Chapter III The Visit of the Magi


The Visit of the Magi

Importance of the Epiphany—Herod the Great—Magi–Traditions–Causes of Their Journey—General Expectation of the World—The Star in the East—Astronomical Conjectures of Kepler, etc—Evanescent Stars—Gifts of the Magi

The brief narrative of the Visit of the Magi, recorded in the second chapter of St. Matthew, is of the deepest interest in the history of Christianity.  It is, in the first place, the Epiphany, or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  It brings the facts of the Gospel history into close connection with Jewish belief, with ancient prophecy, with secular history, and with modern science; and in doing so it furnishes us with new confirmations of our faith, derived incidentally, and therefore in the most unsuspicious manner, from indisputable and unexpected quarters.

Herod the Great, who, after a life of splendid misery and criminal success, had now sunk into the jealous decrepitude of his savage old age, was residing in his new place on Zion, when, half maddened as he was already by the crimes of his past career, he was thrown into a fresh paroxysm of alarm and anxiety by the visit of some Eastern Magi, bearing the strange intelligence that they had seen in the East the star of a newborn king of the Jews, and had come to worship him.  Herod, a mere Idumean usurper, a more than suspected apostate, the detested tyrant over an unwilling people, the sacrilegious plunderer of the tomb of David—Herod, a descendant of the despised Ishmael and the hated Esau, heard the tidings with a terror and idignation which it was hard to dissimulate.  The grandson of one who, as was believed, had been a mere servitor in a temple at Ascalon, and who in his youth had been carried off by Edomite brigands, he well knew how worthless were his pretensions to an historic throne which he held solely by successful adventure.  But his craft equaled his cruelty, and finding that all Jerusalem shared his suspense, he summoned to his palace the leading priests and theologians of the Jews—perhaps the relics of that Sanhedrin which he had long reduced to a despicable shadow—to inquire of them where the Messiah was to be born.  He received the ready and confident answer that Bethlehem was the town indicated for that honor by the prophecy of Micah.  Concealing, therefore, his desperate intention, he dispatched the Wise Men to Bethlehem, bidding them to let him know as soon as they found the child, that he too might come and do him reverence.

Before continuing the narrative, let us pause to inquire who these Eastern wanderers were, and what can be discovered respecting their mysterious mission.

The name “Magi,” by which they are called in the Greek of St. Matthew, is perfectly vague.  It meant originally a sect of Median and Persian scholars; it was subsequently applied (as in Acts xiii. 6) to pretended astrologers, or Oriental soothsayers.  Such characters were well known to antiquity, under the name of Chaldeans, and their visits were by no means unfamiliar even to the Western nations.  Diogenes Laertius reports to us a story of Aristotle, that a Syrian magi had predicted to Socrates that he would die a violent death; and Seneca informs us that a magi had visited the tomb of Plato, and had there offered incense to him as a divine being  There is nothing but a mass of confused and contradictory traditions to throw any light either on their rank, their country, their number or their names.  The tradition which makes them kings was probably founded on the prophecy of Isaiah (lx. 3.): “And the Gentiles shall come to they light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”  The fancy that they were Arabians may have arisen from the fact that myrrh and frankincense are Arabian products, joined to the passage in Ps. lxxii. 10, “The kings of Tharshish and of the isles shall give presents; the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts.”

There was a double tradition as to their number.  Augustine and Chriysostom say that there were twelve, but the common belief, rising perhaps from the triple gifts, is that they were three in number.  The Venerable Bede even gives us their names, their country, and their personal appearance.  Melchior was an old man with white hair and long beard;  Caspar, a ruddy and beardless youth; Balthasar, swarthy and in the prime of life.  We are further informed by tradition that Melchior was a descendant of Shem, Caspar of Ham, and Balthasar of Japheth.  Thus they were made representatives of the three periods of life, and the three divisions the globe; and valueless as such fictions may be for direct historical purposes, they have been rendered interesting by their influence on the most splendid productions of religious art.  The skulls of these three kings, each circled with its crown of jeweled gold, are still exhibited among the relics in the cathedral at Cologne.

It is, however, more immediately to our purpose to ascertain the causes of their memorable journey.

We are informed by Tacitus, by Suetonius, and by Josephus, that there prevailed throughout the entire East at this time an intense conviction, derived from ancient prophecies, that ere long a powerful monarch would arise in Judea, and gain dominion over the world.  It has, indeed, been conjectured that the Roman historians may simply be echoing an assertion, for which Josephus was in reality their sole authority; but even if we accept this uncertain supposition, there is still ample proof, both in Jewish and in Pagan writings, that a guilty and weary world was dimly expecting the advent of its Deliverer.  “The dew of blessing falls not on us, and our fruits have no taste,” exclaimed Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamaliel; and the expression might sum up much of the literature of an age which was, as Niebuhr says, “effete with the drunkenness of crime.”  The splendid vaticination in the fourth Eclogue of Virgil proves the intensity of the feeling, and has long been reckoned among the “unconscious prophecies of heathendom.”

The is, therefore, nothing extraordinary in the fact that these Eastern magi should have bent their steps to Jerusalem, especially if there were any circumstances to awaken in the East a more immediate conviction that this wide-spread expectation was on the point of fulfillment.  If they were disciples of Zoroaster, they would see in the infant King the future conqueror of Ahriman, the destined Lord of all the World.  The story of their journey has indeed been set down with contemptuous confidence as a mere poetic myth; but though its actual historic verity must rest on the testimony of the Evangelist alone, there are many facts which enable us to see that in its main outlines it involves nothing either impossible or even improbable.

Now St. Matthew tells us that the cause of their expectant attitude was that they had seen the star of the Messiah in the East, and that to discover Him was the motive of their journey.

That any strange sidereal phenomenon should be interpreted as the signal of a coming king, was in strict accordance with the belief of their age.  Such a notion may well have risen from the prophecy of Balaam, the Gentile sorcerer—a prophecy which, from the power of its rhythm and the splendor of its imagery, could hardly fail to be disseminated in eastern countries.  Nearly a century afterwards, the false Messiah, in the reign of Hadrian, received from the celebrated Rabbi Akibe, the surname of Bar-Cocheba, or “Son of a Star,” and caused a star to be stamped upon the coinage which he issued.  Six centuries afterwards, Mahomet is said to have pointed to a comet as a portent illustrative of his pretensions.  Even the Greeks and Romans had always considered that the births and deaths of great men were symbolized by the appearance and disappearance of heavenly bodies, and the same belief has continued down to comparatively modern times.  The evanescent star which appeared in the time of Tycho Brahe, and was noticed by him on November 11, 1572, was believed to indicate the brief but dazzling career of some warrior from the north, and was subsequently regarded as having been prophetic of the fortunes of Gustavus Adolphus.  Now it so happens that, although the exact year in which Christ was born is not ascertainable with any certainty from Scripture, yet, within a few years of what must, on any calculation, have been the period of His birth, there undoubtedly did appear a phenomenon in the heavens so remarkable that it could not possibly have escaped the observation of an astrological people.  The Immediate applicability of this phenomenon to the Gospel narrative is now generally abandoned; but, whatever other theory may be held about it, it is unquestionably important and interesting as having furnished one of the data which first led to the discovery, that the birth of Christ took place three of four years before our received era.  This appearance, and the circumstances which have been brought into connection with it, we will proceed to notice.  They form a curious episode in the history of exegesis, and are otherwise remarkable; but we must fully warn the reader that the evidence by which this astronomical fact has been brought into immediate connection with St. Matthew’s narrative is purely conjectural, and must be received, if received at all, with considerable caution.

On December 17, 1603, there occurred a conjunction of the two largest superior planets, Saturn and Jupiter, in the zodiacal sign of the Fishes, in the watery trigon.  In the following spring they were joined in the fiery trigon by Mars, and in September, 1604, there appeared in the foot of Ophiuchus, and between Mars and Saturn, a new star of the first magnitude, which, after shining for a whole year, gradually waned in March, 1606, and finally disappeared.  Brunowski, the pupil of Kepler, who first noticed it, describes it as sparkling with an interchange of colors like a diamond, and as not being in any way nebulous, or offering any analogy to a comet.  These remarkable phenomena attracted the attention of the great Kepler, who, from his acquaintance with astrology, knew the immense importance which such a conjunction would have had in the eyes of the Magi, and wished to discover whether any such conjunction had taken place about the period of our Lord’s birth.  Now there is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the same trigon about every twenty years, but in every 200 years they pass into another trigon, and are not conjoined in the same trigon again (after passing through the entire Zodiac) till after the lapse of 794 years, four months, and twelve days.  By calculating backwards, Kepler discovered that the same conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in Pisces, had happened no less than three time in the A.U.C. 747, and the planet Mars had joined them in the spring of 784; and the general fact that there was such a combination at this period has been verified by a number of independent investigators, and does not seem to admit of denial.  And however we may apply the fact, it is certainly an interesting one.  for such a conjunction would at once have been interpreted by the Chaldean observers as indicating the approach of some memorable event; and since it occurred in the constellation Pisces, which was supposed by astrologers to be immediately connected with the fortunes of Judea, it would naturally turn their thoughts in that direction.  The form of their interpretation would be molded, both by the astrological opinions of the Jews—which distinctly point to this very conjunction as an indication of the Messiah—and by the expectation of a Deliverer which was so widely spread at the period in which they lived.

The appearance and disappearance of new stars is a phenomenon by no means so rare as to admit of any possible doubt.  The fact that St. Matthew speaks of such a star within two or three years, at the utmost, of a time when we know that there was this remarkable planetary conjunction, and the fact that there was such a star nearly 1,600 years afterwards, at the time of a similar conjunction, con only be regarded as a curious coincidence.  We should, indeed, have a strong and strange confirmation of one main fact in St. Matthew’s narrative, if any reliance could be placed on the assertion that, in the astronomical tables of the Chinese, a record has been preserved that a new star did appear in the heavens at this very epoch.  But it would be obviously idle to build on a datum which is so incapable of verification and enveloped with uncertainty.

We are, in fact, driven to the conclusion that the astronomical researches which have proved the reality of the remarkable planetary conjunction are only valuable as showing the possibility that it may have prepared the Magi for the early occurrence of some great event.  And this confident expectation may have led to their journey to Palestine, on the subsequent appearance of an evanescent star, an appearance by no means unparalleled in the records of astronomy, but which in this instance seems to rest on the authority of the Evangelist alone.

No one, at any rate, need stumble over the supposition that an apparent sanction is thus extended to the combinations of astrology.  Apart from astrology altogether, it is conceded by many wise and candid observers, even by the great Niebuhr, the last man in the world to be carried away by credulity or superstition, that great catastrophes and unusual phenomena in nature have, as a matter of fact—however we may choose to interpret such a fact—synchronized in a remarkable manner with great events in human history.  It would not, therefore, imply any prodigious folly on the part of the Magi to regard the planetary conjunction as something providentially significant.  And if astrology be ever so absurd, yet there is nothing absurd in the supposition that the Magi should be led to truth, even through the gateways of delusion, if the spirit of sincerity and truth as in them.  The history of science will furnish repeated instances, not only of the enormous discoveries accorded to apparent accident, but even of the immense results achieved in the investigation of innocent and honest error.  Saul, who in seeking asses found a kingdom, is but a type of many another seeker in many another age.
The Magi came to Bethlehem, and offered to the young child in his rude and humble resting-place a reverence which we do not hear that they paid to the usurping Edomite in his glittering palace.  “And when they had opened their treasures they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”  The Imagination of early Christians has seen in each gift a special significance; myrrh for the human nature, gold to the king, frankincense to the divinity; or the gold for the race of Shem, the myrrh for the race of Ham, the incense for the race of Japheth;–innocent fancies, only worthy of mention because of their historic interest, and their bearing on the conceptions of Christian poetry and Christian art.

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