The story of the Magi – also called the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings – visiting and adoring the child in the house of Mary in Bethlehem is unique. Peculiar to Matthew, The story positions Christ in society. No wonder the story has changed through time
We encounter the story of the Three Magi as part of the nativity scenes whether built from clay or enacted in a play by our children in the local church. Here they are gathered together with Mary and Joseph, the Ox and Ass, the sheep and the shepherds adoring the baby Jesus.
The story of the Magi, however, is unique to Matthew and not part of the nativity as recounted by Luke. Nor may we find it in Mark or Luke. In a theological context, the vignette plays the role of affirming the singular advent of Jesus As is well known the other Evangelists adopt other affirmative strategies – the baptism by John (Mark), the Nativity by Luke, and the Baptist as the Herald in John. This diversity is a curious fact. We may presume, that they – apart from Mark – knew of each other writings. Nevertheless, they each chose their particular way of opening up their narratives and setting the scene for what was to come.
Together, however, the four narratives marked out the character of the society in which each Evangelist believed Jesus to have made his mark. As such, the three Magi became uniquely poised to be the lens through which each generation was able to envisage the order of their world – marking out the star, the gifts, their disguise as kings or rulers etc.
Understanding of the “clothing” and positioning of the “Three Magi” in the last two millennia offers a unique insight into the societal order of the day and age of each generation.
The Roman Inheritance and the Byzantine Play
In the beginning, the three Magi were uniquely seen as diplomats seeking an audience with the new ruler. As such, they took part in a decidedly Roman triumph after having shown how a sign in the form of a star would lead to victory. Remember, how Constantine is said to have conquered his enemy at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge AD 312 by “This Sign” (“ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” or “In this sign, thou shalt conquer”) offering up Rome for taxation also known as “gifts”. Who was the God here remains as an enigma – Constantine or Christ?
Later Byzantium began to stage the same motive with the Emperor playing the Sun or Star while receiving ambassadors and exchanging gifts. Also, they would stage their Empress as “Mary” at the occasion of the birth of their first “purple” heir. Later, these “Nativity Plays” were adopted by the Ottonians (10th-century German Emperors). They excelled in playing the Star receiving the Magi, who were now finally turned into subservient “Kings” or “Noble rulers” streaming out from the city attracted to the leading “star” arriving at their gates. Later the Magi’s were conceived as crusaders arriving to rescue Jerusalem from the infidels (Herod). These ideas came to fruition when the remains of the three Magi were transferred to Cologne. Since that time, they have rested in their shrine in the Cathedral. The bodies were the gift of Frederic of Barbarossa to his chancellor, Rainhold von Dassel. Later, the newly crowned Kings of Germany were obliged to travel from Aachen and to Cologne to be acknowledged by the enshrined Magi, Kings of Kings.
High Middle Ages and Reformation
Beginning with the more widespread adoption of nativity plays in the 13th century, stories of kings playacting as the Magi become widespread. At the same time, the binary ideas of the Magi as old, young, foreign, white, black or effeminate magi became prevalent. This motive must probably be explained as part of the need for the “kings” to secure their rule through being seen as representing the whole community – and not just by divine ordination (as was the case from ca. 800 – 1200). Also, these plays were part of the general staging of epiphanies where a “king” was chosen to lead the festivities
Finally, at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern period, the magi came to be played by children as part of the Christmas and New Year celebrations. With their multi-coloured paper hats and mimicking their travels to visit the baby in the manger, we encounter them begging for gifts in the form of bread and wine. No longer gift-givers, they are now poised to be receivers and beggars in a new theological context, where God is not a horse-trader – as Luther claimed – who might be appeased with gifts. The all-loving Father, He is now the ultimate giver of gifts: the Justification by Faith alone. As such, He hovers together with his Angels above the Nativity Scene, encompassing the whole world presented to us in the vibrant and fabulous 18th-century Neapolitan version.
The Journey of the Magi. Meanings in History of a Christian Story
By Richard C. Trexler
Princeton University press 1997