Magi from the East

Since today is actually the great Feast of Epiphany – despite what the bishops say! – I thought I would celebrate it by posting a short essay I wrote several years ago on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel – especially the Visit of the magi, which forms the central mode of our celebration of this feast in the Latin world.

Jesus’ genealogy is a little dicey, and Matthew makes an obvious point of it, recognizing among his ancestors the Canaanite Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her while she posed as a prostitute; Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies during the conquest; Ruth, not untoward in character, but nonetheless a Moabitess; and Bathsheba (by inference), the wife of a Hittite, who was taken by King David in highly dubious manner (and is not recorded as having objected).

This diversity seems to be often taken as a sign of the inclusion of the gentiles in the new covenant. However, the text places these women explicitly within the scope of the older covenants, and so is more of a commentary on the proper interpretation of the meaning of God’s people since the time of Abraham than it is a pointing toward something new happening at Bethlehem. It seems to me to defy logic to claim that the inclusion of these women in this genealogy of Jesus within the chosen people is somehow making the assertion that after Jesus, people like these women (who came before Jesus) can finally be counted among the chosen people!

The story of the Magi is another place where the gentile world tends to read itself into the story of God’s people in a breaking-in of new relationship made possible by the universal nature of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ, being a very distinct thing from the nationalistic and tribal salvation proposed by Judaism. However, I’m not convinced that this is Matthew’s intent.

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 to where both Judah and Israel had been exiled, 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. We tend to project 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, but who used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet, according to the Biblical text, 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 at least of mixed Israelite descent. 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, prophet and king, but these things were also perhaps part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. Myrrh ink, for instance, was used to write magical charms, as I understand it. Seen as “tools of the trade,” these offerings can be understood not so much as gifts of homage, but 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, but 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.

The point of all this is to argue against a common perception that Matthew’s inclusion of the non-Israelites in the genealogy, as well as his placing of the magi at the nativity seen, can be used to justify an interpretation of his Gospel that has Matthew recording the gentiles shouldering in on the Jews, or even pushing them out of the picture altogether. Reading the entire gospel – especially in Matthew’s extensive use of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures and claims of their prophetic fulfillment – simply does not support such a view. Rather, Matthew’s purpose 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), in the process 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, as opposed to 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 very much 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 (to which this writer is so sensitive). 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. It is achieved through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection in the Passion of Christ. It looks to these eyes that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).