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Thursday, December 20, 2007

What DId He Get Wrong?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams expresses some skepticism over common perceptions about the Nativity, and for the most part he's right on the money. The Bible doesn't tell us what animals the inn kept at the manger. The idea of snow there is not Biblical, it's the imagination of people who grew up in colder climes. The Bible also says that the Magi and shepherds saw the baby Jesus at different times; the latter arrived at the Nativity (Luke 2:15-16), while the former visited Joseph's house in Bethlehem some time after - Jesus had already been born when they saw Herod (Matt 2:1-2). The Bible also doesn't say how many Magi there were. As there were three gifts, I suspect people tend to subconsciously think that there was one Wise Man per gift.

Williams states that scarcely anything is known of the Magi - but slips up and makes the hasty assumption that they were astrologers. For those of you who broght your Bibles, turn to Matthew Chapter 2, verses 1-9:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

What is described here is not consultation with an astrological chart. These guys saw a star where there wasn't one before, somehow knew that it was an omen of the birth of the Messiah, traveled to Jerusalem, met with and left Herod, and saw the star again as it physically led them to a specific geographic location. Astronomical objects don't do that last bit - except for meteors when they can be seen falling on specific geographic locations - and neither do horoscopes.

The Bible doesn't say how the Magi recognized the meaning of the omen. But astrology is an unlikely candidate, as it was an extension of polytheism - the planets were believed to be gods, in case their names don't give it away - which anyone devoted to the Messiah would regard as false religion. Astrology has never been used to predict specific unique events, anyway.


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