Thursday, December 8, 2016

Who Were the Wise Men Seeking?

Have you ever thought about who (or what) the "Wise Men" or Magi who came from the east seeking Jesus after his birth were expecting?  What sort of king or god or whatever did they have in their mind to bring their gifts to? Who the Magi were; Where exactly they came from; What they knew; and how they knew it are all speculation, but who they were seeking is clear.

In Matthew 2:1-2, we are told:  “ . . . behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”  Notice that they specifically and explicitly give the reason for their worship of this babe.  It is because he was “born King of the Jews.”  Remember that in Mark 15:2, this was the question that Pilate asked, “Art thou the King of the Jews? To which he replied “It is as you say.” (NIV)

It's easy to be confused by the use of the word "worship" there in many translations.  Today we usually think of "worship" as limited to divine worship, of a deity, but the word as used in many translations also applies to bowing, kneeling, prostrating in respect or submission before a king, nobleman, ruler or other authority.  It could be divine worship, or it might not be.  The question is, which did the Magi have in mind?

Now when the Magi went to Herod and asked him where this child was, the effect on Herod was to incite him to a murderous jealousy, resulting in the slaughter of thousands of innocents.  Why was Herod jealous?  Would he have been jealous over the birth of God?  Possibly, but would he have attempted to murder God?  Well, I suppose anything is possible, but trying to kill immortal God seems a bit much, even for a Herod.  It is clear that Herod viewed this child as a potential mortal, human rival for his kingly throne.  The Magi were proclaiming that this child was born to be King of the Jews, and Herod considered himself the King of the Jewish nation.  Yet of course he was actually an Idumaean pretender, resented by the Jews as a Roman, and with every reason to be worried about the permanence of his dynasty.  The obvious conclusion is that Herod heard them to say exactly what they did say: that the child was born King of the Jews, and that is what he was worried about.  But what did Herod tell the Magi?  He told them in verse 8 that he too wanted to "worship" this child. What sort of "worship" did he imply?

Now if we are to suppose that Herod and the wise men intended this worship as divine worship of a newborn God Incarnate, we would have to suppose, with absolutely no support from the text, that Herod and the Magi somehow thought that this child was not a human king at all, but God. or a god.  They did undoubtedly know that this was a special king.  They knew, as we are told in Matthew 2:4, that this King of the Jews was the Christ, (the Messiah, the Anointed).  Anointing was what was done as a sign of being chosen by God as priest or king (e.g. Samuel anointed David as king).  But clearly they knew it was not just any king. The miraculous star they had followed surely made them know that this was someone truly special and unique. They referred to Micah 5:2 as the Old Testament prophecy that he should be born in Bethlehem.  Micah 5:2 refers to him as “ruler in Israel,” or as the record in Matt 2:6 calls him “ a Governor that shall rule my people, Israel.”

Is there any evidence to suggest that Herod or the chief priests and scribes with whom he consulted were some sort of proto-trinitarians who thought that this Messiah was to be God Himself?  Granted Trinitarians do find what they consider to be Old Testament “hints” or “suggestions” of Trinitarian doctrine.  But surely it is not credible to suggest that before any of the New Testament had yet been given; before Jesus had yet uttered a word; before any of the Apostles were even aware of the events to come; that Herod already thought that this “King” was really God, or a sort of hybrid man/god, a pre-existent mortal/immortal?   You might propose that, but there is no evidence in the record to support it.  Yet Herod, knowing only that this child was a potential rival to him as King, said he wanted to go and “worship him also.”  Clearly Herod intended this as (feigned) worship of a King, not of a God.

In any case, the Magi found the child Jesus, and they “fell down, and worshiped him.”  The New English Bible says, “bowed to the ground in homage to him.”  We can well imagine the apparently Persian Magi falling down before a king, for that is indeed how eastern kings were treated.  Is there any contradiction there in viewing this as paying homage or making obeisance to the (human) King of the Jews?  I see none. It makes the most sense.  Did they offer sacrifices to him, or cower in terror, or do anything that one might do before the presence of God himself?  No, they presented him with gifts that would befit a king, Gold, perfume, and ointment.  Whether or not the Magi understood this unique king to be the son of God, a concept Jesus had trouble getting across even to his disciples, and how they might have viewed that, is left to speculation.

One might object that the “Wise Men” were rather foolish men to go to king Herod with their request for directions if they were looking for his rival.  And perhaps they were, or perhaps it was in the plan of God that they should do so.  Regardless, whatever their reason, it did turn out to be a bad thing, so it is no argument to say that it was OK to go to Herod if they actually thought the child was God, but not OK if they thought he was a human child.  Either way it turned out badly.

Now this picture, of the Magi paying homage to a human king rather than a God may be startling if you've never before thought of it that way.  It is hard to change ideas that are entrenched in our minds.  I can only ask that you read the text carefully and see if there is the slightest evidence anywhere for a divine worship explanation.  I can see none.  All the evidence is for rendering obeisance to a human king, the divinely anointed King of Israel.

Undoubtedly, these Magi had a limited, partial and incomplete understanding of this newborn king. We aren't told what they knew or how they knew it.  Our understanding, informed by the preaching of Jesus and the writings of his followers surely should be more complete than those whose information was limited to the Old Testament at best, and perhaps less than that.  We should not be limited in our view of the Christ to the partial view of the Magi.  So, what is my point?  What do we learn from the limited understanding of the Magi?

First, it should be clear from this that "worship" in the Bible can mean either divine worship of a god, or it can refer to the legitimate and acceptable bowing in homage and obeisance due to a king, prince, or other authority.  When we see that Jesus in his earthly ministry was so "worshiped" we can usually see that it was so intended as due deference to a great teacher, prophet, healer, and authority, perhaps in a few cases with the perception that he was the (human) son of God, but never with any apparent and anachronistic understanding on the part of the worshipers that they were bowing before the second person of an incarnate triune god.  Any such divine worship of the man Jesus would most certainly have been viewed as blasphemous by the Jewish religious authorities.

The main takeaway from this though is to read what the Bible actually says about Jesus Christ, rather than to read the story through the lens of doctrines that were developed only much later on, after the Bible was written.  If you put Christ in Christmas, make it the Christ actually described in the Bible.