The Birth Myth – Part 4: Conflicting Stories (cont.) December 16, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Luke, magi, Marcus Borg, Matthew, myth, nativity, shepherds, visitors
Everyone who knows the Nativity story can tell you about the visitors – shepherds and wise men. So, let us take a few moments to look at their roles in the narrative.
The magi first visit King Herod, asking “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews,” thus alerting the King to someone he reportedly believes will usurp his authority. As the story goes on to say:
And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
Luke makes no mention of the magi and instead spends a few verses on another visitor to the baby Jesus, shepherds.
And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields,a nd keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among
Men with whom He is pleased.”
And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
Of course, the obvious difference between these accounts come in the fact that Matthew talked about magi (aka wise men) coming to visit Jesus while Luke talked of lowly shepherds. Why does each author only tell of one set of visitors and not the other?
Borg explains it in this way, saying that the accounts
reflect themes important to each evangelist. For example, with Matthew’s tracing of Jesus’ genealogy through the kings of Israel and with his story of the wise men seeking the one who is born “king of the Jews, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ kingship. Luke, with Jesus’ genealogy traced back through the prophets, and with the shepherds (who were marginalized people) as the ones to whom the news of the birth comes, emphasizes Jesus as a radical social prophet.
Thus there may be more than meets the eye in this story told over and over again in Sunday schools across the land. Perhaps, as Borg asserts, the writers were using the visitors as rich symbols to show different aspects of the Savior that was still to come and they are not necessarily meant to be seen as actual historic figures.