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Who Were the Magi?

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
January 2010

Now that the Magi (a.k.a. the three kings, a.k.a. the three wise men) have once again arrived to offer their gifts and then returned home another way, it is, perhaps, time to ask, “who were those fellows and what were they up to?” I am not asking the historiographical question about whether such travelers actually existed but rather about what the story is meant to convey and how it fits into the Gospel of Matthew’s intent.

Surely, the author must have known that the magus, as he existed within the Roman Empire, was a rather suspect character, regarded often as a fraudulent “wonder worker” and magician. It is true that many believed in magical feats, but the better educated had deep suspicions about them. To associate Jesus, who himself is described as performing miracles, with the magi, then, was a somewhat dangerous move. It raises the question as to whether Jesus, himself, was a magus. Perhaps it is for this reason that the magi were transformed in Christian imagination into kings (after the kings mentioned in Hebrew Scriptural prophecy such as in Isaiah 60:3) or “wise men” (that makes magi sound vaguely philosophical.)

One may protest, of course, that these were magi from the east and thus probably were Persian priests who were well known for their interest in the heavens and who would very likely have been aware of any strange or propitious astronomical phenomenon. That was where the word “magus” originally came from. True enough, but it is also true that the Persians had long been enemies of the Roman Empire. To include mention of them coming to worship the young Jesus would raise both religious and political hackles. It would be as though a modern Hindu story about a savior told of Islamic adepts coming from Pakistan to worship him. Besides, two of the gifts they brought, frankincense and myrrh, probably came from Arabia and not from Persia anyway. It all sounds very confusing.

Even more confusing is the matter of the star that they followed. If one goes to a planetarium during the Christmas season, there is usually some theory offered as to what it was they saw: a nova, a comet, two planets in conjunction, etc., etc. Everyone has a theory. It is surprising to me, however, that in all this theorizing I have never heard any modern astronomer mention the most important and troubling phenomenon of that age, a phenomenon first discovered in the west by Hipparchus in the second century B.C.E. I refer, of course, to the precession of the equinoxes.

What Hipparchus discovered and what the Persian magi had known for centuries before him was that the zodiacal band of stars, so important for astrology, gradually shifts over the centuries. Before 2100 B.C.E. Taurus, the bull, was the sign that rose at the time of the vernal equinox. For more than 2000 years, however, Taurus had been replaced by Aries, the Ram, as the first sign of spring, so that the whole history of Israel up to the time of Jesus had taken place during the age of Aries. It was during that period that what we know as astrology was also formulated and came into its own.

Jews, on the whole, officially refused to accept astrology because of the emphasis upon the seven “planets” that were understood to be gods. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for anyone during the later Hellenistic age not to be aware of the findings and beliefs of astrology. It was, after all, considered by many to be a highly acceptable science. Several centuries later, Jews constructed a synagogue at Beth Alpha that had on its floor an astrological diagram. Another such synagogue existed also in Tiberias.

In any event, it is quite probable that many people at the time of Jesus knew that they were, slowly but surely, entering a new age, the age of Pisces, the fish. Both Aries and Pisces are rather vague constellations and do not have the sharp outlines of the Big Dipper or Orion. Nevertheless, those who watched the heavens carefully could see the first star of Pisces rising in the east at the time of the vernal equinox. The new age was beginning.

It is doubtful that any Persians would have thought that the spiritual power of the New Age was to be born in Judea as the Jewish Messiah, but that is beside the point. The author of Matthew was surely not Persian but probably Jewish in background and it is he who, according to our theory, wished to connect Jesus to the coming of the New Age. Indeed, Jesus is seen by him as the Lord of the New Age, as the reign of heaven becomes a reality.

Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Luke, he does not begin with Adam, but confines himself to the Age of Abraham (and Aries). Like the astrologers, he divides the age into three parts, what astrologers would call the cardinal, fixed, and mutable periods. His cardinal period---when the essential ideas of the age are established---includes everyone from Abraham until David. The fixed age lasts from the time of Solomon until the fall of Jerusalem. This was the age of the first temple. The mutable age begins with the exile of Jews in Babylonia and includes that whole period when the Jews lived under various foreign rulers, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman, and the religion of the state of Israel was transformed into Judaism.

For Matthew, the Age of Abraham is beautifully organized. Each period contains fourteen generations and fourteen, as any good Jew would know, is the number of the name, David. (daleth-4 +vav-6+daleth-4=14) So the whole genealogy cryptically says, for anyone with an esoteric bent, David-David-David. But no new generations can be added to that age. A new age must be initiated. The Heavens demand it.

Perhaps this is why Matthew places such emphasis upon the kingdom (or reign) of heaven. Scholars usually argue that Matthew substituted “heaven” for God as a way of avoiding the use of the sacred word. Then one must ask why it is that Mark and Luke have no similar compunctions about saying “kingdom of God” throughout their gospels. It may also be significant that Matthew has Jesus teach his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in the heavens” whereas Luke seems to have omitted that phrase.

Moreover, in this dawning Age of Pisces, Jesus’ disciples turn out to be fishermen. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is there much emphasis upon fishermen or fish. The Gospel of John also says nothing about the disciples as fishermen until the very last chapter and that may have been added to John at a later date. In Matthew, however, fish and fishermen are very important. Jesus calls disciples from their work along the Sea of Galilee to cast their nets to draw people into this new age. Perhaps it is also significant that when Jesus feeds the five thousand he includes not only bread (like manna from heaven) but two fish. It also seems significant that when the Church began, its primary symbol was not the cross but the sign of the fish.

Jesus’ last words also seem important in this context. Matthew quotes him as saying, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:20) Does he mean the age of Pisces of which he is the ruler? If he does, then must we not wonder about our own future, now that the age of Pisces comes to a close? Upon reflection, have we not also experienced our own cardinal (early Christian), fixed (medieval), and mutable (modern) eras and stand ready, as the song says, for the dawning of the age of Aquarius?

Nothing, of course, is proven. I, for one, am not about to offer arguments favoring astrology. Perhaps, in fact, Matthew had no interest in the coming of the Age of Pisces. All those clues I have mentioned are only circumstantial evidence. Nevertheless, I cannot quite dismiss the matter easily. There are too many strong hints in the gospel to cast the whole theory aside. Moreover, as I listen to the news each day and witness the collapse of many churches, I cannot help but wonder, what’s next? As we enter the age of the “Water Pourer,” we must ask what that portends for our whole world and its spiritual center?

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