August 1, 2019

An Atheistic Hypothesis about Historical Magi

Let's try a quick thought experiment. Suppose that: (1) there is no God, (2) Jesus's biological father was not Mary's Joseph, (3) Joseph tried but struggled to believe Mary's story that Jesus was God's baby. Now, within this scenario, let us suppose one additional thought. Imagine the impact upon Joseph if some wealthy nut-job astrologers suddenly showed up and told you that Mary's child was Israel's messiah. Which, obviously, he was not.

Let us consider the possibility that this random occurrence could have sparked a powerful and unique superstition, first in Joseph and eventually in Jesus. The end of this thought experiment offers us an historical Jesus whose divine self-image was false but sincere. There may be multiple angles from which to play upon this idea, but first let's see how it plays out.

Here is that scenario in detail.

Imagine Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem, caring for Jesus (who is not yet two years of age), managing their family situation tolerably well enough. Imagine Mary and Joseph both living with this lie; Joseph can't fully believe it but he promised her he believed it, while Mary can never admit the real truth. Now, imagine the big day when chaos imitates fate.

For the astronomical event, let's pick the triple convergence of 7 BCE. For the astrological symbolism, it absolutely doesn't matter. We are talking about a rare type of ancient rich person: the extreme religious pilgrim, a.k.a. the eccentric wealthy tourist. These are highly privileged men with far too much time and money on their hands. They are esoterically inclined, naively committed, and politically clueless. First of all, they believe in astrology! Second, they believe they've deciphered some meaningful crap based on their personal star gazing. Third, and most colossally stupid of all, they believe that it seems like an intelligent strategy to ask Herod of Judea about his new baby. (Not only did Herod not have a new baby, as anyone could have told them, but he was famously touchy about the issue of inheritance.)

However, in this scenario, these bizarre individuals did walk into a throne room in Jericho or Jerusalem. We must imagine Herod did listen to their crazy homespun prediction but we do not need to imagine Herod's response. In this scenario, all we need to suppose is that these traveling astrologers somehow left Herod's court with a new idea to seek out Bethlehem as the home of this recently born star baby king. To make myself extremely clear, this scenario throws out all supernatural details from Matthew's infancy narrative. The point is that these crazy rich dudes somehow showed up in Bethlehem and started asking about young children who fit whatever age kid they thought they needed to find. Although Bethlehem was a small town, there might have been more than one kid of the requisite age, but somehow--godlessly, randomly--they decide upon Joseph and Mary's home.

Yes, we are talking about a crazy high level of coincidence. Remember, that is my primary supposition. The entire point of this scenario is to consider that perhaps this extreme degree of unexplained randomness is exactly what it would have taken to convince someone like Joseph that a ridiculous story like Mary's could be actually true.

However, for the sake of playing out the scenario (i.e., exercising historical imagination), let's suggest a few plausible connections. Maybe these magi came across someone in Bethlehem who whispered to them a rumor about Mary's divine pregnancy story. Alternatively, maybe they came across Mary herslef and she wanted their wealthy patronage so she quickly swore them to secrecy. Perhaps most likely of all, maybe they were being so mathematically precise about their ridiculous astronomical theory that there was only one kid who was anywhere close to exactly the right age. Again, any of this assumes that this excessively random event did simply happen to occur. According to math and physics, truly inexplicable randomness is bound to happen once in a while. The key principle behind this scenario is not to defend extreme randomness but to suggest that extreme randomness often generates extremely superstitious reactions.

With that key idea firmly in mind, imagine these crazy rich traveling idiots sit down and share their story with Mary and Joseph. How would Joseph and Mary react?

Now, hold onto that question. This is where the explanatory potential arises.

The Gospels present us with a Jesus who believes he has a special relationship to God. In this scenario, presupposing that there is no God in the universe, we can safely conclude that Jesus did not have any such special status. However, in this same exercise we may freely suppose that the Gospels present Jesus that way because the real historical Jesus actually believed such a thing to be true of himself. This combination of suppositions raises an interesting question: How would this fully non-divine Jesus ever have come to such an incorrect view of himself?

To answer that question, let's back up to my last question.

In a godless world, how would Joseph and Mary react to their inexplicable visit from the magi?

Here is my suggestion: the dynamic would be complex.

For his own part, Joseph finds this experience to be fully convincing. These men show up out of nowhere offering expensive gifts, so they must be from God! Given that notion, Joseph would then accept what they say about the child being marked in the stars as both king and messiah. Altogether, this convinces Joseph that Mary's story is true. In turn, Mary is happy to accept the expensive gifts and happy that Joseph is now offering a stronger and more genuine deference to the story which she demanded that he must believe. At the same time, however, Mary absolutely knows that Jesus's father is not God.

Given these parameters, Mary would welcome Joseph's belief but passionately desire his silence. As long as Joseph keeps it to himself, Mary's position would be greatly improved. In Joseph's eyes, she has given him the opportunity to guide and foster God's own special child! That kind of ego boost would nicely compliment his newfound zeal for this secret religious commitment. At the same time, again, Mary realizes that Joseph has to stay silent about this ridiculous lunacy. If he tells enough people that someone convinces him to snap out of it then he might finally realize her transgression and throw her out with the child. Therefore, on the one hand the magi have given Mary a way to improve her family life, but on the other hand they have made that life even more precarious.

The natural result of something like this would lead to Joseph occasionally bursting with zeal to tell his divine secret and Mary insisting that he must never tell anyone. Over the years, with this ongoing dynamic, there would be only one semi-acceptable outlet for the tension. For Mary to remain consistent with her lie, Jesus would need to be told something someday. For Mary to keep a lid on the lunacy, however, she would want to postpone and minimize that telling as much as possible. Thus, I think we must imagine, Joseph would gradually offer Jesus hints and suggestions, while Mary would take Jesus aside and make up godly reasons why he wasn't ever to tell anyone what his father suggested. If pressed by Jesus, Mary could not betray her own position. In some way or another, however restrained, she would have to confirm the idea for him, at least tacitly.

Thus, over time, Jesus grows up believing that God was his father and that he was destined to be the king and messiah of Israel. Which, obviously, in this scenario, he was not.

In a world without God, where Jesus believed himself divine, if the magi are not what explains this dynamic... I don't know what kind of story we could invent to explain it more effectively.

This ends my thought experiment.

In closing, I have three quick reflections to offer.

First, I offer this sincerely as an effort to try on other peoples' suppositions. We need more historical hypothesizing. We need to generate multiple scenarios as often as possible. We need to stop merely coming up with ways to defend our own views. If we are to be historians, let us explore possibilities.

Second, as a person of faith I sincerely confess to being genuinely intrigued by this atheistic scenario. I have genuinely enjoyed applying historical imagination to these suppositions. I have enjoyed playing through this scenario. That said, this is not the scenario I prefer. Let me say that again: the word is prefer. Up until now, I continue to make it my personal preference to choose a faith-based position at the end of the day. That does not prevent me from exploring scenarios. More importantly, my faith does not require me to defend it. One should not attempt to prove what can only be taken on faith. Moreover, if christian beliefs are valid and true then our foundational tenets are *meant* to be taken on faith. Why anyone would try to take faith away from believers, I do not understand.

Third, my most longstanding goal here is that christian believers might begin to think historically about the contents of scripture. To that end, I would suggest that a christian re-thinking of this blog post is highly recommendable. Altering the three suppositions at top would alter very little of my thought experiment, except those suppositions themselves. If God is real, the historical magi are still extreme religious tourists. If Mary was impregnated by the holy spirit, the historical Joseph would still have struggled to believe her. If some weird light in the sky actually led the magi to that home, Joseph's perception of it would still be extreme randomness, which would still inspire belief. If Joseph was bursting with a mixture of pride and divine awe, and if Mary knew that her story was true, there were lots of reasons for both of them to urge each other to remain silent as much as possible. Thus, a very similar dynamic would have developed for Jesus's upbringing. On top of all that, if Jesus did have a divine connection with God, there was also spiritual growth to be found... but my point to you, christian folks, is that ALL of these dynamics are worth considering. ALL of these notions are worth extrapolating into a four-dimensional vision of what was actually happening in the rest of the lifetime of this one whom our scripture attests.

There are lots of good reasons to imagine historical scenarios. Try on multiple scenarios. Try on faith. Try on atheism. Imagine the past as a ongoing series of meta-dynamics.

Challenge suppositions. Test the scripture.

That might, sometimes, in surprising ways... bring the scripture to life.


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