Pope Benedict XVI on the Story of the Magi: Historical and Theological Truth Combined

In the final book (which, though released last, is considered by the Pope Emeritus to be an introductory ‘ante-chamber’ to the series overall) of his multi-volume series on the life of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI reflects upon the infancy narratives of Our Lord. Relevant issues of biblical criticism and the harmonising of various scriptural details with known (or presumed to be known) facts of history or natural science are given due consideration in this study, but such considerations are always made in order to better illuminate the articles and mysteries of the Faith. This book, as is the case with the other chapters of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series, is written from the perspective that takes seriously the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture and the fundamental reliability of Sacred Tradition, and which is confident that thorough investigation of primary sources will not undermine what we believe.

Such an approach to exegesis – one conducted within and alongside the ‘mind of the Church’, as opposed to the hyper-critical hermeneutic of suspicion which we have gotten used to seeing in so much biblical criticism and/or theological reflection over the years – is refreshing, not only because we are given greater opportunity to enter into the events of salvation history, but because we are able to do so without having to check ourselves every five minutes, asking whether we can actually trust the Evangelists’ versions of those events. Pope Benedict sets out to show that exegesis conducted via the lens of faith is not the impossible exercise we had been led to believe, and furthermore, that in allowing us to penetrate the subtleties of the texts more deeply, taking seriously the presentation of events set before us, we can grow to know Our Lord all the better; both of these objectives have been achieved with great success.

One part of the Bible that is subjected to the hermeneutic of suspicion with more regularity than others is the story of the Magi. Both those keen to undermine Christian belief and those keen to reinterpret those beliefs in the light of critics’ claims that such-and-such an event couldn’t possibly have happened seem especially eager to explain away or minimise the story of the Magi, claiming either that it clashes with what we (supposedly) know from history or that as long as the theological import is preserved, the historicity of the events does not matter. Now, it is indeed true that if the story of the Magi were able to be conclusively shown to be ahistorical, then it would not really affect any central aspect of Christian belief; however, the narratives available to us do present these events as having actually occurred, so if it were shown they did not, we would have to significantly reassess the extent to which we can speak about Sacred Scripture as being a communicator of truth.

That the events in the story of the Magi have been presented by Saint Matthew in a way which makes particular theological points – namely the representation of the Gentiles coming to Christ and the ability of true wisdom to transcend mere accumulation of knowledge and to turn the mind towards transcendent things – is clear, and it is true that if the events themselves did not occur, these points would still remain valid. Pope Benedict eloquently summarises this message of the Magi’s journey thus:

The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were “wise.” They represent the inner dynamic of religion towards self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of the intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.

From all that has been said, we can obtain some sense of the outlook and the knowledge of that prompted these men to set off in search of the newborn “king of the Jews.” We could well say that they represent the religions moving toward Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him. In a way they are the successors of Abraham, who set off on a journey in response to God’s call. In another way they are the successors to Socrates and his habit of questioning above and beyond conventional religion toward the higher truth. In this sense, these figures are forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), pp.95-96, Bloomsbury.

                The basic message conveyed by Pope Benedict here would be true even if the Magi had never visited the Christ-child. We can also say that Magi may have visited Bethlehem, but that this central historical fact had been layered with scriptural allusions which themselves have no factual foundation – such as the ox and the ass were added to the scene by tradition in light of Isaiah 1:3, and that the wise men became kings riding atop camels in light of Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60. However, is it wise for us to so readily lose confidence in the historicity of what is described in Matthew 2; is there good reason for us to think all scriptural details pertaining to these events are theological invention and can be spoken of as such?

I would say not. Saint Matthew mentions that gold, frankincense and myrrh were brought as gifts to Our Lord, and Isaiah 60:6 mentions that those coming to see the ‘glory of the LORD’ (v.1) will bring at least two of those gifts – do we then assume that Matthew was taking such details from the Old Testament and attaching them to a story woven from theological reflection alone; or can we rather assume, as we do elsewhere in the Gospels, that the Evangelist has searched the texts of the Old Covenant in order to apply them to events and details that actually occurred? If we take the former route, as many exegetes do, we will end up denying that Our Lord was born in Bethlehem also, as well as a good deal more that eventually will encroach on core aspects of the Faith. As there is no good reason to suspect the Evangelists of invention, or of dishonesty in their presentation of events, we are perfectly justified in assuming the plain sense of what is written:

An interesting comment, in the light of this situation, is the carefully argued position presented by Klaus Berger in his 2011 commentary on the whole of the New Testament: “Even when there is only a single attestation…one must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events…to contest the historicity of this account on mere suspicion exceeds every imaginable competence of historians” (Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, p.20).

With this view I can only agree. The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.

ibid, p.119.

                It is a familiar tactic of non-believers or sceptics to seize on part of the biblical witness never intended to be read as literal historical statement, claim that the Bible as a whole is invalidated and that the part of it in question therefore contains no truth whatsoever. This is, depending on who is making the claim, either a dishonest ruse or based on a failure to understand the variety of literary genres that are extant in Sacred Scripture. The story of the Magi though, does not fall into this category – it is presented by Saint Matthew as historical events, and the fact that these events have been ‘theologically thought through and interpreted’ does not mean that their essential veracity needs to be questioned. When the historicity of events related in the Bible is questioned by secular critics, telling them that such events were never intended to be seen as real history will not only further confirm the critics’ belief that Christians move the goalposts when it suits them, but it doesn’t do justice to the way the text asks to be read.

One final question remains, and that is whether there do exist any valid reasons for us to doubt the story of the Magi. The assertion that their journey simply could not have occurred will not do – there must be reasons for one to take such a position. If there exist no other records of their journey, this is hardly surprising – three men, with no official directive and no objective other than satisfying their desire to witness the fulfilment of a prophecy from a far-off land would hardly make the front page news. We do know though that such men existed, as members of the Persian priestly caste, that the ideas of this caste were influenced by Greek philosophy, and that the Persians had access to a great deal of astronomical knowledge and expertise (inherited from the Babylonians). Another question is why such men would come from the East; why would the promise of a king from the land of Judea interest them?

Pope Benedict mentions (p.95) that Tacitus and Suetonius testify to a widespread speculation that a new king would come from this part of the world, and that Josephus later applied such prophecies to Vespasian, earning him the emperor’s favour. We know also that by this time the Jews had spread far and wide across the Hellenistic world and had translated their Scriptures into Greek, the common parlance, thus making texts like Numbers 24:17 available to anyone with the questing and questioning sort of disposition we associate with the Magi. Moreover, the ‘star’ that the Magi followed can be corroborated by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7-6 BC (the same time that Our Lord is now believed to have been born). Incidentally, the fact that Jupiter symbolised both Marduk (the highest god in the Babylonian pantheon) and the principal god in the Greco-Roman pantheon could well have added to the curiosity of interested astronomers in the East.

Similarly, there is no compelling reason to doubt the historicity of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, or the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Again, Saint Matthew employs texts from the Old Testament alongside his reportage of these events, but to assume he has invented the events from a prior biblical reflection, as opposed to his having seen significance in the texts because of the events is to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion which is neither warranted nor necessary. There may be times when a scientific or historical discovery threatens to undermine part of the biblical witness, and when those times occur it is incumbent upon us to take seriously those challenges as well as, given how many advances presented as ‘assured’ fact are merely one more theory soon supplanted by another, to be wary of accepting their claims too readily. When it comes to the Gospels in general, and to the story of the Magi in particular though, we need not concern ourselves, as no real challenge exists. Our faith does not stand or fall on history, but it is rooted in it, and we should take heart that the New Testament is a reliable document, written by those wanting to convince and assure, but not to deceive or mislead.

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