Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 3, 1980
Mysterious Magi: Iranian Kings?
By Father Thomas Fidelis, OCSO
For the past few weeks, the first pages of our daily newspapers have carried stories about an Iranian shaw (king), priestly figures, called ayatollahs, the names of Iranian cities like Tehran, Qom, Tabriz, and particularly of a group of American citizens held captive in their embassy at the capital. But what do these contemporary events have to do with the Maji and the star so conspicuous in our liturgy of this season? To answer that question, permit me to work backwards to the 7th Century, putting aside for the moment the spectacular events in Iran.
In the year 614 A.D., Chosroes, king of Iran (Persia then), began an assault on the Byzantine Empire of the East, which turned into a blitzkrieg. His army swept through Armenia, Syria, and into Palestine, wrecking havoc everywhere, especially to Christian churches. After the capture of Bethlehem, Chosroes personally took charge of the burning of the great Basilica of the Nativity. As his men were carrying out the sacred vessels, silver lamps and other loot, one of the officers noticed the large mosaic on the north wall, depicting the Magi offering their gifts to the Christ Child. He was startled by their dress, for they were clothed in the regal dress of his own countrymen. The king was informed of this marvelous mosaic, and he too was astonished at the sight. At once he ordered that the Basilica be spared, since, as he thought, it was expressly built to honor his royal predecessors, those priest-kings who came to Bethlehem.
Thanks be to God the Basilica of Bethlehem was spared the torch, due to the patriotic stirring of King Chosroes. But let us probe somewhat deeper into the mysterious identity of those mosaic figures. They were called MAJOI in Greek, and the same, with slight variants, in practically all the languages of that time and area. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th Century B.C. tells us that MAJOI were Zoroastrian priests, who were also astrologers and interpreters of dreams. This type appears in most of the kingdoms of the Middle East from the 4th century onwards.
Since Matthew depicts them as following a star, it is best to surmise they were astrologers. Only later, in the 2nd century of the Christian era were they considered kings, due to further Christian elaboration of the story. The Christian homelists and teachers rightly concluded that Matthew had two implicit citations of the Old Testament in mind when he composed his text. The Isaian passage reads: Be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for your LIGHT has come; and the glory of the Lord has RISEN upon you All those from Sheba will come bringing GOLD and FRANKINCENSE, and proclaiming the salvation of the Lord. (Is. 60, 1.6) This quotation would highlight the Gentile character of the magi and two of the specific gifts brought to Bethlehem. The passage from Ps. 72 would emphasize the bearers as kings and stress their adoration: May the kings of Sheba and Saba bring gifts; may all kings pay him homage. This latter text is the one that in later Christian reflection resulted in the identification of the Maji as kings.
Was there an extraordinary surreal phenomenon at the time of Jesus birth? Recently the Religion section of the Atlanta Journal attempted to identify the star. The article, quoting astronomers, suggested that it was either Halleys comet, or a meteor, or a Nova, exploding star. But here we must remember that the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke are not dealing primarily with history and biography, but GOOD NEWS, whose main purpose is to elicit from you, the Christian reader, faith-love in Jesus as Lord.
Although the Infancy Narratives refer to historical persons and events, the generality of scholars today hold that their literary form is what is technically known as MIDRASH: stories concerning biblical themes that have been expanded with imaginative happenings in order to edify. Perhaps the best example of this kind of writing was Philos Life of Moses, which became somewhat of a bestseller. In fact, scholars are convinced Matthew read this work, and borrowed details from it for his own midrashic account of the infancy events of Jesus, particularly in the account of the slaughter of the children.
Matthews portrayal of Joseph, who receives revelation dreams is remarkably similar to the Joseph in the Genesis stories who also received Gods messages in dreams, and who went down to Egypt, thus escaping an attempt on his life.
But where did Matthew get the story of the magi? We do not know for sure, but Father Raymond Brown, in his definitive commentary on the Infancy Narratives, goes into detail to show that Matthews basic outline was taken from the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-24. Balaam, a seer, (called MAGOS by Philo) came from the East with two servants at the order of the wicked King Balak, who ordered him to curse Moses and Israel. But instead of cursing them, Balaam, under divine inspiration, blesses them: I will point to him, though not now; I bless him, though he has not drawn near; a STAR will rise from Jacob, and a scepter will come forth from Israel. (Num. 24, 17) The star was interpreted by the Jews as signifying the Davidic dynasty, but Matthew chooses to use an actual star to bring the Magi to pay homage to the King of Israel, Christ the Lord.
We Americans are a bit disconcerted to hear that the scholars classify the Infancy Narratives as midrash (admittedly an unpleasant sounding word). We tend to think this peculiar literary form somehow diminishes the truthfulness of the accounts, forgetting that the Good News and Jesus himself use all kinds of similar literary forms, such as, poetry, parables, hymns, dreams, visions, and the like. Perhaps I can best illustrate the meaning of these Magi and their star by comparing them to the hilariously theological film Oh, God! After thoroughly enjoying the movie, the wrong question to ask would be: Did it really happen like that? I think most of us immediately began to ponder the significance of the films powerful message: how God is present in the most ordinary events of daily life, as in shopping in a super-market or taking a shower.
So too, it is the wrong question to ask Did Iranian king-astrologers follow a star to Bethlehem? Rather, Matthews dramatic story should have us ask, Do we American citizens recognize in the Babe of Bethlehem our Lord and Savior? Do we come to Him with our gifts of love and sacrifice to pay him homage? If we answer affirmatively, then the magi are not Iranian kings, but us American citizens.