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Christ’s visitors from the East

31 December 2021

John Perumbalath considers different interpretations of the magi’s appearance


The Adoration of the Kings by Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi c.1470

The Adoration of the Kings by Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi c.1470

THE story of the magi has fired Christian imaginations since the earliest times.

The magi’s unexplained background provides abundant room to shape new narratives around the question of their identity. Our primary source of the story, St Matthew’s Gospel, does not even say how many of them there were. Matthew has given us only what is necessary to serve his theological purpose, leaving space for further questioning and inquiry.

Most Western traditions have assumed the magi to be three in number, but some Oriental traditions consider them to be 12 or more. The background and names of the magi have also varied throughout the world, especially in the East. An Armenian infancy Gospel from the sixth century lists them as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia, and is thus closest to the Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthassar of the medieval Latin Church.

The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from the Greek magos, which is used in the original text of Matthew. Magos itself might have derived from Old Persian magâunô, a priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. These priests studied the stars and gained a reputation for astrology. The word in its Greek form came to be identified with royalty, too.

In fifth century CE, the Byzantine emperor Zeno claimed to have discovered the remains of the magi somewhere in Persia, and brought them to Constantinople. The relics eventually reached the West during the Crusades, first traveling to Milan and then to Cologne in 1164. In the late 12th century, a shrine was built for them in Cologne, where they are known as the “Three Kings of Cologne” to pilgrims and tourists.

The Revelation of the Magi — an apocryphal account preserved in an eight-century Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library, which purports to have been written by the magi themselves — narrates the mystical origins of the magi, their encounter with the luminous star, and their journey to Bethlehem. It has been claimed that the earliest versions of the text were written as early as the mid-second century.

In The Revelation, there are not just three magi, nor are they Persian Zoroastrians, as other early traditions held. In Brent Landau’s translation of the text, magi are defined as those who “pray in silence”. They were a group of monk-like mystics from a far-off mythical land, Shir, possibly China, and they numbered as few as 12 and as many as several score.

They were descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a unique, bright star would some day appear “heralding the birth of God in human form”. The magi who visited Jesus returned home and preached the Christian faith to their brethren, ultimately being baptised by the apostle Thomas.

A later tradition was recorded by the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian of the eighth century, that the three magi signified the three parts of the known world — Africa, Asia, and Europe — and that they thus might be linked with the sons of Noah, who fathered the three races of earth (Genesis 10).

EARLY church Fathers interpreted the story in the light of the Old Testament. Justin Martyr considered the magi to be the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy regarding the coming of the Messiah. Some popular interpretations, reflected in art, linked the magi with the three youngsters in the furnace (Daniel 3).

Origen suggested that the magi discovered the prophecy of Balaam about a star coming out of Jacob (Numbers 24.17). Many found echoes of Psalm 72 in the story of the gift-bringing wise men: “May all kings fall down before him, may all nations serve him.” Seen in this light, the magi play a unique part as witnesses to the true faith, and as a sign that the salvation that Jesus brings is universal.

Magi also figured in the discussions about the Trinity in the Early Church. Some church Fathers considered them as first witnesses to the Trinity — or thought that the magi themselves came to represent the Trinity.

All the evidence that we have suggests that the Early Church attached great theological significance to the story of Jesus’s first visitors. In art, this story appeared earlier and more frequently than any other part of Jesus’s infancy narratives.

The practice of celebrating magi’s arrival as the Feast of Epiphany on 6 January, 12 days after Jesus’s birth, was established by the fourth century. In this feast, the Church celebrates Christ’s manifestation to the world.

This Child who, until now, was known only to his immediate surroundings and people, is now being worshipped and recognised by some wise men from foreign lands. The world outside Judaism is now brought into the story, to emphasise that Jesus is not a Jewish Messiah, as many would have expected, but is the Lord of the whole world, receiving homage from non-Jewish visitors. The story of the magi is actually the Christmas story for the Gentile world.

WHAT, then, does the story of the magi say about God, the people of God, and those outside the household of the Christian faith?

The story of the magi reveals God’s universal intentions, and that God has several and varied ways of dealing with humanity. God’s message to the wise men initially came to them as a star. It seems an unusual form of revelation. This is not the way in which God spoke to his people in either the Old or the New Testament.

But, if we assume that these wise men had a keen interest in astronomy, as traditionally assumed, then God was speaking to them in a language that they would understand. Contrary to the understanding of the people of God that time, Hebrew was not the only language that God used.

The story warns us that we cannot place restrictions on God’s chosen channels of communication. The God of the magi does not sanction any monopoly of spiritual experience; nor does he insist on stereotypical expressions of human response.

The story also reminds us that we can lose sight of God even when he is so close to us. Jesus was born among the Jews. By the time of the visit of the wise men, the Holy Family must have made friends with the people of the locality. The text does not talk a babe lying in a manger, but implies a child living with his parents in a house.

Matthew is undeniably implying the failure of the people of God. They knew that God would send a Messiah, for whom they had long been waiting. They had scripture in their community to reaffirm God’s promises. Now the Messiah is growing up right in their midst, but no Jewish wise man is shown paying homage to him.

The wise men among the people of God — the chief priests and the teachers of scripture — advise Herod without any hesitation about the place where the Messiah was to be born. They study scripture and find the vital information about the Messiah. Yet none of them seems to have any interest in paying homage to him.

Busy advising Herod, they exhibit a false confidence in existing systems. They fail to see God at work outside those systems that they defend and venerate. The Jewish leaders are expecting something spectacular and appealing — a noble and royal birth, at least — and would, no doubt, respond well to that.

The magi, on the other hand, with no scripture or tradition to guide them to the Messiah, are open to whatever God is doing in the world. Astronomy was considered a field of science, a valid form of inquiry in antiquity. These wise men are ready to go wherever their study and inquiry leads them. They undertake a long journey, to a place unknown to them at the beginning of the journey, only to find themselves paying homage to a child in a cultural and religious context totally unfamiliar to them.

God does not disappoint those who search diligently, and honours the hunger for learning, wherever that happens.

The magi’s journey appears to have been one of persistence and perseverance. They were probably unclear about what they were heading for. They had a sign but lost it on the way, judging by their enquiries of Herod. They were misled by the circumstances. At that point, it was possibly a path of uncertainty and darkness.

But they did not give up. They did not abandon their journey, even though they made mistakes, ending up in the wrong place. Their persistence took them to witness a special manifestation of God.

Matthew’s narrative invites the readers to consider the contrasting responses to this divine revelation. King Herod is seen as visibly disturbed: anxious and angry. The religious scholars of the nation are indifferent and bound by tradition. But the magi are joyful and willing to pay homage.

For Matthew, this symbolised rejection of Jesus by his own people. In a theological system that consigns outsiders to eternal condemnation, Matthew sets his theological agenda — showing how God’s manifestation in Jesus breaks down the dividing walls between races and cultures.

Dr Perumbalath is the Bishop of Bradwell.

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