The Magi: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 5 (A Repost)

Throughout Christian history, the magi (Grk: μαγοι) have become a central part in Jesus' birth narrative. Yet, there are some good reasons for us to step back, survey their roles in the story, and ask some new questions. We shall start with questions that challenge some of our presuppositions: Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? What makes us think that they were "men"? Why do we only include three in the episode? How do we know they traveled by camel? Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? Why do they give the gifts they do?

Now, answering all of these questions could lead to the writing of a book. But, I want to ponder them, so, I'll have to do so in a more brief manner than a tome. So, let me just explore the above questions one-by-one.

1. Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? The proper answer to this, I think, is that to be seen as "fulfilling" OT texts like Isaiah, they must be viewed as kings. Isaiah says that kings will worship the Messiah. So, to "fulfill" predictions, people have connected the μαγοι with kings (even their gifts correlate with those mentioned in Isa.). But the truth is, every piece of ancient literature that we have never suggests that magoi were kings. Instead, all of the extant literature contends that they were indeed, servants to kings. (In the 2nd century, however, we do have a Christian writer who links them to kings, though he doesn't say they themselves are kings, he merely links them to them). When we read Matthew's account of the birth narrative we see this too. The μαγοι visit a king, take orders from him and proceed to find Jesus. Never are they depicted as the kings. What has happened then is that through prooftexting and making false scriptural connections (in hopes of prediction/fulillment) we have flipped Matthew's writing on its head: these μαγοι are not to be presented as kings but as servants to kings.

2. Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? The easy answer is that they were interpreted as stargazers, readers of the heavens. Yet, in antiquity, stargazers were looked on with suspicion and ridicule. Their jobs were seen as absurd; they were learned in nonsense. Mark Alan Powell has shown numerous examples of this. He contends that the "star" they were supposedly following is nothing complicated but rather, it was simple, right in front of them; anyone could have followed it. Notice that when they get to Jerusalem the first thing these guys do is ask "where is the one born king of the Jews?" Ever noticed that they came from the East only to ask a question? Ever noticed that they traveled to Jerusalem unsure of where they were going? Wise? Not so much. Ever noticed that had the angel not appeared to them, they probably would have gone back to Herod? The fact is, stargazers in antiquity were viewed as the opposite of wise: they were fools. Notice in Matthew that it is the "foolish" whom God chooses to reveal things to, not the "wise". So, we should see these μαγοι in their proper ancient social contexts as fools.

3. What makes us think that they were only "men"? Well, this is probably due to the fact that in antiquity, men were viewed as workers and travelers while women stayed at home. But the fact is, the text never suggests that they were only men. I must admit, however, that I have not read any ancient passages that depict them as women. Still, this should give us pause when we think about how to identify them.

4. Why do we only include three in the episode? The most likely answer to this is that there are "three" gifts that are given (gold, frankincense and myrrh). Yet, we can't say with confidence that one person gave all three gifts or that ten did, maybe even twenty, let alone three. It is reading way too much into the story that has led us to both identify the μαγοι as kings, wise, male and numbering three.

5. How do we know they traveled by camel? We don't! They could have traveled by boat (depending on where they were coming from; it could have been included part of their journey!), by foot, by donkey, etc. We have no clue. It is the late reworking of the nativity story that has led us to presuppose that camels were in the mix.

6. Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? No. Indeed, they gave great gifts but we don't know how much they gave. It could have been a small pouch full or an abundance. They could have brought the gifts from home or bought them on the way there. They could have sold their own goods to get the gits, they could have traded for them, purchased them or already owned them and just gave them up. We have no hard evidence to be in a position to say a lot about their social status. But the fact is, if μαγοι were typically despised and if they were generally servants, they probably weren't wealthy.

7. Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? The obvious answer is: They followed the star from wherever they were coming. But does Matthew seem to suggest that anyone could have followed this star? Or what if we consider the ancient view that stars were also considered celestial beings? Could they have been following an angel (of the Lord) then? Would this comport with other dreams, visions and appearances where angels are involved? Question #7 also relates to the next question.

8. Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? The phrase "from the east" (Grk: ανατολη) has led people to believe that they came from areas where astrology was popular in antiquity. This may well be the case but we just don't know. Perhaps they had only traveled twenty or fifty miles instead of coming from Babylon or Persia. If we are going to glean anything from "East" we have to presuppose and imply a lot. One may be able to offer a possible reconstruction as has been done in the past (e.g. astrologers lived in Babylon, traveled to Jerusalem following solar guides, etc.). But the truth is, it seems that Matthew wants to suggest that it is God who does the guiding in the story. Would reading the heavens suggest that it wasn't God who was leading them?

9. Why do they give the gifts they do? It would seem to me that the gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts, as the song says, are fit for a king. But is there more going on here than just that? I could be terribly wrong here but it seems so. If gold is fit for a king, fankincense for a prophet, and anointing oil (myrhh) for one who is facing death, the point could be: This baby is a king/prophet who has been born to die. Or, we could simply argue that all three gifts are worthy of a king. Bearing this in mind, we see something interesting, something ironic going on here: In Matthew's story, it is not the actual kings that worship Jesus (indeed, Herod wants Jesus dead) but rather, servants of kings. Indeed, scripture is not "fulfilled" but inversed, flipped on its head. Matthew is using irony. It is not kings who come to Jesus (though kings should) but rather, servants of kings, foolish servants at that!

What does all of this mean for the Christmas story as we tell it today? Well it means that we should try to keep it in context so that we can get across what was really trying to be said and what was really trying to be focused on: That Jesus is the King of kings! Further, Jesus is a King of fools, a King whose servants are not wise by worldly standards but yet are privvy to the ways and voice of God. We should not try to read too much into this story so that the heart of it gets over-sentimentalized and lost. We must strive to retain the core of the story that focuses on Jesus' kingship and the fact that we are to be servants, even foolish servants for Him. During this Advent, I can hardly think of a greater truth!

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