So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The Question: What popular traditions related to the birth of Jesus have no evidence in the scriptural account?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
Look, I have to play Scrooge this week. (At least this lesson occurs in mid-January.) There are all sorts of traditions and embellishments that have adhered to the story of Jesus’ birth over the years that have absolutely no basis in the scriptures. For example, you can sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all you want, but we have no idea how many wise men there were (people assumed three, I think, because there are three presents), there’s no evidence that they were kings, and while the term “Orient” might be vague enough to cover the possibilities, we don’t really know where they are from.
I don’t think these traditions are malicious, but I think it is good to be aware of them because it can help us know enough to want to scrape away the accretions and return to the actual text with fresh eyes.
Here’s the most important lesson I take from Matthew 2 when I do that: a big theme in the Hebrew Bible (=Old Testament) is that Jewish learning is superior to Gentile learning (see Genesis 41, Exodus 7–10, and Daniel 2). And Matthew is very, very concerned with situating Jesus’ life in its Jewish setting. So here we have wise men who are Gentiles and they know enough to find Jesus–that’s a big deal. But even more significantly, in Matthew 2:5-6, the chief priests and scribes are able to rattle off where the messiah will be born, but they don’t seem to care. They have the right words down pat, but have no interest in, you know, actually checking to see if the messiah is there. Those creepy pagan wise men (literally) walked the walk; the scripture experts couldn’t even be bothered to see what was happening. It is a stinging indictment of the traditionally learned.
This is scary. You, dear reader, almost certainly fit into the category of the traditionally learned. You, too, can most likely spout the correct answers for any question lobbed your way at church or by your curious co-worker. But Matthew has something challenging to say to people like you (and me): are you content with merely reciting the answers, or are you behaving in a manner that reflects your knowledge?