BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Review: The Magi in History and Tradition

The Magi

Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate
By Eric Vanden Eykel
(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022), 218 pp.; $28 (hardcover), $25.99 (eBook)
Reviewed by Christopher A. Frilingos

Finding Phoebe

One of the many funny set pieces in John Irving’s spectacular novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is a Christmas pageant at a small New England church. After a children’s choir rehearses the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” a boy in the choir asks, “Where are ‘Ory’ and ‘R’?” It’s been 20 years since I last read Owen Meany, and remembering the scene still makes me giggle.

But are they kings, the Magi of the New Testament? (No.) Are there three of them? (There are three gifts, but the precise number of gift-givers is not stated.) “R” they from “Ory,” or put another way, where are they from? (“From the East” is the vague geography.) These are some of the questions that Eric Vanden Eykel addresses in his engaging new book, which sets out to examine various traditions and ideas surrounding these mysterious figures in the Gospel of Matthew. Vanden Eykel also describes a fascinating legacy. Third-century frescoes of the Magi, wearing Phrygian caps, can be found in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla.[a] A sixth-century mosaic in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna includes the traditional names of the Magi: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. The apocryphal Armenian Gospel of the Infancy adds even more details to the canonical story, portraying the Magi as both kings and military commanders. To scholars like me, who have studied and written about apocryphal infancy gospels, the early Christian impulse to “fill in the gaps” of Gospel narratives is well known.[1] Even so, it remains exciting to be shown these examples by an expert guide like Vanden Eykel.

Readers of BAR, I suspect, will be most interested in what Vanden Eykel has to say about the slender account of the Magi in the New Testament. Their sole appearance comes in a dozen verses in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12). The Magi emerge first as figures “from the East” who, because of a star they see, travel to Jerusalem in search of a king. When Herod hears about their quest, he summons the Magi and asks them to report back on what they find. Warned by a dream, the Magi never pass along the intelligence Herod seeks about an apparent rival.

What could this story mean? Vanden Eykel’s theory is based on exploring the range of meanings attached to the Greek word magoi, and the use of the term in ancient narratives.[b] From these sources, Vanden Eykel identifies a theme of proximity to power. So too for Matthew’s Magi. Their presence in the home of the infant Jesus and their offering of gifts serve at once as proof of the power of the newborn and of the illegitimacy of Herod’s rule.

In his introduction, Vanden Eykel states clearly that the book examines the Magi “not as historical figures but as fictional characters” (emphasis mine). But the subtitle of the book—“Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate”—may nevertheless lead some to expect a verdict on historical accuracy. The tension between the book’s subtitle and contents could trigger frustration. If so, it would be a shame, since The Magi, in all other respects, delivers on its promises. Readers learn the literary and cultural context of Matthew’s story in rich detail, and much else besides.

To me, the most important “value added” of The Magi comes from getting to know its author. Vanden Eykel mixes in just the right amount of real-life examples and personal anecdotes. The voice of Vanden Eykel, often witty, comes through loud and clear. He is a thoughtful interpreter of Christian rituals and a sober critic of the ills of anti-Semitism in Christian texts and the use of blackface in pious dramas. But the tone is never preachy. In the final chapter, which surveys allusions to the Magi in contemporary storytelling—examples include O. Henry’s sentimental “Gift of the Magi” and Christopher Moore’s edgy The Lamb—Vanden Eykel poignantly reflects on why the Magi still matter. It’s a fitting conclusion. Reading the book is akin to following a gifted docent around a museum: The works on display come to life because we encounter them through the love of a true and learned guide. We may never solve all the mysteries of the Magi, but, thanks to Vanden Eykel’s new book, readers can gain a richer appreciation for the 2,000-year journey of the Magi through the Christian imagination.


Notes:

[1] See my book Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

[a] See Megan Sauter, “Rome’s Queen Catacomb,” BAR, Fall 2023.

[b] Related to our word “magic,” the term in Matthew has been translated in a bewildering number of ways: “magi,” “wise men,” “astrologers,” and more. Vanden Eykel wisely leaves magoi untranslated in the book. When discussing the Christian literary characters, he uses the calque Magi.


Christopher A. Frilingos is Professor of Religious Studies at Michigan State University. He writes and teaches about biblical literature and early Christianity.

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5 Responses

  1. Brianroy says:

    In Against Marcion 3.13, Tertullian points us to Psalm 72:15,10 in regard to the Magi:

    “And there shall be given to him the gold of Arabia” and again: “The kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer to Him gifts.” For the East generally regarded the Magi as Kings; and Damascus was anciently deemed to belong to Arabia, before it was transferred to SyroPhoenicia on the division of the Syrias (by Rome).
    …Let those eastern magi wait on the new-born Christ, presenting to Him…the riches of Damascus without a battle, and unarmed.”

    The Highway to Israel from Babylonia taken by the Magi, likely members of a Sanhedrin situated in Babylonia and hence called Magi to designate that they were of Hillel’s Babylonia Sanhedrin from which he came with a Hebrew Copy of the Torah and was accepted, would have been via: Accad, Mari, Tadmor, Damascus, Capernaum, Jericho, Jerusalem, and points along that route.

    The exit taken by the Magi away from Herod, would likely have been south from Bethlehem to the road that passed from Kadesh Barnea (around the southern part of the Dead Sea traveling East then North through Edom on the King’s Highway) to Rabboth-Bene-Ammon, then due east to Dumah, and from Dumah to Babylonia.

  2. What are you guys drinking? The birth narritave and star are straight forward stories about an actual historical event. All you need to do is purchase a simple astronomy app and program it to look at the night sky over Jerusalem June 17th 2BC and you will clearly see Jupiter and Venus in a conjuction that produced what appeared to be to the naked eye the brilliant Star. Then go to December 25th and you will clearly see Jupiter (called a Wandering Star) reteograde three times then stop directly over Jerualem/Behlehem. Matthew states that Jesus was a toddler living in a house with His parents when the Magi arrived, presented Him with their gifts and left. Better yet, go to larkinministries.com, read the details and give it a rest!

  3. There was no Star that the Magi followed, it was as the ancient texts read, a gleaming object but never a star. That gleaming object was the fiery wheel of God (Jesus Gleaming object) and it is called the fiery wheel of God for Israel in scripture. NO star or planet in the heavens, ever can, or did, make a 90 degree turn from going west to hover over Jerusalem, and then turn 90 degrees to go north leading the Magi to Nazareth where the young (now) LAD Jesus was living with Mary and Joseph in their home in Nazareth. This is where the Magi worshiped and gave their gifts to the young Lad Jesus. Jesus was about a year to a year and one half old by that time, and not a young babe in swaddling clothes laying in a manger in Bethlehem. I suggest you study devoutly the exact birth of Jesus and what transpired at his birth at Bethlehem, and from there read the Levitical laws for a woman that gave birth to a son who had opened up her womb as a first born from her womb. Get it straight, see that Mary and Joseph and the child went home to Nazareth after 41 days of Mary’s being in the Jerusalem temple with the priests, to offer her sin and burnt offering, and to offer to GOD the first fruits of her womb. See that Mary did not have with her the Gold frankincense or Myrrh that was given to the Jesus and the family by the Magi, and so she bought two Turtle doves (the poor woman’s offering) for her sin and burnt offerings. This shows that the Magi we never in Bethlehem at all, because if Mary had the very expensive items of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, given the family by the Magi, Mary would have been guilty of breaking GODs law in offering the poor mans offering of two Turtle doves instead of buying the laws requirement of a Lamb without blemish or spot as her sin and burnt offerings. Mary would have been guilty of breaking Gods law by buying the POOR MANS offering of two Turtle Doves instead of using the expensive gifts of The Magi to buy the required offering of a Lamb for her sin and burnt offering. Study my friend do not just read and make up your own version of how things were at the birth of Jesus, and then understand that it was a year or so later that was the time of the gift giving Magi who visited the now young LAD Jesus and his family about a year and a half or so later in the city of Nazareth some 70 or so miles NORTH of Jerusalem, and not 5 miles south of Jerusalem in the town of Bethlehem. Get it straight my friend in the word.
    Marvin R Heuser

  4. madeleine says:

    Magi or Magus ancient an Eastern Society of seekers of knowledge who traditionally studied astronomy, and, also traditionally, wore pointed hats which they believed were conductors of energy, and are said to have raised huge boulders with this energy, and to have torn down great walls and edifices with sounds emanating from them. The story of the Magi following a star at the time of the birth of Jesus is well and multi documented. And is most likely quite true. That there was an astronomical amazement in the sky at this time is very well documented. That the Magi’s story of finding Jesus also had something to do with Herrod is another story. But that the Magi existed as a well-known scientific society is much verified.

    1. You have a lot of false information here .
      The manuscripts say it was a gleaming object and was not a star at all. You should realize that from the east to the west and to Jerusalem, this gleaming object traveled close to the earth as it continued LEADING the wise men, then when it got to Jerusalem it went out (as a astrologer you should know that Stars do not go out and come back on again) and when the Magi came out of the Jerusalem Palace, this gleaming object of GOD, CAME BACK ON AGAIN FROM GOING WEST to Jerusalem and then stopping over Herod’s palace and going out, CAME BACK ON when the Magi came out of Herod’s palace. It then TURNED 90 DEGREES and went TO THE NORTH, leading the Wise men to Nazareth where the young LAD Jesus was now living with is parents in their home there. Once there at Nazareth It stopped and hovered over the house that the young LAD Jesus was living in, showing the Magi where the new King of the Jews was now living and could be found. DO stars stop over houses so people will know who is living there in that house? That gleaming object wasn’t a star at all it was a fiery wheel of God leading and showing the Magi where the young Lad Jess was living. Go study the holy Manuscripts and you will see the truth as it is written in the Love letters of GOD to mankind.
      Marvin R Heuser
      PS. Now you know the truth about the (so called star) of Bethlehem, it wasn’t a star at all, nor any heavenly orb or planet at all, but was Gods fiery wheel for Israel, seen also by Elisha when Elijah was taken into heaven by one of the fiery wheels of GOD.
      One of these Fiery wheels of God, along with the special ANGEL OF THE LORD in it, (the Pre incarnate Jesus?) also led the nation of Hebrews during their total 40 years of wanderings during the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt. Study my friend and you will see the truth.

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5 Responses

  1. Brianroy says:

    In Against Marcion 3.13, Tertullian points us to Psalm 72:15,10 in regard to the Magi:

    “And there shall be given to him the gold of Arabia” and again: “The kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer to Him gifts.” For the East generally regarded the Magi as Kings; and Damascus was anciently deemed to belong to Arabia, before it was transferred to SyroPhoenicia on the division of the Syrias (by Rome).
    …Let those eastern magi wait on the new-born Christ, presenting to Him…the riches of Damascus without a battle, and unarmed.”

    The Highway to Israel from Babylonia taken by the Magi, likely members of a Sanhedrin situated in Babylonia and hence called Magi to designate that they were of Hillel’s Babylonia Sanhedrin from which he came with a Hebrew Copy of the Torah and was accepted, would have been via: Accad, Mari, Tadmor, Damascus, Capernaum, Jericho, Jerusalem, and points along that route.

    The exit taken by the Magi away from Herod, would likely have been south from Bethlehem to the road that passed from Kadesh Barnea (around the southern part of the Dead Sea traveling East then North through Edom on the King’s Highway) to Rabboth-Bene-Ammon, then due east to Dumah, and from Dumah to Babylonia.

  2. What are you guys drinking? The birth narritave and star are straight forward stories about an actual historical event. All you need to do is purchase a simple astronomy app and program it to look at the night sky over Jerusalem June 17th 2BC and you will clearly see Jupiter and Venus in a conjuction that produced what appeared to be to the naked eye the brilliant Star. Then go to December 25th and you will clearly see Jupiter (called a Wandering Star) reteograde three times then stop directly over Jerualem/Behlehem. Matthew states that Jesus was a toddler living in a house with His parents when the Magi arrived, presented Him with their gifts and left. Better yet, go to larkinministries.com, read the details and give it a rest!

  3. There was no Star that the Magi followed, it was as the ancient texts read, a gleaming object but never a star. That gleaming object was the fiery wheel of God (Jesus Gleaming object) and it is called the fiery wheel of God for Israel in scripture. NO star or planet in the heavens, ever can, or did, make a 90 degree turn from going west to hover over Jerusalem, and then turn 90 degrees to go north leading the Magi to Nazareth where the young (now) LAD Jesus was living with Mary and Joseph in their home in Nazareth. This is where the Magi worshiped and gave their gifts to the young Lad Jesus. Jesus was about a year to a year and one half old by that time, and not a young babe in swaddling clothes laying in a manger in Bethlehem. I suggest you study devoutly the exact birth of Jesus and what transpired at his birth at Bethlehem, and from there read the Levitical laws for a woman that gave birth to a son who had opened up her womb as a first born from her womb. Get it straight, see that Mary and Joseph and the child went home to Nazareth after 41 days of Mary’s being in the Jerusalem temple with the priests, to offer her sin and burnt offering, and to offer to GOD the first fruits of her womb. See that Mary did not have with her the Gold frankincense or Myrrh that was given to the Jesus and the family by the Magi, and so she bought two Turtle doves (the poor woman’s offering) for her sin and burnt offerings. This shows that the Magi we never in Bethlehem at all, because if Mary had the very expensive items of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, given the family by the Magi, Mary would have been guilty of breaking GODs law in offering the poor mans offering of two Turtle doves instead of buying the laws requirement of a Lamb without blemish or spot as her sin and burnt offerings. Mary would have been guilty of breaking Gods law by buying the POOR MANS offering of two Turtle Doves instead of using the expensive gifts of The Magi to buy the required offering of a Lamb for her sin and burnt offering. Study my friend do not just read and make up your own version of how things were at the birth of Jesus, and then understand that it was a year or so later that was the time of the gift giving Magi who visited the now young LAD Jesus and his family about a year and a half or so later in the city of Nazareth some 70 or so miles NORTH of Jerusalem, and not 5 miles south of Jerusalem in the town of Bethlehem. Get it straight my friend in the word.
    Marvin R Heuser

  4. madeleine says:

    Magi or Magus ancient an Eastern Society of seekers of knowledge who traditionally studied astronomy, and, also traditionally, wore pointed hats which they believed were conductors of energy, and are said to have raised huge boulders with this energy, and to have torn down great walls and edifices with sounds emanating from them. The story of the Magi following a star at the time of the birth of Jesus is well and multi documented. And is most likely quite true. That there was an astronomical amazement in the sky at this time is very well documented. That the Magi’s story of finding Jesus also had something to do with Herrod is another story. But that the Magi existed as a well-known scientific society is much verified.

    1. You have a lot of false information here .
      The manuscripts say it was a gleaming object and was not a star at all. You should realize that from the east to the west and to Jerusalem, this gleaming object traveled close to the earth as it continued LEADING the wise men, then when it got to Jerusalem it went out (as a astrologer you should know that Stars do not go out and come back on again) and when the Magi came out of the Jerusalem Palace, this gleaming object of GOD, CAME BACK ON AGAIN FROM GOING WEST to Jerusalem and then stopping over Herod’s palace and going out, CAME BACK ON when the Magi came out of Herod’s palace. It then TURNED 90 DEGREES and went TO THE NORTH, leading the Wise men to Nazareth where the young LAD Jesus was now living with is parents in their home there. Once there at Nazareth It stopped and hovered over the house that the young LAD Jesus was living in, showing the Magi where the new King of the Jews was now living and could be found. DO stars stop over houses so people will know who is living there in that house? That gleaming object wasn’t a star at all it was a fiery wheel of God leading and showing the Magi where the young Lad Jess was living. Go study the holy Manuscripts and you will see the truth as it is written in the Love letters of GOD to mankind.
      Marvin R Heuser
      PS. Now you know the truth about the (so called star) of Bethlehem, it wasn’t a star at all, nor any heavenly orb or planet at all, but was Gods fiery wheel for Israel, seen also by Elisha when Elijah was taken into heaven by one of the fiery wheels of GOD.
      One of these Fiery wheels of God, along with the special ANGEL OF THE LORD in it, (the Pre incarnate Jesus?) also led the nation of Hebrews during their total 40 years of wanderings during the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt. Study my friend and you will see the truth.

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