James Tissot, The Magi Journeying (Between 1886 and 1894)
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I am a person who loves to read fantasy novels and to play games set within worlds filled with magic and yet I know that for most of the history of both Christianity and Judaism people who were looked upon as magic users were viewed as dangers to the faithful, at a minimum, and sometimes enemies of the faith aligned with demonic powers. It may be tempting to mock conservative Christians who forbid their children to read the Harry Potter novels, for example, but to understand the scandal of the story of the wise men we need to begin with the beliefs of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus about those who used things like astrology as a tool to understand their world. The advisors to Pharaoh who attempted to replicate the signs and wonders God did through Moses, Balaam who was called upon to curse Israel in Numbers 22-24 and the medium that Saul employs to talk to Samuel are all viewed as cautionary tales that warn against putting one’s trust in those who employ the magical arts. Numerous places in the law prohibit various types of magical practices, for example:
9 When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so. (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14, see also Exodus 22: 18 and Leviticus 20:27)
Contrary to our world where we assume magic belongs to the realm of fantasy, a part of the disenchanted worldview that we live in; in the ancient world magic was viewed as a real and dangerous thing. For the Jewish people it was viewed as a temptation which often lured people away from their faith in the God of Israel (and given the number of kings of Israel which would embrace the very practices that Deuteronomy prohibited they must have been a persuasive alternative). Even within the New Testament we hear the story of Simon the Magician in Acts 8 who views the gift of the Holy Spirit in terms of magical power and is condemned by Peter and John and responds by asking for their prayers. Simon, we learn, believed and was baptized and seems to have given up his former magical practices seeing the evidence of the Spirit’s power in the apostles. Likewise, in Acts 19 several former practitioners of magic burn their magical texts as a part of their acceptance of the faith of Christ. Yet, these wise men would not have been looked upon by most Jewish people as simply foreigners, but they would be both foreigners and people whose practices would be viewed, in Deuteronomy’s language, as abhorrent.
The magi were likely Zoroastrians from the Parthian Empire (also known as Persia, modern day Iran) who were known for their practices of discerning events from the stars. The description of the wise men as being from the East also lends support to the idea that these magi were coming from Parthia. Parthia also represented, for the people of the Roman empire, the external threat—they were people from beyond the boundaries of the empire and that in the century before Christ’s birth had harassed and humiliated the Romans and even briefly driven Herod the Great into hiding at Masada (until Rome would regain control of the region). The star was seen beyond the beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire and those who came searching to pay tribute to the King of the Jews may have also been potential collaborators with a foreign empire. The magi were not kings themselves, but they were practitioners of a strange religion from a hostile empire. Yet, in line with the scriptures, the God of Israel frequently uses foreigners and even the movement of empires to be a part of God’s working in the world.
Another theme that will occur in Matthew is the way that creation itself reacts to the presence of Jesus. Even though the Jewish people may not have been looking to the heavens for a sign in the stars to let them know that the long-awaited Messiah has come, the creation shows signs that those who know how to see can observe. Many solutions for the start that the magi follow have been proposed, an interesting one is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn three times in 7 BCE. Jupiter was known as the “royal” planet and Saturn was thought to represent the Jews, (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 27) but ultimately we will likely never prove exactly what the magi observed. Yet, for those able to see, the creation provides multiple witnesses to who Jesus is and this will be highlighted in the crucifixion scene where Matthew includes not only darkness but also an earthquake which opens the tombs and the resurrection of many who are dead. For Matthew the presence of Jesus, the Emmanuel (God with us), provokes a reaction from the earth and stars as they respond to the presence of their creator.
When I was growing up, I imagined this scene as literally following a star that was in motion like a comet, but likely the magi observed the signs in the heavens and moved to where they anticipated the observed phenomenon occurring. This may be the reason they end up in Jerusalem, in looking for the one born King of the Jews it is only natural to look at the center of power, both religious and spiritual, of the Jewish people. Bethlehem, while it was the birthplace of David, was a seemingly inconsequential place compared to Jerusalem with the temple and with King Herod’s palace. The magi come to the center of power looking for a king who is to be born and probably assume that the king is affiliated with he current king reigning in Jerusalem.
Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea was a shrewd political leader who could be merciless even on his own family. Herod was now Jewish, he was born in Idumea which is south of Judea, but he was raised religiously as Jewish by his father. Herod would reign as the King of Judea for roughly thirty-six years, dying in 4 BCE (shortly after the events narrated in these chapters) and his domain would be divided between his remaining sons. Even though Herod was granted the title ‘King of Judea’ by the Roman Senate his reign was dependent upon the favor of those in power in Rome, his ability to maintain the flow of tax revenue from his region and his ability to navigate the numerous internal threats to his reign. From a modern perspective we may view Herod as paranoid and power hungry, but the world he lived in was much more ruthless than our own and those who held power. Herod’s reaction is foreshadowed by the words that ‘Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;”
The chief priests and scribes of the people are called upon to unravel the mystery of this child whose birth is written in the heavens and who these magi come seeking. In Matthew’s gospel the ability to read what is going on in the heavens only takes the magi so far, to complete their journey they need the gift of what is written in scripture. The chief priests and the scribes, who along with the ruling authorities like the Herods and the Romans will find themselves frequently at odds with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, are now called upon to interpret the voice of scriptures. The chief priests and the scribes can, from the scriptures, pull the correct answer. The words in Matthew are closest to Micah 5:2
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
As Stanley Hauerwas can remark Herod, the chief priest and the scribes may ultimately oppose Jesus, but they have a role play in the narrative of the life of Jesus. As he states, “without Herod the wise men might not have found the one they sought. The enemies of the kingdom often serve the movement begun in Jesus.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 40)
Throughout the gospel Matthew will use scripture to begin to illuminate who Jesus is and what he means. Just as in the genealogy we are linked back to the line of David and the promise of a new David that would lead the people. In the two explicit references to scripture at this point we have heard that Jesus is ‘’God with us” and “the ruler who is to shepherd Israel” (a role that in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel is claimed by God in opposition to the current shepherds). The scriptural claim about a new ruler from an ancient line who is to shepherd the people of Israel also undercuts Herod’s tenuous claim as king of the Judeans due to his political alliance with Rome and his political maneuverings in Judea.
Herod meets with the magi in secret, again this points out the scandal of the magi in a Jewish worldview. King Herod, ever attentive to threats to his power, passes on the information the magi need to complete their search by giving them the location where the scriptures reveal the child is to be born, Bethlehem. With this final piece of information, the search is completed, the heavens align, and these Gentiles can find the new king of the Jews that the chief priests, the scribes, and even King Herod had not. God uses foreigners who are not in possession of the law to be a part of the revelation of God’s story. Just like the genealogy with Gentiles are singled out as a critical part of the story of God’s chosen people and Matthew foreshadows that this gospel, although a Jewish gospel, will be open in the most expansive prophetic hope to the Gentiles who will come to be a part of what God is doing in Israel.
The magi bring their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There are three gifts, but there are not necessarily three magi. Later tradition would attribute the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar with the magi of this story, but in Matthew they are unnumbered and unnamed. Unlike the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” they were probably not kings and probably not three. Yet, these Gentile magi come from outside the empire and outside the Jewish faith based on how they see the stars move to pay tribute to this one born as a king.
Within the gospel there is an openness to the faith of the outsider and some of the greatest witnesses of faith will be non-Jewish in Matthew’s gospel. These magi are outsiders and yet they too show great faithfulness in coming in search of Jesus, bringing their gifts and paying him homage. They also, like Joseph, will be attentive to the way God will speak to them in dreams and in obedience to the vision they have in the night they leave the country without returning to Herod to report on Jesus and his family.