Magi and Stars

Magi – Matthew 2:1-12

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 15, 2009

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this Sunday after Valentine’s Day. It is probably just as well that pop culture has dropped the “Saint” from the day considering how it is marketed. In an effort to wean pagans away from the debauchery of an old festival in the middle of winter, the church promoted the feast day of the martyr Valentine. It appears that debauchery eventually won out over piety. Yesterday was also the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of Moravia. On a more somber note, it was a tragic week for many. Not only was there a horrifying plane crash, wildfires swept through Australia. Our prayers go out for the victims and their families.

It was a big week for basketball fans as the Tarheels met the Blue Devils in the latest contest in an epic struggle between good and evil. At least that is the way it seems to the faithful of both teams. Congratulations to the victors! There is not much news in the Atwood home to report, but we did finally get our new propane fireplace hooked up. Now we don’t have to worry about losing electricity in an ice storm. My mother-in-law was wondering if she could get one for her new apartment in Indiana where winters are harder. She and my wife talked about different options, none of which would work in an apartment. Cherie proposed she might just put an insert in her fireplace. My wife replied in surprise: “You have a fireplace? Why don’t you just keep some logs handy and light a fire if the power goes out?” Sometimes we focus so much on what someone else is doing that we forget the obvious solution to our own problems. That has almost nothing to do with our lesson for this morning but it was too good a story to pass over.

This week we are turning our attention to the second chapter of Matthew, which provides one of the most popular stories in Christian history. It has inspired a great deal of art, music, legends, and literature. The Magi who pay homage to Jesus are unique to Matthew’s gospel, but this short tale has captured the imagination of generations of Christian scholars and worshipers. By now it should probably not surprise you that this section of Matthew has been the subject of intense controversy as well.

Read Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany:       This is the traditional reading for the feast of Epiphany, which is January 6. So, my timing is a little off in the liturgical calendar, but the story doesn’t really tell us when the Magi came to Bethlehem. All we are told is that it was sometime after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as late as two years. It is curious that Matthew says almost nothing about the actual birth of Jesus. He is much more interested in the response of the world to birth of the Messiah. Keep in mind that he was writing about fifty years after the resurrection when Gentiles were beginning to believe in Jesus as the son of God. At that time there was also growing animosity between Jews and Christians. There are clues in the Gospel that the author was a Jewish scribe who was one of the leaders of a Christian community that included Jews and Gentiles. They may have lived in Syria, and they felt persecuted. It is not surprising that his gospel opens with two dramatically different responses to the birth of Jesus. Herod, the king of the Jews, rejects the Messiah and tries to kill him, but Gentile sages pay homage to him in fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. Chapter 2 foreshadows not only the life and death of Jesus, but the response to the preaching of evangelists in Matthew’s own time.

Magi from the East:              The main actors in this chapter are the Magi or Wisemen from the East. The word Matthew used is magoi in Greek, and this is the only time in the New Testament that the word is used positively. Normally it referred to magicians, like Simon Magus. Matthew says merely that the magoi came from the East without details about their origin. Westerners have generally seen the Orient as exotic and mysterious, and that has played into our popular descriptions of the Magi. It is possible that Matthew is using the Orient as a way to add flair to his story of Jesus, but it is more likely that he is connecting the East to the rising of the Sun. In the ancient world, the East was the direction of life and new birth while the West symbolized death.

It is likely that Matthew was not thinking of any specific country of origin for these exotic worshipers, but scholars through the centuries have offered three reasonable suggestions: Persia (Parthia), Babylon (Chaldea), or Arabia. These regions all had magician/astrologers like the magoi in Matthew. The Greek historian Herodotus described Magi as a priestly caste in ancient Medes who served the Persians after they conquered Medes. Magi interpreted dreams and advised the emperors, much as Joseph did in Egypt. With the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, the magi became priests of the new religion. This is why you sometimes hear that Matthew’s Wisemen were Zoroastrian priests. There was a legend in ancient Persia that Zoroaster’s seed had been preserved in a lake and one day a virgin would conceive after swimming. Her son would destroy evil and raise the dead. It is possible that Christianity spread in Persia in part because of the similarity of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and this Zoroastrian prophecy. Early Christian artists painted the Magi in Persian dress.

Many scholars think Matthew’s Magi came from Babylon rather than Persia. You may remember that thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Many of those families flourished and remained in the country for centuries. The Jewish Talmud was written in Babylon about six hundred years after the time of Jesus. A number of important Jewish books, most notably Daniel and Esther, are set in Babylon. The Greek version of Daniel mentions Magi in Babylon who interpreted dreams. Babylon was famous for its astrologers, and modern star gazers still use some of the Babylonian names for stars. It could be that Matthew assumed the reader would associate the East with Babylon.

The suggestion of Arabia as the home of the Magi is based on the gifts that they brought. Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:15 talk about dignitaries from Midian and Sheba bringing gold and incense to the king of Israel. You may have wondered why there are always camels in crèches when none are mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. You can find them in the caravans from Arabia mentioned in Isaiah 60. There were connections between Judah and Arabia dating back to the time of David. By the time of Matthew there were already Jewish settlements around Medina. Centuries after Matthew, some of the Jews in Medina thought Muhammad might be the Messiah. Some of the Arab tribes worshiped stars before Muhammad appeared. If Arab sages brought gifts to Israel to honor the birth of a king, they would have brought camels. Such speculation is interesting, but the truth is that there is no way to determine who the Magi were or where they came from. The important point for Matthew’s Gospel was that Gentile sages recognized the birth of the Messiah when Jewish scribes did not.

Three Kings?             The Magi play a minor role in Matthew’s gospel, but they grew in Christian legend. They appear in some of the earliest Christian artwork, and relics of the Magi were much prized in the Middle Ages. One of the Greek emperors, Zeno claimed to have possession of the bodies of the Magi in the 5th century. The most famous relics are housed in Cologne in a beautiful shrine. They were given to the city by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who had sacked the city of Milan in 1162. In the early 20th century, Cologne returned some of the relics to Milan. Of course, no one has a clue whose bones are actually being venerated in those cathedrals.

Several years ago I was asked to preach in a church in Honduras, and it happened to be Epiphany. I wrote a beautiful and inspiring message about the need to be wise people today like the wise men who came to Jesus. When my interpreter read the text, she was very confused and told me that it would make no sense to the people. In Latin America the visitors who brought gifts to Jesus are never called Wisemen; they are always kings. Epiphany is Three Kings Day. So, she basically preached a different sermon in Mosquito after I preached mine in English. Hers sounded better.

The elevation of the Magi to royal status probably came from preachers using Psalm 72 to interpret the Matthew text. That Psalm says that the kings of Sheba and Saba will pay homage to the messiah and bring him gold. By about the year 500 it was generally accepted that the Magi were kings as well as priests, and thousands of sermons have been preached on the theme of kings paying homage to Christ as the king of kings and lord of lords. I even know people who claim to be biblical literalists who insist that three kings brought gifts to baby Jesus even though there are no kings in Matthew.

Names and Gifts:       You probably grew up singing We Three Kings from Orient Are. As a kid I always wondered where Orient-R was. The tradition of there being three gift-bearers comes from there being three gifts, but in ancient Christian art there are sometimes two or four Magi bearing gifts. Some ancient Syrian documents list twelve Magi who paid homage to Christ. The names of the Magi have also changed over the centuries. One of the earliest texts says that they were Hormizdah, Yazdegerd, and Perozadh, and that they were kings of Persia, Saba, and Sheba. An ancient Ethiophian book names them Hor, Basnater, and Karsudan. The names of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar were known in the West in the early Middle Ages. Around that same time, the legend arose that Balthasar was black.

From early days, Christian theologians proposed that the gifts the Magi brought were symbolic representations of three roles of Christ. Gold was to honor him as a king; incense was to worship him as a deity; and myrrh was a foreshadowing of his death as the sacrificial lamb. Thus the gifts revealed Jesus as king, God, and high priest. None of this is in Matthew’s gospel, but it makes for good allegorical preaching. This also shows that people continued to add to the story of the exotic visitors. Whether or not Matthew’s account is historical, his Magi have continued to speak to the church.

The Star          Perhaps even more famous than the Magi is the star that inspired them to travel West. While I was writing this lesson, I had to answer a query about Moravian stars from a shopkeeper in San Antonio who sells tin stars similar to our 28-point stars. Every year Moravians around the world hang stars on the first Sunday in Advent in memory of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ child. It is a way to light a beacon of hope in a world overshadowed by hatred and fear.

For Matthew, the primary purpose of the star was to signal the birth of a great king. Modern scholars are skeptical about this mysterious star, but people in Matthew’s day would have found it odd if there had not been some kind of portent auguring the birth of the son of God. After all, according to Virgil a star showed Aeneas where to build the city of Rome. Josephus claimed that a star and a comet stood over Jerusalem for a year after the city was destroyed. Cicero said that a new star appeared when Alexander was born and thus the Persians knew their empire was in peril. Other Roman authors claimed that a star announced the birth of Augustus. It was not until the writings of Pierre Bayle that educated people began to doubt that stars and comets were portents.

For centuries astronomers proposed that the Magi saw a nova. Today we know that novas are not new stars; they are old stars that have exploded. And we know that they are so far away that we do not witness the explosion for many centuries after the fact. Modern astronomers doubt that it could have been a nova that the Magi saw, especially since there are no other reports of a “new star” appearing around 4 BC. Others have proposed that they saw a comet even though comets were typically viewed as portents of bad things. It is interesting that Halley’s Comet appeared around 11 BC, and it would have been pointing towards the Zodiac sign of Leo, which was associated with Judah. It is unlikely that Jesus was born in the year of the comet, but it is plausible that people recalled it being near the same time as the great comet.

The most popular explanation for the unusual star was made by Johannes Kepler in the 1600s. He calculated that around 6 BC there would have been a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Ancient star charts confirm that such a conjunction was noted early in 6 BC or late 7 BC. When I was a kid, I saw an elaborate program on this topic at Moorhead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. It is no longer shown because it was considered too religious for a state institution. There is little doubt that a conjunction of stars occurred toward the end of Herod’s reign and it would have been viewed as significant by astrologers, but there is no evidence anyone thought it meant a king had been born in Judah. The most that a modern historian can say is that someone might have remembered that an unusual event had taken place in the heavens around the time Jesus was born.. The idea that the star itself moved and somehow guided the Magi to a specific house in Bethlehem is a bit more fanciful and impossible to explain scientifically.

Balaam:          Raymond Brown proposed that there may be another explanation for the star appearing in Matthew’s gospel. There is a famous little story in the book of Numbers about an oracle given by a man named Balaam who was summoned by king Balak to curse the Israelites. This was part of the story of the Exodus and wandering in the wilderness. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam pronounced a blessing on them because he was compelled by the spirit of God to do so. By the time of Matthew, a Jewish philosopher described Balaam as a magus, and his oracle inspired hope that the Jews would be freed from Roman oppression. The oracle says that “a star will rise from Jacob.” (LXX) Matthew may have taken the reference to a star literally.

A century after the death of Jesus there was a major Jewish revolt against the Romans. It was led by a man called Simon ben Kosibah, and the great rabbi Aqiba hailed him as the Messiah. It is intriguing that he was popularly known as Bar Cochba, which means “son of the star.” In Revelation, Jesus is called the Morning Star. In other words, Matthew may have been drawing on a tradition of referring to the Messiah as a star rising in the East when he wrote this story of Magi. In other words, his simple narrative may have been more metaphorical than historical.

Conclusion:                 We will never know for sure what Matthew was thinking when he wrote this story, but we can be sure that he was less interested in astronomy and ancient magicians than he was in Jesus. In our desire to make sense of mysterious stars and exotic astrologers, it is easy to lose sight of Matthew’s primary purpose. It is particularly appropriate that we ponder this text on the feast of Cyril and Methodius, wisemen who came from the East to translate the Gospel into the Slavic language. We are out of time, but we will continue to examine this story next week.

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  • Esther  On November 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Wondering if you might be able to direct me to the shop in SA where they sell the tin stars.
    Thank you,

    • theflamingheretic  On November 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      I Wish I could. It was near the Riverwalk!

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