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Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men Hardcover – November 6, 2017
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"How utterly refreshing and encouraging to read Fr. Longenecker's extraordinary ruminations on something we all thought we understood, and obviously hardly begin to understand, until now. That he has dug so deep—so we can see things we have never seen before—is a testament both to his archaeological implacability and genius and to the happy fact that God has hidden endless treasures in the Scriptures for our benefit. —Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Martin Luther
"Dwight Longenecker's Mystery of the Magi: The Quest for the True Identity of the Three Wise Men, is one of the best books you'll ever read about the birth of Jesus, the meaning of the Christmas story and how Christians should approach Biblical studies. An Oxford-educated graduate of Bob Jones University, and now a Catholic priest, Longenecker charts a middle course between an uncritical fundamentalism that fails to ask probing questions and an equally uncritical skepticism that assumes, rather than proves, that events depicted in the Bible never happened at all. Dwight Longenecker's Mystery of the Magi is the perfect Christmas gift for anyone interested in the historical background behind the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and what his birth means for us today. I highly recommend this wonderful book." —Robert J. Hutchinson, author of The Dawn of Christianity and Searching for Jesus
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Catholics (like Fr. Longenecker and myself) believe that Sacred Scripture or the Bible is "the words of God, expressed in the words of men" and that the inspired books teach the truth we need for our salvation. And the central truth, the first proclamation, is expressed by Pope Francis in the Joy of the Gospel: "Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free you." Back to Fr. Longenecker's conclusion: "This matters because the events of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the most history-shattering events of all time. If the gospel is historical, then it is true, and if it is true, then we must confront the reality of Jesus Christ. And if we encounter Jesus Christ as a historical figure, then we must also deal with the question of who he is and what he accomplished." Fr. Longenecker meticulously explores the biblical and historical evidence for the biblical story of the three wise men and links it together using clearly articulated assumptions to build a very plausible and well-argued case that the simple story in Matthew's gospel not only could have occurred, but that it actually did take place largely as written.
Fr. Longenecker begins by posing the simple question, "Three Wise Men: Facts or Fairy Tale?" and then proceeds to answer it in an engaging yet methodical manner. He briefly discusses the Catholic understanding of the Bible and introduces us to Matthew. Then Longenecker considers how Matthew's simple story was expanded and elaborated over the centuries; he uses the very apt comparison to King Arthur to do so. King Arthur is a real, albeit obscure, historical figure and the grand stories of Camelot are an elaboration upon that realty. Similarly, Longenecker argues, the magi as described by Matthew are historical figures and "we three Kings of Orient are" is the mythical elaboration.
The core of the book is Longenecker's presentation of the biblical, historical, geographical, and cultural evidence that the magi were almost certainly "magi-type counselors from the court of Aretas IV" -- the king of Nabarea located in northern Arabia (now Jordan) a reasonable 300 miles from Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. Longenecker introduces us to the Nabeteans, their cities, and their role at the center of commerce in the Middle East at the time. He describes the political and diplomatic situation at the time and why Nabateans would be interested in sending "wise men" as envoys. He convincingly demonstrates that the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are treasures that were well known in Nabatea and, not surprising, were the gifts of choice for a Nabetean king to send in homage to a neighboring king. Finally, Longenecker considers the many theories related to the Star of Bethlehem and shows that the Nabetean wise men were well versed in astrology and in reading the signs in the sky.
He takes his evidence augmented by reasonable and defensible assumptions and suppositions and ties them together in a tight narrative that presents a realistic and plausible story. Fr. Longenecker acknowledges that there are aspects of his story that require further substantiation and he encourages scholars in the coming years to build on his work.
In sum, for a believing Catholic like me, this book shows the historical basis for the story of the magi , thereby reinforcing my belief in the Bible as the words of God written in the words of men. In the four Gospels, men like Matthew wrote down what they experienced and was reported to them and they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But they didn't need to create fanciful stories simply to make a point. Matthew reports that the magi came as envoys to a king; Fr. Longenecker provides a compelling backstory that explains who they were and why they came. The three wise men of the Bible read the signs of their times and made a journey to meet the Lord. May those who read this interesting and excellent book find further encouragement to do likewise.
The research for this study had two main goals: (1) Does the account in Matthew possess a ring of truth, and (2) If the account is plausible, where did the Magi live and why would they want to travel to see a child and present him with valuable gifts?
In the course of the research, Longenecker found evidence that the Wise Men traveled not on camels, but on horses. Additionally, they followed a route that they had commonly traversed previously. The reader will discover not only who the Magi were, but the likely origin of their quest.
The author is an excellent writer, in addition to being a sound researcher. I strongly recommend his book as a valuable contribution to the knowledge base of the authentication of an important facet of the story of the birth of Jesus.