I was privileged recently to go on a pilgrimage with Fr. Dwight Longenecker and forty-eight other pilgrims to the Holy Land. We were retracing the steps of the Magi from Jordan into Israel. The pilgrimage was based on the historical detective work that Fr. Longenecker produced in his book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. One of the main points of this intriguing book is to demythologize the story of the Magi and root them in history. Why does this story need demythologizing? There is nothing overtly harmful to the faith in the present-day retelling of the “three kings,” typically named “Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar,” who come from distant countries like “Persia, Babylonia, and India.” The only issue is that parts of it are fable. It is these fable-parts that are used to attack the faith, calling it just another made-up myth of the Church. Fr. Longenecker’s book blunts this attack by placing the Magi in a historical context.
Modern secularists like to cast a wide net, portraying not only Christmas, but also the life of Christ as fable. They say there was no virgin birth, no miracles, and no resurrection. According to them, we can know very little about the historical Jesus, what he did or said, or even if he existed at all. God becoming man is just another made-up story, falling into the genre of ancient Near East mystery religions. In short, Jesus is a myth. Worse yet, the people who believe the myth are foolhardy and weak of mind. Marx and Lenin called religion the ‘opium for the people.’ Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to write children’s books trying “to save kids” from the perils of religion. Christmas is scary!
In one sense, they are right. Christianity is myth. Christianity highlights the themes of good and evil, tragedy and triumph, supernatural feats and ordinary failings. The archetypal hero with a thousand faces can be seen in the Bible. These profound undercurrents of truth run deeply through the human soul. Christianity is a myth, but it is, as C. S. Lewis called, a ‘true myth:’ “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” God’s myth is greater than man’s myth, as it is incarnational in nature.
C.S. Lewis’ good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, penned a modern-day mythic tale in his Lord of the Rings books, weaving in Catholic themes about heroes, truth, death and redemption. G.K. Chesterton spoke about Christianity as the fulfillment of myth as well: “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.” God’s true story is revealed to us in the events of the life of Christ.
Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton used myth in the truest and most profound sense of the word. That is, all the spiritual truths that percolated up into ancient man’s mind found their realization in the person of Christ. The use of myth today is more of the petty, slanderous kind, with accusations of “untruth.” Think of the ancient Christian “Icthys”fish symbol (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” used by 1st century Christians to mark secret meeting spots in the time of pagan persecutions), which is now mocked on cars with the labels “science” or “Darwin.” The irony is that the more science digs into Christianity, the more evidence of its truth is discovered. This has been no more evident than in recent Biblical archeological discoveries.
Fr. Longenecker’s book establishes the Magi in history, just as many of the archeological sites we visited on our pilgrimage fix Judaism and Christianity in history. There are the caves at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea where nearly a thousand scrolls or fragments of scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947. These are the writings from the Jewish religious sect known as the Essenes, contemporaries of Jesus. The archeological discovery found copies, in part or in whole, for nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther. More importantly, the 2,000-year-old scrolls show only minor divergences from modern translations of the Old Testament. This proves the many textual critics of the Bible wrong. The text of the Bible has remained intact and substantially unchanged throughout its history.
The pilgrimage also allowed us to see first-hand that we are now in a ‘golden age’ of biblical archeology. Ironically (to some), this golden age is powered by scientific advancements and new disciplines; things like archaeoastronomy, Lidar studies, and ground penetrating radar, to name just a few. There are examples of new discoveries everywhere you go in Israel and Jordan. In 1986, two fisherman and amateur archeologists uncovered the “Jesus boat” in the muddy lakebed in the Sea of Galilee during a severe drought. The fishing boat was radiocarbon-dated to between 120 B.C.-40 A.D., or roughly the time of Christ. The Apostles would have fished in a boat exactly like this one. In 2004, the “Pool of Siloam” was discovered, where Jesus cured a blind man by having him wash mud out of his eyes. (Jn. 9:7) A drainage repair crew working on pipe maintenance uncovered large stone steps down into the pool. In 2007, archeologists discovered the long-lost tomb of Herod at his Herodium fortress. In 2009, while building a retreat house along the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, crews unearthed the remains of a first century synagogue at Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene). This discovery is now the oldest synagogue in the Galilee, with the oldest known representation of the Temple on the “Magdala Stone,” and is likely one of the hallowed grounds where Jesus frequented and taught.
In October 2016, a renovation project funded by National Geographic was done at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Some historians had previously believed that the original cave was not there, not that old, or doubted that this was the actual site of Christ’s burial (and resurrection) at all. An archeologist using ground-penetrating radar, however, proved them wrong. He was able to determine that the original cave walls were, in fact, still present. The simple cave is still there underneath the millennium of marble, icons and incense of the ornate Edicule shrine.
Mortar samples, taken from between the limestone cave-surface and the marble slab of the tomb, carbon-dated to about 345 A.D. This is exactly the right time frame when the Emperor Constantine would have discovered the tomb and built the current shrine around it. The Emperor Hadrian had built a pagan temple to Venus over the Christian holy site, as a means to cover up Christ’s burial spot, and presumably to stop Christian worship there. Constantine subsequently destroyed the pagan shrine and excavated the site around 326 A.D., nearly matching the 345 A.D. date, and lending credence to this being the actual location of Christ’s tomb. Modern science again proved the historical veracity of Christianity.
At no place in the pilgrimage did Old Testament typology burst forth more into New Testament history than at “Shepherd’s Field,” an eastern suburb of Bethlehem. It is the site traditionally where the angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds tending to their sheep. The shepherds were the precursors to the Magi in worshiping the Christ child. The prophet Micah had made an ancient prophecy (8th century B.C.) of the birthplace of the Messiah in the city of David, Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”(Micah 5:2) The Messiah, “the Son of David,” would be born in Bethlehem, like King David before him.
This is the prophecy that was cited to king Herod by his wise men, when the Magi came looking for the newborn king of the Jews. Herod also perverted this into his maniacal slaughter of the innocence in Bethlehem. At Shepherd’s Field, the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, saying: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(Lk. 2:12) This “sign” would be the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy. The shepherds and the location were not coincidental either.
These were no ordinary sheep and no ordinary shepherds. Shepherd’s Field is where thousands of lambs were born and used for the daily sacrifices, and more importantly, the Passover sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, as intimated in the ancient Jewish oral tradition of the Mishnah(e.g., Shekalim, 7.4) and Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Bk.2, Ch.6). The “shepherds” were not ordinary shepherds either, but most likely Levite priests. They were specifically stationed there at Shepherd’s Field to pasture the sheep and preserve the newborn lambs ‘without blemish’or ‘broken bone,’ to meet the requirements of the Law for Temple sacrifices. The unblemished lambs were then chosen from Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem and kept for the annual Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Shepherd’s Field and Bethlehem highlight the convergence of Christ, biblical prophecy, God’s true myth, and archeology. Jesus was the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to the shepherd-priests. It is fitting that when the shepherds came to the manger, they found not a baby lamb, but the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Jesus is the true ‘Lamb of God,’who was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, in order to take away sin and keep us from death. John the Baptist knew Jesus fulfilled this typology of the Passover lamb, saying: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(Jn. 1:29) Like many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, the scriptures, Old Testament typology, and history come together to reveal the divine plan in the person of Jesus Christ.
Diving even deeper into the Old Testament symbology, Jesus is the Passover lamb who must be eaten. He is the fulfillment of God’s true myth rooted in history. The little town of Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew and ‘house of meat’ in Arabic. Bethlehem intimates the ‘bread and flesh’ of Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus was also placed in a manger (i.e., a feeding trough), symbolism hinting that he is food that gives life. It is no wonder that when the shepherd-priests found the newborn Christ-child, as the angel had announced, “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”(Lk. 2:18) This same wonder is with us still in the ongoing afterglow of the birth of Christ.