The story that dominates this time of year almost as much as Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas is found in two of the New Testament Gospels: Matthew and Luke.
Bible scholars today debate how much, if any, of them is historically accurate since the earlier Gospel of Mark, the later Gospel of John, and the earliest writings of the Apostle Paul ignore it. Theologians debate over their meaning for Christian thinking. Martin Luther got a real kick out of the idea that the “Almighty God” had turned into a baby who couldn’t control its bladder or bowels.
The historical realities are that we cannot know with any probability whether or how much is historical fact. But we can know that taken together these two Christmas narratives became a part of a long tradition that would interpret them in many meaningful ways to a lot of believers.
It’s what they teach believers that’s been more important than historical accuracy. They are what historians call myths, not to make judgments about their historicity — relegating them to something that just happened way back then — but to say that they’ve functioned more as guides to moral and religious life down through history.
The glaring, even surprising takeaway from Matthew and Luke’s versions, no matter what one’s theological bent or historical judgment, is what they say. And what they speak of is what kind of people made it to the place of the infant Christ and who never did.
Why the shepherds?
The first group, the focus of the Gospel of Luke, is those shepherds living out in the fields nearby Bethlehem with their flocks. But why them?
Shepherds were social outcasts, not only poor, but uncouth and without social standing. They were accused of being immoral and relegated to a level of immorality along with prostitutes.
They were considered unclean and thus were forbidden from entering the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. Their testimony was inadmissible in court and their rough demeanor was legendary.
Yet, there they were, the story clearly emphasizes, personally invited by the God of Israel through messengers to attend at the manger. And there, it says, these outsiders were when the rest of society that looked down upon them was nowhere to be seen.
But the Gospel of Matthew’s version is even more socially and religiously subversive. Here, those who appear before the child are outsiders as well.
Now about those Wise Men
When we think of the three “Wise Men,” the Magi, we think of kings. But when we look further we find that they were from “the East,” most likely Persia or modern day Iran.
Religiously, the Magi were Zoroastrian priests. The non-canonical Syriac Infancy Gospel also tells Matthew’s story but adds that a prophecy from Zoroaster motivated the Magi to seek the new-born Jesus.
Being astrologers (the Greek word mágos is translated magician, astrologer, or fortune-teller elsewhere in the New Testament), they were paying attention to the alignment of the stars in the sky. Astrological signs were a part of everyday religions in most cultures.
So, seeing a new star appear in “the east” not toward the west — the direction they would eventually travel, they probably saw it in an area of the sky understood as the “House of Israel.” Aha, they thought, a king has been born in Israel. Let’s check it out and establish a good relationship with that king from the beginning.
Their journey was longer than that of the nearby shepherds, for by the time the Magi arrived, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in a “house” in Bethlehem. But, the story takes pains to point out, they didn’t go straight to Bethlehem either.
They went, as would be natural, to the capital of Israel — Jerusalem — to find the newborn king. Clueless King Herod had not been invited to the manger, so he called in his religious advisors, “the chief priests and the teachers of the law.”
These guys knew their Bibles backward and forward. They believed they were the exclusive ones who could understand the scriptures. In many ways they were a variety of fundamentalists of their day.
And therefore, they could quote the relevant texts such as Micah 5:2 that pointed seekers to a ruler to be born in Bethlehem. So, that’s where Herod sent these outsiders while none of the religious leaders joined them.
The “insiders” stayed home
As a result, according to the accepted versions, religious and ethnic outsiders considered impure because they weren’t a part of how those who were in charge defined culture and humanity joined a group of those considered dirty, despised, and repulsive by those who made up the religious rules, at the scene of Jesus’ birth.
The people who could quote their Bible never made it. They were stuck back in their safe, clean institutions back in the capital where they were so establishment that they served King Herod.
Whether or not these stories are historical fact, their teachings are abundantly clear about who made it. The “queerness” of the stories is that the ones declared outsiders by the religious know-it-alls were the insiders — and the ones who touted how much they were insiders, the Bible-thumpers of their day, the ones who judge others as unworthy and unacceptable, just never made it.
Ever feel that religion was judging you to be an outsider, unworthy and unclean? Well, the Christmas story says you’re in.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.