fore in a way that the other evangelists do not.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Oh, but since this thread concerns the Magi, who appear only in *Matthew's* gospel, I guess I should say that I'm not all that sure where to place *him* on the historical-theological spectrum. It is certainly *possible* that he incorporates midrashic elements, for example; and it is certainly a fact that Matthew sometimes massages the Old Testament texts that he borrows to back up his claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah (the massaging starts with the genealogy in Chapter 1; there were 18 generations, not 14, in that second batch of ancestors, at least according to Kings and Chronicles, but 14 is the number that has symbolic significance, so Matthew skips some of the names -- and surely he must have *known* he was skipping those names). So I'm not sure we can insist on facticity in everything Matthew says.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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This conversation makes me think of Richard Buckham's excellent book, JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES, which I unfortunately loaned out once and never got back. Bauckham questions some key assumptions underlying form-criticism analysis for the Gospels and instead looks to Papias as a way to understand how the Gospels functioned in the early Church, which is to say that they were used as verifiable testimony. Bauckham's argument is ultimately too complex and dense for me to summarize here, but I found it very compelling.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Buckham's book raises all kinds of interesting points. I don't agree with all of his ideas, but he's definitely influenced the way I think about certain aspects of the Gospels. (Am I right in thinking I remember him identifying the fourth evangelist as a "John the presbyter" who is not the son of Zebedee, or am I misremembering that? I know that's the opinion of Pope Benedict, among others.)

I have reservations about form criticism myself, and about the way that historical criticism generally been exercised in accordance with what Ratzinger / Benedict XVI has called a "hermeneutic of suspicion"; but I have no reservations about the tools and methods of historical criticism itself. It's too obviously useful, explains a great deal of data and offers a lot of insight.

I certainly don't have any reservations about the project of identifying literary genres in the biblical canon (or in other literary works), with the caveat that ascertaining the historical and biographical dimensions of the Gospels is a project that is not carried out solely by squinting at the texts and applying our preconceptions. They must be read and examined in light of what we can glean of how and the circumstances under which they were composed, etc.

I think the standard three-stage process of Gospel tradition is correct. It starts with a) Jesus' own actions and preaching. After Jesus' career comes b.) a period of largely though not solely oral tradition. Already during Jesus' career it's possible, perhaps even likely, that some written records of Jesus' words or actions were being kept (e.g., notes by some of the disciples, such as Matthew, per Buckham).

But the Gospel tradition was largely transmitted orally at first. Stories about and sayings of Jesus circulated at first as free-floating oral units. In some cases certain episodes or pericopes became linked and formed small collections, perhaps written collections. I think the Q sayings source hypothesis, while speculative, best explains some of the relevant data. Q existed as a common source for Matthew and Luke, probably a written source. Schleiermacher and Holtzmann supposed that it was such a collection of Jesus' sayings (logia), not the First Gospel, that Papias ascribed to Matthew, and this seems plausible to me on several levels. (If this is correct, and if the "John the presbyter" theory of the fourth Gospel is also correct, it would follow that none of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness, though of course eyewitness testimony would still stand behind them. For instance, if Matthew wrote Q, Matthew would still be responsible for a great deal of the first Gospel, even if he didn't write it.)

Finally comes c) the stage of Gospel composition. I tend to agree with the general consensus that Mark wrote first, collecting oral and written traditions available to him, including perhaps traditions received from one or more of the apostles themselves, as Mark is traditionally understood to have written under the tutelage of St. Peter (a tradition I see no reason to reject).

Mark's Gospel, which becomes the framework for Matthew and Luke's Gospels, is not a chronology of Jesus' career (even Papias makes a point of saying Mark's account was accurate but "not in order"). Nor do the Gospels give us verbatim transcripts of Jesus' words; even when ample room is made for the likelihood that Jesus said many of the same things on many different occasions in different ways, some episodes in different Gospels are clearly varying accounts of the same original story or event, and our understanding of the Gospel writers' aims and the reasonable expectations of their audiences has to accommodate this.

Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q as well as unique sources of their own. That Matthew used Mark (an account by a non-eyewitness) I see as no strong argument against ascribing the first Gospel to one of Jesus' apostles; more compelling, though, is the possibility that Papias's testimony on this point was misunderstood by later writers such as Iraneus, and ascription of the first Gospel to the tax collector Matthew/Levi rests on this misunderstanding. (Of course it's possible that Matthew wrote both, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence to think that later testimony of Matthean authorship rests on anything other than a misunderstanding of Papias. Well, there is the Gospel manuscript tradition itself. That's evidence, if not conclusive.) John seems to have used no common written sources with any of the Synoptic writers, although the oral and/or written traditions he does use attest many of the same traditions and events.

There is significant evidence for the thesis that the passion narrative was the first part of the Gospel tradition as we have it to take shape, that it was this that the first generation of Christians was initially most interested in and retold most often. Certain aspects of Jesus' career came next, and quite plausibly the infancy narratives came toward the end. The strong convergence of all four Gospels on the passion narrative, and the significant divergence of Matthew and Luke on the infancy narratives, supports this reading.

Finally, while I have no wish to capitulate to the hermeneutic of suspicion, at the very least if I'm arguing with a skeptic I have to admit that there is a prima facie case for saying that the infancy narratives present special literary and historical problems. The literary style is different from the Synoptic mainstream, particularly in Luke, where the sonorous classical overtones of that famous prologue are followed by an account with a strong Old Testament flavor -- an account behind which may well lie an original Aramaic source. Both infancy narratives record significant events of a historical nature (the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew; the census in Luke) that might well have left a record on secular history, but have not. Finally, there are the great differences between the two accounts, and the difficulty of reconstructing even a speculative historical sequence of events that is true to them both.

So even if a believer insists that every detail of the accounts must be accepted in faith as historically true, from a historical evidentiary perspective the infancy narratives give us less access to the events around Jesus' birth than other parts of the Gospels give us to his career and especially to his passion and death -- and, yes, his resurrection.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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