The Magus and the Scribe:
 A Christmas Story

When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda in the days of king Herod, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet: And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda are not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel (Matthew 2:1-6).

The Magi were astronomers, the scientists of their day. Of course they had a lot of superstition mixed in with their science; they are called astrologers in new translations indicating this, but one shouldn’t underestimate them as scientists. Even contemporary scientists have plenty of superstition attached to their science, such as the theory of evolution, which is just superstition. These ancient scientists were terrific naked eye astronomers. A professor at Boston University, Gerald Hawkins, in studying the Stonehenge monument in England, discovered that it was a celestial observatory. The inner ring of standing stones are for purposes of predicting the equinoxes and the solstices; that had been known for some time. But in the outer ring of the monument there are fifty-six holes in the ground, called Aubrey holes. Professor Hawkins figured out that if you put a movable stone in one of the holes, and moved it once a year, you could predict both solar and lunar eclipses, by the way it lined up with the four standing stones. Astronomers had never thought that eclipses came in a fifty-six year cycle, so he ran all the data on eclipses through a computer, and found that they do come in a fifty-six year cycle. No contemporary astronomers with their 200 inch telescope at Mount Palomar had ever discovered that, but these Neo-lithic, New Stone Age men, had figure it out just, by naked eye observation. So we shouldn’t underestimate the science of these Magi.

But also they were looking for the True Faith. They were from Persia, and probably in contact with the Jews of the Diaspora. The Jews of the Diaspora knew that the time of prophecy of Daniel, concerning the seventy weeks was up, and the Messiah was due to be born in Judea. The Magi were probably familiar with this, and when the miraculous star appeared, they said this must signify the birth of the Messiah, and they came to Jerusalem to adore him.

Now I have a contemporary Magus, a Dr. Robert Jastrow, a NASA space scientist and astronomer, who was led to God by his study of the stars. To be able to follow Dr. Jastrow’s argument, I will have to review the theory of the Expanding Universe. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is supposed to look like a pinwheel that is slowly turning. We are inside this flat disk looking out, so we can’t see what the whole galaxy looks like. This pinwheel was arrived at from studying our sister galaxy Andromeda, the closest galaxy to us,  which has this shape. In 1913 an American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, discovered that some stars had a blue shift and some had a red. He was  using a prism to break up the light coming in from the stars, into the colors of the rainbow, red to blue.  The spectral or  Fraunhofer lines, the thin black lines, which go through the rainbow colors, indicate the chemical makeup of the light source.   For instance, if you burned sulphur, and then broke up the light from that sulphur with a prism, there would be a definite pattern of Fraunhofer lines, indicating sulphur. This is how helium was discovered; it was actually discovered in the sun, before it was found on earth.  Slipher noticed that in some stars the Fraunhofer lines where shifted to the red end of the spectrum, and some to the blue end. He noticed that the stars that are coming toward us, the stars in one arm of our pinwheel galaxy, had a blue shift, whereas the other stars that were moving away from us, were shifted to the red end. So he concluded that this must be a Döppler effect. The Döppler effect was originally for sound waves. As a truck approaches blowing its horn, we hear high notes, the short sound waves, but when it passes, we hear low notes, the long sound waves. Slipher said that the same phenomenon holds true for light waves. The blue waves are the short waves, and the red are the long. So the stars in one arm of our galaxy that are coming towards us have the blue shift, and the others that are going away have the red shift.

Then in 1929, one of Slipher’s students, Edwin Hubble, with the new 100 inch telescope at Mount Wilson, discovered that all the galaxies have the red shift, which would mean that they are all receding from us. So Hubble with others, formulated the Expanding Universe Theory. The universe he said is like a big balloon covered with polka dots representing the galaxies, which is being blown up. As the balloon gets bigger all the dots pull away from each other. If you run backward in time, all the galaxies must have been closer together, and if you keep going you will get to a time when all the matter of the universe was compressed into one solid mass. In this theory the universe has a beginning, it was once one solid mass that must have blown up. Where did it come from? This theory is sometimes called the creation theory. Also in this theory the universe has an end. As all the galaxies pull further and further apart their suns will all die. Previous to this all the “scientific” theories held that the universe was static, and that it had existed from all eternity. There was no beginning and no end.

As early as 1951, Pope Pius XII in an Address to the Pontifical Academy of Science pointed out that this theory of astronomy should lead any scientist of good will to God. It does have at least one scientific fact to support it, the red shift, and it seems to be reasonable. Now that didn’t make any news. Dog bites man; no news. But man bites dog; that’s news. A few Christmases ago a prominent NASA astronomer, Dr. Robert Jastrow, who had formerly identified himself as an agnostic, brought out a book about the Expanding Universe Theory entitled Until the Sun Dies, the title meaning till the end of the world. The galaxies will have pulled so far apart that they will all be dead. In it he said that the Expanding Universe Theory should lead us to God. It immediately made big news. He was on all the TV programs, the radio talk shows, newspapers, etc., because that was what the poor people wanted to hear, especially just before Christmas. There is a God; one of the NASA men says that there is a God. I am calling him my Magus, because he was led to God by the stars. Here he is in Until the Sun Dies:

“After the second world war, the great power of the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain was brought to bear on the problem of the receding galaxies and again Slipher’s discovery was confirmed; every galaxy within range of this mammoth instrument was retreating from the earth at an enormous speed.

“Many more measurements have been made on Palomar Mountain and elsewhere, down to the present day, and no exception has been found to the rule discovered by Slipher. Regardless of the direction in which we look out into space, all the distant objects in the heavens are moving away from us and from one another. The Universe is blowing up before our eyes, as if we are witnessing the aftermath of a gigantic explosion.

“Consider the implications of this picture. If the galaxies are moving apart, at an earlier time they must have been closer together than they are today. At a still earlier time, they must have been still closer together. Continue to move backward in time in your imagination; the outward motions of the galaxies, reversed in time, bring them closer and closer; eventually, they come into contact; their materials mix; finally, the matter of the Universe is packed together into one dense mass under enormous pressure, and with temperatures ranging up to trillions of degrees. The dazzling brilliance of the radiation in this dense, hot Universe must have been beyond description. The picture suggests the explosion of a cosmic hydrogen bomb. The instant in which the cosmic bomb exploded marked the birth of the Universe.

“Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to the biblical view of the origin of the world. All the details differ, but the essential element in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis is the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply, at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.” 1

Jastrow  in a later book, God and the Astronomers, has an amusing and charming summary of his new discovery:

“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but theologians. They always accepted the word of the Bible, ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth.’ To which St. Augustine added, ‘Who can understand this mystery or explain it to others?’ But we scientists did not expect to find evidence for abrupt beginning because we have had until recently such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time.

“Now we would like to pursue that inquiry further back in time, but the barrier to progress seems insurmountable. It is not a matter of another theory. At the moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of Creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the highest peak: as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”  2

That’s my idea of a Magus of a few Christmases ago. Remember that the Magi went to Jerusalem and asked: “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?” and all Jerusalem was troubled, including the “scribes of the people.” They knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and they also knew that the Messiah was due to be born, because the seventy weeks of Daniel were up. But they didn’t go down with the Magi to adore. Now I have a contemporary scribe, Fr. Raymond Brown, who is also not going down to Bethlehem to adore. On the same Christmas as Robert Jastrow’s Until the Sun Dies, Fr. Raymond Brown brought out his The Birth of the Messiah, in which he denies the historicity of the entire Christmas story. Here is his introduction:

“In some ways the narratives of Jesus’ birth and infancy are the last frontier to be crossed in the relentless advance of the scientific (critical) approach to the Gospels. For more conservative Christians this frontier may be completely without demarcation, since there are still many who do not recognize that the infancy material has an origin and a historical quality quite different from the rest of the Gospels. For such Bible readers the coming of the magi and the appearance of angels to the shepherds, have exactly the same historical value as the stories of Jesus’ ministry. Yet the stories of the ministry depend, in part at least, on traditions that have come down from the disciples of Jesus who accompanied him during that ministry, while we have no reliable information about the source of the infancy material. This does not mean that the infancy narratives have no historical value, but it does mean that one cannot make assumptions about their historicity on the basis of their presence in the Gospels.” 3

This book is 600 pages long in small type, and reads like the proverbial telephone book, yet the media, ever alert for anti-Catholic material, pounced on it. They usually like to get a Catholic to do their dirty work for them, and in this case the very liberal, Kenneth L. Woodward obliged, producing a two page illustrated spread for Newsweek magazine entitled “Christmas As It Was.” He writes:

“Of all the stories told about Jesus those describing his birth are at once the most popular, and historically the least plausible. In fact of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ birth, and even they differ greatly on many details. Most modern biblical scholars concede the impossibility of proving the historicity of the Infancy Narratives, and many are piously offended by the fabulous details, especially the bright star and the resplendent Magi, which give the Christmas story a legendary caste. Just as piously however, Christians each year display miniature creches, sing carols, and preach sentimental sermons about the baby Jesus. Now in The Birth of the Messiah, 594 pages, Doubleday, $12.50, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, a distinguished professor of biblical studies at the Union Theological Seminary has produced a line by line exegesis of the Infancy Narratives that not only synthesizes a generation of modern scholarship, but also provides a coherent and compelling explanation of what the stories of Christ’s birth were meant to convey.”   4

Let me again review once again how modern biblical scholarship works. First you have to do the sitz im leben, the life situation; you have to put yourself in the position of the people for whom the Gospel was written, the Jewish, Christian community. Then you examine, what were the literary forms of that Jewish, Christian community; how did they like to tell stories? Their most popular literary form was the midrash. They would make up stories which had a Scriptural base. They would give a little quote from Scripture, and then just elaborate on it, build up a pious story around it for edifying purposes. It was not intended to be taken historically. This approach is called form criticism. Woodward continues:

“Brown thinks that those Christmas events which are least plausible as history, make good  theological sense when understood as rewriting of Old Testament scenes or themes. ‘Matthew’s story of the Magi who saw the star of the Davidic Messiah at its rising, is an echo of the Old Testament story of Balaam who saw the star rise out of Jacob.'” 5

The primitive Christian, Jewish community took the story of Balaam and the star,  (“A star shall rise out of Jacob and a scepter shall spring up from Israel” Numbers 24:17), and just made up this story about the star and the Magi. It is a midrash, a little pious tale that is just meant to edify,  and not intended to be taken as history.

Let me turn again to the late Monsignor John E. Steinmueller who is always wonderful. Here he is defending the historicity of the Infancy Narratives in his excellent The Sword of the Spirit:

“Because of the miraculous elements they contain, numerous modern critics hold that the infancy narratives, in particular, are not historical. This has no solid basis, and can arise only from a dislike for the supernatural. The history of the infancy of Our Lord (Luke 1-2; cf. Also Matthew 1-2) has always been accepted as genuine, and no convincing arguments can be produced to dispute the integrity of these chapters. They are in all the Greek manuscripts. The probable use, by the author, of a Hebrew or Aramaic source explains why there are so many Hebraisms in this part of the book.”  6

And here is Monsignor Steinmueller on midrash:

“The infancy narratives do indeed include various types of literary forms. But do they include midrash, as some modern interpreters claim? Midrash, a form of literature peculiar to the Jews, means a biblical narrative understood or interpreted in a rather free manner to inculcate some ethical truths or lessons. We cannot see how the inspired writers of the infancy Gospels could possibly accept an historical truth and then create around it imaginative, fictitious, decorative details, so as to embellish or accentuate early Christian truths, and to have early converts to Christianity believe firmly in these so-called secondary details which were steadily passed on to us by way of living tradition. If supernatural elements were reduced in all cases to the natural level, the entire infancy Gospels would come under the direct influence of the historical-critical method of the Bultman school. Sad to say, many Catholic scholars fail to see the disastrous implications of that method..”  7

So much for form criticism. The next step is redaction criticism. This method sees the Evangelists as redactors or editors who had hundreds of these midrash in front of them. Matthew for instance chose one of these midrash, the story of the Magi, for a theological purpose, in this case a polemical purpose. He was trying to show how the Gentiles accepted the birth of Jesus, while the Jews rejected Him. First comes form criticism and then redaction criticism. Here is Woodward again:

“Brown is at his most original however when he teases out the finer meanings behind the familiar Christmas images by relating them to the author’s evangelical intent. For example the Magi appear only in Matthew’s account, where they represent the believing Gentiles who after Jesus’ death accepted him as Lord. But Matthew as a good Jew, has the Magi stop first in Jerusalem to consult Scripture scholars on the exact meaning of the revelation that they first received from the stars. In this way Matthew not only preserves the unique authority of Scripture, but also emphasizes the polemical point that Gentiles were able to recognize the fulfillment of that Scripture, while the Jewish scribes could not.” 8

Father Brown is just using the name “Matthew” for convenience, he doesn’t believe that St. Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name. This is redaction criticism in action. The redactor isn’t writing history but just telling a story for polemical purposes. Woodward concludes his review:

“Seven years in the making Brown’s monumental work is already being hailed by scholars as a balanced yet original commentary that is likely to stand up for at least a generation. Equally important Brown has demonstrated that modern scholarship can aid the Christian imagination in developing a mature response to the Gospels most popular story. Indeed, by Brown’s account, the focus of Christmas celebrations should be on the arrival of a savior who was to suffer and die for man, not on a sentimental baby Jesus. For this, ordinary Christians can thank this priestly scholar for helping them to put the adult Christ back into Christmas.” 9

How would you like that for a bumper sticker? Put the Adult Christ Back Into Christmas! Talk about missing the point of Christmas!

Let me turn now to my favorite Cardinal, Cardinal Paul Taguchi, the Cardinal Archbishop of Osaka, and his wonderful position paper On the Study of Sacred Scripture, which was reprinted in full in the L’Osservatore Romano. Monsignor Steinmueller has included it as an Appendix in his little book The Sword of the Spirit. Here is the Cardinal’s summary of  modern “scientific” Scriptural exegesis:

“Abuse of historical and critical methods.

“Prominent among these methods are the theories concerning the history of forms (Formgeschichte), and the history of composition (Redaktiongeschichte). The first dwells mainly on the creative role of the community, and the second on the creative genius of the writer.

“In practice, these methods take their origin and growth from rationalistic conceptions of philosophy and theology, which are opposed to the supernatural character of Sacred Scripture. So it is only natural that they should be out of focus with respect to the object upon which they are supposed to be used, namely, a book written by God via human instruments, which is not simply a record of the history of a people, but rather a narrative of the intervention of God in that history.

“Let loose upon the Gospels, these theories have remarkable effects. The first theory leads to the suggestion that the authors of the Gospels were no more than editors who more or less arbitrarily pieced together the creations of the primitive and impersonal community. According to this, the only things we can know about Jesus Christ are what the primitive community thought about him, Then, again, the second theory presents the idea that the evangelists were really theologians who added their own opinions, interpretations, and philosophies of life to the Gospels to give them a theological unity. The net result is that inspiration, authenticity, and historical accuracy all go by the board.” 10

Father Brown claims that we do not really know where Jesus was actually born. After the Resurrection the early Christian communities decided that He must have been born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of the prophecies. It is a delight to hear Cardinal Taguchi call such notions “pseudo-scientific nonsense”:

“There are countless examples of such pseudo-scientific nonsense…

“To mention but one example: the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem is known to us because St. Luke says so in his Gospel; and this we know for a fact regardless and independently of whether or not the same fact is confirmed by other non-biblical sources, and with a greater degree of certainty than that which the other sources can afford. It is also know to us as an historical fact, and not as some notion contrived by the early Christian communities who, having finally believed in Christ as the Messiah, then took for granted that He must have been born in Bethlehem, in keeping with the prophecies.” 11

So I hope you can see my little Christmas story: a man, a Magus, who is led to God by the study of the stars, and a scribe from Jerusalem, who although he knew the Scriptures, did not go down this Christmas to adore. So I think we should pray for Dr. Jastrow; he was an atheist, now he believes in God, but he needs to believe that Jesus is God. But we should also include in our prayers Fr. Raymond Brown, because among those priests and scribes who knew that the seventy weeks of Daniel were up, and that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, was Nicodemus, who came to Our Lord by night,  and Gamaliel, the teacher of St. Paul. Now Nicodemus and Gamaliel at this time did not go down to Bethlehem, but we know that they did later. They are honored in the Church as saints. (R.M., August 3.) So there is a chance for everyone, even Fr. Raymond Brown. 12

Saints Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltassar – Pray for us

Saints Nicodemus and Gamaliel – Pray for us



1  Robert Jastrow, Until the Sun Dies, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1977, pp.23-25.

2  Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1978, pp.25,26.

3  Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday and Co., Garden City, NY, 1977, p.7.

4  Kenneth L. Woodward, “Christmas As It Was,” Newsweek, New York, December 19, 1977, p.89.

5  Woodward, Op. Cit.,p.92.

6  Msgr. John E. Steinmueller, The Sword of the Spirit, Which Is the Word of God, Stella Maris Books, Ft. Worth, TX, 1977, p.81.

7  Steinmueller, Op. Cit., pp.81,82.

8  Woodward, p.92.

9  Woodward, p.92.

10 Paul Cardinal Taguchi, The Study of Sacred Scripture, L’Osservatore Romano, 15 May 1975, reprinted in Msgr. Steinmueller, The Sword of the Spirit, p.100.

11 Taguchi, Op. Cit., p.100.

12 I have heard an unconfirmed report, that in the last few years of his life, when he was teaching at Dunwoodie, Father Brown abandoned his Modernist theories, and taught in a more traditional manner. I hope it is true.