Are the details of the Bible’s account of Christ’s life important? Was the historical reporting of the Bible accurate in relating the facts about Christ’s birth? Can we believe the more miraculous and supernatural aspects of the virgin birth and the appearance of angels and fulfillment of prophecy and more if we aren’t even confident in the factual reporting of the more natural aspects of the story?
There are many details in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus which have caused scholars to disagree, question, and find the need to contextualize or interpret the Bible’s history as something other than a literal recounting of the facts. So, let’s take just one example of a contested issue in the Biblical account of the Christmas story and consider whether or not it is factually true as written.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, it says,
“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands [ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν] arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ], and we have come to worship him.'” – Matthew 2 (NLT)
This translation of the original Greek text certainly reflects the commonly held belief that the wise men or “magi” (literally “μάγοι” in the Greek and believed to be kings, astrologers, scientists, priests, or scholars of the day) came from some land east of Israel in response to seeing a star that arose to announce the coming of a king. However, as the text continues, we start to see an inconsistency in this translation of the original Greek, because after meeting with the local king it says,
“And the star they had seen in the east [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ] guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!” – Matthew 2 (NLT)
The star appearing in the east is actually more likely what the first reference to the star is saying as well, when you look at a more literal translation,
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east [ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν] to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ], and are come to worship him.'” – Matthew 2 (KJV)
It appears that the Bible may be proposing a paradox. How is it possible that wise men from the east, could see a star in the east, and follow it east to discover a king in Israel, which would be to their west as they set out in this supposed scenario? Does this mean the Bible is making some spiritual point and not accurately conveying the history about the arrival of the magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Are we supposed to look past this inconsistency to believe the broader retelling of the story without pondering what this paradox might be highlighting? Did the wise men come at all, or is this really more of a mythological reference to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh as testimony to the identity of Jesus as a king, inserted by the writer of the Gospel account as a literary allusion and not intended as a historical detail?
The answer is, the wise men did come from the East and follow a star they saw in the east, just like Matthew’s text says.
To understand how this is possible, first you need to understand that the language of the original text of the New Testament was Koine Greek (the “lingua franca” of the Hellenized world of first century Israel), and then you need to look at a map.
The Gospel writer says that the wise men came from “ἀνατολῶν” following a star in the “ἀνατολῇ” both words coming from the Greek term “ἀνατολή”, meaning “East” or “Rising of the Sun”. However, it is interesting to note that in reference to the star the writer uses the definite article “τῇ” to identify “the” east, whereas when speaking about the origin of the wise men the writer simply says they were “ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν” or “from East” which many have assumed includes an implied definite article, but does it?
Now, considering that the Gospel account is written in Koine Greek, originating in Greece. Take a look at a map of Greece and then look at what is directly to the east of Greece — Turkey. And what was the Greek term for Turkey in the first century (long before the Turks had arrived on the scene)? Anatolia, coming from “ἀνατολή” — East, or the Rising of the Sun. Greece literally named the neighboring land east of Greece, “East”.
When Matthew put pen to paper to write the Gospel account of the arrival of the wise men at the birth of Christ, there was no difference in terminology between the name of what eventually became modern day Turkey (a land to the north and west of Israel) and the word indicating the ordinal direction “east”. The only clue in the text is the grammar around the implied definite article in “ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν”, “From East” or “From Anatolia” instead of “From The Anatolia” whereas the star was seen “ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ” or “in the east” indicating the ordinal direction.
Understanding this distinction makes it clear how a traveler from Anatolia, which was north and west of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, could see a star in the east (apparently the southeast) and follow it to find the king of the Jews, just as the Gospel writer recounted.
And, in case this linguistic analysis isn’t enough evidence that this particular detail of the story is accurate as written, consider one more statement by the Gospel writer regarding the wise men,
“When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” – Matthew 2 (NLT)
Once again looking at the map you will see that Jerusalem is basically due north of Bethlehem. So, if the wise men had come from east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem — from Babylon or Persia for instance — there wouldn’t have been any need for them to pass Jerusalem coming in or on their return trip. However, coming from Anatolia, they would have been traveling basically due south by the time they hit Jerusalem which also explains why they arrived in Jerusalem before making it to Bethlehem even though they were following Christ’s star for directions. It’s not that they wandered off their path or somehow lost track of the star, it was that because they were coming from the north the star had to lead them directly through Jerusalem in order to get to Bethlehem to the south. And so, when looking to return to Anatolia from Bethlehem and avoid the local king, Herod, in Jerusalem, they were forced to plot a less direct route home and cut out around Jerusalem somehow, rather than taking the most direct course home to Anatolia, due north right back through Jerusalem.
As is often the case in the Bible, the answers are there for discovering if you are willing to persist until you find them. Just as the account of the wise men arriving is factually accurate as written, if you approach the entire Bible as both a spiritual text and a factual history, you will discover that many of the elements of scripture that have been misunderstood or used to discount the Bible over the years are not inaccurate in the writing of the text, but became inaccurate in the understanding of its meaning after the fact. The story of the wise men from “East” traveling “east” to celebrate the birth of Jesus should be a great reminder that God’s Word tells a story that is true on every level from historical and factual to allegorical and metaphorical to spiritual and divine as the Bible recounts the holy and absolute truth of God’s passionate purpose, mission, and desire to reach and to save each one of us.
So, with this as just one small example, it is my prayer that your confidence can rest assured that even those areas of the Bible that have not yet been fully corroborated, explained, or confirmed by external sources are true as written and contain within them the accurate account of God’s promises, God’s will, and God’s grace for you, because that is why God provided it in the first place.
“And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” – Matthew 2 (NLT)