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by Al Maxey

Issue #762 ------- January 3, 2019
We three kings of Orient are. Bearing
gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain,
moor and mountain. Following yonder star.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. [1820-1891]

Musings on the Magi
Study of a Seasonal Story

The holiday season is now over. In the past few days we have celebrated the coming of the Messiah, when the eternal Word took on flesh in the person of Jesus (John 1:14), and we have celebrated the passing of an old year and the coming of a fresh new one. With both of these great "comings" we dare to live in hope of a better tomorrow! It is a time of new beginnings and renewed resolve; a time of reflection as well as action. It is also a time when many, with respect to familiar Christmas traditions, experience some level of confusion over some of these traditions and stories associated with the Incarnation. For centuries Christians have been telling and retelling these "Jesus stories" about His birth, yet doing so with some degree of confliction, for they find some aspects of these narratives rather puzzling. These stories are all very well-known and beloved, thereby seemingly stymying any criticism of them. Yet, we have questions; we have doubts. The virgin birth, the angelic chorus, the message of Gabriel, the shepherds in the field (why were they chosen for this great pronouncement of hope for the world?), the divinity/humanity dualism of the infant (this always generates debate). And then there is the visit of the magi from the east. There are a host of questions and concerns about this "Jesus story" which we'll seek to address in this current issue of my Reflections.

In Matthew's gospel account we are told: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him'" (Matthew 2:1-2, NASB). We should point out several interesting facts that contribute to the "back-story" of this event. First, this is the only place in the NT writings where the visit of the magi is noted. None of the other gospel writers even mention it. The reason for this may very well have to do with the specific focus of Matthew, a focus somewhat different from the other gospel chroniclers. "Matthew presents the gospel of salvation history, introducing the Son of God as King of kings, as a ruler of a new Kingdom which extends far beyond the borders of national Israel. Thus, at the very beginning of the Gospel there is a relationship to the Gentiles" [Dr. Myron S. Augsburger, The Communicator's Commentary: Matthew, p. 33]. From the very beginning, God intended to extend His saving grace to ALL peoples of the earth, a concept that the Jews would find difficult to accept. Matthew, who wrote primarily with Jews in mind, needed them to understand this truth. This was even declared to the shepherds by the angel who appeared to them: "I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). The magi were Gentiles, living in lands far to the east, yet "Matthew tells us in this chapter that the Gentiles also have an interest in the new-born Savior," just as the Jews did, who were represented by the shepherds [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 38]. "Christian theological tradition has always stressed that Gentiles as well as Jews came to worship Jesus" [The Online Encyclopedia Britannica].

"Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (Isaiah 60:3). Solomon wrote, "Let the nomads of the desert bow before Him ... Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before Him; all nations serve Him" (Psalm 72:9-11). The people of Israel had long been prepared for this expansion of God's kingdom which would include the Gentiles. "The wealth of the nations will come to you. A multitude of camels will cover you. The young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:5-6). Many believe these passages foretold of the coming of the magi with their gifts, and it is also from these passages that the notion originated that these men were "kings" from the east. Although it is easy to see why some would see a foretelling here of the magi event, and of the identification of these men, that is almost certainly not the original intent of these passages. "No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. ... This use of these texts does not prove they were kings. ... As sometimes happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has in time come to be looked upon by some as an authentic interpretation thereof" [The Online Catholic Encyclopedia]. The important point to be made here is that these magi were "the firstfruits of the Gentile world. They were the leaders of the long procession of Gentiles who, drawn by grace, have sought the Lord. Their coming prefigured the gradual ingathering of that great host" from outside of Israel [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 38].

Many legends have arisen over the centuries from this visit by the magi. Not only are they said to be "kings," their number is set by many at three (e.g., "We three kings of Orient are..."). Why the number three? Because three gifts are mentioned: "And opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11). Speculation didn't stop here, though. "The popular legends that they were three in number, and that they were kings, and that they represented the three great races of the sons of Noah, and that they were named Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, are simply apocryphal additions, originating probably in dramatic representations, and perpetuated by Christian art" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 5]. There is further debate as to the significance of the gifts themselves, with some scholars allegorizing them to the point of absurdity. "The Church Fathers delighted in assigning to these gifts of the Magi mystic meanings: gold as to a king, frankincense as to God, myrrh as to one destined to die" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 74]. "All these traditions are, at the best, precarious suppositions" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 884]. Nor can we identify with any certainty the country of origin for these magi. The text simply says, "magi from the east" (Matthew 2:1). There are any number of nations east of Judea, but most scholars feel "they lived chiefly in Persia and Arabia" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "East of Palestine, only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a Magian priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ. From some such part of the Parthian Empire the Magi came. ... a journey of between 1000 and 1200 miles. Such a distance may have taken any time between three and twelve months by camel" [The Online Catholic Encyclopedia].

As for the gifts of these visitors from the east, they most likely served a very practical purpose, and almost certainly were evidence of the providential care of God. After the visit of the magi, we are informed that "an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him'" (Matthew 2:13). These were expensive gifts, and they "may have helped finance the trip to Egypt" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 89]. "The providence of God is seen in these gifts. It provided the means necessary for the flight to Egypt that was to follow at once, and to sustain the holy family in a foreign land" [Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 24]. "God, in His providence, arranged adequate resources through these three gifts from the magi for Joseph and Mary to make the journey to Egypt. They were not a wealthy couple, so the flight to Egypt for the child's protection was made possible in God's providence by these unique and costly gifts" [Dr. Augsburger, p. 35]. John Wesley (1703-1791) called this "a most seasonable, providential assistance for a long and expensive journey into Egypt, a country where they were entirely strangers, and where they were to stay for a considerable time" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

There is a very common misconception of this visit of the magi that might surprise some of you. When many think of the "nativity scene," they think of the baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by His mother and father, the shepherds, and the wise men (magi). All are there together in a peaceful, pastoral setting. The magi were not there, however; they came much later. Matthew tells us that when the magi arrived in Bethlehem, "they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him" (Matthew 2:11). Joseph is not even mentioned; thus, he may or may not have been present when they arrived. More importantly, it was in a house that they found Mary and Jesus, not in a manger. Clearly, "some time had elapsed since Jesus' birth, and the family was settled in a house" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 89]. "Two details seem to suggest that as much as two years had passed since the birth of Jesus. First, Herod questioned the wise men about when the star had appeared and then ordered the slaughter of all the children in the Bethlehem region who were two years and under, 'according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.' Second, at the time of the visit the family of Joseph was living in a house. Most certainly the visitors from the east arrived appreciably after Jesus' birth" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 1084-1085]. This is why one will find many paintings depicting the magi with a toddler rather than an infant (as per the painting at the beginning of this article). "After what could have been as long as two years, Jesus was certainly no longer in the manger" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 100].

These individuals in Matthew's "Jesus narrative" are referred to as "magi" (although a good many versions read "wise men," following the lead of the King James Version). What does the term "magi" mean? To whom or what does it refer? "Most of our information about the Magi in the ancient period is based on statements of Herodotus," who was an ancient Greek historian [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 222]. According to Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), the magi were a priestly caste of the Medes, and then the Persians. "As the religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism at that time, the Magi, therefore, were Zoroastrian priests" [ibid]. "Originally a Median tribe, the Magi were a hereditary priesthood, often possessing great political power, in the Median, Babylonian, Persian and Parthian empires. The Magi first appear in history by being identified as a tribe of the emerging Median nation in the 7th century B.C. In Hellenist and Roman times the term was corrupted into a common noun meaning 'magician' or 'sorcerer'" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 31]. It was quite likely in this latter sense that we encounter a man named Simon in Samaria, who was a practitioner of the "magical arts" (aka: Simon Magus - Acts 8:9f), and in the city of Paphos on the island of Cyprus we meet a false prophet named Bar-Jesus (aka: Elymas the magician - Acts 13:6f).

Although over time this priestly caste devolved into dealings with evil spirits, sorcery, and the like, it was not entirely corrupt in the beginning. Rather, it was a religious order "which occupied itself principally with the secrets of nature, astrology, and medicine" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 37]. The Greek scholar Dr. Marvin Vincent even notes: "Daniel became president of such an order in Babylon" [Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 19]. Dr. A.T. Robertson concurs: "Daniel was head of such an order" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. This is based on Daniel 2:48, which reads: "Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon." Martin Luther (1483-1546) declared, "Therefore, the Magi, or wise men, were not 'kings,' but learned and expert people in natural science. ... The Magi were nothing else than what the philosophers were in Greece and the priests in Egypt, and such men as are with us today: the learned men of the universities." They were the scholars and philosophers of the day; learned in matters secular, spiritual and material. They studied the stars with great devotion; they were astronomers, and believers in astrology as well. Thus, it is not really surprising that they told Herod, "We saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him" (Matthew 2:2). They continued to follow this "star" to the spot where they found Mary and Jesus (vs. 7-10).

It has been said in some theological circles that "Zoroaster ... is a descendant of the prophet Daniel" [James Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 331], although others have shown that Zoroaster most likely lived prior to the time of Daniel. "The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery" [The Online Catholic Encyclopedia]. In graduate school I took a course on the various religions of the world, and Zoroastrianism was one of the ones we examined in some depth. There are definitely some doctrines and beliefs that are compatible within these three Near East religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism), which helps explain why Magian priests would be willing to travel a thousand miles to worship the King of the Jews! How did they even know about this?, some would ask. The answer may be as simple as: Daniel. This great hope and expectation might very well have been instilled within this caste of wise men by their leader Daniel, and this hope passed down from generation to generation. Of Daniel it was said, "There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans, and diviners. This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas, and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel" (Daniel 5:11-12). "The great Messianic hope of the Jews, a hope in which they as Gentiles had place and part, had been communicated to them by Jews and had fascinated their hearts. This tallies with what we know of Daniel, who 600 years prior to this was made 'master of the magicians'" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 58]. These "Magians of St. Matthew were sincere seekers after God," and they may have heard of this Messianic expectation from teachings handed down by Daniel [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 38]. And where did Daniel get his insight? From Gabriel, who showed him in a vision all that was to come (Daniel 9:20ff).

In closing, let me just note that, "without condoning astrology, Matthew's narrative challenges his audience's prejudice against outsiders to their faith. ... This narrative fits Matthew's theme of the Gentile mission" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 100 & p. 98]. Interesting, is it not, that in Matthew's account, the very first "Jesus story" following the account of His birth is of Gentiles traveling a great distance to bow before the King of the Jews?! So many people completely miss this aspect of the narrative, yet I feel it may be the very essence of the story itself. What ever became of these visitors from the east? According to tradition, St. Thomas sought them out after the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and he found them and baptized them. It is claimed that "their bodies were discovered in the East in the 4th century (according to one tradition, by St. Helena herself), and they were brought to Constantinople and then deposited in the Church of St. Sofia" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 100]. These relics moved about quite a bit over the centuries, but today are said to be in Germany, stored in a casket in the Cologne Cathedral (having arrived there in 1163 A.D.). "In the Middle Ages the Magi were considered the patron saints of travelers, and inns were named after them. Their names were also used as charms to cure epilepsy and snake-bite" [ibid].


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Readers' Reflections

From a Professor at Texas A&M University:

Al, so many people have written to you thanking you for your Reflections, as well as your other writings. I want to add my own Thank You to this growing list, with the same reflections expressed by so many others! I look forward to each article of yours so much that I even find myself frequently checking your web site, even before the email version has been mailed out, just to see if a new one is there that I can read!! On a few occasions I have indeed found it there first. I can tell from the change in frequency of your Reflections that you have begun to cut back as you near possible retirement. However, I suspect that you will never fully retire from writing. We are all blessed by your articles, and certainly hope that you will continue writing them for many years to come!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Hey Al, I would like to purchase three of your adult Bible class studies which you have recorded and placed on CDs. I am sending you payment via your PayPal account (through the link on your Web Site). The three CD sets I would like to purchase at this time are: (1) Developing A Meaningful Worldview: A Reflective Study of Ecclesiastes as it Applies to Our Present World, (2) A Reflective Study of the OT Minor Prophets: Their Message to Us Today, and (3) A Reflective Study of 1st & 2nd Thessalonians: Apostolic Encouragement for Disciples Living in Expectation of the Parousia. Thank you!

From a Reader in Alabama:

I am still really enjoying your book on baptism - Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice. Each chapter builds on more and more truths, and you are answering so many of my questions about things that I had been taught according to "the old ways." It is so amazing! I have also ordered your book on the Lord's Supper, as well - One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism. My girlfriends and I are starting a new study on Revelation after the first of the year, so if/when you get a chance, would you recommend a book that is not too deep (one I won't get bogged down in), so that I can take it to that study? I would certainly appreciate your input.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, if I were a prophet, here is what I foresee for you: It looks like you have aggravated the demons, and they are still gathering at your door. So, keep your faith in the new year, as I know you will, and keep up the fine work of destroying the barriers that keep pitting brother against brother in our lives today. We love you, and may God bless you so much in 2019 that you never get a chance to feel heartache!

From a Reader in Barbados:

I read your article titled "Philosophy of Metempsychosis: The Disciples' Puzzling Question to Jesus about Prior Existence and Prenatal Sin" (Reflections #761). Quite a lot of "food for thought" there! There are some things you brought out that I had not ever considered before. I am truly grateful for this exposure to them. Your study was quite thought-provoking, I must add. You are quite a bit of "fresh air" for those believers who are not afraid to actually THINK and REASON.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Thank You, Al, for another great article! I could only add, as you have well alluded to, the influence of Gnostic belief systems and also the overall thrust of the book of John. The statement, "And the Word became flesh," and the truth that Jesus is the Logos, is so significant in dispelling the myth of an "irreconcilable dualism," even in reference to pre-existing sin, which was a fundamental platform of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc. Jesus masterfully, as always, goes to the heart of the matter, and He teaches by His actions: compassion reconciles in the midst of theological speculation. God bless you, Al. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

From a Reader in Nova Scotia:

Hello Brother. Thank you for another year of wonderful Reflections that have opened both my heart and mind! Your articles are always powerful; they deeply search every thought you decide to research. I must admit that this conversation between Jesus and His disciples (John 9:1-2) had been very difficult for me to reconcile with other biblical truths, and I also admit that I have struggled with that passage! I agree totally, however, with your analysis and conclusions. Thanks for being so clear as to the meaning and intent of these verses. Please know, Al, that you are the single best resource I have that allows me to enjoy my Bible more fully. You have done more to free me from legalism than any other person, and have opened my mind and heart to believe in Love and Peace. May you and Shelly have a fantastic year, and please continue to bring a blessing to all with whom you engage. Love you!!

From a New Reader in Ottawa, Canada:

Dear Al, I am working my way through the beliefs of my local Church of Christ, and am coming upon troubling things! The foremost among these is the foam-flecked fury with which musical instruments accompanying corporate worship is viewed. I keep coming across "laws" that make no sense, unless we accept that they are promulgated by men; laws that have been intertwined with Christ's commands. In this group (Churches of Christ) I am finding a rabid religious refusal to reconsider some things (the origin of their aversion to musical instruments in worship, for example). Thus, I am deeply appreciative of the efforts you have made to insert logic into many determinedly emotional topics, and it is a tribute to your faith that you have gone about this with clarity and succinctness. I would very much like to subscribe to your series of studies: your Reflections. Thank you again, Al, for your insight and dedication, and for your adherence to things logical. I was thrilled when, before my baptism, the man who studied with me said, "God expects you to reason for yourself, not listen to the emotional tirades of preachers." It is something I have tried to stick to, and in you, via your writings, I have seen a fellow-traveler.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Last year I taught a Bible class on Conditionalism, which included teaching about the "soul." My study started with Edward Fudge's book and teaching (The Fire That Consumes), then your book and teaching (From Ruin To Resurrection), and finally my own study. Now I have been asked to present a lesson to the Ladies' Bible Class on the difference between "soul" and "spirit." Attached is what I plan to hand out to the ladies of the class. I would like you to look it over and, as time permits, make suggestions. I also plan to pass out your study titled "What Is Man? Body - Soul - Spirit" (Reflections #32). A second request: how about a review of the New Living Translation? Al, I greatly appreciate your Reflections articles. I am also in awe of the depth and breadth of your Reflections studies. How in the world do you find the time to do so much study and research?! Grace and peace to you, brother. May God grant you many more years to bless us with your writings!!

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