The story of the Magi has touched the hearts and stirred the imagination of many through the ages. In the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel, “wise men from the east” are led by a star to the place where the baby is. They fall down in worship and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This is sometimes regarded as an early example of the revelation of Christ to all nations, a triumph of the true faith. In certain ways this is correct, but the narrator adds a wry twist to the tale which may be as unsettling to the pious now as it was two thousand years ago. For the Magi are not the only set of religious professionals to appear in this version of the Christmas story and the contrast is not flattering to those convinced of their own religious correctness.
Tradition often depicts three of these travellers who seek out the newborn king, arriving first at Jerusalem and seeking advice from Herod and his court, then going to Bethlehem where they encounter the One they have sought. In the biblical account, there is no precise number given for the Magi – sometimes translated as “wise men” or “mages” (a term for practitioners of magic not used much these days except in fantasy fiction and games) – nor is it stated from whence they came. But in ancient times, Zoroastrianism was a widely practised faith in Persia, and the Magi have sometimes been taken to be Zoroastrian priests or philosophers.
Pagan priests, seers, soothsayers, diviners and magicians are not on the whole positively portrayed in Scripture. With the odd exception such as Jethro, priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 2.15-3.1, 18.1-24), such practitioners are depicted as, at best, useless (e.g. Daniel 2), at worst corrupting (Deuteronomy 18.9-14). The contact which the ancient Israelites had with people of other faiths was largely in the context of military and cultural rivalry which threatened their very survival. Empires could all too easily crush small nations and use force to root out beliefs of which their rulers disapproved, or through economic might, undermine alternative ways of life.
By the time of Jesus, Roman rulers, in alliance with local puppet kings, had adopted a grudging tolerance of Judaism to reduce the risk of riots and insurrection. However, for those who were Jewish and devout, people who taught doctrine or led worship for other religions were not obvious models of faith and virtue.
Yet there was also a longstanding belief that wisdom was not confined to a particular national or religious group. The Queen of Sheba, for instance, was reportedly willing to travel a long distance to witness and learn from the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 10.1-13), and those open to the truth were expected to be aware that it is foolish to trust in worldly wealth and power, (Psalm 49) but wise to be just and merciful (Psalm 145).
The Magi, as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel, whatever their origin and the merits and weaknesses of their belief system, are dedicated enough to journey far in search of the “king of the Jews” whose star they have seen. When they arrive in Jerusalem, King Herod and his courtiers are troubled and he brings together the Jewish chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Messiah will be born. Drawing on the teaching of the prophet Micah, they tell him it is Bethlehem; the Magi are informed and go there. The star comes to rest over the place where the child is and they experience great joy, bow down and worship.
Forewarned in a dream, they do not return to Jerusalem, where an outwardly helpful Herod has been plotting to destroy the “shepherd” of his people, whom he fears as a contender for power. Their openness and lack of rivalry is contrasted in the account with his ruthless determination to cling to what he has, at whatever cost to others.
What of the priests and religious scholars in the capital, who are aware that something extraordinary has happened and are even able to help the Magi to make sense of it, yet who stay behind, not following the star? Do any of them secretly wish they could break free from excessive caution and the competitiveness of political and religious elites, and travel to Bethlehem themselves? The biblical story does not say. They are so close (Jerusalem is just 6 miles, or 10 kilometres, from Bethlehem), yet remain so far from a joyful encounter with the Saviour they have, in theory, long awaited.
Readers today, as when the story was first written, may find that this resonates with their own experience. Whether one is Jewish, Christian or of any other faith, theological or ideological correctness is valuable: after all, the Magi found the knowledge of these religious experts useful in their quest. Yet abiding by the correct system (whether revering a text or observing certain practices) is not enough. Without humility, openness and perseverance, there is a risk of being left behind while others journey on just a little further to meet One in whom they find joy and fulfilment of hope.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).