One of the most perplexing scenes within the birth narratives of Jesus is the appearing of the Magi, or Wise Men or kings, in Matthew’s Gospel.
In the narrative, Magi travel “from the east” to Jerusalem seeking the “King of Jews” of whom the star foretold. There have been many who offered a variety of interpretations of what exactly these Magi saw in the sky. These varies explanations are our human attempts to try and solve the unknowns but it really doesn’t matter what the Magi saw, what matters is how they interpreted it.
This is a question that intrigues me. What was the train of thought that brought these astrologers to associate a particular star or cosmic event with the small, rather unimportant, kingdom of Israel? The text doesn’t give us any clues into answering this question or any of the other questions that have arisen from the Magi narrative.
These unanswered questions have given rise to largely develop traditions surrounding the Magi. The Magi tradition can be traced back to Tertullian who interpreted the magoi to be kings based on texts like Psalm 68:29 (“Because of Your Temple at Jerusalem, Kings will bring gifts to You.”) and Isaiah 60:1-6 (“…Nations will come your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…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.”).
Later Christians gave names to the three (based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh) Magi. One of the earliest documents containing the names of Magi comes from a 6th century Greek document, translated in Latin, called Excerpta Latina Barbari. In the Excerpta Latina Barbari, it says that the Magi visited Jesus on January 1st and gives the names of the Magi as Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa. These names, over the centuries, became Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar and places of origin assigned to each- Balthasar from Arabia, Melchior from Persia and Caspar from India. In addition, each Magi’s gift was assigned: Balthasar gave the gift of gold, Melchior gave frankincense and Caspar gave the Christ child the myrrh.
Today, the Magi are remembered in the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, Germany. The remains of the three Magi are said to be contained in the sarcophagus placed above the church’s alter. Tradition says Constatine’s mother, Helena, discovered the “relics of the Magi” in 325 AD. She brought their remains to Constantinople. Later, Eustorgio I brought them to Milan, Italy. When Friedrich I, the Holy Roman Emperor, captured the city of Milan in 1163 or 1164, he gave the remains to Cologne, Germany. The Shrine of the Three Kings was completed in 1225 and the current cathedral was completed in 1880, after 632 years of building.
I find these traditions and the history behind them extremely interesting and I tend to believe that there is generally a grain of truth behind these traditions, although we will never know how large or small that grain may be.
However, after all this “historizing,” we are still left with the question: why did Matthew include the Magi in his birth narrative but Luke did not? What is the meaning of their inclusion into the birth narratives? What is the wisdom behind the Wise Men?
I believe we can say at least two things about the inclusion of Magi within Matthew’s birth narrative.
The first reason Matthew remembers the visit of the Magi is to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies. Matthew writes to people with a Jewish background who know and understood the prophecies of the Messiah and Matthew points to Jesus as the fulfillment of these prophecies throughout his Gospel.
Second, the visit of the Magi offers a foreshadowing of Jesus final words in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 28:18-20, known as the Great Commission. In addition, the visit of the Magi foreshadows the opening of inclusion of God’s people to the Gentiles. I believe this is the wisdom of the Wise Men. No matter what they may have or may not have known about the Old Testament and the promise of the Messiah, when they came face to face with Jesus, they worshiped him. They anticipated the adoption of Gentiles into the people and family of God through this Messiah.
From Jesus’ final words in Matthew 28, the story of the Magi comes full circle. Traditionally, Thomas, the disciple, travels to India in order to preach the gospel and baptizes the three Magi as believers in Jesus Christ.
The next time we read Matthew’s Christmas story or sing “We Three Kings,” perhaps we’ll have a fuller understanding behind the meaning of the Magi’s place in the birth narrative and traditions which arose around their visit.
Sources in the post:
Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke. Frank E. Gaebelein, Ed. Zondervan, 1984.
© Ryan Vanderland 2012