Why Did They Burn That Poor Mule?
I remember when I was little hearing people sing the third stanza of Deck the Halls: “See the blazing Yule before us.” Afterwards I wondered to myself, why did they burn that poor mule?
You may have heard the one about the kid who made a drawing of the Nativity scene for Sunday school. Everyone looked familiar except for a fat guy standing in the corner. “Who’s that?” asked his teacher. “That’s Round John Virgin,” said the kid. “You know, Round John Virgin, mother, and child.” And before you classify that story as myth, remember: I really did think they were roasting a mule…
Many of you have seen the Discovery Channel’s popular series, Mythbusters. Each week Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman attempt to prove or disprove all kinds of popular myths and urban legends. What would the Mythbusters do with the theological assumptions and the level of historical accuracy behind our beloved Christmas carols? Since Savage and Hyneman are both outspoken atheists, I decided that I was much better qualified to either confirm or refute the popular beliefs about the first Christmas found in the carols.
I’m betting that much of what you think you know about Christmas is based on those carols you learned as a child. It may come as a shock that these are not an entirely reliable source of information. And I’m not even talking about some of the more absurd notions like that presented in The Little Drummer Boy:
Shall I play for you, on my drum?
Mary nodded, the ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me,
Me and my drum.
Oh course we all know that pounding on a drum has long been a favorite method of shepherds and cowboys to calm restless flocks and herds, so we’d naturally expect one of the shepherd boys to be packing his trusty bongo. And no first-time mother would ever object to some strange kid banging away on a drum just a few hours after she endured a difficult birth in a barn. And don’t even get me started about the ox and lamb rhythm section…
Actually myths about miraculous animal activity associated with the birth of Christ regularly appear in medieval times. So it should not be surprising to see the line in the first stanza of Good Christian Men, Rejoice, “Man and beast before Him bow…” since this ancient carol dates back to the 14th Century in its original Latin version. Luke 2 makes no mention of any animals at all except for the flocks of sheep out in the fields. While it is reasonable to assume that there would have been animals in that stable, there is no reason to believe that they acted in any way out of the ordinary—unless they may have been a bit uneasy at having unexpected human company sharing their humble accommodations. You can bet they weren’t talking, bowing down, or beating time to music.
Away in a Manger
Away in a Manger was probably the very first Christmas carol that I learned to sing. Remember those words in the second stanza, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”? The writer is anonymous but I have to believe he was a father who’d lost sleep due to a crying baby. I’m reminded of the words of one of my Old Testament professors, a man who was a practicing pediatrician when God called him into the ministry. Having already earned one doctorate, he headed off to seminary and earned first a Master of Divinity and then a Ph.D. His comment? “A baby that doesn’t cry is sick.”
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (or did they?)
Perhaps the most prevalent theme in our Christmas music is the image of heavenly choirs of angels singing to celebrate the birth of our Lord:
Ø Hark! the herald angels sing…
Ø Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o’re the plains…
Ø With the angels let us sing…
Ø Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation…
Ø Whom angels greet with anthems sweet…
I could go on.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear adds the idea of angels playing harps:
Ø From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold…
Angels We Have Heard on High has the shepherds joining the chorus.
The only problem with all this is nowhere in scripture does it once mention angels singing.
What does Luke’s gospel actually say?
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
In the New Testament singing is always mentioned in the context of praise to God. There are several different Greek words that are used to convey the idea. But the word translated praising in Luke 2:13 is not the word usually used for singing.
But let’s face it. We are talking about angelic voices here. And somehow I suspect that prose from the lips of an angel would sound like music to a human ear. So I’m willing to give Charles Wesley and Joseph Mohr and all those other great hymn writers a pass on this one.
But lose the golden harps.
Perhaps the biggest misinformation about that first Christmas that song writers have contributed to has to do with the star and the wise men; confusion that is compounded by how little we actually know about this most mysterious aspect of the nativity stories.
We Three Kings of Orient
They adorn countless Christmas cards. They’re the most exotic figurines in a traditional nativity crèche. They’re the little boys wearing the paper crowns in the Christmas play. They are the subject of song, and myth and legend. They are the wise men—those mysterious figures from the East who came to worship and honor the infant Jesus.
Just who were the wise men? Were they, as the song says, three kings of the orient?
The wise men are more accurately called the magi from the Greek word mágoi. From that same Greek root we get the words magic and magician. The term first referred to members of the shaman chaste of the ancient Medes, a tribe in what is now western Iran. To the magi was ascribed the power to interpret dreams. The Greek philosophers regarded the magi not only as priests, but as teachers and philosophers as well.
Long before the 1st Century magi had assumed a much broader meaning. The magi were thought to possess supernatural knowledge and ability. They were interpreters of dreams, soothsayers, astrologers, scientists, magicians, and counselors to those in power. By Jesus’ day the magi were no longer exclusively Persians. There were Babylonian magi, Arabian magi and even Jewish magi such as the sorcerer Bar-Jesus in Acts 13. They ranged from charlatans like Bar-Jesus to some of the most learned men in the ancient world. The magi in Matthew 2 are pictured has wholly admirable characters, magi at their best.
Where were the magi from? The Gospel simply says that they were “from the East”. Beyond that, there are three locations that are usually suggested: Parthia, Babylon, and the deserts of Arabia or Syria. Strong arguments can be made for each. Parthia is the location most favored by the history of the term mágoi. The Babylonians had a long and highly developed interest in astronomy and astrology. And camel caravans had long been bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh north from the southern end of the Arabian Desert—the region of modern day Yemen.
If the magi were from Parthia, then their dress—belted tunics with full sleeves, flowing trousers, and conical-shaped caps—would have looked very much like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp!
Then there’s the theory that the magi came from multiple locations, an idea closely associated with several other legends, none of which have any basis in history. Like the belief that there were three magi. The Bible doesn’t say how many there were. Three are assumed because three kinds of gifts are listed. Or the notion that the magi were kings. (Again, the Bible is silent on this point.) Various names have been given them. Best known are: Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar which first show up in the 3rd Century. By the 9th Century the tradition was established that they represent three races. Balthasar was Asian; Gaspar a white European; and Melchior was a black African.
The confusion continues to this day. Bob Yarbrough, a dear friend of mine, now teaches seminary in St. Louis but years ago he was as a logger in Montana. He told me about Steve Spooner, a wild Montana man he sawed with over 35 years ago. Bob was trying to lead Steve to faith in Christ. It was around Christmas. The discussion veered off to the birth narratives. To illustrate how improbable the Bible is, Steve said, “We know the wise men were from China.” That was news to Bob. So he asked, “Steve, how do we know the wise men were from China?” Steve’s answer? “Because it says, ‘We three kings of ORIENT are.’” Hard to argue with that kind of logic.
We don’t know precisely where the magi were from, only that they were “from the East.” So what do we know?
· We know there were at least two, since mágoi is a plural.
· We know they were men, since these words have masculine endings.
· We can assume that they were men of some financial means. Their gifts were valuable. In the First Century frankincense and myrrh were worth more than their weight in gold. They had the leisure and financial means to make a long journey. Given the dangers of travel in the border regions on the eastern end of the Roman Empire and the value of their goods, they were probably accompanied by a large contingent of armed guards.
· We can assume they were men of some stature and influence, since they were quickly granted a private audience with King Herod.
· We can assume that they traveled some distance to get to Jerusalem. If they came from the closest possible location, the western edge of the Syrian Desert, then they traveled at least a couple hundred miles—a good ten-day trip. However, if they journeyed from southern Arabia or from Parthia, which is located well to the northeast of Babylon, then conceivably they traveled as far as 2,000 miles, much of it through empty desert, and most likely on camels. Such a trip would have taken at least four to six months and possibly much longer.
· We know that they were regarded as wise and learned men in their day and that a part of their learning included a study of the stars. Their statements to Herod’s court were regarded as quite credible and were taken with utter seriousness.
Were the Magi present on Christmas night? – The third stanza of The First Noel suggests as much.
We get a clue to the truth from Matthew 2:7 which reads, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” Herod did some quick math. He assumed that the star appeared at the moment the Messiah was born. We have no way of knowing if that assumption was correct. Did the star appear when Christ was born, or did it appear to the Magi in advance, so as to put their arrival on the scene near the time of the birth? There is simply no way for us to know. Luke’s account of the birth makes no mention of the star at all. The shepherds saw a host of angels, but they said nothing about a star. And being familiar with the night sky, we have to believe that they would have noticed.
In Matthew 2:16 Herod ordered his swordsmen to kill all male children in Bethlehem two years old and under. Many argue from this that Jesus was two when the magi arrived. If so, why kill the newborns? The obvious answer is that Herod wasn’t being all that discriminating—he just wanted to make sure he got the right baby. But that makes as much or more sense if when Herod issued his execution order he included children older than the age ascertained from the Magi just to make certain that he found his target. If we know anything at all about Herod the Great, we know that he never shied from shedding innocent blood.
What we can conclude from the text is that the Magi did not arrive the actual night that Jesus was born, for it says in verse 11 that they found the family in a house not a stable. But that’s not much help. I think it safe to assume that the morning after the birth Joseph’s #1 priority was to get his young family out that stable and into a house. Given the realities of Middle Eastern hospitality, it is unthinkable that some family in Bethlehem would not have opened their home to a young mother with a newborn baby. So for all we know, the magi may have arrived the next night.
Why did the magi come? Why would important and wealthy men journey great distances at considerable cost and risk with no apparent prospect for personal gain? What drew the magi to Bethlehem? Well, the Star drew them. It’s hard for a modern Western mind to understand the way the ancients looked at reality. Let me illustrate with a couple events from the night of November 5, 2001. I was in suburban Milwaukee when I learned that a longtime friend and co-worker had just died. Moments later I noticed something odd about the sky. It was a display of the northern lights and with a degree of clarity and brilliance unusual for those latitudes. Bright reds and greens danced across the autumn sky. It was the most dazzling aurora borealis that I’ve ever seen. In fact, if you go to www.spaceweather.com and search that date you will see a picture of that same aurora taken in Roanoke, Virginia!
Now all that this meant to me was that an unusually large solar flare a few days earlier had sent a mass of energized particles hurtling through space and those particles were now colliding with earth’s ionosphere, resulting in an aurora. But had I been a magus in the ancient Near East, I’d have interpreted those events very differently. I’d have seen an important connection between my co-worker’s death and that atmospheric disturbance. The aurora would have been interpreted as a sign with symbolic meaning.
Perhaps this helps us understand how seeing an unusual star in the night sky would take on special meaning to those sages of old. It was a sign, a portent of some important event that was happening or was about to happen. It had meaning to the world at large and to them personally. They would have gleaned clues to what nation was involved from the specific area of the sky where the star appeared. Perhaps the star was in the constellation Leo. They may have associated Leo with the Lion of Judah, the symbol of the royal house of David. Some such reasoning process led them to conclude that the event involved Israel. We do know that they were not led to Jerusalem by literally following the star. That is common misconception. In verse two the magi told Herod that they saw the star in the east. Later in verse nine we are told that the star reappeared to them as they were leaving Jerusalem and led them to Bethlehem—directly to the place where the child was located.
So what was this star? Was it some natural phenomenon that was interpreted symbolically? Many theories over the years have been offered with just such an explanation in mind. A supernova, a comet, or an unusual planetary conjunction are among the better-known ideas. In 1975 Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote a sci-fi short story, The Star, based on the supernova theory. All of these suggestions raise interesting points and all have both strengths and weaknesses.
But I’m not convinced that any of these theories adequately address the events recorded in Matthew. The first appearance of the star might be explained as a primitive culture’s interpretation of an unusual natural event. But the actions of the star in Matthew 2:9 defy any such naturalistic explanation: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—where tradition says the stable was located—is just over five miles SSW of site of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. For a light in the heavens to guide travelers from Herod’s palace to a specific spot in Bethlehem means that this light must have been very low in the sky and had to have been moving very slowly.
Imagine the difficulty of following a hot air balloon from the ground. If it’s at 30,000 feet and caught up in the jet stream it’d be impossible to keep up with and impossible to estimate when you were directly under it. On the other hand, if that balloon were only a hundred feet off the ground and drifting slowly, you could easily keep up with it in open country and would know with confidence when it was directly overhead. Movement of this nature could not be attributed to a comet or a supernova or a planetary conjunction or any known atmospheric disturbance, nor could such phenomena begin to provide the kind of precise direction needed to locate one specific person on the ground. And specific direction, after all, was the whole point of the exercise! Whatever that star was, it was no thing of nature.
What we think of as an event limited to one night was actually a series of events spread out over weeks or months:
First, the command of Caesar Augustus compelled Mary and Joseph to make the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Whether they arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth or a day or two earlier we don’t know, but given their living arrangements they couldn’t have been there long.
Second, the nighttime announcement of an angelic messenger inspired the shepherds to leave their flocks and investigate.
Finally, on a night long ago a group of pagan scholars studying the stars saw something totally unexpected. They concluded, for reasons no long clear to us, that this unusual star signified the birth of a new King of the Jews. So they headed for the logical place to look for a new Jewish king, the palace of the current Jewish king, Herod the Great in Jerusalem. As they left Herod’s court on their way to Bethlehem, that mysterious star reappeared and led them with precision to the very house where Jesus lay.
These diverse moving parts were under the direct control of God: Roman imperial tax policies, the superstitious beliefs of pagan astrologers, the natural curiosity of lowly shepherds, the fear and hostility of a cruel despot, the seemly inconsequential travels of a poor peasant couple, and the announcement of an angelic messenger… all skillfully combined, like threads in a heavenly tapestry, to set the stage for the birth of the Son of God.
No one is suggesting that a song or carol must be correct in every detail before you can sing it. So feel free to enjoy your favorites (unless your favorite happens to be Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer which ought to be banned by law). But for a reliable source of Advent season theology, stick with Matthew and Luke.