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The late bishop John Shelby Spong, argued a few years back about how to understand the account of the magi of Matthew's Gospel (see Matthew 2:1-12). In his book, Born of a Woman, he writes how the universal assumption of people he knows, associated with New Testament study, is that the magi were not actual people. He states: "Matthew was clearly writing Christian midrash." (Born of a Woman, pages 89-90)

John Dominic Crossan, in various places, also gives his view of the magi story by arguing that it’s a parable.

What is the hermeneutical criteria for discerning between what is a fictional midrash like parable and what was meant to be literal history?

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I personally know New Testament scholars who believe this account was not a parable--so at the very least, I can confirm that such people exist.

Verifiability

One of the most useful metrics for assessing the real-world authenticity of an account is context that provides verifiability. Consider the difference between starting an account "once upon a time, in a far away land" (wait...where? when?) vs. "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...[in] the country about Jordan" (from Luke 3:1-3).

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts provide repeated examples of this phenomenon--Luke goes through city by city the places Jesus/Peter/Paul etc. visited, gives the names of individuals they interacted with, and regularly references official documents and proceedings (e.g. the Gallio trial). It is as if Luke is challenging his audience "go, fact check me, I've given you enough information to be able to do so". This is particularly noteworthy in the 16 different trials referenced in the book of Acts (see Paul on Trial by John Mauck for a survey) - these are events that a Roman official could readily verify.

We may not be able to check the Roman legal archives or send someone to speak with Zaccheus today, but Luke's method suggests that he expects his audience would be able to do so. Providing this much context is dangerous if the story is fictitious, but it's the first century version of a works cited page if the story is true.

Application to the Magi

Matthew has clearly set this account into the context of a real time and place--Judea during the latter part of the reign of Herod the Great (note that "Herod the king" is a reference to Herod the Great, not one of his sons--none of his sons received the title "king"--my work on the subject here).

The Magi were a real group of people (see here) from a real place (Parthian empire). The account also includes other events that could be investigated, such as a family sojourn to Egypt, a return to Nazareth early in the reign of Archelaus, and the slaughter of children in Bethlehem.

So Matthew has really over-specified the details if he's just telling a parable. Compare to Jesus' parables--with few exceptions, they provide no concrete markers in time or space--they are stories to illustrate a point, not historical events the reader can go investigate.

Antithesis

But if the story of the Magi really happened, why would Luke leave it out? Luke had very good reason to do so--not only does Luke have a rather low opinion of people associated with magic (see Acts 8:9-23), but he's writing to an educated Greco-Roman audience. The Romans were at the time in the midst of a series of wars with the Parthians (see here).

Luke's trying to present Jesus in a positive light, and it wouldn't help his case any to start out by saying "Jesus is so great, even your enemies the Parthians love Him!" Luke wisely skips this part of the story.

But aren't there scholars who think it's a parable? Sure, there are also scholars who believe 59 of the 66 books of the Bible are forgeries and virtually everything in the Gospels not doubly-attested is late, unreliable embellishment. Something as consequential as the Bible engenders all manner of reactions.

Conclusion

From the hermeneutic of verifiability, Matthew appears to be providing enough context that the readers could check his story, and is therefore unlikely to be inventing it from whole cloth. Matthew has nothing to gain by including these details if they are untrue or metaphorical.

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    Wow, great answer. Thank you.
    – user36337
    Jan 8 at 5:27
  • "Luke's method suggests that he expects his audience would be able to do so." When he was writing, wait, how many years after the "facts"? Jan 8 at 10:27
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    Another reason for Luke to leave out the account of the Magi is it introduces the account of Herod having the boys two-years-old and under killed in Bethlehem. If Theophilos was a Roman official, since Herod was appointed by Roman, he might have wanted to avoid this political issue.
    – Perry Webb
    Jan 8 at 16:52
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    @Gerard for the most exhaustive work on the subject, see Colin Hemer's The book of Acts in the setting of Hellenistic history, making the case that Acts was written about AD 62. Even Adolf Harnack admitted this after his extensive study on the subject. Luke's argument about the temple doesn't work post 70, and his extensive survey of Roman legal precedent loses its efficacy after the Neronian persecution, which began in 64 or 65. So Luke was writing within the lifetime of people who knew what had happened. Jan 8 at 21:04
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If that is the "universal assumption of people he [Spong] knows", then Spong has a very limited set of friends - I also know many NT scholars that believe Matt 2 is history.

Biblical literature can be divided into only a few categories:

  • actual history - this is the majority of the Bible
  • poetry - the second largest part of the Bible where people express their deepest feelings about God, fears, hopes and salvation, etc. This includes the Psalms, much of Isaiah, Jeremiah and some of Ezekiel.
  • parables are scattered throughout the Bible and are easily recognized because they are almost always labeled as such
  • apocalyptic literature includes most of the book of revelation, most of Daniel, much of Zechariah and Joel, etc. This material is conspicuous for its extreme symbolism and fantastic images.

Matt 2 does not have any of the earmarks of a parable, it is not poetic and it is certainly not apocalyptic - it is a simple historical narrative. All the standard commentaries such as Ellicott, Barnes, Pulpit, Cambridge, Gill, Poole, treat it as such.

Further, if the story of the magi were a parable, then what is the point of this teaching (made clear in Jesus' other parables)? If it is a parable then it did not happen and so:

  • Jesus' earthly parents did not go to Egypt
  • They did not return from Egypt
  • Herod did not kill the children
  • Most of Matt 2 becomes ficticious

None of this credible! That is the weakness of Spong's approach - he becomes judge of what is real and what is fictitious in the Bible so that he controls what to believe rather than accepting the Scripture as it is.

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  • And even if Spong was not mistaken or exaggerating about the uniformity of opinion among the people he knew, as a rhetorical device, his claim is logically fallacious in the face of any genuine dissent. It does not support the correctness of his opinion on the subject. Jan 9 at 16:09
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The flaw in Sprong's and Crossan's approach to hermeneutics is three-fold. First, they recognize Matthew is making a valid point, but they assume he simply made up the details to illustrate that point. Second, they fail to correctly understand (and apply) the basic meaning of the Greek word, παραβολή, "parable:"

The word ‘parable’ is simply the English form of a quite common Greek word (parabolē) which in ordinary Greek usage meant the putting of one thing alongside another by way of comparison or illustration. Aristotle, for example, defines the word as meaning ‘comparison’ or ‘analogy’. (Rhet. 11, xx, 2-4). But in the Greek Bible the meaning of the word is affected by the meaning of the Hebrew word māšhāl Aramaic: məethel) which it was used to translate; and as a māšhāl has a number of uses, so in biblical Greek does the word ‘parable’.1

Third, they fail to consider the entire New Testament which clearly states parables may involve that which is real:

Which is a parable (παραβολὴ) of the time present: according to which gifts and sacrifices are offered, which can not, as to the conscience, make him perfect that serveth, only in meats and in drinks (Hebrews 9:9 DRA)

Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable (παραβολῇ). (Hebrews 11:19 DRA)

Both passages use παραβολῇ, the same word used to describe Jesus' teaching in the Gospels. Yet the writer is not using something fictitious to illustrate their point. Rather, they understand how real events and real objects shaped, guided, and recorded by God, may be understood and compared to real objects and events in the life of Jesus to demonstrate truth from God's perspective. These are what the writer shares with the reader. It is possible to examine this as a Christian midrash, however that is misleading if by "midrash" one means events which were contrived to illustrate a point.

In other words, just because the events have cultural or extra-Biblical significance, does not mean Matthew borrowed the story in order to make a point.

The basic definition of parable is placing two things side-by-side to illustrate a central idea. The two things can be similar or antithetical:

Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left: enter image description here
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23)

This image illustrates the "parable" of the crucifixion. Two convicted sinners are placed side-by-side with Jesus in the center. One is repentant; the other is not. As John Breck says:

It is perhaps significant that the terms "parable" and "parabola" are derived from the same Greek expression for "juxtaposition" with implied parallelism. Like the geometric figure, the chiastically shaped parable juxtaposes elements in a curve, proceeding from a central point. While the extremities reflect each other as mirror images, they never meet; rather each extends to infinity. In chiastic patterns strophe I and strophe II are dissimilar as well as similar. The movement from the initial element to its "prime" reflection (e.g. from A to A') is almost invariably one of heightening. This means that II is never a simple repetition of I, but rather complements it by taking it a step further. Yet the elements of both I and II derive their ultimate meaning from the "parabolic center."2

Salvation is real because it is based on real events.


1. D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark, The Seabury Press, 1963 p. 126
2. John Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991, p. 181

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  • I put an upvote, as you expressed some well thought out views. Equivocation is a big problem in doing theology. If I were to argue their position I would make an attempt to say it’s historical fiction with fantasy elements mixed in.
    – Jess
    Jan 9 at 2:21
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    +1 good answer. I was going to add something similar regarding real events and parables/sign acts not being mutually exclusive. Not all parables are "fictional". The new testament parables Jesus tells are often fictious - but the Old testament is filled with stories that often act as kind of symbolic "role plays" with deeper spiritual symbolic meaning. The "acting out" is often a form of prophecy.
    – Marshall
    Jan 9 at 4:42
  • I'm not sure this is a valid criticism. Spong is writing in English, not Greek. The Modern English word "parable" is not the same as the Koine Greek word "παραβολή".
    – Nacht
    Jan 10 at 2:27
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    @Nacht παραβολή, transliterated parabolē is the Greek word for parable. Sprong is teaching in English, but he claims he is teaching on the New Testament, which was written in Greek. Either he failed to examine the word he chose to preach on, or simply failed to acknowledge parables are not always fictitious stories. IOW the magi and flight to Egypt may very well illustrate a truth like a Christian midrash, but that doesn't mean the events did not take place...as Abraham offering Isaac was a parable and a real event. Jan 10 at 3:38
  • @RevelationLad +1 Very sophisticated answer. Great job! :)
    – Rajesh
    Jan 11 at 0:54

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