January 5, 2009

We Three Kings of Orient are — not!

The “three kings” -- whose day, aka the Epiphany, is celebrated Jan. 6 –- get a lot of attention, considering that they actually get little ink in the gospels.

They appear only in Matthew 2: “...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 have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’”

That’s from the Revised Standard Version. Where it has “wise men,” The Revised English Bible has “astrologers” and the New International Version has “magi,” an Anglicization of the original Greek µáyoi.

Herod, not knowing what they were talking about, called in the Rabbis, who quoted Micah 5, which says the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. So the magi went to Bethlehem and visited the “child” and his mother in their “house.”

No stable and manger here. The visit of the magi may have taken place when Jesus was several months or even years old.

We twelve magi of Babylon are...

The text does not specify how many magi were present. The oral and artistic tradition of the early Western church says three, presumably because there were three gifts. (Gold, symbolizing kingship; frankincense for divinity; and myrrh for healing — or death, foreshadowing the cross.) But in the Armenian and Syrian Christian traditions, there are said to have been 12 magi.

They came to be called “kings” because medieval European art depicts them wearing crowns. In earlier art from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they are shown in turbans or fezzes, which is more accurate.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

In about the sixth century, they got names (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar), but there is no historical or Biblical support for them. Nor is there any evidence to support the claim by the otherwise venerable Venerable Bede that each of the magi came from a different continent: Asia, Africa and Europe. But that’s why you see nativity sets in which one magus is white, one is oriental, and one is black.

Poppycock. They were Persian.

Following yonder horoscope

“Magi” is a specific term for a caste of Zoroastrian priests, and Zoroastrianism was centered in Persia, specifically the city of Babylon (on the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq). Matthew says they came from the East. Babylon is east of Bethlehem.

Astrology has a central role in Zoroastrianism, and these magi, or astrologers, studied the skies and interpreted what they saw there.

The coming of a “King of Kings” -- a savior born of a virgin -- was predicted not only by Hebrew prophets, but also by Zoraster. The Bible says the magi saw “his star in the East” and “followed” it to Bethlehem. But if they had literally traveled in the direction of the star, they’d have gone eastward from Babylon and wound up in Kandahar.

So the “star” was more likely a horoscope -- an interpretation of astronomical events. They “followed” it in the sense that the stars showed a king was born in Judea, so they went to Judea.

Astronomer Michael Molnar makes a convincing case that the astronomical event in question was the lunar occultation of Jupiter in the constellation of Aries, which occurred about April 17, 6 B.C.E.*. Jupiter indicates kingship, and Aries represents Israel.

Thanks to their very accurate star charts, the magi could actually have predicted this event, giving them plenty of time to prepare to “traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain...” which is, I suppose, more poetical than “cross the Syrian Desert.”

* — Scholars now use B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” and C.E., “Common Era,” where we used to use B.C. and A.D. That’s because the calendar is messed up. Blame Dionysius Exiguus.

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