Who was it that first decided that the Magi were “kings”?
Numbering them at three is an easy inference from the number of gifts, though the Bible never actually specifies their number, except that there were more than one. But why did we make them “Kings of Orient”?
More, who were they in actual fact? And what’s going on with that business with the star? I mean, from some angles it looks disturbingly like astrology.
They only appear in the gospel account of Matthew. Luke is concentrated on Mary and the human details, Mark doesn’t mention Christ’s Advent at all, in keeping with the dynamic, immediate nature of his account. John gets mystical and talks about the Word Made Flesh. It’s Matthew that focuses his account of the Advent on Joseph and the kingly details.
The idea of them as kings probably came from unschooled Mediævals looking at the richly-dressed figures in their stained-glass windows and saying to themselves “they are dressed as kings”.
But the Bible never calls them that. The Bible calls them “wise men” or “magi”. We’ll come to “magi” in a minute, but we should first remember that “wise men” is how the Bible characterises Nebuchadnezzar’s dream interpreters (and Daniel and his three friends), as well as Pharaoh’s magicians who opposed Moses. This is in keeping with the ancient world: magic was a matter of “secret wisdom” as much as interaction with pagan spirits; you had to have the hidden knowledge to do it right. Even the English word “wizard” comes from an Anglo-Saxon root having to do with wisdom. It puts rather a different complexion on the Bible’s statement that “the wisdom of the wise He will frustrate”. We might even paraphrase it as “He will frustrate the magic of the wizards”. There are literally hundreds of words in the world’s various languages for magicians and spiritual practitioners; it seems a mark of Satan’s devices that he tends to use a whole raft of different terms for essentially the same thing. As I’ve said before, he’s not all that creative. So Daniel is able to list off magicians, wise men, sorcerers and diviners when he tells the king that only God can interpret dreams truly. But “wise men” was the general term for all of them in the ancient world.
“Magi” is even more interesting. The magi (singular: magus) were the elite astrologer-priests of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia. They not only looked for omens in the stars and interpreted them, but they also served as priests of the dualistic Zoroastrian faith, which saw the embodiments of light and good (Ahura Mazda) and darkness and evil (Ahriman) as equal as well as opposite. The heavenly lights were an important source of messages from Ahura Mazda.
Later, the term “magus” became applied in the Roman world to any powerful spiritual practitioner; in Latin, Simon the Sorcerer is Simon Magus. But the fact that Matthew says that they came “from the East”, which in the Biblical world usually meant Persia and Mesopotamia, certainly implies that they were Magi in the Zoroastrian sense.
But hold on a minute. Pagan wizards or astrologer-priests see a star in the heavens and come to worship the “one born King of the Jews”? Doesn’t that, like, validate the practice of astrology?
Well, maybe, sort of. In our modern Western world we’re very good at dismissing the idea of real signs in the heavens and the related notion that God may actually use the heavens to do more than display His glory in a general sense. But the idea that God might speak through the stars in a more direct way persisted until surprisingly recently. Many of the early scientists were either alchemists or astrologers; back then, the sciences and pseudosciences had yet to diverge.
I’m generally dismissive of the practice of astrology. The idea that we can go to a source other than God for knowledge and wisdom is opposed to Christian teaching. Most, if not all, astrology, looks like a very complicated way of telling people what they want to hear. We have science, now, which tells us that the sun and stars are flaming balls of gas millions of miles away and don’t have a whit of influence over our lives. Backing this up, we have Scriptural teaching that the stars and planets are not gods but created lights placed in the sky for our benefit, and inctruction to not engage in the reading of omens or attempting to ascertain the will of God through natural or artificial phenomena (a practice the ancients called divination, which survives today in a relic form as fortune-telling).
But in the face of what the Bible actually seems to be saying here, I can’t disbelieve in the idea that God may on occasion use the heavens as His billboard in a specific as well as general way.
Scholars and artists have speculated on the nature of the star for centuries. Giotto famously painted it as a comet. Others have seen it as a purely miraculous heavenly body, as evidenced by the fact that the magi seem to follow it to Bethlehem from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Others have seen it as a real star.
Many of the constellations we know in the northern sky date back to Babylonian times, and would have been well known to those who studied such things. One of these ancient star pictures is the Zodiacal constellation that we know as Virgo, the Maiden. Given that “maiden” used to be the usual way of saying “virgin”, it’s interesting to speculate on a mysterious bright star appearing within the womb area of the constellation of the Virgin.
The Persians would not have been intimately familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall be with child… And you shall call His name Immanuel”, but they would have had access to it. Isaiah was writing before the Exile, and not all of the Jews returned to Israel under Cyrus. Most did, but some remained behind, and undoubtedly they kept records of their holy Scriptures.
I can picture a frantic investigation by these pagan astrologers as to what this new sign in the heavens means, until one of them stumbles upon this Jewish prophecy and figures it out.
This isn’t just some powerful king, though there were legends of mighty emperors whose births the heavens had acknowledged. This is God With Us. A god come down, in our time and in our day. Of course they sent people to acknowledge it, even if they didn’t properly get it.
On the way, they would probably have studied the other prophecies concerning this God With Us king. Including, perhaps, the one that begins “Who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Perhaps they actually understood the prophecies better than the Pharisees who opposed Jesus: perhaps the gifts were deliberately symbolic, not just chosen at random from the costliest treasures of the Persian realm.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh. The carol We Three Kings might get their status wrong and take poetic liberties with regional geography, but it does a great job of explaining the significance of each of the gifts. “Born a King on Bethlehem plain/Gold I bring to crown Him again/King forever, ceasing never/Over us all to reign”. Gold was the most precious metal in the ancient world, symbolic of royalty and nobility, and used throughout history for the making of crowns, sceptres and other regal paraphernalia. In alchemical thinking it was ruled by the Sun, and had associations of light, goodness, power and warmth. Gold speaks of the Messiah’s kingly authority. This is the One who “will reign on David’s throne and over his Kingdom, establishing it and upholding it with righteousness”. This is the Coming King, finally entering the world through the narrow gate of a cervix.
“Frankincense to offer have I/Incense owns a Deity nigh/Prayer and praising all men raising/Worship Him, God Most High”. Frankincense, as its name implies, is used in incense. When burnt, it produces a heavy, aromatic smoke whose ascent to the heavens has long symbolised prayers ascending to the One enthroned there. It was one of the main ingredients of the sacred incense mixture used by the Israelites as per God’s instruction in Exodus, but other cultures used it too for a similar purpose, similar to how some Native American cultures use sage or tobacco or other aromatic smokes to symbolically show their prayers rising up to the Great Creator Spirit. Frankincense speaks of priesthood and the divine. This isn’t just the King of the Jews; this is Immanuel, God With Us.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in the stone-cold tomb”. It’s a strange gift for a baby, on the face of it. It’s one of the most precious and costly substances of the ancinet world, and thus, a royal gift, but its main use in most Middle Eastern cultures of the time was as an embalming fluid. Did they pick it, humanly-speaking, at random; the symbolism unknown? Or had they read and understood Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant, despised and rejected by men?
We will probably never know this side of heaven. But it might be that they understood better than most of the Jews. Certainly they understood better than Herod, who only saw a threat to his power. And they had every opportunity to find out more, if from no other place than the lips of Joseph and Mary.
Who knows what happened after they returned to their own country. Did they put their trust in the King whose birth they had seen the heavens announce? Did they maintain that trust in their own pagan realm?
In either case, their gift-giving became the prototype of our own custom of giving gifts at Christmas, and heralded the way being opened to the Gentiles to come to faith in the Messiah of the Jews. Because the King of the Jews is also the Light of the World.