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§ 19. The Longing of the Heathen for a Saviour.—The Star of the Wise Men.
Not only dwellers about Bethlehem, but also men from a far-distant land, imbued with the longing desires of which we have spoken, were led to the place where Christ was born by a sign suited to their peculiar mode of life, a fact which foreshadowed that the hopes of heathen as well as Jews, unconscious as well as conscious longings for a Saviour, were afterward to be gratified.5353 If this narrative is to be considered as mythical, we must yet ascribe its origin to the same source which produced the Hebrew Gospel, viz., the Jewish-Christian congregations in Palestine—a likely origin, indeed, for a myth ascribing so great interest and importance to uncircumcised heathen! An extravagant exaggeration of the real occurrence was subsequently made, probably from a fragment of one of the recensions of the Hebrew Gospel (Ignat., Epist. ad Ephes., § 19): “The star sparkled brilliantly beyond all other stars; it was a strange and wonderful sight. The other stars, with the sun and moon, formed a choir around it, but its blaze outshone them all.” We have before remarked, that the natural developement of the heathen mind worked in the same direction as the movement of revealed religion among the Jews to prepare the way for Christ’s appearance, which was the aim and end of all previous human history. There is something analogous to the law and the prophets (which, under revealed religion, led directly, and by an organically arranged connexion, to Christ), in the sporadic and detached revelations, which, here and there among the heathen, arose from the Divine consciousness implanted in humanity. As, under the Law, man’s sense of its insufficiency to work out his justification was accompanied by the promise of One who should accomplish what the Law could never do, so, in the progress of the pagan mind under the law of nature, there arose a sense of the necessity of a new revelation from heaven, and a longing desire for a higher order of 26things. The notion of a Messiah, carried about by the Jews in then intercourse with different rations, every where found a point of contact with the religious sense of men; and thus natural and revealed religion worked into each other, as well as separately, in preparing the way for the appearance of Christ.5454 We do not insist upon Tacit., Hist., 5, 13, and Sueton., Vespasian, 4, who speak of a rumour spread over the whole East, of the approaching appearance of the great King, as it is yet doubtful whether these passages are not imitated from Josephus.
Thus it happened that a few sages in Arabia (or in some part of the Parthian kingdom), who inquired for the course of human events in that of the stars, became convinced that a certain constellation or star5555 It is necessary to distinguish what is objectively real in the narrative from what arises from the subjective stand-point of the author of our Matthew’s Gospel, who certainly did not receive the account from an eye-witness. Not merely philological exegesis, but also historical criticism, are required for this; and if the result of such an inquiry be pronounced arbitrary, because it does not either affirm or reject the objective reality of every thing in the account, then must all historical criticism be pronounced arbitrary also, for it has no other mode of procedure in testing the accuracy of a narrative.which they beheld was a token5656 Conf. Bishop Munter’s treatise on the “Star of the Wise Men,” and Ideler’s Chronology, ii., 399. It is immaterial whether the sages were led to seek for the sign by a theory of their own, or by a traditional one. of the birth of the great King who was expected to arise in the East. It is not necessary to suppose that an actual miracle was wrought in this case; the course of natural events, under Divine guidance, was made to lead to Christ, just as the general moral culture of the heathen, though under natural forms, was made to lead to the knowledge of the Saviour.
The Magi studied astrology, and in their study found a sign of Christ. If it offends us to find that God has used the errors of man to lead him to a knowledge of the great truths of salvation, as if thereby He had lent himself to sustain the False, then must we break in pieces the chain of human events, in which the True and the False, the Good and the Evil, are s inseparably linked, that the latter often serves for the point of transition to the former. Especially do we see this in the history of the spread of Christianity, where superstition often paves the way for faith. God condescends to the platforms of men in training them for belief in the Redeemer, and meets the aspirations of the truth-seeking soul even in its error!5757 Hamann strikingly says, “How often has God condescended, not merely to the feelings and thoughts of men, but even to their failings and their prejudices! But this very condescension (one of the highest marks of his love to man), which is exhibited every where in the Bible, affords subjects of derision to those weaklings who look into the word of God for displays of human wisdom, for the gratification of their pert and idle curiosity, or for the spirit of their own times or their own sect.” —Works, i., 58. In the case of the wise men, a real truth, perhaps, lay at the bottom of the error; the truth, namely, that the greatest of all events, which was to produce the greatest revolution in humanity, is actually connected with the epochs of the material 27universe, although the links of the chain may be hidden from our view.
In the narrative before us, we need not attach the same indisputable certainty to the details as to the general substance. That the Magians should be led, by their astrological researches, to a presentiment of the birth of the Saviour in Judea—that their own longings should impel them to journey to Jerusalem and do homage to the infant in whom lay veiled the mighty King—this is the lofty, the Divine element in the transaction, which no one who believes in a guiding, eternal love—no one who is conscious of the real import of a Redeemer—can fail to recognize.
We cannot vouch with equal positiveness for the accuracy of Matthew’s statement of the means by which the sages learned, after their arrival in Jerusalem, that the chosen child was to be born in Bethlehem; but it matters little whether they were directed thither by Herod, or in some other way. At any rate, in so small a place as Bethlehem, they might easily have been guided to the exact place by providential means not out of the common way; for instance, by meeting with some of the shepherds, or other devout persons, who had taken part in the great event; and they, perhaps, described the whole as it appeared to them subjectively, when, after reaching the abode, they looked up at the starry heavens.
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