From Magi to Magicians : more Mystic Meg than Derren Brown

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me what I thought about the three Kings.  I had to admit that I don’t believe in them – I don’t think there were three of them for a start, I don’t think they had to be men, and I don’t think they were kings either .. so all of that might seem a bit tricky when we’ve just read their story in the Bible.

Now generally speaking I’m a very traditional bible believing Christian.  Unlike many of my more liberal friends I think the Blessed Virgin Mary passed her personal diaries on to St Luke when she got older so that all his stories about angels and shepherds and visiting Elizabeth are more or less true.  But when it comes to Matthew I’m not at all sure.  If you ask my opinion St Luke picked up St Matthew’s Gospel somewhere around the year 70 AD and said – No, no, no, no, no – in fact I think St Luke was so annoyed by what St Matthew had done with the Jesus story that he decided to write his own version instead.  …..   now that doesn’t mean that St Matthew was wrong or that St Luke was right – just that they both had very strong opinions and that they didn’t agree with each other -  but that’s another sermon for another day.

So back to the three kings and whether or not we believe in them.   Let’s start with what the Bible actually says and let’s strip away all the bits and pieces that have been added on by Christmas carols and christmas cards.

First of all the bible does not say that there were three of them.  It says that there were more than one of them and it says that they brought three gifts with them – gold, frankincense and myrrh.   So there might only have been two wise men – more likely I think, two people travelling together – or there might have been 20 of them – unlikely as that would be quite a big caravan!

Next they weren’t necessarily both men – although they might have been.  Because of the way the greek language works, they could have been two men, or one man and one woman, or one man and nineteen women or any of the above.  It couldn’t have been two women though – that would give a different ending to the word – a feminine plural.  So – it seems to me that it’s very likely that there were two men or perhaps one man and one woman – they might even have been married to each other – who knows.

Next we have to work out who they are.  The greek word in the New Testament is Magos – Magi – from which we get our word ‘magic’.  So the Magi were magicians – and actually the greek word ‘magos’ occurs in two other places in the new testament.  In Acts 13  Barjesus, also known by his greek name Elymas is also called a magos – but because he’s a baddy, not a goody he’s never called a Elymas the Wise Man – he’s always called Elymas the sorcerer – a magician. – because that’s what Magos means.

So the baby Jesus was visited not by three kings or by three wise men, but most probably by a couple of foreign magicians.

But magicians in the 1st century are not doing card tricks.  They are more like tarot-card readers and palm readers – more Mystic Meg than Derren Brown.  – and of course they did a lot of astrology.

Astrology – and horoscopes – are one of those things that wind church people up.  Many church people are very quick to say that the wise men – the magicians – were not astrologers but astronomers.  But that kind of a sentence is just wrong:  there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology in the ancient world, they were the same thing.  They all looked at rising stars and houses and birth signs, and they studied how many moons the planets had and described their orbits.   Any magician worth his or her salt were also looking at the stars, looking for guidance, looking for good and bad omens, looking for messages from God or from the gods.  So our Magicians – our magoi who visited Jesus – were most likely astrologers … and they had presumably seen something in the stars.

Now I’m not an astrologer and I never read my horoscope because I was taught that Christians don’t believe in fate but believe in God, but I do know that phrases like ‘we have seen his star in the East’ is a very astrology kind of phrase.  … and in fact it makes much more sense to say they they have seen an astrological sign in the East – the conjuction of planets making a bright light in Neptune and Saturn and Jupiter (mystical, priestly and royal) – than that they followed a star or followed a comet racing through the skies ….. not least because if the magi came from the east themselves and if Jesus’s star was even further in the east and they followed it, they would have ended up in China not in Bethlehem.

So whatever they saw in the sky led them to think that somewhere in the Middle East a new and very powerful priest – king had been born or was going to be born  … they didn’t know exactly where and they went to ask King Herod if he could help them … Herod used a bit of old Testament prophecy and told them to try Bethlehem, so off they went.

How long did it take them?  How old was Jesus when they arrived?  Who circumcised Jesus on the 8th day and were Mary, Joseph and Jesus still in the stable waiting for the Magi?  I don’t know – and the Bible doesn’t tell us.  They magi could have arrived on the very next morning after the birth.  In fact, they could already have been hanging around in Bethlehem for days or for weeks waiting for a special birth. They could have been trying out all the new born babies until they found the right one – who knows.  What we are told in the Bible is that when they saw the star again, they rejoiced and that it ‘went before them, came and stood’ over the place where Jesus was.

Now I don’t know what all that means for a star tens of thousands of miles up in the sky.  Did it move in the sky and really stop over one small place? And how could they tell that it had stopped in Manger Square and not 2 miles up the road in Beth Sahour unless it really came down and sat on the roof – which would be very odd indeed – and somewhat dangerous!

I like to think that it was their interpretation of the stars which they suddendly saw again, and which lead them more metaphorically to know that this was the place and the time – the star didn’t come and stop, it became established over the place where Jesus was.   Just a different way of reading the same word.

And then back to Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.   It’s always been one of those puzzling questions of what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts.  Did they keep them in a big box, or did they take them to cash-converters and keep the money instead?  And of course the Bible doesn’t tell us exacctly how much gold and frankincense and myrrh was given.  The three kings are always portrayed with large jewelled caskets holding a good quantity – but it may just as well have been a small gold earing, a grain of incense and a sprig of myrrh – tokens more than gifts.   once again – who knows.

And…. you might say … who cares!

So what do I think, and why does any of all this matter?  Well personally I think that lots of people called in to see Mary and Joseph after the baby Jesus was born.  I think the neighbours called by, I think the so-called inn-keeper and his wife did, – how could they resist a new born baby born under their roof that night!  I think the local rabbi did and the moel came too to do the circumcision. I think distant cousins and relations came round to see the baby and to tell Joseph that he had to marry her now.  And I think that some rather odd shepherds also turned up from the hillside saying some kind of weird story about being told to come by angelic messengers …  and in this great mix of nosey parkers and interested friends I think a couple of foreign magicians also popped their heads round the door and said that they had read all about him in the stars :  that he was on the cusp of Capricorn and Pisces that he had Saturn rising in goodness knows what and that all this meant he was going to be great and then they opened their little magic bags and pulled out three very special symbols and handed them over and then went away.   And Mary just got on with breast feeding, mothering and trying to get some sleep.   All probably much less extraordinary than we think.

I think S. Luke liked the story about the shepherds – he didn’t want to introduce pagan things like astrologers and horoscopes into Christianity and thought Matthew was quite wrong to do so,  and I think Matthew liked the story about the foreigners because it could be used to prove prophecies from the psalms and from the book of Isaiah and he liked that sort of thing.  Matthew was determined to show that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the Son of David,  Luke is determined to show that Jesus is the descendent of Adam and the King of all people.

And why does it matter today?  Well here are two points to take home with you.   First – 2000 years of folk tradition and Christianity can have misread the bible to make it mean what we want it to mean and the real text might say something completely different .. we might have to change, or at least challenge, how we thought things were – even if it’s all over the christmas cards and still there in the crib set.

Secondly, God speaks to foreigners and strangers who are not Christians, even those who are dubiously caught up in magic ….  God can speak the truth to us through other faiths, other people, other nations ….. with the whacky magi – who were probably Zorastrian by the way – God shows that God speaks to all people, and that Jesus is here to save all people – and those two facts :  be prepared to understand in a new way, and don’t limit God are just as relevant to us today as they were when Matthew embellished a rather good story.


The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington