Atheist's may have this one right...for a change.
The above image is a snap-shot of a billboard put up near the Lincoln Tunnel by the American Atheist Society. I may not agree with Atheist’s on 99.999999999% of things, but they may have inadvertently stumbled onto something with the “You KNOW it’s a Myth” billboard. If you know us at all… you know our stance on Biblical reliability and authority, but hear me out here…
There is a lot about the Christmas story that is either presumed or assumed. Much of this has to do with the story of the wise men. From a biblical perspective, very little is known about the wise men. However, much can be determined based on their actions. This to me is the story behind the story of Christmas. The story of the wise men provides a interesting backdrop to the birth of the Messiah, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Where did the Wise men come from?
There is very little in the Bible that indicates where the wise men came from. Tradition (as well as a popular Christmas carol) have them coming from the Orient. From a biblical perspective this assumption is tenuous at best. What we know from the Bible is that they simply were from the East… nothing more. That being said, in order to determine where they came from we have to look at historical circumstances. For that let’s look at the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire was a rival to the Roman Empire. The “MU” to the “KU”, the “OU” to the “UT”. The Parthian Empire was the ruling empire of East Asia. It’s boarders extended from the Euphrates river all the way to Modern day Pakistan. The Parthian Empire is relevant because it was the ruling Empire for Babylon at the time of Christ’s birth and the Parthian Empire fought with the Romans in 40 BC for control over Palestine. The Parthian Government was ruled by two assemblies; the Arsacids (royal family) and the Megistanes which consisted of Magi (priests) and wise men (influential Parthian of non-royal blood). While there is still debate as to where the wise men, or Magi, came from, the Parthian Empire may provide the best possible place for a number of reasons that will be explored a little later on.
Many speculate that the wise men came from Babylon. This is entirely possible. The interesting thing is, Babylon was located within the Parthian Empire. One more interesting item of note: The Parthian Empire was on the door steps of Palestine.
Who were the Wise men?
So who exactly are these wise men? Most Christians probably pay no attention as to who they really are, and focus more on the fact that they were at the birth of Christ.
Here is what we can gather from the Bible. Depending on the translation you use you will see the word Magi, or wise men in Matthew 2:1. While I do agree that some Magi (wise men) were pagan in nature there were some who were not. Something to consider: while the Israelites were held captive in Babylon, Daniel was appointed to be the Chief Administrator over all of the wise men (Daniel 2:48). Additionally, a large number of Israelites (Levites, and Bejaminites) stayed in Babylon after the exile. The conclusion here is that there was a fairly large contingent of Israelites in Babylon for a long period of time that would extend from post exile (approx 537 BC), to Parthian Empire Babylon (247 BC) to the Birth of Christ (approx 4 BC).
In a broader context one could look at it this way: There is a high probability that there were Magi in Babylon (circa the Parthian Empire) that were very well aware of the prophecies of Daniel), as well as the prophecies.
Again, Some Magi were members of Parthian government. It would be the equivalent of the Senate in the US. These are men who were able to elect the King as well as depose the King. Needless to say, the Magi carried a certain amount of gravitas wherever they went. Remember, the Parthian and Roman empires bordered one another and had been at war for a number of years just prior to the birth of Christ. As a result, Herod probably feared the Parthian Empire, because he was once replaced as King by King Antigonus who was a vassal to Parthia. When the Romans regained control of the area… Herod was restored to power.
Why would the Magi come to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem?
This question gets to the heart of the matter. Why would these men travel to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem upon seeing a star? There would have to be something incredibly compelling to travel nearly 1,000 miles to see the King of the Jews. Ezra’s travel from Babylon to Jerusalem was 120 days (Ezra 7:8-9). This is a pretty significant trip. Overall, for the Magi, this would be a trip that lasted nearly 8 to 9 months. Why would they do this? What was so compelling to them that they would leave their homes, travel by caravan, to follow this star? I would suggest that it is because of Numbers 24:17.
Numbers 24:17 reads as follows: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel”. The interesting thing about this passage is that Balaam was a sorcerer hired by Balak to curse the Israelites as they camped on his boarders, ready to conquer him. Instead of cursing Israel, God took control over Balaam and he blessed the Israelites (Numbers 24:10-14). Then Balaam dropped the bombshell in numbers 24:17. Many speculate what the meaning of 24:17 is. Some say that it relates to David’s kingdom. If this is the case, then the prophecy was not fully fulfilled by David. The Damascus Document is a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a commentary on scripture that dates back to 2nd century BC. Part of the Damascus commentary focuses on Numbers 24:17. “And the star is the seeker of the Law who came to Damascus, because it was written a star has came forth out of Jacob and a scepter has risen out of Israel. The scepter stands for the prince of the congregation. At his coming he shall break down all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 24:17 had been interpreted to mean the coming Messiah. If I’m correct, this is how the Magi would have read Numbers 24:17.
Back to the motivation for the trip… If these men were holdovers from the exile or shared the same office that Daniel had, there is a very good chance that the Magi would have to have been familiar with the prophesy of Numbers 24:17 in order to understand the meaning of the star over Jerusalem. This is why they left seeking the King (Scepter) of the Jews. Additionally, they may have known they were in the Messianic era because Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy was coming to an end. If this is the case, they would have expected the Messiah to be born soon in order for the prophecy to hold true.
How many Magi came?
Most, if not all, nativity scenes show three Magi present. Most Christmas stories tell of three wise men being present. The reality is that Bible makes no mention of the number of Magi that came to Jerusalem (it only lists their three gifts). In fact, men of the stature as described above would have required many attendants to come with them. Given the value of their gifts to Jesus and the dangerousness of the road they likely traveled, the Magi more than likely would have needed an armed escort – especially if they were officials from the Parthian Empire. This presents an interesting image of not just three but literally hundreds of attendants with any number of Magi travelling across the country side following a star. This point is most notable as the caravan reaches Jerusalem and is seemingly able to get virtually an immediate audience with King Herod.
When did the Magi come?
Again, if you look at most nativity scenes, you would be under the impression that the Magi were present at the birth of Christ. Again, this is not biblically supported. As a matter of fact, the Bible (Matthew 2) clearly contradicts this notion. Matthew 2:1 is the first indicator that the wise men were not at the birth of Jesus. Additionally, take this into consideration; if the star appeared over Jesus at the time of birth we know at a minimum that it would be at least 120 days before the Magi could reach Jerusalem. If you add on the time that it would take to identify the star, organize the caravan, plan the trip and get on the road, one could easily be looking at anywhere from 5-6 months total time before they reached Jerusalem. Maybe another month before they reached where Jesus was. This would make sense with King Herod’s order to kill all of the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16).
Based on the above information we can logically determine that (in regards to the “Three Kings” of carol fame) the Atheists have it right – Well, sort of… and purely by accident. However, we should celebrate reason, rather than legend. And reason dictates that the Bible is historically accurate and the final authority on all things theological and historical. This really is the little known story of Christmas. If my historical theory holds true, then many of the idea’s surrounding the greatest story ever told would be a legend built off of this historical story.
What if…there were no gifts given at Christmas?
What do you think Christmas would look like if gifts weren’t given? What if we celebrated Christ’s birthday, simply as a religious holiday. A day which Christian’s celebrated the birth of Christ in prayer and praise. Think about this for just a second. What would Christmas look like then?
I started asking myself this question while I was thinking about why an atheist/agnostic would choose to celebrate the birth of someone they consider to be at best a historical man whose legend has grown out of proportions and at worst a fictitious character maliciously created by the religious establishment to control the masses. After all, some don’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Some, don’t believe he existed at all. Some believe that he was a “good person”. Why do they celebrate it? In all reality they could be celebrating the birthday of Dorian Gray, or Captain Ahab or any other literature character from any story as far as they’re concerned. According to their beliefs there is no difference between John Galt leading a movement and the Passion of the Christ. Both are fictional literature that may have some good moral stories.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I am not advocating that Christmas should only be celebrated by Christians. Nor am I advocating that Christians should exclude Atheists from our celebration. But I have to come back to the question: Why celebrate it? To speculate, they celebrate it because it is an opportunity to see family and/or to be with friends. They also celebrate it because of the material goodies that are associated with Christmas. To be sure the gifts are probably the primary reason that many now have come to celebrate Christmas. The reason I can make this argument is simple: there has been a recent and systematic removal of Christ from Christmas. Everything is now holiday this or holiday that. The Christ from Christmas has been replaced with the good of goodies.
To be completely honest this isn’t just an atheist or agnostic issue, but also a Christian issue. Many Christians get so wrapped up in the material possessions that come with Christmas that they forget what Christmas is really about. I understand how cliché that statement is, but think about it this way. When was the last Christmas party that you went to where you stood up and offered praise to God, and offered a prayer of thankfulness that God sent his child down to die for you? Any takers? I can’t remember just for myself.
This brings me back to my original question…. what would Christmas look like without gifts? One could speculate that it would look a lot different. I think that it would probably have more of a true spiritual meaning for Christians, atheists, and agnostics alike.
So this year for Christmas, rather than focusing on the materialistic things, focus on the Son. Before you open gifts or eat that big dinner, offer a prayer (OUT LOUD) and praise God’s glory and grace for all to hear. Maybe you could read Luke 2 or Matthew 2 before opening gifts (something that KB does). Who knows… God may work in some of those atheist/agnostic friends and families of yours.
Just a thought.