Kings? Wise men? Magi? Three of them? Two? Four? More than four? Jewish? Persian? From some other land?
The Epiphany narrative in Saint Matthew’s gospel does not give us many clues about the identity of the mysterious visitors to the place where Christ was born. The gospel does not say that there were three men. We have assumed there were three only because there were three gifts. The gospel says nothing about them being kings. That’s a much later assumption. As for their names and their appearance: Melchior, old, white hair, white beard; Gaspar, young, ruddy complexion and clean-shaven; and Belthasar, black-skinned and heavily bearded; well these beliefs did not become widespread until about 700 A.D. Traditionally, it is believed that Saint Bede was the first person to mention them.
Matthew refers to the visitors as magi, but we’re not at all certain what the word magi means. From looking at the contexts in which we find the word used in writings contemporary to Matthew, it can mean many things, from someone possessed by a demon to a member of the Persian priestly class.
Therefore, all in all, Matthew’s account of the magi is somewhat ambiguous, and the story has become more ambiguous over the years, as the folklore has become entangled with the original story.
To add a further element to how we regard this passage we have to, as intelligent human beings, ask ourselves the question: did this episode in our Lord’s life ever, even, happen or did Matthew just make it all up? Matthew was the only gospel writer to record this event, so it could not have been a very important part of the early Christian tradition. Also, certain aspects of the story are quite unbelievable. The whole “following a star” business is technically impossible for a start. Maybe, there was an real incident on which this story is based but it is unlikely that what is written is exactly what happened.
Not that this matters very much. If this story was proved beyond doubt to be a complete fabrication the only people whose faith would be challenged to any extent are those who believe everything in the Bible, no matter how contradictory or plain silly, is literally true, because they would have to ask themselves the question: if there were no magi how can we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? But those of us who are able to accept that it is quite possible for the Bible to be literally true in some places and to be a non-literal account of the faith in other places, should not have such a problem. For us, the story of the magi and the story of the resurrection have no equivalence, they are two different things. The resurrection was a real event that had real consequences. If there was no resurrection then our faith is nothing worth. However, if there were no magi at the cribside of Jesus then our faith and our salvation would not be effected in any way.
So, basically, if you believe the story to be literally true, then that is fine. If you believe it to be a story with no basis in reality, or that it is a story that has been altered from the original reality, then that is fine. If, like me, you believe that questions regarding is basis on fact are, too a large extent, irrelevant, then that is fine as well. However, whatever position you hold to, the story of the magi and their visit to the infant, Jesus, is very important to our Christian education, especially in respect of our understanding of Jesus Christ. Matthew did not put this story in his gospel simply because he wanted tell people a good yarn. Nor, were the subsequent additions to the story, within the tradition of the Church, merely made up to provide entertainment. The story of the magi, within scripture and within the tradition, is best viewed as an icon, through which we gaze in order to see the truth that lies behind it. If we do this, then the various ways the magi have been described, their very ambiguity, becomes helpful to us rather than confusing.
The first thing we must do is to look at the story as it is told to us in the Bible itself. It seems to me that the most important thing that Matthew wants to emphasise is the fact that the magi came from abroad, from outside of the Jewish community. Most commentators hold to the belief that Matthew wrote his gospel for the benefit of Jewish Christians, who, as we know from other parts of the New Testament, could be antagonistic towards the idea of Christianity being open to gentile believers. At the very beginning of his gospel Matthew makes the point that the story of Jesus is important to all people, wherever they are from. More than this, he states, by his description of the magi being led by a star, that God proactively calls gentiles in to the new dispensation. There is scandal here. In the Jewish Temple, at the time of the birth of Christ, gentiles would only be allowed into the outer courtyards. Even ordinary Jews would not be allowed into the centre of the Temple, which was the province of priests alone. In the infancy narratives the stable symbolises the Temple, the manger and / or Mary, the altar of the Lord and Jesus is the Holy of Holies. The magi, in Matthew’s account, representing that which is alien, are given unrestricted access by God himself, right into the heart of the Temple to view the Holy of Holies. Fifteen hundred years before Martin Luther, this story, along with the story of the Shepherds’ visit to the stable, tells us emphatically that, under the new covenant, all people have direct access to God, not just the priestly caste. I am not reading the present back into the past here because this democracy among believers is very much the mark of the early Church of which Matthew and Luke were members. It was not until the second century that the fledgling, Catholic church, began to posit barriers between the believer and God.
Although, the exotic visitors to Christ’s birthplace, have been given various occupations over the years early Greek versions of Matthew’s gospel tell us that they were magi. Of the many meanings of the word “magi” that have been put forward over the years there are two that I think are most likely to be the ones that Matthew would have employed. Firstly, magi could refer to the priestly class of the Persian religion. This is interesting because there were centuries old connections between the Persian religion and the Jewish religion. For a start Persians believed in one, benevolent god, and had done for at least six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Some scholars say their religion goes back to 1700 B.C. or even 4000 years B.C. It is extremely likely that the Persian religion helped the Jewish people to come to the conclusion that there was only one God. The Persian religion, being primarily a philosophy of life, where the believer becomes a partner with God to lessen evil in the world by living a good life, also has a very ambivalent view towards other religions. In about 600 B.C. when the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, kicked the Assyrians out of the Jewish lands and became their new rulers, they were greeted joyously by the Israelites and Cyrus was seen as a servant of God, doing God’s will, and he and his descendants did much to rebuild the Jewish religious infrastructure. Therefore, the Persian god would have been, to a certain extent, respected by the Jews and, certainly, not seen as the enemy of the Jewish God, in the same way as the tribal gods of the Old Testament and the multitude of gods worshipped in the Roman Empire. So when the magi come to the court of the infant Jesus, it is not an act of submission, rather it is an act of paying respect and giving honour and an acknowledgement of Jesus as being of divine origin. This is the beginning of the process through which the name of Jesus will become the name to which every knee shall bow. The Christian faith is concerned with the conversion of the whole world, we do believe that our God is the God above all gods, and that salvation comes through his Son, Jesus Christ. However, the Epiphany story, along with all that follows in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters inform us that this must be achieved through the drawing of people to Jesus, with courtesy and love, rather than through the imposition of the faith through conquest or through force of any kind.
The second understanding of the word “magi” would have them as people possessing supernatural knowledge or power, most probably through their astrological abilities. Now you might think that having astrologers coming to Jesus is Matthew’s way of putting down astrology and other esoteric practices that are frowned on in the Jewish faith, but this is unlikely. In fact, Matthew is using the story of how the magi were guided to to Jesus, through their translation of the movement of the stars, to make the point that the arrival of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is an event that effects all of creation; and not just the world, but the whole universe.
When we move on from the Gospel record into the early traditions of the Church we come across the visitors being referred to as “wise men,” which is, linguistically not very different to the term, “magi.” Now, I have no proof of this, but I would not be surprised if this appellation began to be used at the beginning of the Second Century when the faith was fighting accusations of being intellectually wanting and only adhered to by uneducated people of low status. Apologists for the faith, such as Iranaeus, Justin Martyr and Saint Luke, wrote much to try and counter these attacks and to prove that Christianity was as much an intellectual religion as it was an emotional religion, and that Christian doctrine was of the same intellectual standing as Greek philosophy. By regarding the magi as wise men, the Christian Church was able to demonstrate how intelligent, knowledgeable, thinking people had been drawn to Jesus from the earliest moments of Christ’s time on earth.
The last title to be given to the visitors was that of “kings”. This happened as kingship became an increasingly important concept within Christendom. At the same time the three kings were given names and different characteristics. On one level this was just an embellishment of the story to make it more interesting. On another level it was a deliberate theological device to show the universality of Christianity. The kings have different personalities, they are of different ages and they are of different races. The person listening to this redaction of the story should be left in no doubt that all are welcome at the birth of Christ, that Christ can be born in the hearts and minds of anybody.
It may be that there is a political aspect to the ascribing of kingship to the visitors. From at least the time of the birth of the Holy Roman Empire to past the Reformation there has been a power struggle between secular rulers and church rulers. Perhaps the Church authorities liked the idea of worldly kings bowing down and offering tribute to Christ and, therefore, to the Church also.
So, finally, after all this enquiry, let us ask ourselves the question, when all is said and done, who were the visitors to our infant Lord all those years ago. Magi? Wise men? Kings? All three? The answer is so simple that it is almost a platitude. We were the visitors. All of us who profess the Christian faith and understand the humility that must accompany such faith were the ones who on that starlit night kneeled before his bedside and offered to him our gifts that represented our very selves. Jesus was born in real time two thousand years ago in a specific place, but he is also born anew every time somebody journeys towards Jesus, accepts Jesus as saviour and makes a commitment to live life in the light of that revelation. Because of this fact we have all been in the presence of the Christ child and our celebration of Epiphany is an annual reminder of this wonderful, life-changing fact.