Much archaeological, textual, linguistic, and scientific evidence backs up the historical existence of the “Wise Men” described in Saint Matthew’s gospel, a scholar asserts.
Dwight Longenecker, a researcher, author, and Catholic priest, told Breitbart News in an interview Monday that “all the pieces fit neatly to give a plausible explanation of real characters who had a strong motivation to go on a journey to find a newborn King of the Jews.”
In his gospel, Matthew recounts the visit of wise men from the East who offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem.
Longenecker, the author of the book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, says that Matthew’s account “has been encrusted with centuries worth of layers of legend and myth,” which has made it easy for biblical scholars to dismiss the story as “pious fiction.”
Instead of rejecting the story out of hand, however, Longenecker began his study with the assumption that “beneath all the levels of legend and myth there may be a real historical basis for the story of the Wise Men,” he told Breitbart, and what he found was “astounding.”
“The charming tale of exotic wizards who went on a long desert journey on camels following a magical star is easy enough to dismiss. However, that story is not what we find in Matthew’s gospel,” he said.
Much of the supernatural understanding of the story “developed in the third to fifth centuries among the Gnostics,” he said, and their “apocryphal re-telling of the tale” added certain fantastical elements that became part of the tradition.
“In fact, the charming story of a supernatural star isn’t part of Matthew’s account, and it is possible to believe every aspect of Matthew’s story without very much of a supernatural interpretation at all,” Longenecker said.
Scripture scholars have focused almost exclusively on the sacred text, he suggested, while there are important new discoveries in other disciplines that complement the purely textual research.
“We live in an amazing time for Biblical archaeology,” Longenecker said. “With the use of modern science and forensics we are discovering more every day about the ancient Middle East. Biblical scholars focus increasingly on the text only, so their opinions must be weighed against all the other discoveries we are making.”
Biblical scholars also tend to be victims of their own prejudices, he added, which can blind them to the possibility that certain texts have a historical basis.
In his classic book The Birth of the Messiah, the famous Bible scholar Raymond Brown “admits that it is a test of orthodoxy for Bible scholars to dismiss the Magi story as unhistorical,” Longenecker said. “It has been very difficult to get any of them to even read my book because they consider the whole enterprise to be as pointless as, perhaps, the search for the historical Peter Pan.”
The priest told Breitbart he has succeeded in “piecing together clues from the religion, culture, politics, economics of the Middle East from the time of Jesus’ birth to come to a solid conclusion” regarding the existence of the magi.
Longenecker has even advanced a theory as to the identity of the visitors known as the “wise men.”
“I believe they were diplomats from the court of Herod the Great’s neighbor, the Nabatean King Aretas IV,” he told Breitbart. “As stargazing counselors to the king they ascertained that a new King of the Jews was born and they concluded that it must be a grandson or great grandson of Herod the Great.”
Aretas “had every motivation to send a retinue to travel to Jerusalem to honor the new heir to the aging Herod’s throne,” he said, and “it makes perfect sense for these magi to have completed their journey in such a way that Matthew’s account is simple, factual and historical.”
The question of the wise men’s existence is more than academic, Longenecker insists, because it affects people’s understanding of the times of Jesus and the history of salvation itself.
There is “an increasing rumor abroad in our society that Jesus (if he ever existed at all) is mostly a mythical figure about whom we can know next to nothing,” Longenecker said.
“This is ridiculous because with the advance of archaeology, textual discoveries and modern forensics we now know more about the environment, context and culture of the time of Jesus than ever before, and what we know almost always confirms the history accuracy of the New Testament,” he said.
With developing research, Biblical scholars are coming to the conclusion that the New Testament stories of Jesus “are based in eyewitness accounts,” he said, and they provide a remarkable historical record of the time.
The history of the New Testament matters because “Jesus Christ either is a make-believe fairy tale figure or he is not,” the priest said.
“If it is shown that the gospels are, for the most part, historically reliable, then one must take seriously the claims made by Jesus Christ and the significance of his life, his teaching and most importantly, his birth, death and resurrection,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome