Of Mary and the Magi

Wise men in a painting by the portuguese painter Vicente Gil (XVI century)
Wise men in a painting by the portuguese painter Vicente Gil (XVI century)

 

Regarding the account of the Magi, there are those who describe the trip of the Magi as a fictional account. However, we do know that the Magi were a historical group of persons who lived in the Middle East during the time of Jesus.  Herodotus, the early Greek historian who wrote in the 5th century B.C., introduces us to the intrigue of the early history of the Medes and the Persians and speaks of the “Magians.” In those days, the “Magians” are described as one of the tribes of the Medes and that they had special abilities to interpret dreams. Herodotus specifically informs us of the dreams of kings and the involvement of the Magi in interpreting these dreams. These dreams were believed to be predictions of the future of kingdoms and kings.

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It is believed that the Magi were able to endure through the changing of empires as a priestly caste through the era of the Achaemenid Dynasty (550 B.C.- 330 B.C.) and into the Parthian Dynasty (or Arsacid Dynasty 247 A.D.-224 A.D.).

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The historical existence of the Magi in the time of Jesus is wholly consistent with their journey to greet Jesus after he was born as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. It is also believed that they had an interest in the stars as they relied upon them for their practice of astrology (sources “The Histories” by Herodotus, Radford: Wilder Publications, USA, 2014; The Catholic Encyclopedia; http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm).

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After conducting research into the zodiac by use of examining coins during the timeframe of Jesus’ birth, Michael Molnar, a former Rutgers University astronomer, concluded that the moon passed in front of Jupiter (referred to as an occultation) in the same general timeframe as the birth of Jesus Christ (6 A.D.).  As, Jupiter has astrological symbolism tying the planet to royalty, this occurrence would have been a big deal to stargazers of that era like the Magi (Govier, G. (2014). O subtle star of Bethlehem: theory suggests wise men saw something big in something little. Christianity Today, 58(10), 19).

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“The possibility that the Magi were gentiles, and perhaps Arabs, tells us that even here, at the very beginning of the story, Jesus is shattering religious tradition by bringing outsiders inside. Before the story is over, Jesus will shatter boundaries of race, class and gender. And the marginalized—the poor, prostitutes, lepers and Roman centurions—will all be welcome at his table” (Buchanan, J. M. (2012). Outsiders bearing gifts. The Christian Century, 129(26), 3).

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“The Magi were also intellectuals, students of the stars and seekers after truth. It took the learned sages somewhat longer than the unlearned shepherds to find their way to Bethlehem, but they got there in the end” (Following the star. 2004. Christianity Today, 48(1), 61.)

Quote from JOHN POLKINGHORNE, Living with Hope

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In Jewish midrash, the sorcerers in Pharaoh’s court were identified as magi.

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In Dan 2:2, 10, the only occurrences of magoi in the LXX,  are when they are summoned by King Nebuchadnezzar and commanded to interpret the king’s dreams. As in the midrash on the exodus, the magi are depicted as ineffectual sycophants of the powerful ruler.

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It is often believed that the only witnesses to the virgin birth are in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, the other two Gospel evangelists briefly mention their assent to the virgin birth as well:

In that most famous of Bible verses, John 3:16, John declares that God gave “His only begotten son” for the redemption of humanity. In that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, this declaration by John reveals that Jesus did not have an earthly father but that his parentage was uniquely divine. (John R. Rice Cited by McDowell, 302)

Mark shows his understanding of the virgin birth when he writes, “is not this the carpenter; the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us (Mk. 6:3)?” In that Mark emphasizes his earthly relations to Mary, he is unique from the parallel scriptures in Matthew and Luke that emphasize Jesus’s earthly parentage through Joseph (Millard Erickson as cited by McDowell, 301).

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On his journey from Antioch to Rome to face the beasts due to his refusal to recant his Christian faith (most likely in the year A.D. 110),  Ignatius wrote seven letters one which was addressed to the Christian church at Ephesus. In this letter, he affirmed the virgin birth of Jesus Christ:

“For our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan…The virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and also the death of the Lord were hidden from the prince of this world: three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God.” Ignatius held this belief until his martyrdom in the Arena in Rome. Lending more credence to the belief of Ignatius as to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is that he was a hearer of the Apostle John who was very well acquainted with Mary and would be able to inform Ignatius about details of her life (John 19:26-27 reveals that John knew Mary the mother of Jesus as they were together at the crucifixion of Jesus).

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Justin Martyr, a philosopher and early Christian church member at Rome, wrote a letter defending the Christian faith also known as an “apology” to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius between 148 A.D. and 161 A.D. In this letter Justin stated:

“And again, hear how Isaias [Isaiah] expressly foretold that He was to be born of a virgin. He stated the following: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and for his name they shall say ‘God with us’…But the power of God, coming upon the Virgin, overshadowed her, and caused her, while yet a virgin, to conceive.”

Martyr (from whom the term “martyr” was derived from) was beheaded in Rome between the years 163 A.D. to 167 A.D. for his convictions regarding Jesus Christ to include that Jesus was born of a Virgin.

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Luke’s historical accuracy has been proven over and over again.  One of the proofs for his precision is his mention of the census that was taken during the reign of “Caesar Augustus” when “Quirinius was Governor of Syria.” Luke mentions this in relation to the return of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in order to take part in the census. Critics disputed the Lucan account of the census as it was believed that the governorship of Quirinius was too early to be accurate. However, Luke’s accuracy was verified when it was uncovered that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice and the later range of his governorship would be in keeping with the traditional date of the birth of Jesus (McDowell, 63).

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Another verification of the accuracy of Luke’s nativity narrative comes from archaeology and the discovery of an ancient Egyptian papyrus that describes the procedure for those who were required to take part in a census. This papyrus states, “Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrollment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them.” This verifies the scenario depicted by Luke (2:1) where Joseph returns to Bethlehem (McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 63, 1999).

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Not only do all the Gospel authors write about the virgin birth, but the apostle Paul briefly alludes to the virgin birth as well when he writes, “God sent his son born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).” (Rogers, CM, 101, Cited by McDowell, 302).

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How would God enter into our world? A woman of humble circumstance with no credentials or great wealth is selected for the honor of being the mother of Jesus. God, being wholly virtuous, would not have made his entrance in the style of many earthly rulers who surround themselves with extravagant symbols of luxury to demonstrate their power and splendor.

There were no golden chariots present or gilded cradles with attendants rushing to and fro that first Christmas day. But only a humble, previously unknown family who received Jesus into the world that day. Yes, there were several groups who were notified and there was an angelic presence announcing this most momentous of births.   But how inspiring it is that the virtuous creator of the universe, Jesus, who was the greatest person ever to be born of a woman and God incarnate himself, would enter this world without the grandeur of earthly kings. (Ross Hickling)

 

Mentions of Jesus’ Birth in the Old Testament

"Savoldo, adorazione dei pastori, brescia" by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo - Public Domain
“Savoldo, adorazione dei pastori, brescia” by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo – Public Domain

 

As we move into the Christmas season, I look back at the Old Testament and see how it proclaimed the future advent of Jesus into the world. Even thousands of years ago, God was preparing the way for the entrance of his Son. Here are some scriptures and reflections on them that I hope will inspire you as we move closer to Christmas day:

Over three millennia ago, Moses wrote the Book of Genesis:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great;…And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This prediction of the blessing of the “House of Abram,” written over a millennium before the birth of Jesus, has its fulfillment in this birth, as Jesus was a descendant of Abram who would be a savior for “all the families of the earth.”

Genesis 17:9

But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”

Being a descendant of Abraham and by virtue of his birth, Jesus Christ inaugurated the “everlasting covenant” that would be guaranteed by his death and resurrection.

Genesis 28:13-14

“Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

God confirms a third time to the patriarchs (Jacob here) that through his descendent, Jesus Christ, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 49:10

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh or “He to whom it belongs” comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

Near death, Jacob pronounces his blessing to his sons and prophesied about the coming of Jesus, his power, and his authority over all of the earth. As observed in both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, Jesus was descended from Judah.

2 Samuel 7:16, 17

“Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”

Anticipating the Birth of Jesus Christ, Nathan the prophet reported the eternal nature of David’s lineage. I believe that this prediction was fulfilled through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that brings eternity to mankind.

Psalm 2:7

 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father. Ask me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”

The psalmist writes about a king whose father is “the Lord” and who will rule over the entire earth.

Isaiah 7:14

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Who else could Isaiah be referencing other than Jesus of Nazareth who is the only man known to be born of a virgin? The name “Emmanuel” (“God with us”) is also consistent with the advent of Jesus into the world. The documentation for the fulfillment of this prophecy is contained within the genealogies of Jesus Christ located in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-35.

Isaiah 9:6

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom…From then on and forevermore.

Approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah predicts this noble birth and that Jesus would be a descendant of King David. Who else could qualify as the one whom Isaiah prophesies about? By his lineage and also by his status as God Incarnate, the birth of Jesus Christ fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy (Luke 1:32-33; 3:23-38; Matthew 1:1, 6-7).

Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1

Isaiah 40:3

A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.”

Malachi 3:1

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

These two verses written centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ speak of John, the Baptist who would go before Jesus and proclaim his status as the “Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world. The fulfillment of these scriptural predictions about the forerunner of Jesus are observed in Luke 1: 16-17 as the Angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and in Luke 1:76 by Zechariah’s own proclamation.

Micah 5:2

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah,
 out of you will come for me
 one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Again, Jesus fulfills another prophecy of the coming of God Incarnate, one who is from “ancient times,” who was in fact born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem. This prophecy is fulfilled in both Luke 2: 1-7 and Matthew 2:1-6.

Merry Christmas!

Ross