Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Allison on the Magi's Star

I have been asked to give a brief presentation on a chapter from Dale Allison's Studies in Matthew. The opening chapter summarizes the early Christian interpretations of the star that guided the magi in Matthew's gospel. Over and against modern, or really post-renaissance exegesis, the earliest Christian exegetes believed that the star with either an angel, or some sort of unnatural star that literally descended and rested above the house of Jesus, or perhaps even above his very head.

Allison cites Chrysostom, Origin, Irenaeus, Theophylact, Augustine (who never made up his mind on the issue), Maldonatus, and even John Calvin as individuals who indicate their conviction that the star is not a natural star or regular astronomical phenomenon. With the advent of modern astronomy, exegetes were more inclined to offer interpretations that downplayed the supernatural, angelic, or even "animated being" view of the star (Allison notes that the predominant view among ancients in all traditions was that stars were animate beings). Allison points to those who hold a high view of Scripture's veracity, John Gill and J. Gresham Machen, as examples of those who consider Matthew's description of the star to be poetic (Machen) or reject without support the angelic interpretation (Gill).

Allison himself thinks that Matthew has incorporated a legend into his narrative, despite producing numerous texts that show the association of angels and stars. While these associations do not rule out a metaphorical interpretation of stars and the planetary bodies (in fact, some of the associations seems to be obviously metaphors), Matthew's description of the star is unlike any normal action of stars (the closest parallel, perhaps being in Judges, where the stars of heaven come down to destroy the army of Sisera).

Wherever one falls in interpreting the historical reality of the star, Allison's study should remind us of how inescapable presuppositions will determine the limits of what is "rational" or "scientific" or "believable" or "probable" in interpreting the oddities of Scripture.

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