Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Three Wise Men might have been women, church rules (The Independent)
By Andrew Clennell

10 February 2004

The three Wise Men might not have been men at all and there might not have been three of them, the Church of England has ruled.

In a new short prayer book, the Church of England has decided to refer to them as "magi", because it says the Bible is "silent" on whether they were men or women.

Last night a spokesman for the Church confirmed the decision of the General Synod in preparing the prayer book, Common Worship. He said the Synod knew there were the three gifts for Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh but original scripture did not say whether these were from three or fewer visitors, or from men or women.


This basically makes sense. The relevant passage is Matthew 2:1-16:
1: Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
2: "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."
3: When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
4: and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5: They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
6: `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'"
7: Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
8: and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."
9: When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
10: When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy;
11: and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12: And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
13: Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."
14: And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt,
15: and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son."
16: Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. (RSV)

In Greek the word translated "wise men" is magoi, a transliterated Persian word with a masculine plural Greek ending, which ending is used either to refer to a group that is entirely male or that has at least one member who is male. The pronouns referring to them are also in the masculine plural. The verbs are in the plural, but they don't have special markers for gender.

In other words, Matthew thought that at least one of the magi was a man, but there's no reason why he couldn't have thought that some of them were women. (I make no assumption that the story is historical, but we can still ask what Matthew might have had in mind.) The reports about what the Synod said seem to miss this point: at least one must have been a man according to the Greek grammar of the passage.

My understanding is that the magi were a Median tribe that became a priestly class for both the Medes and the Persians and that Hellenistic authors like Matthew generally had a vague sense that they were the Persian priests (even though, evidently, there were other kinds of Persian priests as well). So two relevant questions would be, could women be magian priests and would Matthew have thought that women could be magian priests? Are there any Iranologists out there who can enlighten us?

Incidentally, this morning the London Times cluelessly blares on its front page: "There were three, but were they wise � or even men?" As the Independent article above notes, Matthew doesn't say how many magi there were; he just says there were three gifts, and tradition has inferred three magi. Helpful hint to journalists: if you want to write about a biblical passage, it is often useful to find a Bible and read the passage.

UPDATE (12 February): More here.