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So Who Were the Magi—AKA the Three Kings—Who Visited Jesus?


REMOVEBelieve it or not, Christmas isn’t over until this week. 6 months 1 marks the Epiphany, the last night of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’ and is the traditional day when the Magi visit baby Jesus and his parents. You may be gearing up for your nativity scene in a New Year’s Resolution-inspired celebration, but in the religious calendar, the Magi arrive fashionably late. That they get stuck in traffic over the holidays in no way stifles our relationship with them: although the Bible says almost nothing about them, we’ve been collectively obsessed with them for two millennia. .

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four scriptures that mentions the Magi, they came to Jerusalem “from the east” and were led by a bright star. They go to the Royal City and ask Herod and the scribes where the King of the Jews was born (the heaven guide is not as accurate as the satellite navigation). Herod et alia sent them to Bethlehem. Once there, the Magi gave the infant Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A dream warns them not to return to Jerusalem, so they take a different route back to wherever they go.

This is all Matthew tells us. He does not give us the names of the Magi (which, according to most Christian traditions, are Balthazar, Kaspar and Melchior). He doesn’t call them kings but “wise men” or magoi. He didn’t even tell us that there were three of them. The only reason we assume there are three is because three different types of gifts are assigned. But for all we know there are two, four, or, as some forms of Eastern Christianity there are, twelve.

Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel, an associate professor of religion at Ferrum College who is currently writing a book on the history of the Magi, told me nothing about the story is very specific. We don’t know where the Magi come from, what the meaning of the star is, or what “the wise” means. They can be philosophers, astrologers or magicians. In short, he said, “Matthew tells us a lot less than most readers remember.”

These ambiguities have created space for Christians – from ancient times to the present day – to fill in the blanks. A Syriac text called Revelation of the Magi, telling the story from the point of view of the Taoists themselves. In this ancient fan fiction, magicians are priestly figures who worship the God of Israel and “pray in silence.” They were purportedly from Shir, at the easternmost edge of the world. Vanden Eykel told me that relatively mundane traditions hold that the Magi came from ancient Persia. This interpretation, he said, comes from Greek historical texts, like those written by the Geographer Strabo, which identify the Magi as a “class of people in Persian society”. As a result, Christian artworks of the Wise Men often show them in Persian garb wearing Parthian pajamas, robes, and soft hats.

The identification of the Magi as kings was the result of early Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Brent Landau, author of a recent translation of Syriac Revelation of the Magi, told The Daily Beast that “early Christians noticed passages such as Psalm 72:10-11, about kings from distant lands coming to pay tribute to the King of Israel, and wondered Is this a prophecy about the Magi? Tertullian in the third century described the Magi as ‘almost kings’, and almost two hundred years later, Augustine bluntly referred to them as kings. From there, the belief became widespread.” Not so popular, however, that the stubborn Protestant reformer John Calvin would accept it. He called identifying the Magi as Kings a “childish error” of Roman Catholics.

What was not uncommon for ancient people living in the Roman empire was the idea that celestial events could spur someone on a long journey. It is thought that astronomical apparitions are a means by which God, or gods, can communicate with humans. For example, a solar eclipse taking place at the crucifix is ​​a clear sign that something of cosmic proportions has just happened. God doesn’t seem happy. Using the stars for navigation is both a good method of navigation and a form of divination. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero uses the stars to guide him in his quest, but this only makes him a respectable captain.

In some Christian traditions, the Magi had more than just stars to guide them. A twelfth-century stone carving from Autun . Church Shows the three magi hugged each other in bed under a single embroidered blanket while an angel gently awakened them from their dreams. In some earlier traditions, the star guiding the travelers was an angel, while in one tradition the star was the infant Jesus himself. Translators have been less generous in their interpretations lately. Jehovah’s Witnesses Have you seen it? The star as devil’s technology was not suitable as it brought foreign astrologers to Herod and triggered a chain of events that jeopardized Jesus.

The idea of ​​making such a long journey to begin diplomatic relations with a new king was also not extraordinary. According to a story involving the Roman writers Pliny, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius, Tiridates, the Zoroastrian King of Armenia, traveled to Rome to pay his respects to Emperor Nero and end tensions between Rome and Parthian. The visit was a great success and is remembered and for generations to come. Some scholars have suggest that the story of the Magi is based on the story of Tiridates. Vanden Eykel told me that while he wouldn’t have made it this far on his own, it’s safe to say that “a story about people traveling in honor of a king would not stand out to a century-old readership.” The first is unusual.”

What’s interesting about the Magi story, says Vanden Eykel, is how it becomes a blank slate for people to come up with their own theological interpretation of who Jesus is. Take, for example, the distinct skin color of the Magi in modern European and North American Christmas scenes. One of the Mages almost always has darker skin than the others. Part of the impetus for this idea comes from the Armenian Gospel of childhood, in which the Magi are identified as specifically from Persia, Arabia, and India. The underlying driving force here is the idea of ​​Jesus as a global savior: Vanden Eykel says, “It means that if you want to portray Jesus as a “global” savior, then you want a wide range of skin tones. . (The problem, of course, is that these nativity scenes often leave others unnaturally pale.)

Using the Magi to convey the universality of Jesus’ message does not always involve a focus on the pigment melanin. One of the fifth-century mosaics in the Basilica Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, shows the Magi at different moments in their lives. One was a clean-shaven young man, the next was a middle-aged man with a dark brown beard, the last one was older and gray-haired. Vanden Eykel says images like these “frame the Magi as a sort of ‘representative sample’ of non-Jewish people” and intimate that Jesus’ message is for all. everyone.

While the Bible itself tells us very little about who the Magi were, our interpretation of them tells us a lot about themselves. Sophisticated and elaborate interpretations of the meaning of their gifts; speculation about the identity, origin, and even death of the Magi (their ruins are believed to be in Cologne); and the descriptions of their journeys are proof of the vividness of the Christian imagination.

If all of this sounds a bit far-fetched to you, then give a thought to the real losers of Christmas: the shepherds. Although they were among the first witnesses to the incarnation and even the first to spread the word about the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, history has ignored the name. their nature, background, or afterlife. Ironically, for a religion founded by a carpenter, history favors mysterious wealthy foreigners over commoners. This nameless band is remembered in artwork and Christmas carols but has no ancient biographies. All of which proves that if you enter the door and bring a gift, you can show up as late as you want at important events.

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