Friday, 6 January 2012

Twelfth Day of Christmas - Epiphany

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the "Wise Men" arrived in Bethlehem after, presumably, a two year journey. There are, of course, some arguments about the date of Jesus' birth, but you need to remember that the monk who worked out the dating didn't use a scientific method, or even an archeological one. He worked some 600 - 700 years after the events and his method was, by modern standards, rather crude. It certainly wasn't helped by confusion over names and dates of reigns.

Herod the Great died in 4 BC. We know that now, but the monk didn't. Luke apparently got Herod the Great and Herod Agrippa mixed up and may even have got Herod Archelaus into the mix. Remember that Luke was Greek and used a different dating system to Matthew, a Jew using the traditional Jewish calendar. Luke was also collecting his information for his Gospel some 20 years after the crucifixion and we have all had experience of talking to our grandparents about family history. It goes along the lines of "now it would have been 1941 or maybe 1942 - it was the year that Grace fell out of the tree. That was 1937 dear ..." Matthew had the advantage of having lived and walked with Christ, so his dates are probably more reliable.

That said, if we accept the fact that it was Herod the Great that ordered the killing of children in Bethlehem , our calendar is out by about 6 years. In other words we are now living in 2018 if we really want to be that accurate. The old monk did a pretty good job working on the ages of people when they died who were known to have been taught by people, taught by people, taught etc., right back to the Apostles and Jesus himself. To get to within six years by that method was pretty good. Other items mentioned in the Gospel accounts also point to 6BC being the correct date, since there were a number of major astrological events in that and the years immediately following.

Tradition has it that the three "Magi" were one from Europe, one from "the East" and one from Africa and the names ascribed to them around 1000 AD reflect that. Their significance is that they represented people outside the Jewish nations and tribes. In other words, they were the first "sign" that Christ was for all peoples and nations and not just for Israel and Judea. Having called on Herod according to the accounts of their visit, they found their way to Bethlehem and there they found Jesus and his parents. They "returned home another way" after a warning that Herod planned skulduggery and then we hit the next question mark on the Gospel account.

Why would Herod order the slaughter of all boys between newborn and two? The simple answer is, of course, that he was "playing safe" but there is a further complication. There is no record of such a slaughter being ordered in Bethlehem and Herod himself died in 4 BC. The Holy Family would not have been living in the stable for two years and there is no suggestion in the Gospels that they were when the Magi arrived. So what actually happened?

A recent archeological find turned up a mass grave of children's skeletons. Could this be the result of the slaughter? Quite possibly, the skeletons and the grave are of the right age and period, though it is difficult to date children's skeletal remains after so long accurately. There is also a suggestion that a plague may have been the agency of death - but then why only children and only in this place? Just to throw in another wobbly, the Governor of Syria named by Luke actually held this office from 10 - 14AD, but he was present for the exile of Herod Archelaus in 4 BC and probably organised a census then as Judea was made a "Province" of Rome under the Governorship of Syria. Enter the Roman Governors and the progression that brought Pontius Pilatus to Jerusalem in the period covering the crucifixion.

Why would Herod have been afraid of a "carpenter's son" (especially one about whom rumour no doubt already questioned his parentage) unless there was a strong possibility of a legitimate claim to the throne Herod occupied? We know that Joseph was a descendent of David, but that, in itself, hardly made Jesus a legitimate possible heir. It is much more likely, and a careful consideration of later clues in the narrative, that Joseph was a man of means, well connected among the Jewish nobility and therefore a threat to the usurper Herod and his heirs. Herod certainly had no scruples in murdering his wife's (He had inherited the throne through her) relatives, getting rid of several far more legitimate claimants to his throne, including his wife's brothers, several cousins and an uncle. It's quite possible that the "slaughter of the innocents" in Bethlehem was limited to certain families standing a little too close for Herod's comfort to the throne.

The gospel writers are being careful, remember they are writing in an environment when making a statement that might offend someone powerful could get you crucified, so the allusion is broadened and the blame moved safely to the now long dead tyrant. One thing is clear. The birth had taken place within two years of the arrival of the Magi. Nor did Joseph hang about. And here we have another small clue to his connections - a "flight" into Egypt was an expensive trip, not something any mere peasant could even contemplate.

Does this change the way I see Jesus, the Magi or my faith? No, all it does do is underscore the need to understand the background and to enjoy the tradition, will seeking the reality. Faith, to be strong, needs to recognise reality and to see how the realities around those who wrote the Gospels, wrote the letters and compiled the Biblical canon shaped and directed their writing and their actions.

The Magi have been and are now on their way home - and Joseph has Mary and the child Jesus probably heading for Joppa and a ship to Egypt! Welcome the Magi, because they are you and I.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you all the way... except that, as I've stated in several conversations today, the 12th day of Christmas is January 5th. Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas - count up from there!

    H.J. Richards' take on the magi is especially intriguing. A colleague's address in chapel this morning was unfortunate... "Although Matthew himself didn't use the term 'Magi'..." Of course, Matthew didn't use the term in the KJV, but in the Greek NT, that is exactly the word he used!

    I was especially taken with Richards' alignment of the visit of the magi with the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon... "A rabbinic midrash on this passage... even mentions that the Queen... was guided to Solomon by a star." Fascinating! Happy Epiphany to you, Brother!

    Michael C