A wise man on Christmas


Q & A With Joseph J. Walsh


When Joseph J. Walsh teaches the History of Christmas course at Loyola College, students learn that many of their seasonal celebrations are not the ancient traditions most had assumed they were.

But what's their biggest surprise?

"The amount of work," says the Loyola classics and history professor.

Which make sense. History of Christmas sounds like a course you tuck onto your schedule to have a break between quantum physics and Restoration comedy.

But one conversation with Walsh lets you know that's not the case. Asking a simple question about some bit of the Christmas panoply is like poking a stick into a hornet's nest - out come a dizzying array of facts and figures, rhetoric and research, that lets you know this is a serious topic of academic inquiry.

Walsh, 52, is a graduate of Fairfield University with a doctorate from the University of Texas. In addition to the early Christian era, he researches the Roman conquest of Greece.

Walsh's book Were They Wise Men or Kings? The Book of Christmas Questions was published in 2001. He regularly gives a lecture titled "The Two Christmases" to interested groups.

So, what is the answer to the question in your book's title? Were they wise men or kings?

The answer is, really neither. So it's a trick question. Only two of the four evangelical gospels, Matthew and Luke, have anything about the birth of Jesus, and these figures are only mentioned in Matthew, where they are called magi. That's a term that actually refers to astrologers, who were preeminent intellectuals in the ancient world, when practically everyone believed in divination. There was no distinction between astrologers and astronomers. People who could read the sky and divine its meanings could read and write and do complex mathematics. So magi were a pretty elite group.

It was not until later that the idea came along that they might be kings. It has nothing to do with the original account. One of the things early Christians did to try to make sense of their faith is to look to the Old Testament. They would get some New Testament account and start combing through the Old Testament looking for passages that would make sense of Jesus' life. So they come across Psalm 72, 10:11 which talks about kings from three different places bringing gifts to pay tribute to whomever. They put that together with the three gifts in Matthew and say, aha, clearly the magi were actually kings. That's typical of the early Christians' thinking, how they went about filling in the blanks of the Nativity account.

By the way, one of the things you will notice if you actually look at Matthew is, he never says how many magi or kings there are. There are the three gifts, but they could be brought by two magi or three or five or seven or 200.

And you know the ox and ass that are typical in pictures of the Nativity? They are not in either Matthew or Luke. Again, that comes from the Old Testament, Isaiah 1:3 - "An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master's manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood."

The idea here is that Israel and the Jews did not accept Jesus. And then you have this whole crib/manger thing. So when artists start depicting the Nativity with an ox and ass, the idea is not that they were really there but that they should remind people of this passage in Isaiah. Over time, people assume an ox and an ass are there, even though they are not mentioned in either Matthew or Luke.

What do we know about when Christ was born?

This gets unbelievably complicated. The chronology is problematic. Herod the Great, the villain of the slaughter of the innocents, died in 4 B.C. So, in terms of when Jesus was born, you're already lost on that one. The other date we have is for Quirinius, who might have ordered the census that was supposed to have sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. He becomes governor of Syria in 6 A.D. So what do we do about this 10-year gap?

Then you have Luke telling us that Jesus began his public ministry around the age of 30, when the emperor Tiberius was in the 15th year of his reign. That would have been in 27 or 28 A.D. You go back 30 years and you are at 2 or 3 B.C. The earliest Quirinius could do the census is 6 A.D. So you are eight years off.

What probably happened is a kind of garbling. Much later, as the story was told over the years, somehow the story of a census that might have occurred when the northern part of the Holy Land came under direct Roman control got attached to people's recollection of when Jesus was born. Either that, or Herod has to go out the window.

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