Part X Matthew: The Story of the Magi and Their Gifts
by John Shelby Spong
The wise men from Matthew’s birth story have been deeply attached to our Christmas celebration, stretching all the way back to the time that Matthew introduced them in the middle years of the ninth decade of the Common Era. They are instantly recognized mounted on their camels and appearing in our Christmas cards, our decorated store windows, advertisements and our Christmas pageants. In our developing mythology they have even been given names: Casper, Melchior and Balthazar.
These magi have even been interpreted as universal symbols representing the various races in the human family: Caucasians, Africans and Asians. Carols have been written about them, the words of which we know by heart. Many of us have played the role of one of the wise men in a pageant and we sang his verse of the familiar hymn. So deeply are these characters embedded in the life of our culture that few of us are aware that outside of Matthew’s gospel, they are never mentioned anywhere else in the entire New Testament. Only in Matthew’s birth narrative do the wise men have any existence. Furthermore, when we go to that single biblical source where Matthew introduces them, we discover, sometimes to our amazement, that nowhere in that text is there any mention of the fact that the wise men were three in number and nowhere in Matthew’s story does it say that camels were their means of transportation. Both the number three and the camels appear to have been placed into the tradition by human imagination!
That should be enough data to cause us to look more critically at this familiar biblical story and to ask whether there is anything other than mythology operating in Matthew’s tale of the magi. If we conclude that the magi are mythological characters and not people who ever lived in history, then we need to ask: “What do they mean?” Those are the issues that I want to examine in this column as our series on Matthew’s gospel continues.
First, we need to be aware that cosmic signs accompanying a human birth are always both interpretive and mythological. The stars in the heavens are physical bodies that operate according to the laws of nature. To treat the stars as if they can reveal events in human history or even discern the tides of the future is nothing more than uninformed superstition. Yet, it has long been a human passion as the popularity of astrology shows, but interpreting human history by studying the stars in little more than nonsense.
Second, the assumption that the birth of Jesus was or could have been announced by a special star requires the definition of stars as lanterns hung in the sky by the deity who lived just beyond the sky. People in biblical times had no concept of space or of the vast distances in the universe. Copernicus would not be born for another 1600 years. In the mind of a first century human being the idea that a star could appear to announce an earthly event was as simple as imagining that the God, who was thought to live above the sky, could simply hang out a new lantern in the heavenly abode to announce whatever God wished to announce.
Third, but in a similar manner, the idea that a star could travel across the sky so slowly that wise men could keep up with it, was as simple to understand as imagining that God, or one of God’s angels, could pull that star across the floor of heaven, which would be the roof of the world, to whatever destination God wished. Once we human beings learned what stars really are and the nature of the distances in space, the literalized reading of the story of the wise men is no longer intellectually credible. Given these advances in knowledge it is easy to see why first Copernicus and later Galileo were so threatening to the way people believed in the 17th century.
A fourth problem becomes evident when we embrace the distances that separate the stars from the earth and understand that light travels at the approximate rate of 186,000 miles per second. This means that the light of the star that we see from our vantage point on this planet earth was actually emitted at a time in the distant past and it is only now reaching the point where we can see it. So, if God had wanted to announce the birth of Jesus with a star emitting light for us to see, God would have had to create that star millions of years before the birth of Jesus for its light to reach our eyes in the year 4 BCE, which is our best guess as to the time of Jesus’ birth. For these reasons treating this narrative literally is not an option for our generation, which in turn causes us to wonder if that was what the original author of this story actually had in mind. I suspect that the man we call Matthew would have been both surprised and chagrined to discover how later generations would literalize his story.
Significant internal evidence from the first gospel reveals that Matthew was a Jewish scribe, the head of a synagogue and one deeply familiar with the Jewish scriptures. The books the Jews call “The Latter Prophets,” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve, the books from Hosea to Malachi), were regularly read in rotation along with the Torah in the synagogue on every Sabbath of the year. After the crucifixion and before the time the followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue, local disciples of Jesus would then relate those readings to the life of Jesus. That is what synagogue preaching was all about. The story of the star in the east, the journey of the wise men and even the gifts that they brought were all born, I would suggest, in a sermon delivered by a follower of Jesus based on a text from a reading in Isaiah. Turn with me now to Isaiah 60 and watch the symbols in Matthew’s story of the wise men parade slowly before our eyes.
The Isaiah 60 text says, “Kings shall come to the brightness of God’s rising.” It was easy to transform “the brightness of God’s rising” into a star in the east. The East was the direction of mystery and fear for the Jewish people. To their west was the known Mediterranean Sea. Danger tended to come from the unknown East. Matthew’s text describes the wise men as magi or astrologers, not as kings. It was, I now believe, the originating text of Isaiah that turned them in our imagination into kings, enabling us to sing “We Three Kings” without fear of contradiction.
This text from Isaiah says that these kings will come on camels. That is the place where camels entered the wise men story, since they are not found in Matthew. We begin to recognize that even in our current understanding it was the Isaiah text that created the story. Next, guess what these kings in Isaiah 60 brought to the “brightness of God’s rising?” It was gold and frankincense. Does that not sound slightly familiar? Those, however, who are committed to a literal reading of the Bible, immediately raise the question: “Where is the myrrh?” Getting only two out of three correct in regard to the gifts brought by the wise men, they argue, is not conclusive. Ah, but if one really knows how the Jews would read Isaiah, the myrrh is present in this text, although not overtly. Isaiah says that these kings will come from Sheba. Sheba was a land near current day Yemen, from which, according to the book of Kings, another royal figure, “The Queen of Sheba,” came to pay homage to another king of the Jews. Here we learn that she brought to King Solomon truckloads of spices. This is the source from which the myrrh entered Matthew’s story.
Myrrh was the best known spice in the Middle East. It was derived from a sweet smelling resin of a small native tree. The Jews used myrrh first as a deodorant and then it became identified with death. This came about because the Jews did not embalm their dead; they simply wrapped the body in a cloth sheet or shroud into which they placed large amounts of myrrh, since its sweet smell drowned out the odors of death and decay. Now we have all of the elements that Matthew put together to create this segment of his birth narrative. Kings on camels come to the “brightness of God’s rising,” bringing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The wise men were never meant to be understood as figures of history, they were rather dramatic characters born in Matthew’s familiarity with the Jewish scriptures.
Over the years, those gifts of the magi were further defined once again as symbols, primarily by Christian preaching. Gold became a gift appropriate for a king and was used to define Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense became a gift offered to a deity and thus pointed to Jesus’ divinity. Myrrh became the symbol of death and presaged the crucifixion by which Matthew would assert that the ultimate meaning of Jesus was fully revealed, since it would be through Jesus’ death that the message of his life would most clearly be seen.
Matthew knew what he was doing. He was a student of the Jewish scriptures. He understood the Jewish use of Midrash, by which the stories of the past were wrapped around people and events in the present to discern the workings of the Divine. The Jewish congregation for which Matthew’s gospel was written would also have understood the way he built his story. It was only when the Christian Church had left its Jewish roots and become a Gentile movement that literalism crept into the biblical text. Gentiles simply did not know or understand the Jewish scriptures and how a Jewish author would have used them to tell the Christ story. Gentile ignorance is the ultimate reason that Christians began to think that the gospels were history. Biblical fundamentalism is the direct result of a Gentile misunderstanding of Jewish scripture.
One other symbolic theme lay behind Matthew’s story of the wise men. They were strangers from the east, which means that they were Gentiles, not Jews. The star signified that the birth of Jesus had cosmic significance. Its rays did not stop at the boundaries of the Jewish nation. They were seen all over the world and their symbolic purpose was to draw the whole world into the worship of this Jesus, who was God’s revelation to Jew and Gentile alike. Matthew used the birth narrative to draw the Gentiles into the story of Jesus. With that established, Matthew is ready to tell the story of Jesus.