I said in an earlier sermon that Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have included a potentially embarrassing story of a virgin birth (or, more accurately, virginal conception) unless they also believed it was historically credible. (In Luke’s case, at least, he likely got the story from Mary herself.)
So it is with the magi of Matthew 2:1-12. To say that neither ancient Jews nor Christians held these practitioners of astrology and magic in high regard is an understatement. That Matthew includes them in his birth narrative anyway lends credence to their historicity.
I’m writing this, by the way, not for my own edification, but for anyone who went to mainline Protestant seminary, as I did, whose professors taught them, as some of mine did, that Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are strictly “legendary.”
Oh, the damnable nonsense that I learned during those years! It’s not for nothing that I can’t find my diploma from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, whereas my two from the Georgia Institute of Technology are prized possessions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the experience of Candler—God used it, mercifully to make me a better person—but it’s like being grateful in retrospect for a flood or fire or some other disaster.
Regardless, as the late R.T. France wrote in his commentary:
Many uses of magos, especially in a Jewish or Christian context, are clearly pejorative, notably of the “false prophet” Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6, 8. Not every mention of magi necessarily refers to what we now call “magic,” but it was a grey area from which Jews and Christians preferred to keep their distance. It is therefore remarkable to find Matthew introducing magi into his story without any sign of disapproval. However widely respected the magi may have been in Mesopotamia and more widely in the Greek and Roman world, their title was not one which a careful Christian would willingly introduce without warrant into his account of the origins of his faith. The most satisfactory explanation for their presence in Matthew’s narrative is that this was an element which he had received in his tradition and (probably because the role of the star required them to be identified as such) did not feel at liberty to disguise.[†]