Matthew provides us the story of the Magi priests (not kings) visiting Jesus with gifts “from afar”. Magi is a Zoroastrian term referring to “dream interpreting astrologers-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge”.[i] We don’t know the actual number, though three is the popular legend.
The number was postulated by Origen in the Third Century based on the number of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Feast of the Epiphany, which was first celebrated in Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the Second Century or beginning of the Third Century (the home of Origen), celebrates the appearance of God to the world who became flesh in the person of the Christ child.
The arrival of the Magi is acknowledgement of the worldwide, universal significance of the event.
“Matthew’s story about travelers following the trail of a mysterious star was all about including ‘foreigners’ in the Christmas story. Matthew showed Gentiles—in other words non-Jews, people who worshipped so-called pagan gods—acknowledging Jesus as king and, presumably, savior.”
The universal availability of Jesus beyond the Jewish community into which Jesus was born to the world is built right into the beginning of the narrative in Matthew. It resonates with Paul’s letters in which he maintains, to his own detriment among his fellow Jews, that Christ came for Jew and Gentile, alike.
That the offering of God in the flesh to the world which is built into the very beginning of the story was first celebrated in the Feast of the Epiphany in Northern Africa is intriguing to me. Though the Magi would have come from a different area of the world, the point of the story is the universality of Christ.
We also forget how prominent in early Christian history was the African church. This intrigues me as well.
The story in Matthew is only 12 verses long (Matt. 2:1-12). A longer version of the story exists in one other manuscript, the “Revelation of the Magi”.[ii] This Syriac text that was translated into English only recently is apocryphal and likely dates to the Second or Third Century.[iii] It depicts the wise men coming from Shir, which is in China today.
Like many apocryphal texts, it smacks of myth and legend (the star they follow comes down and transforms into the baby Jesus). It is a whimsical story, perhaps, like the Chronicles of Narnia.
While the Revelation of the Magi is apocryphal and fantastical in its details, the idea that men came from the Far East is not. The Spice Route that comes into Jerusalem connects all the way to China and can be observed still today.
I have meditated before on the thought that Jesus came at just the right time in history when much of the known world was unified by a system of Roman roads and order opening the world to the west and north (to the British isles) for the spread of the Gospel. So also, we see that the Spice Route opened the world for the spread of the Gospel to the east, just as other trade routes allowed the Gospel to spread south into Africa, with Alexandria being one of the three pillars of early Christian authority.
While I am very familiar with Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and faithful devotion to the promise God made to Abraham to bless all the nations through his seed, I had not noticed the significance of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew (a more Jewish-orientated Gospel).
It’s hard to imagine today how significant a paradigm shift this story would have been for First Century Hebrews. They had jealously guarded their covenantal relationship with the one God of Israel for hundreds and hundreds of years. John addresses this legacy in the opening chapter of his Gospel:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” John 1:9-11
The idea that God sent His Messiah to the Jews, and they rejected Him, would have been worse than scandalous for devout First Century Hebrews. They had held on to their sacred relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt for well over a millennia with much sacrifice and difficulty. They, indeed, looked forward to a coming Messiah, but they believed he would come only for them.
Of course, Paul makes the point in all his letters that the promise given to Abraham was for all the nations. The First Century Jews shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the Christ child, but many centuries of holding onto their favored position with God through trials and tribulations and threats from the pagan nations all around them, and the influence of those nations in their very midst, had steeled them to be resistant.
Some did believe, though, along with Gentiles. To them, “[God] gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) Most of the initial believers in the Christ child were Hebrews after all, including all twelve of the disciples.
It took some time for the words of Jesus and the significance of his life, death and resurrection to inhabit the thoughts and beliefs of his early followers – that he came for the world (“first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile”, as Paul said (Rom. 1:16)). What may have seemed ambiguous to the disciples during the life of Jesus was made clear by the express instructions to them after his death and resurrection: go into the world and “make disciples of all the nations”. (Matt. 28:19)
Even after Jesus left them, Peter, James and the believers in Jerusalem continued to balk at the idea of the Gospel being available freely to the Gentile world. They had a hard time embracing Gentile converts. Paul, the former zealous persecutor of the followers of Christ, would be the one to convince them to embrace God’s “new” plan – which wasn’t new at all – dating back to Abraham, well before the Law was given to Moses.
The Magi story in Matthew placed where it is, right at the beginning of the Gospel, is significant in light of the fact that Matthew is the most Hebrew Gospel in its focus. It is the only Gospel written in Aramaic. It has a distinctly Hebrew flavor. The Magi story is a tender and human expression of the universality of the Gospel offered to the world in the beginning of the most ethnocentric of the Gospels.
[ii] See Rediscovered Ancient Text Tells a Different Three Wise Men Tale, by Lauren Effron, ABC News Dec. 22, 2010
[iii] See Epiphany: Ancient Christian Text Adds to Biblical Story of the Magi Traveling to Bethlehem for Birth of Jesus, by Kastalia Medrano for Newsweek, Jan. 16, 2018
[iv] See ‘Strong case’ house in crypt was home to Jesus, says archaeologist, by Jo Couzens for BBC News Nov. 25, 2020