Rick and Monique

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where did the Magi Originate?

Matthew 2:1-2:

Now when 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 have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him."

I'm positive that most of us have never mapped the travels of the Magi--covered the Wise Men from the east.  We'll start simply--one can deduce that being from the East, they might have travelled West!  "They saw his star in the east" doesn't necessarily mean the star was east of them.  If so, they might have travelled to India.  The word "east" in Greek also means, "The rising," meaning the wise men would have said, "We saw a star at its rising."  In the second revised edition of Werner Keller's book The Bible as History, the following is stated:

"We have seen his star in the east" (Matt. 2:2), said the Wise Men (KJV).  The translation is however incorrect, for the words 'in the east' are in the original en te anatole—the Greek singular-- but elsewhere 'the east' is represented by anatolai—the Greek plural.
The singular form anatole has, it is maintained, quite a special astronomical significance, in that it implies the observation of the early rising of the star, the so-called heliacal rising. The translators of the King James Version could not have known this.
When en te anatole is translated properly, Matt. 2:2 reads as follows: "We have seen his star appear in the first rays of dawn" (pp. 328-329).

So where did the wise men come from?  The book, "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" written by Kenneth E. Bailey says this:

Where is East?  The answer to that question depends on where the writer lives.  If an American is visiting friends from New Jersey and tells them that he or she came from "the West," the hosts might infer that the guest is from Pittsburgh.  If someone in the United States Navy is sent to serve in the "Western Pacific" he or she may be stationed in Pacific waters but a a British ship one hundred yards away is in the "Eastern Pacific."

So it is that Christians living in Rome might say something different than one living in a different region, such as in "The Holy Land".  Those from that region would refer to someone across the Jordan River.  Bailey says that this designation survives even today (p. 52).  Matthew, Luke and others would more naturally refer that those from the "East" are those from the east side of the Jordan River, in the Jordanian deserts which connect to the Arabian Deserts.  Furthermore, the wise men arrived with Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  These unique gifts are and were well known to be harvested from trees that only grow in southern Arabia.

The earliest known written text outside the gospels about this particular event was written by Justin Martyr--A.D. 160.  Justin was a Palestinian Christian living in Caesarea.  He wrote about a conversation with a Jew named Trypho (p.53) who told Justin, "The wise men from Arabia came to Bethlehem and worshiped the child and offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."  Martyr doesn't labor the point or argue against Trypho, but instead states several times throughout the commentary that the wise men hailed from Arabia.  The location is supported by writings by Tertullian and Clement of Rome.  But these facts alone don't prove much...

Isaiah 60:1-5

Arise, shine for your light has come, and hte glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and the thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will be seen upon you.  And nations shall come to your light, and the kings to the brightness of your rising.  The wealth of nations shall come to you.  A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Kenneth Bailey writes:

Midian and Ephah are tribal lands in northern Arabia, and Sheba was the name for the part of southern Arabia from which the Queen of Sheba was the name for the part of southern Arabia from which the Queen came with "much gold" (I Kings 10:2).  Frankincense is unique to southern Arabia.  In verse 7 of Isaiah continues as he reports "all the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you."  Shepherds were also involved.  To the child came Arab wise men from the desert on camels bringing gold and frankincense.  And Shepherds visited the child, not the city...

I guess I'm not sure that these details matter in our celebrations.  They probably don't.  But I want you Christians to know some details so that Christians have a true story to stand on.

Bailey also claims that the wise men were almost always wealthy men (especially in Arabia), and they would not traditionally have travelled in two or three's.  In the time of Daniel the whole of the Chaldean wise men were summoned to interpret dreams, and to perform other tasks appointed to them.  Rich wise men were not singularly curious and they were interested in power and interested in prophesy and interested in knowledge and interested in astrology.  It would have been more typical that many men travelled together, because the prophesy was widely known.  Matthew and Luke (and Pharisees and Sadducees) would have known their reputation well.  Arabian wise men would have also travelled with animals and servants...rich men travelled with servants to perform any manner of tasks including protection, negotiations and scouting (p. 53-54).  And their gifts would not have only been "tokens" of wealth in worship--they would've flowered a prophesied king with these gifts.  They had reputations to uphold afterall.

Either way, I suppose this knowledge won't change your celebrations.  But I encourage all of you to shower each other with excellent gifts, with great feasts, with deep love, and with a majestic sense of worship for a King who saved you.


Joh said...

"The Gospel in the Stars" is another source of interesting (and probably verifiable) truths about star-gazing.
After all God created both time and celestial bodies.

K.M. Weiland said...

Interesting post. I just finished watching the wonderful DVD The Star of Bethlehem, which suggested the wise men were perhaps from the Babylonian region - or modern Iraq. Great video. I highly recommend it!

Webster World said...

It's March.