The Feast of the Epiphany and the Magi
By Dr. B. Todd Granger
Parish Catechist for Adults
Today, January 6th, is the feast of the Epiphany, on which we commemorate the manifestation, or epiphany, of the Messiah, the Christ, to the wise men. The explanation of the meaning is found in the traditional subtitle for the feast day, found in the medieval liturgy and in all editions and revisions of the Book of Common Prayer: “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” As early as the mid to late third century, the Christians at Rome were celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, a date that they had taken not from pagan celebrations but from a calculation of the date of the crucifixion as March 25th, it being a belief among the Jews and other ancient peoples that particularly important people were conceived and died on the same day. By the early fourth century, the Christian East—Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt—were celebrating the Lord’s birth on January 6, in part because of differences between the calendar used in those parts and that used in Rome. But by the late fourth century, most of the important Christian centers in the East (like Antioch and Constantinople) were celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th, and January 6th became the celebration of the manifestation of Christ’s deity—his theophany, the name given to this day by Orthodox Christians—to the wise men, at his baptism, and at his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the West, January 6th came to be reserved exclusively for the commemoration of the visit of the wise men, with the other two significant epiphanies—Jesus’ baptism and the miracle at Cana—commemorated in subsequent weeks.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2
The identity of these wise men has captured the imagination of Christians for a very long time. The Persian word for these wise men, rendered in Greek as magoi (singular magos), Latinized and taken into English as magus (plural magi) originally referred to a priestly caste of the Medes, the people who in alliance with the Persians brought the Chaldean empire of king Nebuchadnezzar and his forefathers to an end (as we read in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel), and this Median priestly caste managed to survive in the Persian empire after the widespread conversion of that people to the Zoroastrian religion. They were widely known throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamian world (hence the Greeks writing about them) for their knowledge of the stars and of the influence of those stars on human affairs, subjects that we would now distinguish on the one hand as astronomy and on the other as astrology. By the two or three centuries before Christ, the word magi had come to be applied to men of wisdom and learning, and particularly to those learned in the arts of astrology and divination, among not only the Persians but also the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, and the Arabians as well. Because of their sought-after ability to read astral portents, kings usually had court magi, astrologers who would discern the most propitious times for festivals, sacrifices, betrothals and marriages, alliances, and wars.
Early Christian writers like Clement of Rome and Tertullian, who flourished in the late first and second centuries, supposed that the magi of Matthew’s account came from Arabia, and there is evidence in the text to support this. The “the east” (as in “wise men from the east”) in the Old Testament often referred not to the farther reaches of Babylon or of Persia but to Arabia. And gold, incense, and myrrh were highly prized and expensive products of southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa that made their way into lands of the eastern Mediterranean (like Judea) by means of Arabian trade caravans. However, probably on the strength of the original meaning of the word magos, by the fourth or fifth century the majority belief was that the wise men were Persian magi, and they were usually (though not always) depicted as being three in number, an extrabiblical detail that probably derived from the three gifts presented by the unnumbered magi of Matthew’s account. The famously beautiful mosaics of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy depicts the three magi clad as Persians, in trousers and the sort of peaked soft hat known as a Phrygian cap. Later medieval elaborations would turn the magi into kings, probably following on Psalm 72, “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts” and on the association of magi with kings and their courts in the lands of the Near East; and the magi would be given Persian or Babylonian-sounding names (Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar); or they would be depicted as a European, an Asian (a later interpretation was as an East Asian), and an Ethiopian, representing the racial descendants of the three sons of Noah. While these legendary elaborations are not found in Matthew—and in fact are only loosely connected at best with the actual texts of Matthew or of the Old Testament texts to which he’s alluding in his account—they do remind us, as we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (to the nations), that Christianity is a faith that has been global in its intended reach from the very beginning. Depicting the magi as Persians reminds us of the importance of the Church in Persia in the early centuries: among the bishops gathered for the Council of Nicaea in 325, the church council that gave us the earliest form of the Nicene Creed, was John of Persia, described in one early list of participants as the Metropolitan of India. And depicting them as Arabian or Babylonian reminds us of the long history of Christians in places like Iraq and Syria, where there have been Christians since the first century. (These also remind us of the beleaguered state of Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian Christians under regimes that have persecuted them over the centuries down to the present day.) Religious historian Philip Jenkins has noted that by the ninth century there were Christian bishops and archbishops not only in Persia but also in Central Asia, Tibet, and China; and that at least one quarter of the world’s Christians at that time lived east of Jerusalem. In this way, depicting the wise men as Persian or Arabian, or as European and East Asian and African, can serve to remind us that the good news of God in Jesus Christ is for all gentibus, for all nations—just as the observation that the average Anglican Christian is now a young African woman reminds us, and the majority presence of Africans, South Asians and East Asians, and South Americans in our global Anglican fellowship reminds us.
In his recently-published book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, priest and author Dwight Longenecker makes a case for the identity of the wise men of Matthew’s account as astrologers or astrologer-priests at the court of the king of Nabataea, an Arabian kingdom to the south and east of Judea. I think that this identification may well be correct, because it makes a great deal of sense of Herod’s reaction to the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem. The Nabataean capital, known as Petra for its public buildings carved into the rock faces of the area in which it was built (some of which featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), was an important trade center for goods coming from farther away in Arabia as well as from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Mesopotamia. As such it was a wealthy and bustling city, with coursing waterways, beautiful palaces, and population of several tens of thousands, ruling over a large area of northern Arabia. The king of Nabataea was thus a powerful regional potentate—and a near neighbor to the king of Judea. The appearance of what appeared to be an embassy of magi bearing royal gifts from the Nabataean king for a newborn king of the Jews who was unknown to Herod must surely have made him suspicious that the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, was planning to put an infant usurper on the Judean throne who would be a puppet of Nabataea. (In fact, Aretas would invade Judea twice in the coming decades: once, shortly after the death of Herod the Great to help the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in 4 B.C.; and again, in the late 30s A.D., to avenge his daughter, Phasaelis, whom Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, had divorced and sent away so that Antipas could marry his brother’s wife, Herodias—which had earned the couple the condemnation of John the Baptist, leading to John’s beheading.) The reality of the Near Eastern political situation would only have served to heighten Herod’s paranoia in this situation.