“Almost everyone asks philosophical questions- sooner or later.” H.D. Lewis.
It is one of the most familiar images of Christmas- the three wise men on camels against a setting sun- obviously riding westwards. But what is the reality behind the image, and what is its significance? After all, the prevailing narrative says that Christmas is about family, friends, and overeating, and yet we find ourselves thinking about travelers far from home seeking for something, they know not quite what, in a strange country.
In the winter I have often walked along the ridge of the chalk hills- curiously called Downs- that dominate South Wiltshire. If you look south on a clear day you can just see the Needles- the giant blocks of chalk which mark the western point of The Isle of Wight. To the west is Shaftesbury, where Catherine of Aragon spent the night, and where Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter spent her final days. To the north, the rumble of guns from the military training grounds on Salisbury Plain can sometimes be heard drifting through the low cloud that often shrouds the landscape. Through the haze to the east you can sometimes see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral ( which C.S. Lewis called “a thought frozen in stone.”) pointing heavenward in a silent rebuke to earthly concerns . For those who built the cathedral there was clearly something beyond the grind of their daily lives.
Since the Enlightenment a sneering attitude to religion has taken root, and we have lost capacity to talk fluently about spiritual realities. But such concerns were central to our ancestors, and indeed to the whole western tradition, shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, which can ultimately be traced back to Abraham.
In that truly astonishing document- his “Epistle to the Romans” St. Paul asks about the nature of what happened to Abraham. Was Abraham saved by his membership in the Jewish political community, or was he saved by his faith? Paul’s answer is unequivocal. Abraham was saved by his commitment to following God’s will. Like Abraham, Paul had earned nothing, but acquired everything through his trust in God.
Something like the same notion underlies the story of the Wise Men. But with this difference: for Paul the clouds opened in a single moment on the road to Damascus. For him there was no “haze”- the distant became the immediate. The Wise Men received no such single burst of illumination. They question even as they journey. In their case progress was slower, and reflected the fact that unlike Paul they were not saturated in a Jewish background. For them even the idea of a single truth would have been problematic. Whereas Paul was an insider for whom the implications of what Christ taught were clear, the Wise Men are depicted as being figures from the very edge of the civilised world, beyond the frontiers of the empire.
We know less about the Wise Men than we would like. Matthew – the most Jewish of the Gospels – and the only one to mention them-is laconic. They were probably Magi from the Parthian Empire, who lived in a half-Romanised environment in which differing faiths jostled for influence and power. The Magi are sometimes seen as Zoroastrians. But this seems to be a mistake. Certainly, there were some Magi who were Zoroastrians, but they were in fact not followers of any one religion. Rather the Magi were members of a hereditary caste which performed the rites of any religion which happened to be in favour at the moment- and yes, some of them appear to have been star-gazers.
Much has been written about the celestial phenomenon that caught the Wise Men’s attention. We’ll never know the point at which fact stops and symbol begins. But two things are worth noting. The first is that the astronomer Kepler ( 1571-1630 )- a major figure in the history of science- thought he had identified an unusual conjunction which was consistent with Matthew’s account; and secondly that there may well be nothing inherently miraculous in the account- although of course, its timing is suggestive. But historical or legendary this tale raises questions. Is this all just tinsel? Is it just some distant memory of an expedition along the Asian trade routes that linked east and west? Or is there something we can learn here? In short, what do we have here?
We have a story, admittedly only half-authenticated, of a group caught up in the practice of religious rituals in which they did not believe, who saw something in the skies. Whatever it was, and whether they really saw it, or sensed it through the haze of their times, it alerted them to the possibility of a truth the existence of which they had not previously suspected, and who abandoned their comfortable way of life in search of it. That doesn’t sound like a bad example to follow!
Books for Christmas
The philosopher H.D. Lewis was not related to C.S. Lewis and his brother W.H. Lewis. The quote is the first line of his- strongly recommended- “Philosophy of Religion”. ( London, 1965 )
The vital work is Joseph Ratzinger ( aka Pope Benedict XVI )“ Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives”. ( 2012 ) p.89ff. Ratzinger relies on recent German scholarship. An older protestant book is J. Gresham Machen, “The Virgin Birth of Christ” ( 1930 ) My edition is London 1958. Machen despite being a theological conservative author stresses the non-miraculous character of the story about the star. See p. 224
For the Magi, in general, I have been browsing in R.C. Zaehner, “The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism ( London, 1961 ) and in G. Ghirsman “Iran”. ( London, 1954 ) For the trade routes to and from the east along which the Magi must have moved, see Peter Frankopan, “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World .” ( London, 2015) For Rome and the east see Mortimer Wheeler “Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers” ( London, ( London, 1954 ) There were Roman trading stations in The Red Sea, East Africa, India, and perhaps even Vietnam. For a fascinating discussion of the relations between east and west see C. Northcote Parkinson, “East and West ) ( London, 1963 )