Being Epiphany, it’s time for my annual consideration of the story of the Magi. About 15 years ago, I was engaged in a series of discussions on various Biblical readings, and I came to see this story in a somewhat unusual light.
Tradition takes this story as a harbinger of the universality of the salvation offered in Christ, seeing the magi as the first gentiles to come to Christ. It’s a powerful interpretation, and I certainly accept that it is how the Church reads the story, but I haven’t always been convinced that was Matthew’s original intent.
I’m satisfied with how the Church uses this passage in her liturgy, but I still think it might be useful to consider this story from an alternative – hopefully complimentary – interpretation: the possibility of the magi in Matthew’s story not having been pagan gentiles, but rather members of the house of Israel returning from afar (both physically and spiritually) to Jerusalem, at the advent of the Messiah.
Matthew undoubtedly sees the Messiah ultimately in universal terms, but it does not seem consistent with his story to place gentiles as the first to recognize and offer homage to the King of the Jews. In Mt 10.5-24, Jesus sends his disciples out, but only to the house of Israel “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Mt 10.5). It is only after his resurrection that Jesus sends the remaining disciples out to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). As Paul also ceaselessly observed, the Gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. Can we really be so certain that Matthew is telling us that the good news of the birth of the messiah came first to gentiles?
The Magi came “from the east” (Mt 2.1), but that is precisely where both Judah and Israel had been exiled to, hundreds of years earlier. Although Matthew makes no mention of it, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that these Magi were the descendants of either exiled Jews or Israelites. The fact that they come to Jerusalem asking for "the king of the Jews" (as if "the Jews" were a third party) would tend to argue against them being Judahites, but would not be a peculiar phrase if they were descended from the tribes of the old northern kingdom.
We tend to have a “We Three Kings of Orient Are” view of these people because of later nativity traditions, but the Bible has them as magi, a term with strong religious connotations that would have referred to people who played roles ostensibly similar to the role of the prophet in Israelite religion, except that they used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet they use their astronomical/astrological arts to perceive the birth of Christ.
The term Magi, or a derivative, is used in the New Testament to refer to two other people: Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6-11 & Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. Elymas was a Jew, and Simon a Samaritan, and so quite possibly of at least of mixed Israelite descent – and from a Torah-bound people, regardless. These passages are of great help in understanding what kind of people Matthew is referring to, even putting aside the question of their racial origin. I fail to see the theological significance of making such practitioners the primary heralds of the nativity of the Son of God if indeed they are simply pagan magicians. But if they are Israelites, then we can see in the passage a foretaste of the fulfilling of the messianic promise.
While the messianic promise certainly seemed to involve the nations, at least in a subservient role, it was primarily about the restoration of Israel, of sons that shall “come from afar” (Isa 60.4), and of the final turning toward God of Israel. The "gifts" that the magi offered to Jesus have long been associated in Christian tradition with his ministry of priest (frankincense, for sacrifice), prophet (myrrh, for burial anointing) and king (royal gold), but these things could also have been part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. For instance, I understand that myrrh ink was used to write magical charms. Seen as tools of the trade, these offerings can be understood not only as gifts of homage from the magi to the Christ, but also as a declaration of disassociation from former practices: they acknowledged Jesus as Lord and threw away, or offered up as it were, their magic and astrology; they repented, and returned to YHWH through the coming of the Messiah. Now, that makes theological sense.
We know there were many Jews who had stayed behind "in the East" – in Babylon – or who migrated to Persia after Cyrus. And there were, of course, the Israelites who vanished as a people in those very regions, yet who surely survived as occupants in the land. I wonder if it was to a group of one of these peoples that the Lord spoke to in a dream (Mt 2:12), after their repentance?
Matthew’s purpose in his gospel was to demonstrate that the advent of Jesus would signal the restoration of Israel through a spiritual rebirth, by means of repentance and adherence to Torah (even if a radical, interiorized adherence), creating a community of "sons of God" to bring the (universal) salvation forth from the Cross to "all nations."
Regardless of Matthew’s genuine concern for the Gentiles, I think we can see that his primary positioning of Jesus is as a Torah teacher, within the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, i.e., as one calling for the reformation of the life of the community in conformity to a genuine understanding of Torah, opposing a meaningless ritualistic or legalistic perversion of it. And no other gospel writer comes close to displaying Matthew’s concern for defining Jesus as the son of David, right from the first verse. This is the Jewish Messiah.
Understanding these magi as gentile, unfortunately, finds the Gospel, in a very real sense, moving from the Gentiles to the Jews, which does not seem to me to be at all consistent with the overall Biblical witness (which this writer is so sensitive to). This gospel states very strongly that salvation comes through true fulfillment of Torah (cf. Mat 5:17f; 7:21; 15:3; 19:17 etc.), not through the circumventing or "abolishing" of it. Through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection (just as the Torah finds its fulfillment) in the Passion of Christ.
The inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, after all, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).