Tuesday, January 06, 2015
Who are the Magi? (And are they "Three Kings"?)
One of the most puzzling questions in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' Nativity is the question of the identity of the Magi. Who exactly are they? From what country do they come? The actual information given to us by Matthew is pretty slim:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1)
Who are these "wise men" (magoi)? And where exactly is "the east" (apo anatolon)?
What are "Magi"?
The answer to the first question is fairly simple. The Greek word magos is a rather common term for a "wise man" or "sage" who were renowned for various forms of knowledge, such as the ability to interpret dreams (Daniel 2) or interpret the stars (Josephus Antiquities 10.195, 216). By the first century, the term also came to have negative connotations, and was applied to what we would call "sorcerers" or, of course, "magicians" (think here of Bar-Jesus, the Jewish "false prophet" and "magician" of Acts 13:6). In any given case, context determines whether the meaning is positive or negative.
Are the Magi from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia?
When it comes to the question of the exact nationality of the Magi, the answer is far less clear (see W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew, 1.227-28). Even in ancient times, the Church Fathers were fairly evenly split between three opinions as to the national origins of the Magi:
1. Persia (Clement of Alexandrian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Leo the Great)
This view has in its favor the fact that the Persians were known for interpreting dreams, as in the religion of Zoroastrianism.
2. Babylon (Jerome, Augustine)
This view is supported by the explicit presence of Babylonian magi in the book of Daniel (see 2:2-10), as well as the fact that Babylon is certainly to "the east" of the holy land.
3. Arabia (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Epiphanius)
In my opinion, the strongest position is that the Magi are from Arabia. The primary strength of this view is because, as John pointed out in earlier post on Epiphany, Matthew's statements that the Magi "fell down and worshiped" the infant Christ and brought "gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matt 2:11) appear to be deliberate allusions to Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, in which Gentile kings from Arabia come to the new Jerusalem and do homage to the king of Israel:
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising... [T]he wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:3, 6)
Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! ...[M]ay the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! (Psalm 72:1, 10-11)
What about "We Three Kings"?
Where then do we get the common tradition of associating the Magi with "three kings"? It is worth noting here that this tradition does not seem to be a 'myth' made up out of thin air (as one of my family members suggested over the Christmas break!). Instead, it is an intertextual inference drawn from Matthew's allusions to the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, in which Gentile "kings" from Arabia would bring gifts to the new Jerusalem and worship the Messiah.
Indeed, since ancient times, the Church Fathers picked up on these connections between Matthew's account and the Old Testament, and many Fathers deduced from them that the Magi were not simply "wise men" but also pagan "kings" coming to worship the true King. Apparently, the idea of three kings is also inferred from the three gifts given by the Magi to Jesus: "gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matt 2:11).
The Magi and the Israelitica Dignitas
In closing, it may be the case that Matthew's vague description of the Magi as being "from the East" is deliberate, insofar as he is not so much interested in their exact nationality but in the fact that they are Gentiles seeking the "king of the Jews". This is the primary significance that the Church has drawn from the coming of the Magi, seeing in them the first Gentiles to recognize the kingship of Jesus. In the words of the Catechism:
The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world... In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (are made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”). (CCC 528)