Monday, 17 December 2012

Historicity of the Magi Story in Matthew

One of my most awkward moments at Cambridge was at a formal occasion at St. Edmund's College. Over dinner, some very conversant older gentlemen, perhaps about 80 years old, inquired about my research, and became rather animated when he discovered that Matthew's Gospel was my subject.

I didn't know the man, and when at Cambridge, you must always be on your guard in case you discover afterward that you've been talking with the world's foremost leading expert in some subject. At St. Edmund's College, this was often the case in the field of astronomy.

So, my inquisitor, in a rather friendly way and in an uncharacteristically loud voice for a Brit, asked me what I thought about the historicity of the journey of the magi in Matthew 2. In a more or less British fashion, I tried to evade such a direct question. But my inquisitor would not allow my diversion, and he pressed his question more directly, and did so yet a third time.

By this time, his wife and others seemed also a bit embarrassed for me and tried to change the subject, but yet he pressed me. As a matter of fact, I really do believe that Magi from the East came to worship Christ, and I figured that this hostile scholar was about to reveal to everyone at Cambridge that I was an ignorant fool to believe such a myth.

So, not being ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, I said in my most scholarly voice that I figured there was enough evidence to make the case that Matthew at least met the standard of historiography for his time frame.

At this, the man laughed and congratulated me for my answer, and he declared to everyone that I was an upstanding young chap! (My wife disputes that he used the word "young" to describe me.)

As it turns out, the elderly gentleman was none other than world famous astronomical historian Michael Hoskin. His résumé is a mile long, and he belongs to whatever royal academies there are. He even has a planet named after him.

Hoskin the astronomy historian then explained to me the Matthew exegete that astrologers (i.e., Magi) probably witnessed an "heliacal rising" within a constellation of stars viewed as pertaining to the Jews. He then asserted that historically, such astrologers would have been motivated to make the kind of pilgrimage to Judea as described in Matthew. And in keeping with the Matthean account, the star of the heliacal rising would have appeared in the sky for a while, then disappear, and then reappear. Hoskin places this heliacal rising within the time-frame of Jesus' birth.

Of course, I cannot account for any of the astronomy stuff, so I'll defer the science to the experts. But the story I relate above is accurate and I'm glad to know that someone like Hoskin does think the story of the Magi is historically plausible, if not likely.

Here's Hoskin's CV:

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