Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Birth of Jesus, Making Sense of the Wise Men

by John Shelby Spong

Having now described the miraculous birth of Jesus in chapter one of his gospel, Matthew turns next to his account of how the birth of Jesus was divinely “rolled out” to bring it to the attention of all the people of the world. His vehicle for this is to tell us a story of magi who follow a star that moves across the sky. This star, they are purported to believe, will lead these wise men to discover the meaning that Matthew has found contained in the life of this Jesus. Was this narrative the product of someone’s historical memory? Of course not! That is never the source of powerful interpretive legends. Matthew went, rather, to the Hebrew Scriptures, which were his traditional source for material, in order to tell his story of Jesus. In those scriptures he found all the elements he needed to weave together the familiar narrative that we now know as the story of the “three wise men.” So, following Matthew’s example, I invite you to come with me to look deeply into these Hebrew Scriptures.

First, let me direct your attention to a passage in Isaiah 60, which calls to its readers thusly: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” The point that Matthew was seeking to make in the entirety of his gospel was that in Jesus of Nazareth that light, which was destined to interrupt this world’s darkness, had in fact arrived. Please note the universal quality of the star, which serves as his symbol of this light. A star is visible to all the people of the world. A star is trans-national and it has the mystical power to draw all nations toward its light. “Following a star” is a familiar mythological reference to seeking the fulfillment of one’s dreams. The birth of Jesus was exactly this for Matthew. The light of God dawned in the darkness of the entire world. Kings, Isaiah asserts, will therefore “come to the brightness of your rising.” In Matthew’s creative mind, the wise men begin to emerge out of the shadows as he is inspired by this passage. Isaiah goes on to say that these kings will come “on camels.” Then he says they “will come from Sheba” and guess what they will bring? Gold and frankincense, says Isaiah. Does that not begin to sound just a little bit familiar?

There are always among us, however, those who are religious literalists. So inevitably they will ask: “But where is the myrrh?” To get only two out of three gifts of the wise men from this text hardly makes a conclusive case. That is correct, but let me take you back to this text from Isaiah (60:1-6) and ask you to read it again, but this time even more carefully. The Isaiah narrative states: “Those from Sheba will come.” Sheba? Can you not hear the Jewish minds seeking connections by ranging over the entirety of their Jewish history? Matthew is telling us of kings “who will come to the brightness of God’s rising” that he is certain will occur in the land of the Jews, which is due, he believes, the homage of the world. He is proclaiming Jesus to be that new king of the Jews.

The word “Sheba” in the text then immediately reminds him of another celebrated occasion in Jewish history when another royal visitor came to pay homage to another king of the Jews. So, back into his memory of the scriptures he goes until he brings forth the story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon (I Kings 10:1-13). Reading that story he discovers that this queen also comes with camels, bearing gifts. The author of II Kings tells us that these gifts consisted of gold, precious stones and spices. That text emphasizes the spices. It was, the text says, “an abundance of spices” that the Queen of Sheba brought, wagonloads of them, to be specific. The only spice familiar to the people of the Middle East at this time was myrrh, a sweet smelling resin derived from a bush. The Jewish people used it first as a deodorant.

Cleanliness and personal hygiene were in short supply in that day. Myrrh tempered the body odors of the time. Secondly myrrh came to be used as the spice of death. The Jews did not embalm their dead. They simply wrapped the deceased body in a cloth or shroud and then filled the shroud with sweet smelling myrrh to drown out the odors of death and decay. Burial was not postponed for very long in that time and place. So, out of the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew discovers a text in which a light shining in the darkness attracts kings on camels to come to that light and that these kings bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The essential elements of the story of the wise men are thus found in the Jewish Scriptures.

The three gifts, which Matthew has the wise men bring to the Christ child, were also symbols used by this gospel writer to introduce the adult Jesus to his readers. Gold was a gift appropriate to offer a king. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,” says the hymn writer John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), who more than anyone else put the story of the wise men into the life of our culture with a hymn known and loved by all. Because Jesus was perceived as a king, the hymn continues by having one of the wise men say: “Gold I bring to crown him again.” Matthew was thus introducing Jesus at the beginning of is gospel as the expected messianic king, who was “heir to the throne of David,” and destined to be born in David’s city of Bethlehem to a virgin and her betrothed. No, there were no birth records that he could have searched for corroboration. This is not researched history; this is a Jewish interpretive legend, a fact that Matthew’s original readers would surely have understood.

Frankincense was thought of as a gift to be offered to a deity, so the hymn writer can say: “Incense breathes a deity nigh.” The Hebrew Scriptures contain 129 references to incense used in worship. It was supposed to be pleasant to God’s nostrils. It was to be burned in the Temple. The Torah is filled with references to incense. In Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, this prophet suggests that the sign of universalism is that “in every nation incense shall be offered to my name.” So with the symbol of incense Matthew signals the divine presence that would be met in Jesus.

Finally, Matthew adds myrrh to the gifts brought to Jesus at his birth. The gospel of Mark, on which Matthew was basing his story and to which he was adding for the first time a birth narrative, had devoted about 40% of his gospel to the passion story of Jesus. He had begun the account of Jesus’ final week with the narrative of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He then traced the details of his last week, which was to culminate in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. For Matthew it was to be through the death of Jesus that his meaning was to be revealed. So he felt the need to signal this climax by introducing his death into the story of his birth. That is exactly what the presence of myrrh in the story of the wise men does.

Perhaps we can now understand what Matthew was trying to tell us in the story of the wise men. He begins his gospel by saying, in effect, let me tell you the story of Jesus, who was born to be the king of the Jews and who in that role was to reveal the presence of God in human form through his crucifixion and the subsequent resurrection, which was to serve as the transformation of death itself. He does this by turning Isaiah 60 into a narrative of magi or kings coming on camels to the place of Jesus’ birth and bringing with them the symbols of Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ divine nature and Jesus’ death.

I suspect, and this is obviously just a guess, that behind this story lay a sermon, preached in a synagogue by a follower of Jesus, learned in the Hebrew Scriptures. I suspect that this sermon was delivered on the Sabbath when the lesson, taken from the latter prophets, came from Isaiah 60. His sermon was an interpretive story. Both he and his audience in the synagogue knew that his sermon was never meant to be thought of as literal history.

When Christianity moved out of its Jewish womb and into the Gentile world, however, a vast ignorance of the Jewish Scriptures became a mark of the Christian Church. That was when they no longer saw the connection between the stories told about Jesus and its Hebrew antecedents. Having no other frame of reference, with which to interpret the gospel narratives, these Gentile Christians simply began to literalize the stories. They did this through their art, in sermons, in their hymns and in their liturgy. Rescuing the Bible from this kind of fundamentalism is now one of the necessary steps that Christianity must adopt on its pathway to survival in the 21st century. Being able to see the Jewish antecedents of these stories is the first major step in accomplishing this task.

A few more facts that are frequently missed need to be noted by the readers of this gospel, so let me point them out. There is no mention of camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men. Camels are only mentioned in Isaiah 60. Nowhere in Matthew are the wise men said to have been three in number. We read that into Matthew’s story from the list of three types of gifts that the wise men were supposed to offer. The text of Matthew says, “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts (note the plural) of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say one gold gift, one frankincense gift or one myrrh gift.

Finally, read Matthew’s story carefully and you will see that the wise men came to a house in Bethlehem over which their guiding star rested. In that house lived Joseph with Mary and her baby. There was no stable. There was no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There was no census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Those are details from a later source and one that we have blended into Matthew’s story.

Our task thus far is to see Matthew’s original birth of Jesus story in its own integrity. This was the first story of Jesus’ birth ever to be written and it did not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade! About ten years after Matthew’s first birth narrative a second and quite different birth story would be added to the tradition by a gospel writer we call Luke. To his narrative we will return when this series resumes.


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