And what this says about how we read the Bible
We all have one in our homes this time of year—a cute, cuddly nativity scene. There’s baby Jesus, of course, right in the middle, flanked by Mary and Joseph, a collection of donkeys and sheep, a few shepherds, perhaps an angel above, and, last but not least, the three wise men.
Let’s talk about those wise men. See, the thing is, if your nativity scene has wise men in it, it’s wrong.
Let’s revisit the story.
Revisiting the Christmas Story
Mary, fully pregnant and ready to give birth, finds herself riding a donkey beside her faithful husband, Joseph, as they make their way to Bethlehem in Jerusalem. After arriving in Bethlehem, they find there’s no room for them in the local inn, but there is a manger, or stable, that has some room.
Having nowhere else to go, Mary and Joseph cozy up in the manger alongside what would surely have been a variety of animals. Once inside, Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son. But not just any son. This was the very Son of God. They name him Jesus after having received earlier instructions to do so.
Shortly after, angels appear to nearby shepherds and announce the good news that the Savior of the world has just been born. A choir of angels then appears and explodes into song, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Then, just as quickly as they came, the angels disappeared.
Understandably curious and awe-struck, the shepherds head off to Bethlehem to see this newborn boy. Once they arrive, they find the boy lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Then, the wise men see a bright, shining star and start heading east, following it towards Jerus—not so fast.
The Case of the Missing Wise Men
This is where things go wrong. We assume the wise men were there at the manger because their story directly follows the birth narrative of Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel. But our assumption leads us astray because the Bible never says the wise men were present at the birth. Instead, it says they visited Jesus when he was about two-years-old.
We know this from the tragic and gruesome details of Herod’s slaughter of young boys in Matthew 2. The wise men, in an epically unwise move, go to King Herod in Jerusalem to ask where the baby boy who is the new “King of the Jews” has been born.
Immediately sensing the threat to his throne and an opportunity to snuff out this newcomer, Herod plays along with the wise men. He tells them to go to Bethlehem and find this new King, then report his location so he could come and
worship kill him. The wise men did find the baby boy, and, indeed, they brought him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home a different way.
Herod, realizing he’s been duped by the wise men, then does what all dictators do when things don’t go their way—he starts killing people. Since he didn’t know which little boy to have killed, he orders every boy two-years-old and under to be killed.
This is how we know when the wise men came to visit Jesus: Herod ascertained the time when the star the wise men had been following appeared, then calculated how old the baby King would be. The answer was two-years-old, perhaps a bit younger.
See for yourself:
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” – Matt. 2:16
Okay, so now you know your nativity is wrong. At the end of the day, I’m not really concerned with whether or not you have the magi in your manger.
What I am concerned about is what this error reveals about how we read the Bible. In particular, it reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture: we don’t read it for ourselves, we assume other people have read it for themselves, and we don’t see what we read.
We Don’t Read the Bible for Ourselves
Bible engagement is, to put it bluntly, abysmal, even within the church. You might even call it an epidemic. In my American culture where unfettered access to the Bible exists in a variety of formats, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible. LifeWay Research, after their recent study of Bible reading, concluded Americans are fond of the Bible but don’t actually read it.
Scott McConnell, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, highlights the problem, saying, “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.” In my experience, “when someone else is reading it” means when they hear a few verses read aloud as part of a weekend sermon.
The reason most of us think the wise men were at the manger is that most of us haven’t read the Bible for ourselves. We haven’t exposed ourselves to the text first-hand, let alone examined it. Most Americans seem content to live in Old Testament times where God’s Word had to come through the mouth of a prophet. Remarking on this trend, Francis Chan writes,
“A mentor of mine lives in India. Last year, he called me on the phone crying, distraught over the state of the church in America. ‘It seems like the people in America would be content to take a selfie with Moses. Don’t they know they can go up the mountain themselves? Why don’t they want to go up the mountain?’”
One of the reasons we don’t want to go up the mountain is because we assume the people we hear the Bible from went up themselves, which leads us to our second problem.
We Assume Other People Have Read the Bible for Themselves
Millions of people missing a small detail of the manger scene is only possible when those people assume others have read the Bible closely and will tell them what they need to know. Perhaps this is why “good Bible teaching” is most important to American churchgoers—we need good Bible teaching or we won’t get any Bible for the week.
Whether it’s teaching in a weekend service, small group, or Bible study, we assume the people talking the most have read the Bible for themselves. That assumption leads us to believe we can trust what they say about it. And even when they say something that sounds off, we haven’t read enough of the Bible to know where to check their understanding.
One of the big takeaways from LifeWay’s recent study was that “people who really like the Bible don’t necessarily really read the Bible.” If the statistics are true—and if we care deeply about our eternity—we would be wise not to assume people talking about the Bible have actually read it.
But what about those of us who do read the Bible? How have we read the birth narratives in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 without noticing the time gap between the shepherds and wise men? Because even when we read the Bible, we don’t see what we read.
We Don’t See What We Read
Of the small percentage of Americans who read the Bible, an even smaller percentage actually know how. Literacy—knowing how to read—is not the only skill needed to read a thousands-year-old collection of books written in ancient cultures by people from a world that looked vastly different than ours. Hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting ancient documents, is necessary for people in America in 2017 to read a book written in Rome or Israel thousands of years earlier, even if it doesn’t go by that name.
At a basic level, everyone in the church should have access to other, more mature believers who can show them how to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The value in teaching something like hermeneutics is in helping Christians properly interpret what they’re reading in the Scriptures. The real goal, though, of hermeneutics is to train people to see the Bible.
Most of us read things at such a speed that we don’t notice much of what’s there. We miss context, innuendo, previous references, etc. We see so little because we don’t give ourselves time to look. We read through our passage so we can check the box on our reading plan, or swipe right in our Bible app.
If we want to learn to read the Bible, we must learn to see the Bible.
A Way Forward
Do you need to throw away your nativity if it has wise men? No. But you might need to chart a way forward with your own Bible reading habit. There are a few ways to get started.
First, read the Bible. Just read it. You won’t learn to love the Bible until you learn to read the Bible. So, tolle lege—take up and read!
Next, find someone to teach you how to read it well. If that’s not an option, make use of one of the great online resources available, like David Platt’s Secret Church on How to Study the Bible, or Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s class on Interpreting and Teaching the Bible.
Finally, pray for God to give you a hunger for the Bible. Ultimately, we don’t read the Bible because we don’t delight in reading it. Pray for that delight as you continue to immerse yourself in the wonders of the Word.
Please, don’t put your eternity in someone else’s hands. Read the Bible for yourself.