The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”


Photo by Paul Stewart.

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”