The Magi – The Closest Thing to An Atheist in the Christmas Story…And They Worshipped!

Matthew 2 “Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold Maji from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, `Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.’”

Matthew’s gospel is very Jewish. And in this Jewish story, no one’s going to expect a non-Jewish star-gazer (possible atheist) to enter the sacred Christmas story as a major character and give a gift to the Jewish Messiah. After all, they’re not Jews. But that’s what happened. The Magi have no vested interest in this baby, the prophecies related to him, or to the religion in which he was born into. And yet, they find themselves in the story. Imagine – an atheist in the Christmas story!

We do not know the number of the Magi, nor their names, nor the size of the party which traveled to Jerusalem. At best, they were wise men from the East, i.e., Persia, Arabia, or Babylonia, who had heard from either Daniel (who was in captivity for a time in their region) or other Hebrew prophets about a King being born to the Jews. Perhaps they had read Numbers 24:17 which states “A star shall come forth from Jacob and a scepter shall rise from Israel…” Or, perhaps, it was their own prophecy that set them up for this fulfillment. We can’t be sure though.

At worst, they were students of science, philosophy, medicine, astrology and world religions, or even atheists, curious about a star. They were pagan astrologers that took their cues from the stars! Their theological content was limited at best. They weren’t practicing Judaism nor were they living in the Holy Land nor were they part of God’s chosen nation. Yet, God supernaturally revealed to these heathen (perhaps, atheistic) people what He was up to in Jesus. A prophecy outside of the Jewish nation, and a Jewish writer without any proprietary reason to write “pagan astrologers” (or atheists) into the Christmas story, argues for the authenticity of the Matthean account.

This whole thing was started by the appearance of a star. The “star of Bethelehem” has been the subject of scholarly discussion ever since the first centuries after the birth of Jesus. Some have suggested that it was a nova or supernova, a white dwarf star that literally explodes and gradually fades out. Some have suggested that it was a moving comet. Some have suggested that it was a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Some have suggested that it was the same Shekinah Glory (visible presence) of God that was revealed to Moses in the burning bush, to Israel in the desert (Ex.13:21), to Jesus when he was transfigured, and to Saul on the road to Damascus. We cannot know precisely what phenomenon took place.

But we can safely say that the Magi were men who had an interest in astronomy and expressed what they observed in terms that were consistent with the scientific development of their time. They exhibited a great faith in the evidence they did have that resulted in a worship experience that changed their lives. Is it within the realm of possibility, that they moved from atheism to theism after their long, arduous journey and after seeing the Christ-child? I think it is.

In the context of Matthew’s Messianic Gospel, this part of the birth narrative hints at the eventual spread of the Gospel beyond the nation of Israel to include all people of the world. Men and women in every age, whether premessianic or postmessianic or even atheistic, have been able to fling themselves on to God’s mercies, regardless of the level of their theological content, and there find grace and peace and salvation. Even an atheist has a place in the manger this Christmas.

Atheist, you don’t have to go through a world religion to encounter the Christ-child. No specific religion brokers to you God’s love and favor. No one group has a monopoly on God’s grace. No oppressive, religous establishment can dictate to you this Christmas. Why? You are invited to go straight to the Christ-child. Atheists are welcome in his birth narrative.

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26 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Atheist, Christianity, Christmas, Jesus Christ, Prophecy, Uncategorized, World Religions

26 responses to “The Magi – The Closest Thing to An Atheist in the Christmas Story…And They Worshipped!

  1. The Tofu

    “Atheist, you don’t have to go through a world religion to encounter the Christ-child. No specific religion brokers to you God’s love and favor. No one group has a monopoly on God’s grace. No oppressive, religous establishment can dictate to you this Christmas. Why? You are invited to go straight to the Christ-child. Atheists are welcome in his birth narrative.”

    Name one person who became a Christian without being exposed to the Bible or organized religion.

  2. I like how you think the closest thing in the Christmas story to an atheist are wise men. 😉

    Although, I disagree. Pagan isn’t closer to atheist unless you equate non-Christian and atheist. My intellectual heritage has far more to do with Christian scientists in the enlightenment than with ancient pagan quasi-scientists.

    But the issue that inspired the post was outside testimony about Jesus. This doesn’t accomplish your goal, because the magi appear only in the Bible.

    Also, the question that is seldom asked is how Matthew knows about the magi. Supposedly, Matthew’s Gospel comes from his eyewitness account. Not here (or many other places in Matthew.) Much more likely, it was based on stories of Jesus’ birth that were circulating in popular imagination – the e-mail forwards of yesteryear.

    Conservative estimates date Matthew in the late 50s or 60s AD. Life expectancy was around 30. If the magi came in 2-4 BC, this could be completely made up and neither the author or original audience would know the difference.

  3. Tofu…I wouldn’t call them Christians because they don’t know of Christ. I would call them what the Bible call’s them “God-fearers” i.e., Cornelius in the book of Acts.

    Most civilizations are going to have some form of religious expression that people are exposed to. And those who don’t/didn’t would not have documented it for posteriety – life is pretty primitive and archaic in some places.

    My point is that we can encounter God and be in right relationship with Him, even if we never read a Bible, heard a sermon, or knew of Jesus. this is part of Pauls point in Romans 1. There is a wideness in God’s mercy, an inclusiveness shall we say, that opens the door to those who encounter God through whatever means of revelation they have or whatever their level of theological understanding might be. The wise men were not versed in Judaism, but they encountered God. Paul taught that we see enough of God in what has been made that “we are without excuse.”

    Now, upon hearing of Jesus, the Bible then compels us to respond in belief to His message. Christianity essentially teaches that we don’t need world religions anymore to be right with God – salvation comes through One – Christ ended all religions (yet many still insist on practicing it).

  4. The Tofu

    “Most civilizations are going to have some form of religious expression that people are exposed to.”

    None of which match yours. Each religion (and sects within that religion) prescribes different codes of behaviour. Why is this if the same god has been revealed to them?

  5. In General Revelation, we have a somewhat “generic” God revealed, a Higher Power, a Divine Being, an (you’re going to love this one) Intelligent Designer. General Revelation (God self-disclosing in nature and the composition of man) can only paint a black-and-white image or video of this God.

    Special Revelation (the Bible, Jesus) adds color, depth, and surround sound. It tells us point-blank what God is like and how we can encounter Him; what He loves, what He despises, how He goes about redeeming, and how much He loves all of humanity.

    World Religions and primitive sects, even while adherents commit “atrocious” things in the name of their religion, still can be somewhat preparatory to the Gospel. When the Gospel is encountered (with special revelation provided), then it is imperative for individuals to believe and receive. Otherwise, the bible will not allow us to say “You are in a right relationship with God” if we reject His provision, His greatest message (much better than dreams, visions, or prophecy) in His Son… there is life in the Son…And love…true love…

  6. Jesus existed. I grant that – I’m firmly in the Jesus-existed camp.

    On the other thread:

    Tofu: Any prophecies you can verify using sources outside the Bible?

    Joey: However, the wise men from the East address your question about prophecy outside of the Bible. Let me post something on this.

    My objection is that the wise men do not address the question of prophecy fulfilled outside the Bible.

  7. I understand your point. And it is a bit of a stretch to make this connection. But Tofu’s question, set me to thinking. These Magi were atypical characters written into a Jewish story who studied the stars but who somehow knew of the significance of what was happening in Israel. We never hear from them again, but somehow they knew this child was different than all the rest born during this time. It’s about as close as I can get to answering the question (and it ties in nicely with the Chrismas theme too ;o).

    I love how God dismantles our categories and catches us by surprise in the birth narratives. Matthew recognized that what was happening would have global ramifications (and I would say Jeffrey, its much more significant than a “first century email” floating around). Matt was a good writer; it wasn’t a haphazard addition to a well thought out argument. Rethink that.

  8. The Tofu

    “Special Revelation (the Bible, Jesus) adds color, depth, and surround sound. It tells us point-blank what God is like and how we can encounter Him; what He loves, what He despises, how He goes about redeeming, and how much He loves all of humanity.”

    So do most other religions. They go into detail, but they don’t describe the same god as yours.

    Perhaps it is your religion that is preparatory for another.

  9. Other religions don’t have the documentary evidence (over 5,000 manuscripts supporting the Bible) and no resurrected leader to boot.

    The credentials for Christ far surpass any religious leader or group.

  10. >over 5,000 manuscripts supporting the Bible

    If you are measuring the amount of support for the claim that the modern Bible accurately reflects what the books of the Bible said in 100-200 AD, then you are correct. (Mark 16:9-20 & John 7:53-8:11 were added, but other than that…)

    But like virtually all skeptics, I don’t think the originals accurately reflected the life of Jesus. Mountains of documentation in the second century and on only serve to further cement a point on which we agree.

  11. and no resurrected leader to boot.

    That’s a silly statement to make since it can only be true if the Bible is true; there’s no independent sources of information on that event.
    Since you’re trying to state the validity of the Bible, you’re delving straight into circular logic and that simply holds no water.

  12. Yes…but one has to be able to explain many things associated with the resurrection of Christ. And, in light of the evidence, we must ask, “Can this story be collaborated?” What argues for the veracity of such a claim?

    I’ve summarized before…

    More than 13 different post resurrection accounts (in the Bible)

    Over 500 people at one time who were still alive when Paul wrote those words… you could actually go talk to them still! (1 Cor. 15). These were people beyond the Biblical writers who could be consulted and interviewed.

    Even skeptics saw him and acknowledged him (Thomas). Thomas, a disciple, actually doubted and refused to believe it, unless he saw with his own eyes. He did, and ascribed deity to Jesus in his ejaculatory remark when He actually saw him alive (nothing sexual intended). But he burst forth with belief and resolve. “My Lord, and my God…”

    The women as witnesses. You would never include women as your primary first witnesses in the first century. this is litearary suicide if you want your account believed. Yet, they still stuck with it, took the hit on their book sales, and told the story as it actually happened.

    The secular Jewish sources admitting Jesus’ existence. The apocryphal understanding of resurrection. The timid apostles, now turned bold after the resurrection. They even died for this belief. The changed lives of Jesus’ followers, despite extensive suffering. The gigantic rise of Christianity, an almost unexplainable phenomenon, without some momentous event that fueled it’s growth.

    The material evidence in and around the tomb (see comments https://spiritualquestions.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/says-the-atheist-more-information-says-the-theist-i-surrender/#comment-286.

    The absence of a body. The emptiness of the tomb. The Jewish leaders themselves admitted the tomb was empty (something they would not want to admit). This is enemy attestation.

    Collaborate the details and you will find, not fabrication, but history. To use a concept by C.S. Lewis, it’s “true myth”; the only time in human history where myth became reality.

  13. More than 13 different post resurrection accounts (in the Bible)

    And therefore useless to validate anything. Else you could talk about the thousands of Viking warriors who had supposedly seen Thor to ‘prove’ the existence of Odin and the rest of the Norse pantheon.

    To put it another way, it’d be like reading just one advertising pamphlet when deciding to go with a certain retailer rather than their competition.

    The secular Jewish sources admitting Jesus’ existence.

    Josephus? Debunked. Got any more?

    The timid apostles, now turned bold after the resurrection. They even died for this belief.

    People have died for untrue causes throughout human history, even in the twentieth century. It certainly does not make them true by any stretch of the imagination. Unless, of course, you feel that suicide bombers are a testament to the veracity/credibility of hard-line Islam.
    No, I didn’t think so.

    The gigantic rise of Christianity, an almost unexplainable phenomenon, without some momentous event that fueled it’s growth.

    Again, look at the various religions throughout human history. There have been countless examples of them rising up almost overnight and then collapsing again pretty much as quickly.

    The absence of a body. The emptiness of the tomb. The Jewish leaders themselves admitted the tomb was empty (something they would not want to admit). This is enemy attestation.

    No, it’s not. Since there are clearly other explanations for a missing body in a tomb, especially when you actually think critically for just a moment and come to the conclusion that someone knicking the body would really help a certain sides claims…

    You’ll really have to try a lot harder than that.

    And again; stop trying to use Biblical sources to prove your case. It’s nothing but circular logic and it holds not water.

  14. But Christianity has not collapsed.

  15. So? Judging by history, it will at some point. Declining church numbers and continuing splintering of denominations may actually be a sign of a collapse, come to think on it.

    Every religion through history, even those that lasted for thousands of years (long that christianity has thus far) collapsed. It tends to be the nature of things – things rise and fall.

  16. You failed to “explain away” the women and their role in the resurrection account?

  17. There’s not much to explain, since it was only in the Biblical account and that can be discarded already.

  18. So, you’re telling me that someone made it up and it’s all fiction. Is this correct?

  19. No, I’m saying that it’s a text which has one sole purpose; to act to advertise/sell their particular version of what happened.

    Just like the holy texts of the Norse Pantheon, Ancient Roman, Ancient Greek and so on. But no one (except for one or two crackpots somewhere, undoubtedly) actually thinks they’re historically accurate by any measure.

    In a related manner, you can not use such a religious text as proof that the events they describe actually happened. It is not an independent account or even close to it. It’s credibility suffers even more when you consider that other evidence (archaeological, geological, historical, etc) contradicts it on a regular basis.

    It also goes straight into the realm of circular logic. If you try to use the Bible as credible evidence then it supposedly demonstrates that god must exist and be true. But then the bible can only be right if god exists, which he can only do if the bible is right, which can only be true if god exists and so on. It’s like trying to fly by picking yourself up by your own shoe laces – it simply does not work.

  20. Look at the story of the women develop by looking at the Jesus-sighting accounts in the order they were written:

    I Corinthians 15 – no mention of women
    Mark – the women see, but tell no one (16:8).
    Matthew/Luke – the women see and go tell the disciples.
    John – The story is fully developed and complete with Sunday School worthy lines like “they have taken away the Lord” and “Mary.”

    One likely reason for the entrance of women into the story is that all the disciples fled. With no men left to be the first witnesses, woman were a logical necessity. Because it was a new addition to the Gospel story, in the first version the women tell no one – that way it makes sense that we are just now hearing about them.

  21. Matt,

    I don’t know if Joey would call himself an evidentialist (I’m guessing yes?), but the evidentialist argues for faith using the Bible and without circularity.

    Start by treating the Bible as a not-necessarily-holy historical document then reason to Jesus’ resurrection. From Jesus’ resurrection, reason to the holiness of the Bible. This starts with a Holy Book in a sense, but in a way that is not circular. I object to the steps in this reasoning but see nothing wrong with the overall approach.

    But taking this approach, during step 1, the Bible is open to any sort of criticism that is given any other secular document.

  22. … and after reviewing more of this thread, I see that Matt doesn’t need me to explain these things … I’m just like that sometimes …

  23. Oh, I’m all for such explanations. I quite enjoy seeing other people’s points of views/perspective and you never quite know who else is reading.

  24. So how would you go about determining what is true and what is false in the Bible? Tell me what you know for sure – what you see as factual in the Bible.

  25. You make good sense here Jeffrey. I am not in favor of bibliolatry – the bible was never intended to be worshipped. But if treated like any other document, as you say, it reveals truth to us which then leads us to the One who is behind it’s message, and whose message was authenticated via resurrection. And it’s not the only form of revelation.

    The Bible was written by great writers who understood how to put an argument together using current literary conventions and genres, complete with figures of speech and hyperbole, so as to impact the reader with the message. When subjected to textual and literary criticism, you will find a very consistent, historical, accurate document, written by several others, yet with remarkable coherence. If there is a bias in an author, it reveals it; if there is a problem with a character; it reveals it. If there is a lie from Satan; it records it. But the overall message holds fast and is true.

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