‘In the midst of secular Christmas, with Frosty the Snowman and Santa, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas, we want the wonderful story of the Christ child born in a stable, heralded by angels, honored by shepherds, and worshipped by kings who followed a star,” Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes in a new book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. As Epiphany approaches, he talks about the facts that back up the faith.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Magi? Kings? Wise? Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar? Gold, frankincense, myrrh? What’s true?
Fr. Dwight Longenecker: The Magi story, more than any other New Testament story, was elaborated extensively over the ages. As Galadriel, a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings says, “History became legend and legend became myth.” My method was to trim back all the legend and myth that surrounded the Magi story, read only Matthew’s account, and then research the politics, geography, culture, religion, and economics of the time to see how Matthew’s sparse account fit with what we know of Judea and its surroundings in the early years of the Roman Empire.
Matthew does use the word “Magi” for the wise men, and there was an ancient caste of shamans and soothsayers in Persia who were the Magi. However, by the time of Christ’s birth, they had been dispersed across the Middle East, and the word “magi” was used for any wise courtiers, intellectuals, astrologers, scientists, prophets, and philosophers. My theory is that Matthew’s wise men were magi from the court of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, and they were on a diplomatic mission to the court of Herod the Great in Jerusalem. Matthew never says they were kings. He doesn’t say there were three of them, and he doesn’t mention their names. All of these were later legends or theological preaching points.
The tradition is that gold stands for Christ’s kingly status, Frankincense his divinity, and Myrrh a precursor of his death, since it was used to anoint dead bodies. However, this is a later theological interpolation. In fact, the three gifts are important because they indicate the origin of the wise men. It was customary to bring gifts representative of one’s country when making a diplomatic visit, and Arabia was famous for its gold mines, and frankincense and myrrh are cultivated from the sap of bushes and small trees that grow only in Arabia and East Africa — so all three indicate that the wise courtiers were from Arabia — the Nabatean kingdom.
Lopez: Why does it matter? Beyond “history matters.” Can this be a re-encounter with considering religion and faith, and trusting in it and more?
Fr. Longenecker: In our society, too many people bundle the stories of the Bible into the same category as the fairytales and fables and legends they learned as children. Liberal theologians and Bible scholars add to this tendency by over-theologizing the Bible stories. The Christmas tales more than any other are treated as fairy stories. The lovely stories of the mother and baby, the shepherds on the hillside on the starry night hearing the angels sing, and the mystical wizards from the East following the magical star are put into the same big magical Christmas box with flying reindeer, a jolly ole St. Nick who pops down the chimney, tinsel and twinkling lights, and talking snowmen. I wanted to show that not only do Christians believe it really happened, but that the Magi story fits perfectly with what we know of the place and time of Jesus’ birth.
Lopez: Are there “political” implications for the region in noting the history? Maybe particularly for the Christians?
Fr. Longenecker: I thought it was very interesting to discover that almost all of the Arabian nomadic tribes traced their ancestry back to Abraham, and therefore these warring peoples — the Jews and the Arabs — are not only cousins, but they share very similar ancient cultures and religious roots.
Lopez: Why does Matthew give so few details?
Fr. Longenecker: They were not necessary. His audience were the Jewish Christians in Judea and Jerusalem. When he said “wise men from the East” they would have known they were the Nabateans since in the Old Testament and in regular Judaean parlance, “the East” was Arabia. Persia was almost always referred to as “the North.” His audience would have known the details he did not include for us.
Also, he had a theological point to make: The non-Jewish people were also welcome to worship Jesus Christ. He therefore made his point very economically.
Lopez: You write that “even the most hardened cynics want to keep Christmas.” Why?
Fr. Longenecker: It’s romantic and pretty and the children like it.
Lopez: Do you really see Millennial “nones” — “spiritual but not religious” — keeping traditions like the Magi, never mind the faith behind it, going?
Fr. Longenecker: Some will. Quality if not quantity. I happen to believe there is going to be a swing back to religion before too long, and the swing back will be to traditional religion and, most specifically, Catholicism. People don’t like living in a spiritual vacuum. History shows that the harder atheism bites, the more religion kicks back.
Lopez: You are leading a pilgrimage following the steps of the Magi. What will that look like, and what’s the goal?
Fr. Longenecker: Next September we will fly to Jordan, then re-trace the steps of the Magi from Petra — following the ancient trade routes. We will make our way to Bethlehem, then Jerusalem, then travel up to Galilee to visit the holy sites before flying home.
Lopez: How does a man go from Bob Jones to Oxford and wind up a Catholic priest in that mix, as you did?
Fr. Longenecker: Like the Magi . . . it took some guidance from above! Short version: I became an Anglican while studying at Bob Jones. I was accepted to study for the Anglican ministry at Oxford and, being an Anglophile, jumped at the chance. After 15 years in the Church of England I became a Catholic, and then after ten years as a Catholic layman, the door opened for me to be ordained as a Catholic priest.
Lopez: As a matter of faith and reflection, what should the Epiphany be about?
Fr. Longenecker: There are two main points to be taken from the Magi story. First is that the Christian gospel is good news for all people — not just Jews and not just a certain brand of European Christian, but the whole world. The Nabateans, through their extensive trade links, truly represented the people from Africa, Asia, Asia Minor, and Europe. When they come to the Christ child they remind us that all people are redeemed by Him. The second point is that they were bold and stepped outside the box. They risked their lives to find the Christ child, and their faith was bold, strong, and risky. Read the Gospel again. Christianity is nothing if it is not an adventure. They set out on a great adventure and found the Prince of Peace. Faith requires real risk today, as always.