Wednesday, January 5, 2011

For We Have Seen His Star In The East . . .

By Eric Von Salzen

Some call it Little Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany: The end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, it’s the time when the Three Kings visited the Christ child

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows that scripture doesn’t call them kings, doesn’t even say there were three of them. Matthew’s Gospel, the only one that mentions them, says that “wise men [magi] from the east” came looking for the new-born King of the Jews. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible say that the Magi were “a learned class in ancient Persia”, and that they might be called “astrologers”.

The wise men told King Herod that they had seen a “star” that signified the birth of a new king of the Jews. It’s uncertain what the “star” might have been; some have suggested that it might have been a comet, or a nova or supernova. I recently read that the “star” may have been the planet Jupiter, which passed close to the bright star Regulus three times between September of 3 BCE and May of 2 BCE, and for about three months during that period moved in a westerly (“retrograde”) direction – i.e., toward Judea from the perspective of observers in Persia. In June of 2 BCE Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, overlapped, to appear as a single object. Astrologers might well have interpreted this unusual conjunction of stars as a sign of a portentous event.

If that’s the correct explanation, it solves one puzzle in Matthew’s gospel: Why nobody other than the wise men seems to have seen the “star”. When the Magi come to King Herod’s court with their story about the star, this was apparently the first time that anyone there had heard about the phenomenon. In fact, Herod asks the wise men when the star first appeared. If the “star” was a comet, everyone would have noticed it; even a nova or supernova would have been widely remarked, certainly by Herod’s chief priests and scribes (by the way, a 10-year old Canadian girl recently became the youngest person to discover a supernova ). But an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Regulus, and Venus might have been noticed only by astrologers.

In most of the Christmas pageants I’ve seen (or been in, as I wrote here a couple of years ago), you have Mary and Joseph and the Babe; the three kings and the star; and shepherds, their sheep, and the angels who brought the tidings of great joy. But there’s no gospel that has both kings and shepherds. Matthew has the wise men, Luke has the shepherds. I assume that the new-born savior was visited by both wise men and shepherds (perhaps not at the same time – that could have made the stable awfully crowded), so why did Matthew choose to feature the wise men in his story of the savior’s birth, while Luke chose to go with the shepherds?

On the face of it, it would seem to make more sense for Matthew to tell about the shepherds, and for Luke to tell about the Persian astrologers. Matthew’s is regarded as the most “Jewish” of the gospels, whereas Luke, who had been the companion of Paul in bringing the message of Christ to non-Jewish foreigners, seems to be writing for Greek Christians. So you might expect Matthew to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background in telling the story of the birth of Christ, and Luke to emphasize its universality.

But what does Luke give us? Shepherds. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious Jewish symbol. The ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, were all shepherds (so was Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain, the farmer). After the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery, they became farmers in the land that God had promised them, but they seem to have regarded that as a demotion from their ancestral occupation: Their great king, David, was a shepherd, and shepherds and sheep appear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (“The Lord is my shepherd”, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them”, etc.). Thus, if you wanted your gospel to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background, it would be entirely appropriate to have the birth of the Messiah of the Jews announced to shepherds abiding in the fields, and to show them – representatives of the Israelite ideal – as the first people called to worship him.

So if shepherds are an obvious Jewish symbol, why didn’t Matthew, the gospeler to the Jews, have shepherds in his story? Why, instead, did he give us foreign astronomers?

The answer, I think, is that the wise men were just as much a symbol of an idealized Israel as Luke’s shepherds were, just a symbol of a different aspect of the ideal. Wise men coming from afar to adore the new-born King of the Jews is something that the Jewish scriptures had been expecting for centuries before the birth of Jesus.

The Psalmist said of the King of Israel:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
Render him tribute,
May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
And all nations give him service.

[Psalm 72:10-11]

The wise men weren’t kings, but it would have been appropriate if they were.

But it wasn’t just the King of Israel that foreigners were to honor, but the Lord who the king represented:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the Lord;
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before him
[Psalm 22:27]

All the nations you have made shall come
And bow down before you, O Lord,
And shall glorify thy name
[Psalm 86:9]

Isaiah (and Micah, too) prophesied:

Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
[Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2]

Over and over again in the Old Testament we see the same prophecy, that the gentiles will in time come to understand that the God of Israel is the God of all the world. Thus, Israel, by being God’s special people, would become the means of bringing the rest of the world to God.

Matthew’s story about eastern sages coming across the trackless wastes to do homage to the new born king is therefore just as “Jewish” a story as Luke’s story about shepherds. Luke’s shepherds remind us of the ancient, unspoiled, ideal Israel; Matthew’s story reminds us of the Hebrew tradition that the nations will come to Zion for instruction, that Israel will be a beacon to the entire world, “a light to enlighten the gentiles”.

For us today, or for me at least, the story of the wise men has more resonance than the story of the shepherds. Shepherds aren’t part of the world that I live in, but wise men are – that is, men and women who think that their learning enables them to understand how the world works. There are times when I find myself thinking that I’m one of them. So it’s good to be reminded that the wise men in Matthew’s story got it wrong. Their wisdom, their science, told them that what they were seeking was an earthly king, a king of the Jews like Herod; certainly that’s what Herod feared that the star foretold. When they got to Bethlehem, the child that they found would not grow up to be an earthly king. He would never issue an edict, or call forth an army, or impose a tax, or execute a rival, or do any of the things that kings did, and do. But when he died, three decades later, under a sign that mockingly called him “King of the Jews”, the Roman centurion in charge of his execution said, “Truly this man was God’s son.” That’s who the wise men had found, not the king they were looking for.

That’s quite an epiphany.


  1. I found this very inspiring...thank you for writing!

  2. Thank you for reading, Logan, and thanks for commenting.