The festival of Epiphany, derived from a Greek word that means “an appearance or manifestation,” always falls on January 6 in the church’s liturgical calendar. Epiphany is the occasion when Followers remember the story of the wise men who supposedly came from afar to recognize Jesus as the King of kings.
This story is told only in Matthew 1:18–2:23, which was written ninety to one hundred years after Jesus’s birth. (Some Biblical scholars use 6 BCE as the year Jesus was born, but no one really knows.) The other birth story is told in Luke 1:1–2:21 and is a very long, complex, convoluted fairy tale that shows no similarity to Matthew’s fantasy. For the sake of brevity, I’ll let the reader compare the two.
Let’s return to Matthew and attempt to answer that age-old question: Why was this story even told? Here are a few possible reasons:
- The Gospel of Matthew was all about proving that Jesus was the Messiah. It suggested to its Jewish readers that if even wise men from foreign, heathen lands recognized Jesus as King, then all Jews needed to acknowledge that he was the Messiah too. Even the heavenly stars understod that this baby was extraspecial—one star defied all common sense and stopped over the place where the child rested.
- Many years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christians tried to tell the rest of the world that the Roman emperors and their empire were gone, but Jesus’s kingdom was still around and Jesus was still King.
- Recently, some scholars have suggested that Jesus was the illegitimate child of Mary, and if he was to be called “Messiah” or “Christ,” he couldn’t be labeled a bastard, so a story about divine intervention developed.
Now let’s look at some of the embellishments to the original embellishment that is Jesus’s birth story.
The first additional embellishment is that we now have three wise men, and we have even given them names. In the story, there is no mention of any specific number of wise men. There could have been two or two hundred, and nowhere does Matthew give us the names Melchior, Balthazar, or Gaspar.
Everyone knows that the Magi rode camels, although the story never suggests that. In Turkey, the Magi are always shown on horses.
Most Christians will swear that Jesus was born in a stable, even though neither Matthew nor Luke ever mention a stable. In fact, Matthew 2:11 says, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (emphasis added).
Where’s Joseph? Could he be another embellishment? After the birth stories, we never hear about Joseph again. I wonder why?
Matthew also tells an elaborate story about Herod the Great murdering all the male children “who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). The church even has a special remembrance day on December 28 to honor all the boys who were murdered that day, even though history never records such a dastardly deed. The Jews hated Herod and were willing to say anything awful about him, whether it was true or not.
How do I interpret Matthew’s fairy tale? I view it as a great reminder that my guru, Jesus, was born into this world as an ordinary human being and that his radical, revolutionary message of peace, love, joy, and hope has changed this world—and me—for the better.
What do the biblical Christmas stories mean to you?