The Divine Message of Freedom

The Divine Message of Freedom

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From the print edition of The New American:

It came to pass in the fullness of time that the sons of Seth grew wise in their understanding of the heavens, and having kept the traditions passed down to them through the many ages of man remained faithful to them. At the appointed time on the 25th of each month, they gathered at their Mountain of Victories, where they kept their treasures and their sacred mysteries, and where, their prophecy told them, the Messiah would be announced to them. And though many generations had passed without the fulfillment of the prophecy, they gathered faithfully, in the joy of hope that it would be they that would be chosen of all the generations.

And as foretold, so it came to pass that when they approached the sacred mountain a light came to them. And they saw “the form of an ineffable pillar of light descending… And we were afraid and shook when we saw it. And we cannot speak about the brilliance of the star of light since its radiance was many times greater than the sun, and the sun could not stand out before the light of its rays. And just like the moon looks in the daytime in the days of Nisan, when the sun rises and it is absorbed in its light, so also did the sun seem to us when the star rose over us. And the light of the star, which surpassed the sun, appeared to us ourselves and the sons of our mysteries, but it did not appear to anyone else, because they were removed from its mysteries and its coming. And we rejoiced, and glorified, and gave unmeasured thanks to the Father of heavenly majesty that it appeared in our days and we were thought worthy to see it.”

And, as prophesied, the wise sons of Seth and their retinue set out to follow the miraculous star of light.

“And we went forth in great joy, our hearts exulting to come to the place that was commanded to us, to worship the vision of the star of infinite light. And the star, our guide, our good messenger, our perfect light, our glorious leader, again appeared for us, going before us and upholding our whole caravan from all sides, and enlightening us by its hidden light. And we had no need of the light of the sun or of the moon, because their light became diminished in its sight, and by night and by day we walked in its light, exulting and rejoicing without distress or weariness.”

A New King

The foregoing is a summary and partial retelling of the gnostic fable, only translated to English in recent years, known as The Revelation of the Magi. It purports to tell more of the story of the Magi than is recorded by the Apostle Matthew in the Gospel account. Though the story of the Magi, or wise men, has never ceased to be a popular part of the Christmas story, it has long been doubted and dismissed by scholars as implausible at best. According to religious studies Professor Brent Landau, translator of The Revelation of the Magi, “Scholars have by and large concluded that there is virtually nothing of historical value in the infancy narratives of the New Testament. This judgment has been applied with particular vigor to the Magi story.

The modern bias against the historicity of the biblical accounts is a flaw not in the Bible itself, but only in the perception of scholars who doubt the accounts. It is easy for skeptical moderns to doubt biblical stories, however, because the Bible is not written as history. As Father Dwight Longenecker points out in his Mystery of the Magi, a study of the origins and historicity of Matthew’s account of the wise men and the birth of Jesus Christ, Bible skeptics miss the point. “Everyone can admit that [the Gospels] were not written as strictly historical documents,” Father Longenecker notes, “but neither are they fairy tales…. The gospels, following on the Old Testament and consistent with their Jewish origins, include much that is verifiable history.”

That verifiable history is crucial to keep in mind, though doing so is very hard to the modern mind. Present-day Westerners, sadly including most Christians, have let themselves be divorced from the history of civilization, to such a degree that anything that happened beyond the memory of the oldest living generation has become the tiresome fable of an unknown country, irrelevant at best, and dull and tiresome to most.

Yet the stories of the Bible took place in the real world, a world of men and women, engineers and scholars, magicians and priests, rulers and conquerors. The New Testament tells of the birth, life, death, and salvific mission of Jesus Christ, something that takes place not in an anonymous backwater at the far ends of the Earth, but in a mighty and crucial province of the fledgling Roman Empire. The characters known from the Gospels lived and worked in that place and time, contemporaries of Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Pompey the Great, and Octavian.

Within this milieu, the story of the wise men who came from the East with gifts for the newborn King not only makes sense but is nearly exactly what one who is familiar with the diplomatic and political traditions of the time and place would expect. After all, if a new king comes to a throne, existing rulers in that region would be expected to send emissaries. If the story of the wise men is taken seriously, it becomes an important part of understanding an important teaching that runs through both the New and Old Testaments. Specifically, that teaching is that it is the individual that matters and that collective action, specifically government, while allowed to exist, frequently breaks its proper bounds, and becomes through the temptation of power both the agent of and conduit for evil in the world.

This article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.

Courtesy of The New American