Thursday, 5 January 2012

Surprising 'Wise men' myths?

How many 'wise men' (or kings or astrologers or whatever you like to call them) were at the manger at the time of Jesus' birth?

I'm sure you thought the answer was so obvious that it would be beneath contempt to say "Three".  Actually, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the answer is quite surprising.

In fact the Bible never mentions the presence of three (or any other number of) wise men at the manger when Jesus was born, even though you might think it does.  Their names are just as absent as the manger and their quantity, even if you happen to think you know that one of them was called Melchior and the others were . . . well . . . can't quite think of them just at the moment.

You might attribute the idea of 'three wise men' to the mention of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but as evidence goes that is a little thin.  However many there were, according to Matthew the 'astrologers' went to see Jesus in a house not a stable:

“And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him”(Matt. 2:11)

Incidentally, Luke's gospel is the only other one to mention the birth of Jesus, and he neglects to mention either the star or the wise men who followed it.  Mark and John have nothing to say on the matter of the birth at all.

So how old was Jesus when they found him?  There is no mention of the 'twelfth night' of Christian tradition.  In fact he could have been up to two years old because when the wise men failed to return to Herod to tell him about Jesus, Herod set out to kill all the children under the age of two.  Presumably anyone could tell the difference between a new-born baby and a 2 year old?

So this is yet another case of the bible not actually saying the things that all Christians believe it to say. 

What a surprise!

Not only that, but Matthew keeps telling us which prophecy was fulfilled by each part the story, ensuring that we, the ignorant readers, are perfectly clear about the purpose of the wandering stars and miraculous escapes from unrecorded historical massacres.

Without these hints we might not have found it so totally believable!


Mr Sentient Meat said...

Growing up Mormon (now atheist agnostic), I was taught that the Wise Men might have been 2 or 3 years after the birth, not mere days. But Mormons have an unusual ability to distance themselves from some traditional (or literalist) readings of the Bible, because they have a special escape clause—they believe in the Bible (King James Version) "as far as it is translated correctly".

Here are some traditional names to fill out the Magi names, cribbed from

"Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi. In the Western Christian church they have been commonly known as:

Melchior (also Melichior[7]), a Babylonian scholar

Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa,[7] and other variations), a Persian scholar

Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea[7]), an Arab scholar

These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500 A.D., and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari."

I guess my point is that some Christians (or professed Christians) do possess the intellectual distance to believe that these names and narrative details have more to do with stories than with facts. Mormons don't claim there were 3, either.

Enjoyed the post, my first exposure to your blog. Found you through Twitter where I tweet as @DCElzinga and follow #atheist and related tags. Cheers!

Kenny Wyland said...

Something that is interesting to me.. the Magi were "from the East" and Eastern Medicine, specifically Herbology, classifies Frankincense and Myrrh as blood tonics which are specifically prescribed post-partom to help the mother recover from the loss of blood during birth. To me, the story sounds like Chinese Acupuncturists stumbled on a recent birth and gave her medicine. :)