The Magi

This coming Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. In yesterday’s post we set the context for the gospel reading and what seems to be Matthew’s narrative intent in unfolding the story of Jesus. In today’s post we will take a first look at the Magi.

Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great, which is dated ca. 4 BC; the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. The chapter contains several indications to suggest that the visit of the Magi took place some, not inconsiderable, time after the birth of Jesus: he is now a ‘child’ (vv. 9, 11), not a ‘babe’ (Luke 2:12, 16, though ‘child’ is used in Luke 2:27 of Jesus forty days after his birth).  Verse 7 suggests that the appearance of the star, and therefore the birth, was some time ago; and Herod’s murder of all children under two (v.16) would hardly be necessary if the birth was known to be very recent. Against this backdrop, the magi arrive in Jerusalem.

In the West we say “magi” but we think “kings.” In many communities the name “Three Kings Day” is more familiar and it is celebrated as a “little Christmas” including giving of presents and festive meals. The idea of the visitors as “kings” was cemented in the culture by John Henry Hopkins Jr.’s composition of “We Three Kings of Orient Are”

We Three Kings of Orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, Moor and mountain,   Following yonder Star. ….O Star of Wonder, Star of Night, Star with Royal Beauty bright, Westward leading, Still proceeding, Guide us to Thy perfect Light.

Yet, if there is one thing we do know is that the history of the magi as a religious sect is reasonably well known, and at no point in their history were they kings or rulers of any kind. Many English Bible translations render this Greek word, “wise men.” Early in their history they were court counselors, wisdom figures and astrologers in the courts of the Babylonian kings of the 6th century BC. When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon, the influence and royal favor were slowly lost, and the magi became another group of refugees seeking safe harbor in other places. In their diaspora (scattering) they added dream interpretation, fortune-telling, and ever more removed from counselors of the court. 500 years later in Jesus’ time, the term “magi” referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or even con-men. In fact, our word “magic” or “magician” comes from this word “magi”. They were not so much respectable “wise men” or “kings” but charlatans in a practice condemned by Jewish standards. This same word occurs in Acts 13. Barnabas and Saul meet Elymas, a Jewish magi (or magus in the singular). This is how Paul describes him in verse 10: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all that is right, full of every sort of deceit and fraud. Will you not stop twisting the straight paths of (the) Lord?

Magi in Jesus’ day were not models of religious piety but Matthew makes them the heroes in his first story following the Savior’s birth. The magi come from a group that doesn’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don’t practice orthodox worship. Certainly they give the child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – royal gifts, but those same elements were used in their trade/magic. In any case, the magi still represent non-Jewish people coming “to do him homage.”

Objections to the historicity of this story have been made because the account is said to bear all the marks of pious legend. But in fact, with the exception of the moving star in v. 9, there is nothing historically improbable in the account, and the fact of a comparable visit by eastern Magi to Nero in ad 66 (Dio Cassius 63.7; Suetonius, Nero 13) vouches for the probability of this story rather than otherwise.

Image credit: The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones (1904) | Public Domain

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