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Icons of the Bible: The Magi - Mysterious Visitors from the East

Updated: Sep 3

Icons of the Bible: The Magi - Mysterious Visitors from the East
Icons of the Bible: The Magi - Mysterious Visitors from the East

Icons of the Bible

The Three Magi

"Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the magi presented to Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew (2:11).

Our Three Magi collection in the Biblical Archaeology Society Library reveals different interpretations of the “three wise men,” as they are most commonly known, and why they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

  • Tradition: These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.

  • Symbolism: In the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings,” the three gifts were chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming.

  • Medicine: Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can help relieve arthritis by inhibiting the inflammation that breaks down cartilage tissue and causes arthritis pain.

Did the magi “from the east” know of frankincense’s healing properties when they presented it to young Jesus? Are the gifts simply symbolic, or were they based on tradition?

Discover more when you read “The Magi’s Gifts—Tribute or Treatment?” as a part of The Three Magi collection in the BAS Library..' from the article: The Three Magi

9 Things You Should Know About the Christmas Story

"The narrative of the birth of Jesus is one of the most famous stories in all of history. Yet much of what we believe about the event is rooted in folklore and popular tradition than in biblical scholarship.

To help you better appreciate the narrative, here are nine things you should know about the Christmas story:

1. Throughout church history, the date of Jesus’s birth has been proposed on numerous days, including March 21, April 15, and May 20. Since the fourth or fifth century, though, Christians have traditionally dated the Annunciation—the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28-37—as having occurred on March 25. Since pregnancy lasts approximately nine months from the date of conception, the church settled on Jesus’s birthday as December 25.

2. Most modern translations say that Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn or guest house. But as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson argues, the end of Luke 2:7 should be translated as “because they had no space in their place to stay.” As Carlson says, “The problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus.” The result would be that the birth of Jesus occurred in the main room of the house—likely belonging to relatives of Joseph—rather than in the couple’s smaller marital apartment attached to the house.

3. Although the presence of the manger (i.e., a trough for livestock to eat from) might seem to suggest a barn, it was common for mangers to be kept in the main room of village houses during this time period, New Testament scholar Michael Kruger says. Animals were often housed with the human residents of the home just a few feet away in an adjacent room.

4. The inclusion of the manger and swaddling clothes in the nativity story appears to have a two-fold significance. First, as Peter Krol explains, this detail provided for the shepherds corroboration of what the angel said. Within the brief narrative we have a fact (the baby was laid there [Lk. 2:7]), the prediction (the angel said they’d find him there [Luke 2:12]), and the testimony (the shepherds did in fact find the baby Jesus there, just as they were told [Luke 2:1]). Second, as Peter Leithart says, “The baby in swaddling cloths becomes the crucified criminal in grave clothes, but he is ‘unswaddled’ when He bursts from the tomb. The baby laid in the manger becomes a crucified corpse, but death cannot hold him. The shepherds find baby Jesus, but when the women come to minister to His body, He is not there.”

5. The “magi from the east” (Matt. 2:1) were most likely to be astrologers and interpreters of omens. Their description of seeing a celestial body as a portent of a significant event appears to be an ancient type of mundane astrology (i.e., the study of significant celestial moments to social groups, nations, or all of humanity). Even if the magi (a term from which we get the word “magic”) were actual astrologers, this would not a biblical endorsement of astrology. Instead, it would be an example of how even pagans would recognize Jesus as God. As David Mathis says, “These magi are not respected kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus.”.. from the article: 9 Things You Should Know About the Christmas Story

Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi?”

"Who were the magi, those gift-bearing wise men from the east who are so central to the traditional telling of the Christmas story? Bible scholar Brent Landau believes he has found at least one answer to this age-old question.

The Bible tells us very little about the magi. Their story appears but once, in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12), where they are described as mysterious visitors “from the east” who come to Jerusalem looking for the child whose star they observed “at its rising.” After meeting with King Herod, who feigns an intention to worship the child but actually plans to destroy him, the magi follow the same star to Bethlehem. There, upon seeing the baby Jesus and his mother Mary, the magi kneel down and worship him, presenting him with their three famous gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, without reporting to Herod, they depart for their homeland, never to be heard from again.

For early Christians, the seemingly pivotal yet unexplained background of the mysterious magi provided abundant room to shape new narratives around the question “Who were the magi?” One of the most compelling, recently translated into English by Bible scholar Brent Landau, is the so-called Revelation of the Magi, an apocryphal account of the traditional Christmas story that purports to have been written by the magi themselves.

The account is preserved in an eighth-century C.E. Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library, although Brent Landau believes the earliest versions of the text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was composed. Written in the first person, the Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi, their miraculous encounter with the luminous star and their equally miraculous journey to Bethlehem to worship the child. The magi then return home and preach the Christian faith to their brethren, ultimately being baptized by the apostle Thomas.

Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.

The earliest known depiction of the magi is this mid-third-century C.E. fresco decorating the Catacomb of Priscilla, one of Rome’s oldest Christian cemeteries. Photo: Scala/Art Resource.

According to Brent Landau, this dramatic account not only answers the question “Who were the magi?” but also provides details about how many they were, where they came from and their mysterious encounter with the star that led them to Bethlehem. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are not just three magi, as often depicted in early Christian art (actually, Matthew does not tell us how many there were), nor are they Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians, as other early traditions held. Rather from Brent Landau’s translation it is clear the magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group—numbering as few as 12 and as many as several score—of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form.”

When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east.

It’s a fascinating story, but does it actually bring us any closer to understanding who the actual magi of the Christmas story might have been? Unfortunately, the answer is no, says Landau, although it may provide insight into the beliefs of an otherwise unknown Christian sect of the second century that identified with the mysterious magi.

“Sadly, I don’t think this is actually written by the historical wise men,” said Landau in an interview with National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm. “In terms of who wrote it, we have no idea. [But] the description of the magi and [their religious practices] is so remarkably detailed and I’ve often wondered whether it’s reflecting some actual community out there that practiced and kind of envisioned themselves in the role of the magi.”

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 29, 2011. from the article: Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi?”


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