Robin Baker offers a Reflection for Epiphany
Although as Christians we have read St Matthew’s account of the magi’s adoration of Jesus many times, it is the traditions these exotic figures inspired that shape their image in our minds. The Matthean description is tantalizingly spare. He neither provides their names nor states their number. Their place of origin is vague: ‘the east’. Naturally, given the magi’s role in the Nativity, contemplative speculation has sought to fill the gaps. Accordingly, they numbered three – or twelve in one tradition – and they were kings. Their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. They came from Persia, Babylon/Chaldea, Arabia and/or Ethiopia.
We must infer that the Evangelist’s reluctance to supply a fuller background betrays his view that it would be, for one reason or another, superfluous. What apparently mattered to him was that these figures were foreign, Eastern, able to read God’s message in the heavens, and faithful to act accordingly. Alternatively, his reticence may indicate that he believed his contemporary readers already possessed the information that his account omits. In favour of this option is the fact that this is how the Evangelist wrote. We see it writ large in the genealogy of Christ with which his book begins. He does not supply the backstories of the ancestors he lists, such as Tamar, Rahab, and Uzziah, since he expected his readers to know them and to reflect on the associations. The initial twelve words of the Gospel, a work rich in number symbolism, referred them to Genesis: Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ. Ἀβραὰμ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαάκ, ‘book [of] genesis [of] Jesus Christ, son [of] David, son [of] Abraham. Abraham begat (the) Isaac.’ Specifically, they directed them to Abraham and Isaac, whose story reached its climax in the father’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command. The episode is recast in the Gospel. But it is now not Abraham’s son who will be sacrificed, but God’s. And this subject inspires and infuses the entire work.
The Genesis account of Abraham elucidates the magi narrative. The second dream reported in Genesis is seen by a foreign ruler, Abimelech. In it God appears in order to protect Sarah and Abraham’s blood-line through Isaac. It results in this foreign luminary offering costly gifts to Abraham (Gen 20.1-21.3). The second dream St Matthew recounts is seen by foreign luminaries, the magi, who offer costly gifts to Abraham’s descendant.
As revealingly, the first dream in Genesis – Abraham’s – immediately follows an episode in which he remonstrates with Yahweh regarding his childlessness. Yahweh counters his complaint by instructing him to look at and sǝpōr (‘count’) the stars for such will his progeny be. ‘Abraham believed Yahweh and it was ascribed to him for righteousness’ (15.1-6). Thus, the patriarch’s star-gazing results in his being deemed ‘righteous’ and obtaining the promise of offspring. The star-gazing of the magi, the archetypal scribes (sōpǝrîm) of astral messages, alerts them to the birth of the ‘righteous one,’ the King of the Jews (Mt 2.2; 27.19), Abraham’s descendant through Isaac and the culmination of the promise.
Whichever option is correct, it is striking that St Matthew establishes his case for Jesus’ kingship on astrology given the opprobrium it receives in some parts of the Hebrew Bible. His decision to present magi as positive figures may have been equally controversial since elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 8.13) magos has a negative connotation.
He addresses the astrology issue in two ways. First, he constructs the case that Jesus is the almighty king. The identification of ‘star’ with ‘king’ seen in the Palestinian targums and Qumran texts, an identification based on Num 24.17 – ‘A star shall come out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel’ – is fulfilled in Christ. Second, the Evangelist anchors the beginning of his work in Isaiah 7 where Yahweh commanded Ahaz king of Judah to request an omen ‘either in the depths of the underworld or the heavens above.’ Ahaz demurred. In response, God promised that a virgin will bear the child Immanuel/Emmanuel. The Evangelist uses its fulfilment as a foundation block of his Gospel. Furthermore, in a brilliant flourish, he also introduces omens that Ahaz refused to request, and with them he structures the Gospel. The omen in the heavens is observed and deciphered by the magi and heralds Emmanuel’s birth. The omen of the depths of the underworld – the ‘sign of Jonah’ – is enacted in His death, burial and resurrection. The message is unequivocal: since celestial and terrestrial omens were offered by God in Isaiah, they are legitimate in the Kingdom of Heaven.
What, then, did the magi represent for St Matthew? His account suggests four things to me. First, in Arthur Patzia’s words, the wisdom of the Orient, so prized and famed in Antiquity, ‘finds its goal in Christ.’ Second, the Gentiles will recognize and worship Jesus as Lord, just as the magi did. Third, ‘seeing’ presupposes time spent ‘watching,’ as St Matthew and St Mark repeatedly emphasized. And fourth, epiphany, so profoundly personal in its reception, is potentially universal in its outworking.
Robin Baker is Emeritus Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Winchester. His latest book Mesopotamian Civilization and the Origins of the New Testament is published by Cambridge University Press.