Robin M. Jensen • 11/17/2015 “Witnessing the Divine” by Robin M. Jensen originally appeared in Bible Review, December 2001.
The magi lend an exotic and mysterious air to the Christmas story. The sweet domesticity of mother and child and the bucolic atmosphere of shepherds and stable are disturbed by the arrival of these strangers from the East. The background music changes from major to minor. Sentiment gives way to awe, perhaps even fear. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the legend of the magi has fired the imagination of Christians since the earliest times. In art, the adoration of the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ birth and infancy, including images of the babe in a manger. The artistic evidence suggests that the early church attributed great theological importance to the story of Jesus’ first visitors—an importance not overtly stated in this enigmatic gospel account of omens and dreams, astrological signs and precious gifts, fear and flight. To understand how the earliest Christians interpreted the message of the magi, we must look to early Christian literature (theological treatises, sermons and poetry)—and art.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem asking: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
So opens the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the only biblical account of this nocturnal visit. In vivid contrast to Luke’s gospel, Matthew omits any mention of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered, a crowded inn, a sheltering manger, or watching shepherds startled by an angel’s announcement of the messiah’s birth. Instead, the first gospel focuses on the journey of these eastern emissaries, who see an unusual star rising, interpret it as an omen that they should investigate, and follow its path first to King Herod of Judea and then to Bethlehem, where it appears to stop above a house in which a child had recently been born. Entering the house, the men pay homage to the babe and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they leave, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who has hatched an evil plot that will lead to the slaughter of innocent children, the weeping of their mothers.
The names of the magi do not appear in the New Testament, nor does the number. The Gospel of Matthew speaks simply of “magi from the East.” By the second century, they were identified as three; by the fifth, they were identified as kings and, in the West, given the names Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar.
Neither their names, their number (three), their physical descriptions nor the date of the magi’s arrival appears in the Bible. Over time these cherished traditions were added to the brief gospel narrative, probably first through oral tradition. By the fourth century, the magi’s arrival was celebrated as the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 (12 days after Jesus’ birth on December 25.)
Their assumed number was undoubtedly derived from the three gifts presented to Jesus in Matthew. The number wasn’t always taken for granted, however. The names and nationalities of the magi also varied throughout the world, especially in the East. An Armenian infancy gospelc from about 500 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 earliest writers had understood the magi to come from one region (usually identified as Persia). But in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian known as the Venerable Bede recorded a later tradition that the three magi signified the three parts of the 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).
Gifted with power to divine oracles and read stars, the magi recognized the child as the messiah, as both human and divine, king and child, intimately present and cosmically meaningful, mortal and eternal. For the early church, the magi themselves came to represent the Trinity. A final image of the magi, paired on a fourth-century marble sarcophagus with a scene of Jesus raising the dead reinforces why their image appears so early and so frequently in funerary settings. In recognizing the promise of a messiah who was both human and divine—and eternal—the magi provided a message of hope for both the living and the dead.
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