Kings, Wise Men, or Magi?
I’ve been thinking about the implications of the language we use for who visited Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Were they kings, as the popular song says? Were they wise men, another common phrase used? Were they magi or astrologers? The latter is the best translation as far as I understand it, but my question is more in terms of what different messages we convey about Jesus depending on which one we use. This Epiphany, here are some general thoughts:
If the visitors were kings, which is the least historically accurate but we often think of because of “We Three Kings” (which has a lot of problems just in that first line “we three kings of Orient are”), the primary implication to me is the label for Jesus as the King of Kings. Politically powerful people are acknowledging and worshipping him right from birth.
On one level, of course I support that Jesus is the King of Kings. The Kingdom of God is radically different and radically more than any kingdom of the world. However, I do think this can lead us to some problems in that we see Jesus as coming for the powerful and loved by the powerful. There were some powerful people who followed Jesus, but they were definitely the minority. On the other hand, it was powerful people who killed Jesus. I wonder if painting the visitors in this way encourages us to forget that important element of Jesus’ life.
I’m pretty sure the main reason we like to refer to the visitors as wise men is simply so we can have memes like “wise men still seek him.” I always worry with memes like this that the idea is to demean those who don’t seek Jesus, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here.
As with the kings, in one sense I find this implication helpful. I do think true wisdom is in Jesus. But we also have things like Paul’s words about the cross being foolishness (1 Cor 1:18). It really depends, then, how we are defining “wisdom.” By the ways of the world, it was the wise who killed Jesus, not who sought him. It could therefore give off the same kinds of impressions as using kings does, but with Jesus coming for smart people instead of for powerful people.
Personally, I try to stick to magi/astrologers. This is the most accurate to the text and has the most challenging implications. Magi were most definitely not Jewish. Astrology was forbidden in the Hebrew Law. They looked at the stars for directions from the gods. It probably wasn’t such a giant star that they couldn’t avoid looking at it, even though that’s how we usually portray it in photos (see meme above). Even as a kid I remember wondering why nobody else noticed the giant star hovering over Jesus. Far more likely is that they knew the stars well enough to identify when something suddenly changed, then understood that as the god(s) communicating to them. Others didn’t notice because they didn’t know the stars the same way.
On a side note, it is also much more likely they were from Persia – approximately modern day Iran – not from the Orient as the song says. This is interesting in terms of politics because we are generally much more likely to think positively of East Asia than we do for Arabs, a truth that goes back all the way to the rise of Islam through the Crusades and many wars and tensions since.
Anyway, we get a few important themes from acknowledging them as magi:
- God prioritizes outsiders
- God speaks to those actively practicing other religions
- God uses nature to speak to us
- God is willing to break God’s own law to bring people to Jesus
Do magi/astrologers still seek Jesus? Sometimes, whether they know it or not, I think they do. Even more important, however, is that Jesus still seeks magi and astrologers and pagans and Arabs and anybody else we have been tempted to shrug off as outsiders.