Thursday, December 15, 2011

Allison and the Magi's Star, again

The following is a presentation I gave this morning for our 2nd annual "Christmas Traditio Symposium," which involved the 9th through 12th graders listening, reflection upon, and enjoying several presentations, lectures, and artifacts presented by the teachers.

Haven’t you ever wondered what it would have been to see the burning bush with Moses? To watch the sun stop in the sky with Joshua? To taste the manna with the Israelites? Haven’t you ever wondered what it would have been to see the hand write the prophecy on Belshazzar’s wall? Or maybe you’ve thought further and wondered not only what it would have been to partake in these strange events, but to understand what actually occurred in them. Was it a real bush that was burning? What sort of fire burns without consuming? What sort of bush is fire-proof? What is manna made of? Is it a combination of dew and molecules from the air? Was it just honey-flavored coriander substitute that God made to appear? Did the earth stop spinning when the sun stood still in the sky? What would that have done to the winds or to the currents of the ocean? Who among us would doubt that God is able to do whatever He wills with what He has made, and to do it by whatever means He chooses? We all might say with Job,

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:2-3 ESV).

But granting our belief in God’s omnipotence, whence comes belief, seeking understanding? Is it not our proper place as the crown of God’s creation and as His vice-regents of what He has made to know God’s works in Creation and Redemption as well as we may? And surely God takes delight in our discovery of His manner and means for doing what He does so well, so unexpectedly, despite our bravest and wisest anticipations.
I’d like to propose for you today, a day where we are hearing, contemplating, and enjoying things related to the miracle of Christ’s incarnation, that every day of our lives, every moment of every day (though it seems an impossible goal) ought to be characterized by a holy wonder. A holy wonder that leads to a curious investigation of the works of God’s hands, which in turn cannot but well up inside of us a profound and profoundly humble thankfulness for God’s unbounded bounty. We live in a world made from nothing, nothing other than God’s pure pleasure in making it for Himself and for us. We’ve been given a story unlike any other, a story that doesn’t have an end, but has as many rabbit trails, nooks and crannies, and deeply moving subplots as we have inclination to follow. I want to use the time I have today to guide you along one of these trails, into one of these nooks and crannies of God’s uncommon kindness.
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, he tells us of a star that guided certain magi from the east. In verse two of chapter two, the magi proclaim that they’ve come to see the King of the Jews, whose star they have seen in the East. Later, in verses nine and ten, they depart from Herod and the star appears again, going before them, leading them to the house where Jesus was, where it stood over him. I don’t know how often you’ve stargazed. You ought to try sometime if you haven’t. I used to sit under the stars at night, out in the country where I grew up away from city lights and smoggy skies, and I would stare at the thousands of brilliant iridescent lights littering the heavens. I’ve seen many a shooting star. I’ve seen the large, glowing planets. I’ve even seen satellites, foreigners amongst their livelier counterparts. But I can tell you, and I’d wager you’d say the same, that I’ve never seen a star that appeared suddenly, moved across the sky, and stopped to descend out of the heavens, to rest over a spot down below, here on the earth. What sort of star does this? Is it really a star at all? Is it really possible for an orb of immense size and volatile heat to leave its solar system millions or billions of light years away to rest over a tiny house in the Middle East? Thankfully, we’re not the first to consider the question of what exactly was this star.
In the first chapter of his book, Studies in Matthew, Dale Allison examines the history of interpretation surrounding the star of the magi in Matthew’s gospel. Allison tells us that there are basically three modern views of the star: 1) it is a planetary conjunction (where two planetary bodies appear in the sky in close relation), 2) it is a comet, or 3) it is a supernova (a new star). Allison notes that none of these views comports well with Matthew’s account. None of the explanations fits with Matthew’s claim that the star “went before” the magi, nor with the detail that the star, “stopped over the place where the child was.” Conjunctions and supernovas don’t appear to move from the vantage point of earth, and although comets move, they do not stop over a specific location. Even ancient interpreters were aware of these difficulties in considering the star to be a planetary body like any other star. Allison cites Chrysostom, Theophylact, and the Protoevangelium of James (the earliest source, from the 2nd century), all of which assent to the impossibility that the star is any ordinary astronomical phenomenon. Many of the early church fathers believed that the star that guided the magi left the heavens and descended upon the place where Jesus was staying, some even that it rested over Jesus’ head. The strange occurrence of a star moving across the heavens and descending over a specific locale was the predominant view up through the medieval period of Christianity. Even as late as Calvin there is no belief that the manner of the star’s appearance is a naturally occurring event. The supernatural, uncanny, and inexplicable anomaly—words so hateful to modern science—was exactly that—a curiosity of God’s providence, that was worth considering on its own terms.
Allison remarks that the opinions of ancient pagan philosophers was that the stars were animate beings, living creatures, who interacted directly with the world of humanity below, even while exhibiting the mathematical “habits” so readily observable. Greeks, including Plato and the Stoics, as well as the Jewish Neo-Platonist Philo, all believed the stars to be living beings. Apparently non-Hellenistic Jews shared Philo’s belief as well, or at least something similar, as their interpretations of Judges 5:20, where the stars of heaven fought against the army of Sisera, acknowledged these heavenly bodies as animate cosmic forces. Accordingly, Allison does not believe it plausible, and nor should we, for Matthew’s view of stars to be presciently modern in contrast to the predominant view held by philosophers and other scientific-minded men of his own time.
Within the Jewish and Christian literary milieu several aspects of angels appear to be reasonable explanations for Matthew’s account of the star. Angels function as guides; for example, in Exodus 14:19 where the angel of God either went before Israel within the cloud, alongside it, or as the cloud itself. Several other extra-biblical Jewish and Christian sources attest to this characteristic of angels as well. Angels are also described as bright and as descending from the heavens. Matthew 28:3 describes the face of the Angel of the Lord to be “like lightning.” Paul calls Satan an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). In Genesis 28 angels ascend and descend in Jacob’s vision of the ladder, and Jesus uses the same language of ascending and descending in John 1:51. At the very least, Allison argues, Matthew’s description of the star’s behavior in guiding the magi and resting over where Jesus was is more indicative of angels than of astronomical objects. The assertion or plausibility of an angelic star is prominent throughout early Christian interpretation and artwork, as well.
At this point in the chapter Allison briefly offers his explanations for several variations in the history of Christian interpretation of the star. Origen’s association with pagan philosophy left a bad taste in later church fathers’ mouths to the extent that they self-consciously sought to purge all hints of syncretism between Neo-Platonism and Biblical exegesis. Since Origen and the ancient pagans believed in animate heavenly bodies, Jerome argued against the view, and the Second Council of Constantinople condemned the view as heresy. Despite this reservation, many fathers maintained a special circumstance regarding the star that led the magi. Rather, they argued, the star was not really a star at all, or, if it was a star that its nature was unique to itself. Modern astronomy also shook confidence from the view of an angelic star. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all denied the possibility of an animate heaven, while also recognizing (at least for Kepler) that Matthew’s star could not be what current science was describing as stars—burning orbs of fire fixed at the center of galaxies, millions and billions of miles away. Renaissance and post-Renaissance interpreters continued away from an angelic star. By the enlightenment and modern periods even the staunchest literalists, whose high view of Scripture was eclipsed by none, would conclude that Matthew’s account of the star was poetical, metaphorical, or otherwise a veiled perspective on what actually occurred.
Allison concludes the chapter by offering some tentative conclusions of his own. Was there an actual light? What sort of phenomenon could it have been? His own suspicion is that Matthew is recounting a haggadic-type legend for some purpose other than historical reporting. In other words, Matthew isn’t concerned with what actually occurred. As Allison says, the prejudices of interpreters for what is, or is not possible will ultimately determine what interpretation they are willing to accept.
Given Allison’s own recognition, we might also question the presuppositions under which he labors in his attribution of haggadic-type legend to Matthew’s account of the star. Why couldn’t the star, as the ancient Christians thought, be an angel of God? How often do we find in the Old Testament, an angel of the Lord appearing prior to, or in the in event of, a special circumstance? An angel of the Lord appeared to Abraham to confirm that the son of the promise would come in the following year. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua prior to his going down to destroy Jericho in the first battle within the Promised Land. Angels appeared to Daniel and to his companions in times where their lives were threated with death in a foreign land. Closer to the context of Jesus’ birth, if we look at the Synoptic accounts together, an angel of the Lord met with Joseph prior to Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1), one meets with Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1), we’re also told that the angel Gabriel tells Mary of Jesus’ birth-to-be (Luke 1), and finally an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem to indicate the birth of Jesus (Luke 1). Each of the appearances occurs in the midst of the everyday activities of the individuals involved. Joseph gets a dream, Mary an unexpected visitor to her home, Zechariah as he ministers in the temple, and the shepherds as they herd their flocks. Given these manifold manifestations of angels to promote the birth of Christ (and John the Baptist as the coming of Elijah) it does not seem implausible that the magi from the east would be greeted in similar fashion by an Angel of the Lord, described by them as a star—something magi would find irresistibly interesting and common to their daily endeavors.
It does not seem, unless one is unwilling to take seriously the Bible’s way of expressing itself, that an angelic star is even the most out-of-sorts event. Clouds by day and pillars by night, parting bodies of water, food from the sky and water from rocks, the sun immovable, angelic hosts innumerable, fire from heaven consuming even the rocks on which the offering is laid—all of these and many other inexplicable activities of God and His ministers should give us pause, as God’s recounting to Job of His wondrous works gave Job pause. Our God defies all of our attempts to anticipate the lengths He is willing to go, the things He is willing to use, the things He is willing to say, and ways in which He is willing to accomplish His purposes. He is not like this because He wants to hide His true self from us. He is like this, because it is His true self. He is not simply an object of our knowledge. He is not the projection of our higher selves. He isn’t just the friend of sinners, or the man named Jesus, or the God who is there. He is the power and wisdom and person in whom we live and move and have our being. If considering His stranger ways cannot captivate our contemplation, cannot stagger our attention, cannot transform the way we walk in His world that He has made for us—in order that we might learn who He is—if these things cannot be our passion and pursuit—if questions about stars and angels and rivers and rocks and widows and wanderers cannot linger in our thoughts—then we ought to go back to the drawing board and figure out just what sort of people we think we are. And in seeking for ourselves in the revelations of Himself and His works that God has given to us for us to commune with Him, we might actually find what we’re looking for—no, more than we could have imagined!—for our God delights in giving gifts that surprise us right in the places where He has set us.

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