Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Questions in a Familiar Story

The Bible is often hard to understand. It is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think for ourselves. Sometimes the passages that seem simple are actually some of the hardest to understand when we start thinking about them.

Take for instance the story of the ‘Wise Men’ in Matthew 2. It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Every child knows it, though perhaps in its highly embellished form, with crowned kings kneeling alongside the shepherds in a sanitised stable. But reading it just as it is in the Bible, what does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? It is full of unanswered questions.

First, who were they? At the time when the King James Bible was written, ‘wise men’ really meant ‘wizards’. The Latin Bible, based on the Greek, calls them ‘magi’. This word is connected with ‘magic’. They were really ‘magicians’. The word is used in two other places in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts. First it describes a man called Simon, a sorcerer who offered money to buy a spiritual gift from the apostles: he goes down in history at Simon Magus, the arch-heretic, and ‘simony’ is a word for corruption in religious circles. The second example is Elymas the sorcerer, who tried to prevent Paul from preaching to the governor of Cyprus. So, are we supposed to approve of these ‘magi’?

They came because they had seen a star. In other words, they were astrologers. The Bible never has a good word to say about astrology, and Christians are generally discouraged from believing in it. So is this story telling us that astrology is a way to God?

More unanswered questions:

When they eventually came to the right place and saw the baby Jesus, did they realise how wrong they had been in their assumptions?

Were they converted to the Jewish faith, and did they recognise Jesus as the Messiah? And did they then give up their astrology and their other pagan beliefs?

In later years, did they hear about Jesus?

If so, did they become Christians? And if not (from the point of view of evangelical Christianity) are they in heaven now or in hell?

The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel, of course, is that Jesus came for everybody. And perhaps what it is telling us in today’s multi-faith world is that if we believe this we will be faced with many unanswered questions. Matthew doesn’t answer them, neither does the Bible as a whole: it just raises more questions. We may think we have our doctrines all worked out, but real life isn’t as simple as that. What this story, and the whole trend of the Bible tells us, is that whatever the questions we have to hold on to the faith that Jesus is for everybody.