By now, the Three Kings are well on their way to Bethlehem, and the Christmas season is drawing to a close. But the Three Kings (actually, ‘wise men’ according to Matthew’s gospel) aren’t just bringing their famous three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They bring with them another set of questions that we have to wrestle with a bit if we are going to see Christmas clearly.
The story is pretty and the ideas are rich: but what actually happened in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago? How much of the Christmas story is “real” and how much of both this story — and ultimately the entire record of the the Scriptures — is historically accurate.
This is a much more complicated question than it may appear at first glance. Many Christians argued long before the rise of modern historical and scientific criticism of the Bible that much of it was written to be interpreted allegorically rather than read as a historical or scientific account. Others have made the point that books like the Book of Jonah (in which among other things we find the famous story of Jonah and the whale) were widely accepted as ‘true’ in the sense that the Narnia stories or the Lord of the Rings are true. They tell real and valuable truths about our world but there isn’t a lot of archaeological evidence to support the claim that elves once walked the earth. And there are other Biblical books — like the Song of Solomon, the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms — that are obviously literary rather than historical.
So the question of Biblical accuracy is complicated, and both believers and non-believers in the Bible’s religious message have reached a variety of different conclusions about its historical reliability. But even for people — like me — who think that there must be something important behind all this noise and excitement, the question of how to make sense of the Biblical record is convoluted and thorny.
It’s not as easy for an infinitely transcendent God to reveal himself to culture-bound, historically placed people as you might think. When God committed himself to humanity, he made the decision to enter history. He took us where he found us and met us where we stood. Even today we have to figure that there are ways that our knowledge of the universe and of human history places sharp limits on what we can understand about God. The difference between our times and the era of Jesus often complicates our ability to make sense of the stories we are reading.
After all, when the wise men get to Herod, they turn out to be astrologers. They have seen a star in the heavens that announced that a king of the Jews had been born, so they traveled to Jerusalem to find the child. In a sense, it was a journey of scientific discovery: if they found that such a child had been born, their interpretations would be confirmed. The science of astrology would take a step forward.
We know enough about the astrology of the period to have some idea what they were doing. With roots that have been traced back to ancient Mesopotamia long before the Jews got to Judea, astrology in some ways was humanity’s first science and it rested on a very complex set of observations and measurements. Charting the course of the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets through the skies, ancient thinkers noticed that their movements formed patterns. Furthermore, they saw that these patterns corresponded with regular events on earth. When the sun was in the region of the sky that matches the constellation Aries, the earth renewed itself after the winter cold and the crops once again began to grow. As the sun and the other planets and stars moved round the skies in their stately progressions, other cycles took place on earth. Birds migrated for the winter and returned in the spring. Sheep and camels migrated across the pasture lands; fish had their seasons for breeding, at times disappearing and at other times returning in great numbers.
In one of the great intuitive jumps – a great scientific discovery, actually, which is still the basis of much of our knowledge of the universe today – the ancient thinkers posited that those heavenly bodies acted at a distance. The sun not only warmed you when you looked at it; somehow the sun’s rays caused the seasonal changes taking place all around. The moon’s power somehow caused tides, and the tides were greater or less depending on the positions of the sun and the moon in their complex dance. Over the centuries they found that these observations had predictive power; by the time of Jesus’ birth, the sky scanners were regularly predicting eclipses of the sun and the moon and Julius Caesar relied on this science to produce a calendar so accurate that, with Gregory’s tweak, it remains the basis on which the world organizes its affairs to this day. Somewhat ironically, the ancient astrologers worked like the climate scientists today: that is, they built models and looked for correlations to establish cause and effect. If Jupiter turned retrograde (if the planet’s apparent motion in the sky changed direction) and a great king died, then astrologers would assume that Jupiter caused the king’s death. These models were always being tweaked, but with enough tweaking they still seemed to work. Even in classical times skeptics sniffed that “correlation isn’t causality” and denounced astrologers as quacks — their ‘models’ never quite seemed to predict with precision.
Still, with so many demonstrable connections between the heavens and the earth, studying the heavens impressed many people as the best way to forecast future events. It was an approach so intuitively obvious and so intellectually compelling that down through all the recorded years of history, right into the Reagan White House, powerful women and men have sought the advice of qualified astrologers for insight into unfolding events. There are a number of theories about what happened, but it appears that a powerful astrological event occurred around the time scholars think Jesus was actually born; there are several independent accounts of astrologers predicting the birth of a major new ruler at about this time. When the wise men said they were ‘following a star’ they had something very specific in mind.
So what do we make of this? Is the Bible putting its seal of approval on the ‘science’ of astrology, so that we must be either Christians and believers in astrology or scoffers at both the religion and the ‘science’? Do we, as some Christians do, think that rather than an astrological event the Bible refers to a special cosmic miracle, a light set in the sky to mark this special occasion in the history of the world? Or does this all sound like a bunch of legends collected by ignorant and superstitious people a long time ago and far, far away?
All this gets us into deep theological waters where wiser and better educated writers than I have gotten into trouble. Yet the issue is too important to ignore. It brings us to the questions that any serious person has to ask sooner or later when looking into these things: how true is all this? Are these historical narratives or beautiful myths? What are these ancient documents trying to tell us, and how far can we trust them?
My starting point for questions of this kind is to come back to the ideas we looked at yesterday: the question of a universal God who reveals himself in a particular culture. Jesus was a Jew, shaped by Jewish customs, Jewish history, Jewish theological ideas and Jewish scholarship. Moreover he was a man of his time; the people around him had no special access to scientific or archaeological knowledge other than what was generally known. And in a world without the internet or printing, the people around Jesus would have likely been less well informed than the cultivated, educated and widely traveled Roman elite.
In Jesus’ time, modern ideas of science and scholarship did not exist. In an age without printing, libraries were rare. Greek and Roman historians, the best of their time, believed that it was appropriate for a historian to write speeches for historical characters based on the historians’ knowledge of character and their understanding of the events. The great speeches in Thucydides’ classic History of the Peloponnesian War weren’t copied from the speakers’ drafts or notes or even necessarily from interviews with those who heard the speech. A well-trained historian at this time wasn’t somebody who searched the written archives and other records and then wrote articles and books that carefully separated what was and was not known. A well-trained historian was somebody who, after careful study of the available information, was able to make intelligent deductions about what was missing, critique the obviously legendary and biased sources, and, on the basis of experience, intuition and skill, was qualified to fill in the large gaps which the incomplete records of the day inevitably left.
When the author of Luke’s gospel tells us at the beginning that he made a systematic and orderly investigation of the events to give us the best information available, he could only mean that he was doing what a responsible and serious historian of his time understood as his duty. That is different from what a professional historian today would assume the job entails, but the only observers around during Jesus’ lifetime would inevitably look to classical rather than to modern historical standards and ideas.
That makes it tough on contemporary readers who want to apply the standards we use in modern history (and modern science for that matter) to events that took place long ago and far away. If the wise men had brought a video camera with them, what would have been on the pictures of the holy family that they uploaded to wisemen.com on the web?
We want answers to questions like this — and we can’t get them. Until and unless we build time machines, we must deal with the information that we have, collected by people whose ideas of historical verification and science were very different from ours.
I’m not sure that this matters as much as some people — Biblical ultra-literalists on the one hand and scoffing atheists on the other — think it does. Human beings almost never have the kind of knowledge and certainty that we want, but we press on nevertheless making choices and commitments. From where I sit, it seems pretty certain that Something Big happened at the first Christmas and that history somehow turned on its hinges. When I’m writing for a general audience I will often use the expressions CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era) rather than the more traditional ones of AD (anno domini, in the year of the Lord) and BC (Before Christ) to date events. There’s no point in picking quarrels with my readers every time I write an essay. But as I see it, the old AD/BC division points to something important and real. History turned a corner with the birth of Jesus Christ, and while the written reports of that event don’t tell me everything I want to know, they do tell me everything I need.