Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Mt 2:1-13) “Rediscovering the Magi” PDF Version
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 2018 (Mt 2:1-13)
You will notice that the statues of the Three Wise men, who had been hiding near the Christmas trees in the sanctuary, have now arrived at their cherished destination: to be on bended knee before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, humbly offering the infant Saviour their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The adoration of the Magi before the Christ Child is among the most cherished scenes of the Christmas story, and their incredible journey, guided by a star, is among the greatest pilgrimages in human history. But did it really happen or for that matter are the Magi even real?
Many modern commentaries on the Bible have taken the position that the Three Wise men were not actual people and so never visited the infant Christ. These scholars will claim that St Matthew created them to help fulfill various prophecies in the Old Testament, notably those from the Prophet Isaiah and Psalm 72 that spoke of the arrival of kings from the east to worship the newborn Messiah, coming from the lands of Seba and Sheba, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Such scholarship claims that the account of the Three Kings lacks any quantifiable historical evidence beyond the testimony of St. Matthew’s Gospel and thus dismisses it as a literary technique used by the evangelist to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesized Messiah of the Jewish People. Such scholarship is rooted in a spirit of cynicism that rejects the historical authenticity of the Gospel accounts and has emptied the Bible of its supernatural origin, transforming it into but another text of the ancient past and no longer revering it as the inspired Holy Word of God.
More reasonable and objective forms of biblical scholarship have offered further suggestions as to the identity of the Magi. The tradition of them being three kings from three different nations is a much later tradition of the Christian People and while we are free to believe that only three kings arrived at the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, St Matthew did not stated explicitly that there were only three kings, only that wise men from the east arrived after a long journey, following a new star in the heavens.
One theory that has been forward as to the identity of the Wise Men was that they were Persian Magi, known for their knowledge of astronomy and being adherents of the Zoroastrian faith, that while different from the faith of the Jewish People had a strong belief in a creator god of light. We know from the writings of the Greek Historian Herodotus that he spoke of Zoroastrian priests with the Greek word magoi, from which we have the English word Magi or wise men. Thus, there is good reason to claim that the Magi were Persian astronomers, given their interest in seeing new celestial events like a new star as a sign that marked a significant birth in the land of Judea, to which they would bring kingly gifts that were readily available throughout the vast Persian Empire.
Recently, Fr Dwight Longnecker, who runs a Catholic blog entitled “Standing on My Head” and is an accomplished writer and scholar, has proposed a new and exciting theory as to the identity of the Magi. In his book “The Mystery of the Magi: The Quest for the Three Wise Men”, Fr Longnecker proposes that they were not three kings from the east nor Persian wise men, but Arabs. Fr Longnecker notes that St Justin Martyr in the 2nd century AD claimed that the Magi came Arabia. He suggested further that is was unlikely that Persian astronomers would be allowed to depart from the court of their king, Phraates IV, to enter the domain of King Herod.
Instead, Fr Longnecker claims that the Magi came from the city of Petra in modern day Jordan (which if you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the city built into solid rock that was said to contain the chalice from the Last Supper). At Petra, a people known as the Nabateans had built a small kingdom centered around their city as a major trading centre. We know that Jews, Persians, Greeks and Romans, in addition to other peoples of that region, came to Petra for trading purposes.
We know from ancient historical sources that the Nabateans had ancestral ties to Abraham and that where were involved into the political intrigues between King Herod and Emperor Augustus. They also frequently visited the nation of Israel, riding their renowned swift horses, meaning would only take a few days to travel from Petra to Jerusalem and as such they could have easily visited the newborn Saviour of the World but a few days after his birth.
Fr. Longnecker proposes that the Magi were Nabatean sages and men of learning who had been sent by their king, Aretas IV, to discover who might be the newborn heir of King Herod, taking note of the astrological sign of the newly appeared star that was seen as a sign that the Jewish Messiah had been born. This explains why they went first to Herod to pay homage to the newborn king whom they thought was born in Herod’s Palace, only to then discover that the Messiah was not born of Herod, but of a mysterious origin.
In addition, being from Petra, the Nabatean Magi would have easily been able to obtain the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the vast trade markets that lined the city streets their ancestral city and thus bring fitting gifts for a newborn King.
After returning to their city of Petra and carefully avoiding visiting the court of Herod, Fr Longnecker offers a final intriguing theory that would one day reunite the Magi with the newborn King of the Jews. Fr. Longnecker suggests that many of the Nabatean Magi would one day move to the caves near the Dead Sea and join the community of the Essences, whom many believe would become some of the first Christians and establish one of the first church communities in the city of Damascus, that city where the followers of Jesus were given the name Christians, but that is a story for another day…
While our Church has never definitively taught as to the certain identity of the Magi from the East, the quest to discover who they were and how their lives were transformed by their encounter with the Infant Christ is an inspiration for each of us to have a similar zeal and daring to discover the joy of Jesus Christ alive and active in our lives of faith.
May we ask the Holy Magi, whom we can hope are among the saints of heaven, to intercede on our behalf and inspire us to daily seek out Christ, offering him the gift of our lives and never tiring from following the stars he will place in our paths that lead us ever closer to Him. [i]
[i] Information for this homily concerning the work of Fr Longnecker was taken from an article by Thomas L MacDonald entitled “Who Were the Wise Men?” <http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/who-were-the-wise-men>