Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Three Wise Men

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." ....

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

The story of the wise men is so well known that we often don't stop to look at it closely. The King James version of the Bible has "wise men", although the original term is best translated as Magi. The Greek "magoi" better translated as Magi would have meant Persian magician astrologers, which is why they are following a star, and the same work is translated as magician elsewhere:

They went all the way across the island to Paphos, where they met a certain magician named Bar-Jesus, a Jew who claimed to be a prophet. (Acts 13:6)

A man named Simon lived there, who for some time had astounded the Samaritans with his magic. (Acts 8:9)

The King James version probably decided not to given any support to magic or magicians. It is this version which has, after all, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" as a translation of Exodus 22:18, and King James himself, whose idea it was for scholars to translate the bible into a new English version was known to have a fervent almost paranoid hatred of witchcraft. So a translation which gave any suggestion of magic was changed to one which suggested wisdom instead.

The other notable features are that there are no numbers given on how many magi there were, and they meet the infant in a house, not a stable (as Luke), and there are no camels.

Tatian, who produced the first "harmony" of the gospels with his "Diatessaron" ("out of four") places it after the meeting with Simeon and Anna the prophetess in Jerusalem where Joseph and Mary offer "a pair of doves or two young pigeons", which is quite a time after.  This text was written around the mid-2nd century and became a standard text of the gospels in some Syriac-speaking churches down to the 5th century.

The conflation of the narrative so that the magi arrive at the same time as the shepherds is therefore much later, and not part of the early traditions.

But there was a shift to regarding them as Royalty of some kind, so that at end of the second century, Tertullian wrote "the East considers magi almost as kings."  This may have come from looking at the Old Testament, and in particular Psalm 72:10-11: "May the kings of Sheba and Saba bring gifts; may all kings pay him homage.". We can see this feeding into the sixth-century Syrian author of the "Cave of Treasures" who calls them Hormizdah, king of Persia; Yazdegerd, king of Saba, and Perozadh, king of Sheba.

The "Excerpta Latina Barbari", which was originally composed in Greek in about 500 A.D, and later translated into Latin has a chronicle in which the biblical narrative is woven. This is the first text to name the Magi with the names with which they are familiarly known today, although they have undergone some changes in spelling. It also predates Ussher for giving a date to Adam.

In the year of these consuls, in the reign of Augustus, our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25th December. He was born in the desert (?) called Fuusdu according to Eusebius. On the day when he was born, 28th Choiac, the shepherds saw a star in the sky. From Adam until the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, there are 5,500 years.

Vinicius and Virrus
Caesarius and Servilius
Macrinus and Saturninus
Sacerdo and Volesus
Lepidus and Arruntius

At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.

It's a text which has some fantastical elements to it. It tells of the death of Zechariah by Herod, and how John the Baptist was miraculously concealed:

When Elizabeth heard that they were searching for John, she took him and went up into the mountains. She looked for somewhere to hide him, but there was nowhere to hide. Then Elizabeth sighed and cried out, "Mountain of God, take me in, the mother with my son." Immediately the mountain was split open and received them.

Clearly a late text which has these kind of fantastic elements to it has little historical credibility, and it seems to be the earliest record we have about the Magi which gives them names.

The next major record is an Irish text, the "Excerpta et Collectanea" which may date from the 8th or 9th century, and which was first found in a printed edition of the works of Bede of Jarrow (the venerable Bede) at Basel in 1563. The attribution to Bede is mistaken, and came about because it was found in a collection of other works by Bede. It describes the Magi in some detail:

"The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard ... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Gaspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned ... honored him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar ... by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die."

The final step in the story is Francis of Assisi in 1223 in the town of Greccio, who introduced Jesus in crib, Joseph, Mary, animals, wise men, shepherds and angels all into a manger setting, as a visual aid to teach the people about the birth of Jesus.

So by degrees the story of the Magi has been transformed, they have been numbered, named, described, and brought together with the other elements of the story as it appears in nativity plays throughout the land. And most of what we think we know about them has come about as the stories are reworked.

But the reworking into nativity plays provides a structure which works very well. That, after all, is the function of story, to bring and work magic into our lives. Insofar as that happens in Primary Schools and Nurseries, it is, I feel, a fitting legacy to those whose name suggests magic.

No comments: