The Mystery of the Magi

by Claudia McDonnell

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Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

All that we know of the Magi is contained in the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel. The other evangelists never mention them. They entered Judea by one road and left by another; we are not told where they came from, or where they are going when they left. Popular tradition in the West tells us that there were three Magi, and even gives them names, yet nowhere does Matthew mention their number or what they were called. Nor does Matthew say that they were kings; this too is part of tradition and not part of the gospel. For centuries the Magi have been beloved figures in the Christmas story, often depicted in paintings, sculptures and stained glass, and celebrated in song. Yet in some respects they remain a kind of holy riddle.

There is no question that the Magi are an important part of Matthew’s gospel, but the lack of historical information about them has led Biblical scholars to examine more closely the story of the Magi and to interpret it in new ways. It is possible that Matthew intended the visit of the Wise Men to be understood not as an eyewitness account of an actual historical event, but as a symbol illustrating the fulfillment of prophecies about Christ.

The Jewish tradition of scriptural study, which formed Matthew’s background included a literary device called midrash. The term refers to the discussion and sometimes the embellishment of a sacred text in order to make it more readily understood. Midrash might introduce fictional elements in order to show how the text applied to everyday life. Through midrash, the Word of God was interpreted in such a way that ordinary men and women could comprehend it and live by it.

Applying the principles of midrash to the story of the Magi opens up new avenues of understanding. Matthew might have designed the episode to draw parallels between the birth of Christ and certain prophetic events in the Old Testament. Thus Matthew would help his readers to identify Christ as the Redeemer whose coming had been foretold.

Among the ancient prophets who prefigured the Messiah is the towering person of Moses. As he delivered his people from bondage in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, so too would Christ deliver His people from the bonds of sin and lead them to the kingdom of God. In the Biblical account of the birth of Moses, astrologers announce the event to Pharaoh. Matthew might have introduced Wise Men who followed a star and announced Christ’s birth to Herod in order to emphasize Christ in the aspect of the new Moses.

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Tags: Prayers/Hymns/Saints Reflections/Inspirational