3 Things A Lot of People Don’t Know About the Christmas Story
We all generally know the Christmas story. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew give us the familiar version: Many years ago in Judea, everyone is commanded to return to their hometown for a census, meaning Joseph has to return to Bethlehem with his fiancée, Mary. The Virgin Mary gives birth in a manger. An angel frightens some Shepherds to tell them about it. Later, three wisemen come bearing gifts.
But one thing about the Bible is that we often hear stories so many times that we take certain details for granted, or we fail to see them in an interesting new light. The Christmas story is probably the most famous of all, but behind it is a lesson in Imperial politics, revolution, and magic.
The Three Wisemen Are Probably Wizards
This one gets us into the sticky world of language right away. See, the word used for the wisemen in Matthew in the Greek is “magi,” which is sometimes used in English as an alternative or poetic name for them. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the words “Magic” and “Magi” are connected, with a Magi being one who does magic. Additionally, the word “wise” is actually part of the word Wizard, with a -ard turning an adjective into a noun: a Wizard is thus “one who is wise.” But while language games are fun, they don’t tell us much about why Wizards are bringing baby Jesus gifts.
Especially in Matthew, a lot of elements in the Christmas story are intended to call back to key moments in the Hebrew Bible. The most stark of these is obviously King Herod massacring all baby boys below a certain age in Judea, which reflects Pharaoh’s actions in Exodus. The wisemen echo a slightly different theme, reflecting in Exodus as well as Daniel: God’s representative outclassing the court Wizards of powerful kingdoms. In Exodus, Moses shows up Pharaoh’s court magicians, and Daniel does the same in Babylon. Magicians, astrologers, and mantic specialists were essential parts of the court culture of the Ancient Near East, as vital as a physician or a doctor would…