The Mystery of the Magi (I)
Who, What & Where Were They? Patricia van Laar
The story of the 'three wise men' and of the star has for decades at least, been associated with the birth of Jesus. Stable scenes (whether approved of or not!) are likely to portray the humble shepherds on one side of a straw-lined crib, contrasted by three crowned figures in rich clothes on the other side, holding elegant jars and decorated boxes, and a star dangling somewhere between. Legend has grown up around these magi. They have been designated kings, wise men, sages, astrologers; numbered as three they have been put into the stable a day or two after the birth of Jesus, and have been given quite fanciful but fictitious names. They have had numerous lovely fictional stories built up around them, and have even inspired a modern operetta of great beauty and exquisite music written half way through the 20th century, the touching story of a lame boy, complete with miraculous cure - "Amahl and the Night Visitors. Yet in reality, nothing is known of these men except what is written in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew.
Who Were They?
It is easier first to state who they were not! Certainly they were not kings. This is a mere romantic figment of imagination. Even the popular carol, 'We Three Kings of Orient are' makes this mistake, which is a pity, as otherwise this Christmas song gives some truly Biblical symbolism about the person and death of the Lord, 'King and God and Sacrifice'. Whenever I have used this in a children's programme, I have preferred to change the wording to "Wise Men we from Orient are...." Such a change in the carol also cuts out a second myth - that there were three of them. You will be aware that the number is not given in the Bible. Three has no doubt been accepted because that was the number of the gifts. Who can say that there were not just two of them, bringing three gifts in all, or on the other hand, five or six or even more, doubling up on the gifts?
It is also often overlooked, that these men did not come to the stable. Matthew says quite clearly in the gospel that they came to the house. By the time they arrived the family was long gone from the birth place. Jesus could have been any age between about one and two years old, for the word Herod used of the child when he sent the visitors to Bethlehem, referred not to a new born baby, but to a child of at least one year, rather like our 'toddler', and the upper age of the boys killed by Herod, who had deliberately enquired of the Wise Men the exact time the star had appeared, was two.
Obviously, Joseph, doubtless following the guidance of the Lord, had not gone back to Nazareth but had set up home and perhaps even a carpentry business in Bethlehem or its vicinity. That this was providential is evident, for it meant that when he had to flee with the child and His mother to the safety of Egypt, they were still in the southern part of Palestine, the area of closest proximity to that country, and did not have to travel the dangerous journey from the north, nor to pass by Jerusalem. The short escape route to Egypt gave Herod far less chance of catching them.
When They Came
Though this popular conception of a stable visit is generally believed today, the Christian church has recognised the fact that it was not so, by the placing of the visit of the Wise Men, not in the Christmas season, but separately in the section of the Church's Year known as the Epiphany. The word epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning appearance, manifestation, or 'showing forth'. It is the word translated in I Timothy as the 'appearance' of the Lord, and in II Thess. 2:8 as 'brightness' (A.V.) or 'splendour' (N.I.V.) of His coming. The Epiphany season directs attention for several Sundays to special manifestations of the Lord's Person and Power and Wisdom during His life on earth, beginning with the story of the Wise Men.
What They Were
Who were they, then, these Magi? The derivation of the English word 'magi' (singular magus) can be traced through the Greek 'magoi' (singular magos) to the Persian 'mogh'. Magos is defined in a Greek New Testament Lexicon as 'magus, sage of the magian religion, magian'. This takes us back to the Old Testament. The New Bible Commentary suggests that the Magi were probably astrologers similar to the Chaldeans mentioned in Daniel 2:2. The N.I.V. here has a footnote to the word astrologers, "or Chaldeans". Young's 'Literal Translation of the Bible' does not mention the word astrologers at all, but gives the verse as "scribes, enchanters, sorcerers and Chaldeans." It seems therefore, that there was a class of men known as Chaldeans who were recognised as magicians, sorcerers, enchanters and also astrologers, men of considerable power and importance. This was the group with whom Daniel was associated in Babylon (see Dan. 1:19,20; 2:12,13).
Nebuchadnezzar soon realised that the source of Daniel's ability to interpret dreams and to prophesy was not the stars of heaven, but the God who created the stars. He gave Daniel political authority, and appointed him head of the astrologers in Babylon. Significant would be the influence that Daniel must have had on these heathen men, especially after he had saved their lives. We may surmise that Daniel was able to lead some if not many of them to abandon the worship of the stars and begin worshipping the Creator of the stars, the God of Israel. If this were not so, we may ask, how was it that the Wise Men centuries later, of another race, leaders of another religion, not of Jewish nationality and not, to all appearances likely to be interested in, or want to acknowledge a King of the Jews, why were they so willing to make a long search for a baby in Palestine? Had something of Daniel's faith filtered down to them through time? Otherwise, how did the Wise Men know?
Leaving this question for the moment, consider the significance of the story of the sages to Jews who read it, and its significance to us. The gospel of Matthew gives evidence of having been written especially for the Jewish people. Luke on the other hand, has been named the 'universal' gospel by a Gentile for Gentiles. Luke recorded the song that said Jesus would be 'a Light to lighten the Gentiles'. On the surface, then, it would seem that this story would better belong to Luke's gospel, the visit of Gentiles to Jesus in His early childhood, but Luke gives no hint of the event.
Why in Matthew? Of deep consideration, is its place of importance to the Jews themselves, confirming its right of place in Matthew's gospel. The nation of Israel had had no Jewish King on the throne since the Exile. Herod the Great who now sat on the throne was an Idumean (Edomite). For five hundred years the nation had generally been under Gentile yoke. No king of David's line had ruled, and indeed a curse had been put on the descendants of King Jehoiachin (Jeconiah, see Jer. 22:30), which would preclude Joseph
himself and any of his own sons by blood, from kingship. Yet here was One recognised as their King!
Expectation for the Messiah, the anointed One, was high at the New Testament period. As Jews read the gospel of Matthew they would see its emphasis on the Kingship of Jesus, and His legal right as the Son of David (and as such He was well known) to the throne of Israel. At last a king from their own royal house had arrived, One who through the events in chapter 1 of the gospel, would overcome the curse on the Jeconiah Davidic line, One whom even Gentile sages from the east (Mesopotamian region) recognised, and whom Herod Himself greatly feared. So a Jew would see it.
For us today, the majority of whom are from a non-Jewish background, it is of compelling interest that this was the first fulfilment of the promise that Jesus would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles. This is often overlooked in the wonder of the first Gentile converts in the book of Acts, and their acceptance, somewhat reluctantly, by the New Testament church. Here we find, in a comparatively short time after His birth, His thoroughly Jewish parents surrounded by thoroughly Jewish prejudices, allowing Gentiles to enter their home, accepting gifts from the hands of these same Gentiles, and allowing them to offer worship to the Child. A remarkable indication of revelation to the devout couple, and their commitment to the will of God and the fulfilment of the words of Simeon in the Temple!
So was opened to us too, as Gentiles, the right to take our place in the spiritual Israel, the right to bring our homage, our worship, to the One Who would save His people from their sins.
We are so used to being in this place of privilege, that we are prone to overlook the amazement of it. How easy it is for the gospel message to become 'old hat!' May the Lord deliver us from the pitfall of over-familiarity. Praise the Lord for the God Who so loved the world, that He opened the Way for us too, the 'whoever' who believe in Him, receive Him, and have everlasting life.