Epiphany: a great time to talk Magi & biblical errancy

advent-nativity-icon This Church season of Epiphany primarily celebrates the coming of the wise men to see the young Jesus. Now think of the popular conceptions of the “wise men”. I imagine the picture that comes to mind is much like the one above: a quaint manger, farm animals, some shepherds, and the three wise men, presenting their gifts to the newborn Jesus.

I’m not sure how many of us know how wrong this is.

The wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, their paths did not cross at all with the shepherds (that we know of), and, contrary to some of the most well-engrained church and musical traditions, their number is not given–“three” is just a guess. This guess is probably based on the fact that three gifts were offered (though the 6th-century Armenian Infancy Gospel, the source of the Western tradition of the wise men’s names and ethnicities, lists far more than just three gifts). The Eastern Church tradition even says it was twelve.

And yet, for over a thousand years, on into the present day, these traditions concerning the Wise Men have persisted. We know the sources of these traditions, we know when they became popularized, and we know how they’ve been used in Christian preaching and church life through the centuries. Every Advent season, even the most cursory drive in the suburbs will offer nativity scenes peppered with three wise men adoring the manger-laden Christ.

This reminded me of Jannes and Jambres.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he tells the young pastor about false teachers in his midst who, “oppose the truth just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses. They have depraved minds and a counterfeit faith.” According to Paul, “Jannes and Jambres” were the names of the magicians who, in Exodus, countered the miracles of Moses in Pharaoh’s court.

But there are a couple of problems here.

First, these names do not appear in Exodus and, in fact, nowhere else in the Bible outside of 2 Timothy. Secondly, “Jannes” and “Jambres” are first-century Greek names; there’s nothing Egyptian or ancient about them. Thirdly, we know where these names came from.

There is an apocryphal book called the Book of Jannes and Jambres (here’s a fascinating scholarly treatment of the fragments we have of the story). It was written around 1 AD, and became super-popular and ingrained in the collective imagination of the Jewish people as Paul grew up. These magicians are named in this text. There is no record of their names appearing in the historical record before this. This writing–and it’s subsequent embedding in Jewish culture–seems to be the source of Paul’s use of these names.

So here’s the question: In light of the basic Evangelical commitment to the “inerrancy” of Scripture, is one’s fundamental respect for the Bible put in jeopardy if those were not, historically-speaking, the names of two magicians that may have challenged Moses?

To me, the easiest response Evangelicals could make to get out of this is that Paul’s not speaking historically, but making a literary allusion. But this has a few issues as well.

First, in his letters, Paul is not prone to cultural or literary allusions (he does quote pagan poets in a sermon to non-Christians, but this seems more of a missionary tool, as it doesn’t appear in his letters). Second, Timothy himself is of Greek ethnicity and probably would not be familiar with Jewish literary or cultural tradition. And third, doing this would set a hermeneutical precedent that Evangelical conservatives could not apply equally to the rest of Scripture. What about when Paul or Jesus similarly allude to Adam or Jonah? Could they be speaking “merely” culturally or “literarily”? (I happen to think they could, but most Evangelicals wouldn’t.)

But either way, scouring the internet, this is not at all the direction conservatives take on this. I found page after page of Evangelicals insisting that the Holy Spirit must have revealed these names to Paul, and that he was revealing this “secret” knowledge Paul had been given by God’s inspiration. (Generally speaking, they don’t seem to be aware of the Jewish literary tradition that sources these names.)

Okay, let’s step back a bit. I know this seems very small and quibbly, but long articles have been devoted to people thinking this point of the names is essential. And so, my desire here is not to make a mountain out of this mole-hill, or shake someone’s confidence in Scripture, or offer some iron clad argument against biblical “inerrancy”. Instead, I want to use this little thing of the names as a safe, gospel-unessential place, to explore how we talk about and treat the issue of inerrancy.

Think back to the wise men. Millions of pastors all over the world put wise men at nativity scenes in front of their churches or make allusions to them in sermons. When they do that, are they lying? Are they “undermining their authority as preachers” or “their commitment to the ‘word'”?

No. They are just using culture and tradition to communicate essential truth in a way that’s understandable by the immediate culture. Just like Paul (and I would also say the same of the entire Pentateuch, but I digress).

Is there a way their words can be “true”, even if not “historical”?

Is there a possible world in which Paul could use those names for the magicians, thinking that those actually were their historical names, and could he be wrong about that, and the Bible still be trustworthy to show us God and salvation?

Is it possible for truth to be communicated to us artistically, poetically, and “literarily”? Could the Bible also offer truth in these ways?

During the Bible Survey class I taught a while back, I talked about how the numbers in the book of Numbers could not possibly be historical, but were poetic ways of communicating other truths. Afterward, someone sent in an anonymous question asking why the author of Numbers would want to lie to or mislead the readers. I tried to address it in the next class, but that question has still haunted me ever since.

I struggle a lot with how to articulate this stuff in ways that everyone can still be grounded on what’s essential. It bothers me that some way that I articulated these issues caused someone to think the Bible “lied” to them.

That question about Numbers displayed the collateral damage of such a limited view of the Bible, where it is “lying” if it says something that is not absolutely historical of scientific. Because (so the thinking goes) if it’s “lying” about that, what else might it “lie” to us about?

A friend told recently me something his seminary professor once said, and I thought it was extremely helpful: Can we talk about the Bible using the words the Bible uses to describe itself? It never calls itself “inerrant”. It says it’s “inspired” and “trustworthy” and “useful for teaching”, etc. But it never lays upon itself the odd, reactionary standard that conservatives lay on it.

So, is the Bible inerrant? Well, it depends on what you mean. Are there any “accidents” in there that shock or surprise God? No. Did anything unintentional get in there? No. Does it try to “lie” to us? No!

But is it absolutely historical and scientific in all it says? Sometimes, shockingly so, and sometimes, dramatically not. Does that do damage to the Gospel?

Sometimes. But that all depends on what you necessarily think constitutes “the Gospel”.

And so, this Epiphany season, as we meditate on the wise men, may we rally behind them, remembering that they belong to a long and valiant tradition of Scriptural characters and stories who’s historical reality is twisted, conformed, changed, and edited, to suit the holy needs of Holy Truth. And let’s also remember that that’s okay.

Put questions and rebuttals (as I’m sure there will be some) in the comments below.


5 thoughts on “Epiphany: a great time to talk Magi & biblical errancy

  1. Great article Paul. I liked the quote from the professor. Also, I can hear you speaking when you started your latter sentences with No and Sometimes.

    I personal feel that history is more than just facts. It’s also full of stories. Whether they are factually accurate or not, they’re still a part of who we, as the human race, were.


  2. From my perspective, it’s not that the Bible is lying, but those people who claim the Holy Spirit supernaturally revealed the names of these two men to Paul are the ones lying. Not in any attempt to deceive or to cause harm, but because they can not face the alternative.

    (also, why are the name and email fields flipped in your comments section? threw me for a brief loop wondering what was wrong, lol!)


  3. there’s also the fact that we just…don’t know.

    just because we don’t know an answer to a difficulty in scripture doesn’t mean inerrancy is called into question. it just means we don’t know and should keep studying it.

    you should read what thinking inerrancy proponents say. read Poythress’s “inerrancy and worldview.” it may shock you.
    also – Warfield’s article on theopneustos in 2 Tim 3:16 establishes “inerrancy” as Scripture’s view of itself in a way that I’ve never heard anyone argue against compellingly.


  4. Pingback: Have yourself a biblical critical Christmas | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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