As a young Anglican, just out of Trinity Theological College in Bristol, I remember being absolutely astonished by Joff Day, the youngest O.A.C. Evangelist, who was partly responsible for my training. For the very first time, I saw the immediacy of some of the Holy Spirit's interventions and how totally dependent street preachers are on God taking part in all sorts of ways in our ministry. I was helping Joff to lead an open air meeting at Hyde Park Corner in London; the usual crowd of Sunday afternoon walkers gathered round to listen, some with the intention of heckling and generally joining in the fun. Standing with Joff, I remember a young Asian getting all psyched up ready to join in with his own particular brand of religious fanaticism: Joff – as he preached – said under his breath “Bind him, Lord!” – immediately the man froze and obviously couldn't move. I had never seen anything like this before but have since appreciated that demonic attacks are a frequent experience when you are in the front line, battling for the Kingdom of God, and are only really effectively overcome by the Holy Spirit.
For those of us in front-line street ministry who live by faith, this chapter is the easiest one in the whole book to write. The problem for most Christians with miracles is that so few are engaged in any sort of Christian ministry or service, that they never find themselves in the position of experiencing these sort of events.
In my experience some cities are subject to demonic forces, particularly those where pagan religions have inflicted atrocities on women and children as part of their horrible religious rites. Sometimes preaching in Athens I have sensed missiles flying past my head late at night and smelt sulphurous smells, particularly when preaching about the cross and resurrection of Jesus – but I have also felt God's intervention protecting me, so that the message could bring new life in Christ to some in the audience. I remember late one night in Athens meeting a Russian lady who happened to speak English, saying how she had never been abroad before, but during the message she had realised that God was indeed her Father, and how Jesus had become real for her. David Fanstone was preaching in Leicester Square in London: at the first meeting that evening, a young student from Bangkok prayed to receive Jesus as his Saviour; he received counselling and our follow-up literature, and thanking us, after an hour or so walked off. Later that evening we met a Pastor from Bangkok and were able to take his name and address – later still, the student came back, met the Pastor, and discovered that they lived opposite one another in the same street. The Pastor was able to welcome the new convert into his fellowship. This kind of experience is called a “Divine appointment”, and Christian ministry often depends on them.
Jim Reed, of Madrid, was visiting Lima in Peru, where his missionary friend from Columbia Bible College was getting married. He arrived at Lima airport, got on the wrong bus, and got completely lost. Sitting by a bus stop were an elderly South American Indian couple both wearing large sombrero hats. He asked them the way and they were able to give him directions. Learning that he was from Spain, they told him their son, named Jose Marie, was in Madrid. He was in some awful cult that wore saffron robes and went round the streets chanting all day. They were terribly worried about him. Back in Madrid, a couple of weeks later, Jim was visiting one of his flock in hospital. He happened to see a young man in a saffron robe, terribly thin and ill, lying on one of the beds. Jim instinctively knew who he was, walked up and said “Hola, Jose Marie, I have been talking to your parents – I have come to take you home with me.” A very large chap, Jim simply picked up the sick man and walked out of the hospital with him! Over the next 8 months Jose Marie became well again. Long hours of prayer overnight succeeded in freeing him from the demonic oppression that had taken hold of his life, and today he and his wife lead a church back home in Peru.
I know churches in Nigeria, led by reputable Christian leaders such as Dr. Samuel Abiara, who did his Bible College training in America. He is Pastor of the Christ Apostolic (i.e. Presbyterian) Churches in the Lagos/Ibadan area where miracles seem to be a daily experience in church life. Prayer is a 24/7 activity and groups of 800 will be in continuous prayer for the churches' ministry throughout the week. Attending to preach at one of his services for the first time, having just got off the plane from England, I was astounded to find myself in a congregation of some 22,000 who were playing a very active role in the worship. The church consisted of a football ground with people sitting on concrete benches. 122 pastors led the service and praying for the sick was done without any great ceremony. Whilst one of the pastors prayed, some 250 of those sick stood by their seats, right hand on top of their head, left hand on their chest: Abiara likes people to lay hands on themselves so that they see it is God in action, not him.
The prayer is very short, asking God's help to heal the various complaints they have. Then Abiara asks those who have been healed to come up on the platform to testify. I had never seen this at a service in England! About 47 people came up including a deaf and dumb child who could now speak – at which the church, who knew her, were shouting their delight. A woman born blind had just seen her husband for the first time. Someone who had come to church in a wheelchair was now walking. And so it went on... having never seen anything like this before, I was so overwhelmed with emotion at the love that these people displayed for one another in all this, that I was reduced to tears. (This always annoys me intensely! Being English, I was brought up to be cool and dispassionate…) A fortnight later I was at a similar service and a man with a frozen face, who had no feeling in his mouth, and whose lips were terribly chewed up as a result, asked me to lay hands on him and pray for him – which of course I did. He was instantaneously healed so that he could not only move his mouth but also the feeling in his face had returned. I was very aware that it was nothing to do with me, and the man, who couldn't speak English very well, pointed to the sky and said “God is great!” Amen!
After a service like this, which lasts 3-4 hours, the whole congregation move through the town, praying for families in the doorways, singing and praising God as they go, so they all become an active part of the Church's ministry to the local neighbourhood. Thousands of church members in groups of twenty or thirty will pray for specific family needs, businesses, safety on the roads, health and welfare for mothers and children. This ministry is greatly appreciated by increasing numbers of people in the community who have come to recognise that God answers prayer. In fact on weekdays parents will often turn up with sick children (usually suffering from malaria) and will ask for prayer as reputable medical help is not readily available to the poor in a country with so few doctors.
The Government has built a prison next door to the church ground, specifically to house men so mentally unstable that they are a danger either to themselves or to others. These individuals are chained to posts and will exhibit wild behaviour with rolling eyes and foaming at the mouth. It is an appalling situation to see. However, they can hear the preaching. Wonderfully, from time to time some of them are totally healed from mental disturbance, and are released and cared for by the church community. One of them was to become a fine street preacher.
In the evening the congregation will return for another 3 hour service, following which the Youth Group (about 1,000 of them) will surround the pastor and clergy and spend twenty minutes praying for them and for their families. In the United Kingdom we have come to expect the National Health Service and the Benefits Agency to provide all we need: we turn to them first. Asking for prayer for healing comes as a last desperate measure in most cases. The Africans have no guarantee that their Governments will be able to help in this way, and they have nobody to turn to but God. God is their only hope. He does not let them down. It's not that their faith is greater than ours, but they do want to involve him much more actively in their daily lives. The first year I worked with this church I saw just about everything that I had read about in the New Testament, and came home absolutely amazed. Sharing these events with our fellowship group from church, it was all taken with a pinch of salt as one of Korky's stories, and the response was “Well, it's not part of our way of doing things...”. Sadly, God is not part of our culture in the United Kingdom in that way. Unfortunately on the spur of the moment I am never able to come up with an adequate response to that sort of attitude!
God's interventions take many different forms. I was preaching in Bath outside the Pump Rooms, a pedestrianised area, to a crowd of some 40-50 people one Saturday morning, when a drunk with a South African accent started shouting highly objectionable insults about black people. I didn't know quite what to do about him and was terribly relieved when an extremely large young policeman approached from my left and said quietly “Having a spot of bother, Sir?” to which I replied “Quick, can you get rid of him?” With the words “Certainly, Sir...” the officer approached the man from the rear (he was at the back of the crowd) put an arm round his shoulders and walked off with him. As they disappeared round the corner I could see the drunk wasn't even touching the ground! The police in Bristol and Bath have always been extremely helpful during our meetings and I went round to the station at the end of the day to thank the young officer for his assistance. The Sergeant at the desk asked what he looked like, and assured me that they had no officer on the force who met that description. Who was he? The Lord knows.
In 1981 I bought an old bus to take mission teams all over Europe preaching the Gospel, helping to establish new churches. Our huge open air meetings in the parks in Spain became famous over the next few years.
We met a few street traders during our travels who had seen us and heard our message on five or six separate occasions in different towns in Spain one summer: I began to understand that our work was achieving far greater coverage across the country than we thought possible. Many thousands in Spain were being reached each year.
Travelling back from a campaign in Italy, near Milan, we had 9 European languages on the bus in our team of 30 or 40 keen young evangelists, men and women. One of them – a gifted German girl called Ise Schmid – had applied to a number of different missions in England for training as an evangelist and had been told they did not offer such training to women, but could use her as a cook or housekeeper – so she came to us. It was 1986 and Billy Graham's campaign at Bercy in Paris needed linguists, so we were to provide counsellors over the last evenings of the mission. Not many Parisians attended the meetings but they were attracting large numbers of North African immigrants as well as people from Asia and Eastern Europe.
Ise found herself counselling a lady from India and I heard them chatting away to each other for over half an hour. This lady really had found faith in Jesus and Ise was able to link her up with all sorts of contacts through the follow-up network. The scheme was that when a counsellor finished with an individual, that person would be handed on to a Supervisor to make sure all the forms had been filled in correctly. It was at this point that we made the astounding discovery that the lady could understand nothing but Urdu, although she had understood Ise's German perfectly – and presumably the preaching. The Supervisor had great difficulty with this! He belonged to an American church in Paris which did not acknowledge the miraculous but clung to what is known as “dispensationalism” the idea that God only performed miracles in Bible times... (Ise is now Pastor of a church in Germany which is involved in both evangelism and greatly needed humanitarian aid in Eastern Europe.)
I think this is much more like the experience the disciples had at Pentecost. I have been in churches where people have been encouraged to speak “in tongues” as a form of worship and I understand that many Christians find this a tremendous release, but I don't believe this is the kind of activity that the New Testament describes as “tongues”. Paul seems to be saying that interpretation is an important part of the ministry of tongues. Much more controversial in my view is the tendency by some “charismatic” leaders to advertise themselves and their own ministries as having some sort of special “hot line” to God. I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion today that some are promoting their ministries for personal financial gain. Certainly a lot of them seem to lead very rich lives with business jets and all the trimmings: I read Florence Bulle's book “God Wants You Rich, and Other Enticing Doctrines”20about the unscrupulous advertising of the miraculous; I have also been most interested in Dr. Hank Hanegraaff's book “Christianity in Crisis”21in which he exposes some of the more obviously unbiblical aspects of some of these ministries. The great truth that many Christians need to be much more aware of is that each one of us who is “in Christ” has a direct line to God. (Ephesians 1:19-20). Miracles are real, still happen today, and are not dependent on the presence of a famous individual – only Christ.
As Christians, these abuses should not close our minds to the activity of God which is very evident in the ministries of many who devote themselves to bringing the light of the Gospel message to the darkened minds we find on our streets. They reach out to people who are in the inner turmoil of profound distress – particularly those with life-controlling problems – who, surprisingly, will often not regard attendance at church as a likely solution to their problems. Highly specialised ministries such as the Crisis Centre Ministries (www.crisis-centre.org.uk) in Bristol, run by people God has called to that particular area of work, offer an avenue of hope which the needy recognise as likely to meet their difficulties. Their social needs can often only be met by the recognition that repentance and faith is the important part of their salvation, as opposed to sociological rehabilitation programmes. Wonderful transformations happen in the lives of individuals with apparently insurmountable personal problems – even from brain damage resulting from drug or alcohol abuse. One young woman who lived on the street would try to come into the cafe with a rat on her shoulder. Livestock is strictly forbidden in the cafe, so she was asked to leave. Outside the shop, she buttoned the rat inside her blouse and returned with a heaving bosom to collect her tea and toast. That young woman eventually became a Christian and is now a barrister.
My friend Peter Whitehead (a former missionary in Egypt after World War II) ended his career as a mathematics/religious education teacher in a Secondary School in Bath, England. He loved to recount the story of a particularly stupid boy in his class one year, who was absolutely hopeless in any mathematical test. Obviously he really could not understand what Peter was trying to teach him. Attending Peter's Christian Union in the school, this young man eventually became a Christian and the Holy Spirit produced the most extraordinary effect in his life in a relatively short time: he started to find exams rather easy, and went on to take a First Class Honours degree in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge University! Ian Loring of O.A.C. Albania may well be the most effective missionary in Europe today – his is another similar story. Having witnessed this sort of thing over so many years, I regard these seemingly impossible transformations as among the greatest miracles of all. The Bible says these people “will shine as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Jesus himself described this process as being “born again” i.e. becoming an entirely new person (John 3:3-7).
On my last visit to Dallas Theological Seminary where I taught at their Missions Fair, I was taken to lunch by one of the Trustees, a Doctor of Medicine. I was fascinated to see the large automatic pistol he kept in the drawer of his desk. He told me that if anyone broke into his house late at night they would be shot! (Presumably he would then charge them for treatment if they had survived...!) During conversation I mentioned the chap with the paralysed face who had been healed in Lagos: I knew that the doctor was a dispensationalist and wanted to see his reaction. Interestingly, he asserted that he didn't believe it, wasn't prepared to accept it, and anyway you can't have a paralysed face, it is not medically possible. I mentioned the number of people I had seen in Churches around England who had suffered loss of feeling in half their face through stroke or palsy, and he maintained that it was all not possible. I found his attitude extraordinary! But it seems to be a sort of defence mechanism to people with a particular fixed theological theory – they have closed their minds to the possibility of the miraculous.
These wonderful events are so much a part of the ministry of Jesus, and so very clearly evident to so many of us in Christian ministry, that it is surprising the theory of dispensationalism can have such a hold on so many Christians.
One of our most enthusiastic team members is Patricia Paddock Gines, who met her Spanish husband while on one of our coach trips to Spain. Pat had been a riding instructor, but was diagnosed with a degenerative condition of the spine which meant she would end up crippled. Unable to face the future, losing both her job and her fiance, she was on her way to commit suicide with a bottle of pills, when she remembered she had given her life to the Lord some time earlier. She decided to ask God for healing, as she didn't think He would approve of her taking matters into her own hands. At Guildford Cathedral she changed out of her jodhpurs in the Ladies, and attended a service with prayer for healing, telling the person who prayed simply to pray that God would heal her as the doctors and nurses could not. “The silly woman went and prayed the doctors and nurses would find out how to heal me... I knew they couldn't!” So she went round the corner to the Millmead fellowship and attended a service there. When the time came to ask for people needing prayer for healing to come forward, Pat was first to the front. This time, they prayed that God would heal her – “I felt the power of God go right through me, from me head to me toes! I knew I was healed! There was I dancing around, praising God, and there was them, saying 'careful dear, you'll hurt yourself!' but I KNEW I was healed!”. Pat encouraged us to pray for people who stop to chat after the street meetings. Even if they have not professed a commitment to Christ, they are often in tears when prayed for, and we know God is at work. Very few ever refuse the offer of prayer.
The second time we were to see God at work in healing in our own home was when Anni was working full time as a secretary. Margaret, another secretary, struggled up the stairs past Anni's office one morning, and when Anni asked her what was the matter, she burst into tears and told how the Doctor had diagnosed arthritis of the spine, and told her she would probably be bedridden before long. Anni had herself received healing from fibrositis in her shoulders not long before, and offered to ask Ken Barrett, one of our team who had prayed for her, to pray for Margaret. “I'll try anything...” she replied.
We arranged for her to come back to supper at our home that evening, where Ken joined us. He did a short Bible study (Luke 13:10-13) and said that he had prayed about it, and felt that God would heal Margaret but that it might not be straight away... we sat on the sofa, Ken knelt beside her, and asked Anni to put her hands on Margaret's back. He prayed briefly, and our two small girls ran into the room with the dog, who licked the end of her nose – there was no “atmosphere” or attempt to produce a suitable frame of mind! Margaret said there was a sensation of heat in her back, and felt Anni's hands, which were as cool as usual. Ken suggested she might get up and stand straight – lift one foot and then the other – all of which she could do without pain – she had been healed! Next day she went upstairs at the office two steps at a time, and the only astonishment was ours and Margaret's, that the other people in the office just said “Oh, that's nice, dear” and didn't seem to want to know about the Jesus who could heal so wonderfully.
For me, engaged full time in the street ministry, God's hand on our meetings was very evident. I would always come home with something to report to Anni – sometimes these events were hilarious! I remember having a dreadful Saturday morning, in the early days, when I hadn't quite realised that Saturday morning shoppers are in a hurry and don't stop easily, whereas Saturday afternoon shoppers are browsers, perfectly willing to stroll around and stop and listen to the message. This particular Saturday morning, things were not going at all well. People were not stopping and I came to a place where six men were digging a hole in the road. Although being adjacent to the public highway often makes it more difficult for people to hear, I thought I would set up near the workmen so at least they could hear the message. I paint cartoons on my sketchboard in the style of Rolf Harris, to illustrate the message, and I am pleased to say I secured the attention of the six workers, who found it much more interesting than digging a hole. Eventually their foreman arrived, red-faced and angry, and knew exactly how to deal with people like me: he started up the compressor and got the pneumatic drill going! The men hurriedly went back to work... but people passing by could see the conflict brewing as I continued preaching (not knowing what else to do).
A crowd gathered, quite a large one – probably 40-50 people – enjoying the entertaining confrontation, and obviously hoping that it would lead to something even more exciting. They were nudging and winking and looking at the foreman, and then looking back to me. They couldn't hear a thing. But just then, the Lord switched off the compressor and the foreman was unable to get it going again – he worked himself into a frenzy frantically trying to get it to go, even hand-cranking it, but by now the crowd he had gathered were listening to the message, and despite themselves found it rather interesting, and stayed right to the end. Many stayed to talk and took the little leaflets we handed out, which explain how Jesus can be real in a person's life.
On a day like that I had spoken to over 1,000 people – and walking home one evening, not having the bus fare, stopped in at Bristol Cathedral for a rest, where a sermon was being preached to a congregation of six. Fortunately the Apostles in the New Testament were not building cathedrals. The Church was able to grow so quickly that the Gospel reached the royal family in Rome within thirty years. Evidence seems to show that there were converts amongst members of the Emperor's family about thirty years after that22 The Christian faith following in the footsteps of its founder is a street ministry. For the Christian faith to become relevant in society again, a lot more people must follow Jesus in the public ministry patterns he taught us.
As I describe these events, several of which happened nearly thirty years ago, I can see a clear image in my mind due to my great familiarity with the shopping precincts where they took place. However, imagine the Tubingen scholars of AD 4000 discovering this little book in some long-forgotten archive: if they didn't know what society was like in AD 2000, they might think “This is nonsense, it can't possibly be true, people in those days did not go shopping! By AD 2000 there were no shops – at least so say historians from the 22nd century. They say all shopping was done through computer systems – shops were only virtual, not physical places.” These scholars might well dismiss accounts of miracles because of this kind of misinformation. So much of modern theology and so many of its problems stem from simply not understanding what life was like for the writers of the Gospels at the time of writing. Remember – they were writing of much more recent events than I am doing of my own experiences in this book. My memories are vivid to this day.
What might future scholars think about the miracles themselves? Was it a miracle, or just a co-incidence, that the foreman couldn't start his compressor? He had been doing it all his working life – why should it fail just then? Such stories are unreal to those without a lively experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in their day-to-day lives. You can put the first few experiences like this down to co-incidence, but as the co-incidences build up to hundreds, you begin to see that God's hand is at work.
My father was a scientist, a master of several scientific disciplines. Having been educated privately at home, I am used to thinking of the physical world in scientific terms... but this experience has also helped me to understand the limits of science. I remember how a few years ago in Sussex, archaeologists dug up part of a shin bone which they said had all the indications of belonging to a prehistoric human of some kind. In the newspapers the following day, scientists had produced a detailed drawing of the primitive looking man they thought likely to be the owner of the shin bone, and various scholars asserted this was the individual from who it came. This picture actually amounted to little more than an inspired guess, and scientific theory proceeds on this basis. The past presents us with a series of clues, and the theory is a picture which emerges when you put those clues together. From time to time, later clues emerge to alter, or even completely destroy, the original picture. Sometimes they even show that the original picture was false, as in the famous case of the “Piltdown man” fraud.
The evidence of the New Testament accounts is much stronger than scientists require for theories about the world. The evidence gets even stronger as brilliant original research by people like Derrett and Bailey does so much to open our eyes to the world in which Jesus lived and worked.
For example, the story of the Star of Bethlehem has always been taken by scholars to be too fantastic to be true. Stars don't move around in the sky in the manner described. The idea that wise men (who in Mediaeval times, rather strangely, were identified as Kings), would travel a huge distance in response to the appearance of a star, find an individual baby (the right one!) and then disappear from view, never to be heard of again – all this is too unbelievable for most theological minds. They say it must be myth. But if you lived in the ancient world, the stars were not regarded in the way that they are by us today. The sky had been divided into various astrological territories; Chaldean, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Roman systems supported various pagan religious beliefs as to the meaning of the position of the stars. The Magi (wise men) of Israel knew that the appearance of this star had preceded the birth of Moses and also the birth of David ( becoming identified as the “Star of David”). When this famous star re-appeared, the Magi would have recognised the event with great excitement.
The German Astronomer Royal, Johannes Keppler, was working in Prague in 1603. He identified the Star of Bethlehem as the conjunction (i.e appearing next to each other when seen from the earth) of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. Keppler himself has been regarded with suspicion by the Church – as of course was Galileo, earlier – and later in life got involved with alchemy and other questionable pursuits, but Keppler in fact did the mathematical research which made the later work of Sir Isaac Newton possible. Keppler was the founder of modern mathematics. The incredibly laborious work necessary to show the origins of the Star of Bethlehem is quite extraordinary to us today. He must have been capable of working to the highest standards in great detail for very long periods of time. It would have taken him weeks to do something which today we can do in a few seconds on a computer.
Keppler calculated that the royal Star of Israel, as it came to be known, was a “heliacal” star (i.e. visible for only a short time before dawn, low in the Eastern sky). He calculated it would have been visible for a few days around 2nd and 3rd May in 7 BC, and later that year again for a few days around 7th and 8th October, and finally around 25th December when it would have appeared higher in the sky to the South/ South East.
The “Julian” calendar which we use today was intended to date the birth of Christ at the beginning of AD 01. However many discrepancies occurred in the laborious process of making the calculations necessary to construct the calendar, probably unavoidable at the time. It has long been known that the Julian calendar is incorrect, since Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and the most likely date for the birth of Jesus is around 7th or 8th October in 7 BC.
Werner Keller, a German journalist, alleges that there was a University at Sippur to the south of Babylon where there was a large Jewish community23 Daniel had been a great scholar relied upon by King Belshazzar for advice in time of crisis, when graffiti appeared on the wall of his palace (Daniel 5). The King, who had lost the plot as King, was about to be overthrown, leaving the country open to foreign invasion. So there was a well-known scholarly Jewish tradition in Babylon: often great scholars (or people who could interpret dreams, for example, as Joseph had done, rather after the style of C. G. Jung) were known as Magi.
The caravan route north from Babylon to Jerusalem via the Fertile Crescent is several hundred miles. (The much shorter trip straight across the Syrian desert through present day Rutba would probably not have been possible in those days.) I think the observation of the Star would have caused great excitement amongst Jewish Magi in a place like Sippur. Probably quite a large group of them (maybe with many of their students) wanted to make the trip to Jerusalem to see the new King, who they hoped would match the character and achievements of King David, and make Israel great again. It would have been impractical to set off with their caravan until Autumn, because of the extreme heat earlier in the year.
In early October the shepherds would still be out in the fields around Bethlehem, and Edersheim24 pointed out – as long ago as 1881 – that it was only the Bethlehem shepherds who were licensed to produce the sheep used for the sacrificial rites in the Temple. We are expected to realise that it was quite logical that an angel announcing the birth of the “Lamb of God” should first appear to the shepherds of Bethlehem. This is one of the reasons why the likely date of birth of the Lord would be simultaneous with the appearance of the Star on 7th or 8th October, as by December 25th it would be too cold for the shepherds to be out on the fields at night.
Mary travelled to Bethlehem within days of the expected birth of her son, knowing he was to be someone very special. It was a very difficult journey for her to undertake from Nazareth in that condition, but the census required that individuals complete their tax return in their ancestral village for the Roman poll tax to be administered effectively. To encourage this, the Romans granted the concession that, if the parents registered as required, the first-born son of each family would be tax exempt until the age of 14, and parents and child would be eligible for a 50% tax allowance for life!25 This was a major consideration for poor people which would certainly secure their compliance.
The Magi arrived in Jerusalem like a herd of elephants, probably assuming the royal child to be in the palace. Perhaps they should have known better, as all Jews must have been aware of the character of Herod I (Herod the Great) and his highly unstable, murderous administration. However, they made their escape and were on the road south to Bethlehem in the early hours. The road travels past Rachel's tomb on the right, and a little further on, rounding a corner, the little village of Bethlehem on its low hill comes into view. I have travelled the 5 miles or so along this road many times on my Norton motorcycle, and also on foot. As the Magi arrived, the Star would have appeared low in the sky, directly over the village, and just above the house where they were to find the Jesus they sought. If Keppler was correct, this is a perfectly factual report of what the wise men experienced and saw, and not mythological at all. Actually it is no more extraordinary than many of the experiences Anni and I have had.
I read somewhere in a book in the library at Trinity College that Chinese astronomers had also recorded the conjunction we know as the Star of Bethlehem at this time. Unfortunately I can't remember which book it was, only that the name of the principal Chinese astronomer was U Nu. These independent observations from the other side of the world are a most interesting confirmation of the historical accuracy of the event. Keppler calculated that the conjunction will occur again in 2497 AD.
Mary and Joseph met the Magi personally and would have made the information available to Matthew (Matthew 2). The gifts provided by the Magi may simply have been the highest value items they had with them. Writers have noted the theological significance of the gifts (Gold to crown a King, Frankincense an offering to God, and Myrrh for embalming a dead body). However, it must by now have become very apparent to the Magi that the child would be in extreme danger from Herod. Their gifts, being the equivalent of money, would finance the family's escape and support them as refugees.
We are told in Matthew 2:14 that Mary and Joseph went to Egypt – probably to the safety of the Jewish community which had been founded by Joseph in Goshen, where they would have been able to hide until the death of Herod the Great (4 BC). (David Rohl, the Egyptologist, has produced evidence that the original tomb of Joseph, prior to the Exodus when his body was taken with the people, was in Goshen.) Goshen was in the East of the Nile Delta, not far from present day Gaza.26 The funding of the flight into Egypt by the Magi is just the sort of practical provision which really would make sense in the situation in which Joseph and the family found themselves.
All sorts of theories emerge from time to time about these events, and despite all the evidence some theologians doubt the murder of the innocents by Herod's troops. It is not otherwise referred to in any other historical record. In the light of all that we know about Herod's behaviour, having murdered many of his own family and any individuals he suspected of treason in his Kingdom, the murder of a few babies in Bethlehem was a small affair, not worthy of note by historians of the time.
The whole nativity story fits very well with what we now know about the situation in Palestine at the time, and, as we shall see in later chapters, the stories of Jesus relate very well to the lives of ordinary people. Through the work of modern scholarship we can now recover what it was that people saw when these events were taking place, and how they were understood. The important issue – and this applies to the book of Acts as well as the Gospels – is what God is doing in and through these events. What did people actually see, as a little bow-legged Jew called Paul travelled through on his missionary journeys, taking his unusual message to the Graeco-Roman cities of the period? (New Bible Dictionary, IVP 1962, p. 943.) Most of the time, the general population would hardly have noticed he was there – there were probably only four or five in his party at any one time – yet God used his ministry to change world history. There were great occasions in Ephesus, and little ones in Philippi, but knowing open air evangelism as I do, the Apostolic ministry was a very small shadow of what Jesus had done in Israel. The evidence is that huge numbers of people converged wherever Jesus went, which is quite different to the picture painted in Acts of the response achieved by the Apostles.
Interestingly, the New Testament remains the best historical record of these years.
20 Bulle, Florence (1983): God Wants You Rich And Other Enticing Doctrines. Minneapolis: Bethany House
21 Hanegraaff, Hank (1993): Christianity in Crisis. Oregon: Harvest House
22 Robinson, John A.T. (1976): Re-dating The New Testament. London: S.C.M. Press. p.232
23 Keller, Werner (11965): The Bible As History. Archaeologists Show the Truth of the Old Testament. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp328-336
24 Edersheim, Alfred (1881): The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah. London: Longmans Green
25 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1978): Studies in the New Testament. Volume 6. Brill. pp. 16-17
26 Rohl, David M. (1995): A Test Of Time. London: Century. p. 257