A Question of Faith: Perspectives on the Magi
Can you help me understand the timing and place of the Magi’s visit? We are told Joseph started the flight into Egypt after the birth of Jesus. But we also know that Jesus was presented to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. When did the Magi come and where?
Your question opens the door to much-discussed questions about the historicity of Scripture. Every historian chooses which information to highlight. This is true even in the Bible. While all four Gospel writers agree on the essential plot line of Jesus’s life, each offers specific details. The infancy narratives, as you noted, make this evident. The differences, however, do not necessarily imply contradictions.
THE ARTISTRY OF THE EVANGELISTS
Each evangelist set out to write a true narrative by God’s inspiration, but not an exhaustive account of Jesus’s life and ministry. As Pope Benedict XVI says, they wrote “interpreted history” – real history seen through the eyes of faith. Differences naturally arise because any single written account cannot contain the fullness of Christ. Like painters observing the same object from different vantage points, the evangelists highlight distinct features of Jesus. Or, like a choir whose varied voices contribute to a harmonious sound, the four evangelists contribute to a richer theological beauty than one writer could portray alone.
We see this concord in the details Matthew and Luke choose in their narratives of Jesus’s infancy. Matthew recounted the Magi’s visit and the flight to Egypt, while Luke related the presentation in the Temple and a return to Nazareth. St. Augustine tackled the apparent incongruities of these details in his work, The Harmony of the Gospels. He explained that each evangelist wrote a coherent narrative using selected details. Although the accounts may seem complete, they each omit certain specifics. However, silence does not entail contradiction, and St. Augustine considers both versions as trustworthy.
St. Augustine contends that sometime after the circumcision (eight days) and before the presentation (40 days), the Magi visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem. After Jesus was presented in the Temple, Luke records that the family returned to Nazareth. But, according to Augustine, the return was not before an angel appeared to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt. Not all consider this sequence of events likely. Some scholars suspect that the Magi’s visit was after Jesus’s presentation in the Temple – perhaps when Jesus was around one-year-old – because Matthew notes that the Magi came to “the house” rather than the stable or a cave (Matt. 2:11).
FAITH IN DETAIL
While the correct order of the details is not necessarily beneficial for our faith, the reason the evangelists included them is instructive. Matthew, on one hand, is concerned with firmly rooting Jesus in the Old Testament. He begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to David and Abraham, and he recounts Joseph’s dreams – an allusion to the dreaming Joseph of Genesis. Moreover, Jesus is like the new Moses – the infant leader of Israel, whom a jealous ruler wants to destroy. Luke, on the other hand, focuses on the worldwide implications of Jesus while centering his narrative in Jerusalem. It is no surprise, then, that Luke chose to include the worldwide census and the messianic prophecy of Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We cannot be sure if the Magi visited the Holy Family before or after the presentation in the Temple, but we can be sure that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are not contradictory. Instead, they are mutually enriching in revealing the richness of the revelation of Jesus.
This article appeared in the December issue of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.