In the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the three wise men are depicted as going to the wrong stable. Instead of finding Jesus’ manger, they mistakenly worship a baby named Brian. Even though it was banned in many places, including entire countries such as Ireland and Norway, the Life of Brian was the fourth highest-grossing film at the time. The opening scene raises an important question. How could the wise men tell which stable the star had “stopped over?“ Go outside some night and try to see which house a star is above.
There are many theories about the star of Bethlehem. Some have contemplated a lineup of planets, a supernova explosion, or even a comet. I don’t care if you have 10 comets all lined up and they all go supernova, they still can’t “stop over” a stable in Bethlehem. It can’t even be a miracle. It isn’t going to happen. It is a physical impossibility for a massive luminous sphere of cosmic plasma to “stop over” a stable on earth. The sun, a medium-sized star, is about 100 times larger than the earth. Now tell me how that is going to point to a particular location on the earth?
But the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel was not so Christians in the twenty-first century could depict their manger scenes with a twinkling star. The shepherds, the wise men, and the star are known as literary devices. They are not meant to be historical records of actual events. They are instead scenes included in the script to make a particular point.
Matthew follows a standard biographical formula from the ancient world. Plutarch’s Life of Cicero followed the same formula. For example, the account of Cicero’s birth included a prophetic vision which foretold that boy who “would be a great blessing to all the Romans.” Cicero’s mother bore Cicero “without travail or pain.” Furthermore, when Cicero “was at the age of taking lessons, his natural talent shown out clear and he won name and fame among all the boys, so that their fathers used to visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes and observe the quickness and intelligence in his studies for which he was extolled.” Compare this with Luke 2:41-52 where boy Jesus is found in Jerusalem with the teachers in the temple courts. “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47 NIV).
Now Plutarch was not proclaiming that Cicero was a god, but the accounts are also not meant to be taken literally. Nobody then or now believed that Cicero was born without travail or pain, or that his family had visions of his greatness. Plutarch included these scenes to show that Cicero was destined to become a great Roman. One way this was done in the ancient world was to show that Cicero was distinguished from other babies even at his birth. Matthew and Luke do the same with the birth of Jesus.
The point of Matthew’s Gospel was that Jesus was God. This is why angels appear to Shepherds and why a star proclaims his birth to wise men. Unfortunately, we live in an age when people worship literal interpretations of the Bible and lose sight of Jesus’ lordship. Take the incident of Jerry Dewitt as reported in the SpokaneFAVS article Former Pentecostal evangelist now preaches about his unbelief. If someone decides they don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible they are soon ostracized by the church. I know this happens because it has happened to me. If Dewitt’s church truly understood Matthew’s point that Jesus is God, then why would they desert him? Is it more important to believe in a literal Star of Bethlehem or to understand Matthew’s point that Jesus was God and that God came to live among us? Isn’t the idea to be with people rather than to condemn them for having unbelief or different beliefs?
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