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Gifts of the Magi


Ken Herman

San Diego, California


In many Christian churches, this past Friday was celebrated as Epiphany, or sometimes called the Feast of the Three Kings. In some parts of Europe today, Epiphany—whose vigil is known as Twelfth-Night—is an important family and churchly festival. It is, of course, the presentation of rich gifts by the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel that originated the contemporary madness of gift-exchanging at Christmas. Some places in Europe still reserve Epiphany as the time for giving and receiving gifts, rather than on the day of Christmas.

For liberal Christians, Epiphany has an even richer meaning, because this wonderfully strange story of three non-Jewish wise men who visit the Holy Family reveals the first glimmer of universalism in the overall gospel story. But before we unwrap this special gift, it is important to attempt to understand this story in its context, both its placement in the Matthew Gospel account and what this story may have meant for the early Christians of Matthew’s era, i.e. the last 2 decades of the first century of the Common Era.

According to the best Biblical scholarship, Matthew’s Gospel was written within a community of Jewish Christians for whom Jesus was understood as the promised Messiah of Davidic line. He represented the fulfillment of many prophecies in what we now call the “Old Testament”—the Hebrew Bible. We need to remind ourselves that at this time in history, the only Scripture for both Jews and the followers of Jesus was the Hebrew Bible. It would be over a century before the Pauline letters and Gospel accounts would actually be gathered into one collection to be called the New Testament and then another century to clearly define this canon.

And even the Hebrew Bible was in flux: in 80 C.E. there was only wide agreement that the Torah, the Major Prophets and the Psalms of David constituted authentic Scripture. Greek-speaking Jews in various parts of the Roman Empire held a rather different canon of Scripture than did the Hebrew-reading Jews of Judea and Galilee.

But now we go back to Matthew’s story about the three Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus. That non-Jews would come to the light of Jahweh’s Truth and Saving Love was an important motif in Jewish thought as early as King Solomon and certainly reappeared in both the Babylonian exile and post-exilic Judaism. In fact, the whole incident of the visit of the Magi seems inspired by accounts in Psalm 72 (:10-15); Isaiah 49:23 and Isaiah 60:5-6, where foreign royalty come to Jerusalem and profess their homage to Jahweh.

Because of the Christian Church’s liturgical fusion of these Old Testament texts onto the feast of the Epiphany, Matthew’s original story was significantly re-shaped in the popular retelling of Epiphany. The three magicians or astrologers became three kings riding on camels, a mode of transportation about which Matthew is quite ignorant. And in the Middle Ages, a whole back story was confected, giving each king a name. For instance, one of the kings, given the name Balthazar, was always depicted as a swarthy African potentate in late medieval and Renaissance paintings.

Because the intent of Matthew’s Gospel is to affirm and acclaim the Davidic Messiahship of Jesus, the visitation of the Magi is a clear affirmation of this claim.

The Magi ask King Herod, “Where is the infant King of the Jews?” a question that certainly must have shocked and distressed Herod the Great, who was sitting on the Jewish throne as uneasily as any petty monarch might under the suspicious eyes of the conquering Roman army and the provincial Roman Procurators. (Who was this Herod, who ruled Judea from 37 B.C.E. to 4 C.E.? He was one of the last Hasmonean kings, a dynasty founded by Judas Maccabeaus, and he was royalty only because he married into the royal line. His own father, a successful local chieftain who ingratiated himself to Rome, was not a Jew by birth, but rather a convert to Judaism. Herod the Great and his father derived their authority from Rome and retained it by keeping the rebellious Jewish factions in line. And by the way, he was not the Herod before whom Jesus was taken before his last trial before Pontius Pilate in Luke’s Gospel—this was a son of Herod the Great.)

For Matthew, these Magi, the Gentile witnesses who addressed Herod the Great, speak both to the secular Jewish authorities as well as the religious Jewish authorities of Matthew’s own time. Towards the end of the first century of the Common Era, Jewish Christians were encountering increasing hostility from their orthodox Jewish brethren, who were led by the Pharisees after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E. By linking Jesus to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and stressing his Messiahship, Matthew was reassuring his Jewish Christian colleagues that they were both adhering to Jewish tradition and living in its promises, unlike their orthodox brethren who were failing to understand the signs and interpret the meaning of Jesus’ ministry.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus presented as the “fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.” Only in Matthew’s Gospel do we hear Jesus make the stark claim that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter—not one stroke of a letter—will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished.” Not part of St. Paul’s theology—but that is another sermon. Indeed, the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s circle faded into the recesses of Christian history, and Pauline theology forged the template of the expanding Gentile Church.

But wait, these Magi are still important to us. From the outset of the Gospel of Jesus, the Magi tell us that God communicates through whomever God chooses. The “chosen of God” do not always correspond with the ones we like to think are God’s chosen. The Magi, in all likelihood, were Zoroastrians, not Jews. Yet God made his witness and revelation through them.  We liberal Christians affirm that truth comes from many sources and that our own tradition, rich as it is, does not have a monopoly on truth. The Magi remind us of God’s universalism.

We follow Jesus of Nazareth hoping to grow into greater truth and wider understanding. This is our liberal faith: generous, embracing, and ever-expectant of grace-filled surprises. Early in Matthew’s Gospel we are charmed by the story of the exotic Magi who enter this claustrophobic Jewish territory with God’s revelation. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we witness what Christians have come to call “the Great Commission.” The risen Jesus appears to the eleven disciples and commands them to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” This gospel, the most Jewish of the canonical gospels, opens and closes with the universal message. To keep Epiphany is to hold on to this insight and remind ourselves that just when we thought we had truth carefully plotted out, God will send in the magicians to amaze and confound us. Blessed be.


© 2007 American Unitarian Conference