Thursday, February 12, 2004

MORE ON THE MAGI: A letter to the London Times corrects the error I noted a couple of days ago:

From the Reverend Anthony J. Carr

Sir, Theologians have to be careful when translating words in isolation. There is no evidence that there were three wise men or Magi. Matthew just says: �Behold, wise men from the East� (Matthew ii, 1). An assumption is made regarding three persons because there were three gifts given to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The scholars interpret Magi in this text, yet they leave exactly the same word in Acts xiii, 6 and 8, interpreted as sorcerer. This word can mean wise men, teachers, priests, astrologers, seers, interpreter of dreams � the list is endless.

Perhaps by using the word Magi we are left to work out for ourselves the true meaning.

However, is it not the theologian�s job to interpret the text for the lay person?

Actually, I don't think the theologians are to blame for the number three. From what I could find, the Synod didn't say anything about "three" magi. I think it was the journalists (not just in the Times) who were careless and got that wrong. But the point about the usage in Acts is well taken. The word has a very wide range of meaning in Hellenistic Greek and has to be interpreted in context.

Also, I have to say that lay people usually do a pretty good job of interpreting the text for themselves. Common sense goes a long way in these matters.

Note also the following letter:
From Mrs Valery Rees
Sir, At the time of Mantegna�s painting, if not throughout church history, the Magi (report and picture, February 10) were understood to have been not only rulers but priests too, of the Chaldaean religion. They were noted for their wisdom and understanding, especially regarding the stars.

Whether the Chaldaeans had astronomer priestesses too is nowhere recorded, but it was held to be their wisdom, rather than their power, that drew the Magi to the scene of the Adoration.

The magi were Median and Persian priests, not Chaldeans. The Chaldeans were a people in Babylonia who had a dynasty in the Neo-Babylonian period and who later gained a reputation for great wisdom in the Hellenistic period. They appear as a kind of royal sage or counselor in the Book of Daniel.

Also, Stephen Goranson e-mails the following:
On the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. Martin McNamara in "Were the Magi Essenes?" Irish Ecclesiastical Record 110 (1968) 305-328 suggested these Magi were Essenes. That these groups were at least compared in antiquity may be worth considering, for a few reasons, in addition to some he offerd. For one thing, Qumran apparently was destroyed circa the end of the reign of Herod the Great, then reinhabited soon after; one possibility: Herod the Great caused the destruction in his last years.

When Philo introduced Essenes in Every Good Man is Free 75, he set that up (74) by comparing them (in the F.H. Colson Loeb observation praised by A.D. Nock) as a group "in which deeds are held in higher esteem than words," like the Indian Gymnosophists and the Persian Magi. (In Hypothetica 8.11.1 Philo wrote "Myriads of his disciples has the lawgiver trained for the life of fellowship. These people are called Essenes....")

Also, Strabo (who I think was a source on Essenes for Josephus), in Geography 16.2.36ff mentioned Indian Gymnosophists and Persian Magi and others and said "Moses was such a person as these" but his people were later misled by the "superstitious" and "tyrannical," namely including the priest Alexander Jannaeus--sounds like the Qumran-view wicked priest.

Well, I haven't read the article, but I'm skeptical. I suspect that Matthew thought of the magi as mysterious wise men (maybe women too) from the East, and that's all that magi means in Matthew 2.

UPDATE (14 February): David Nishimura comments on the story over at Cronaca and Anders Bell comments at Phluzein.

Mark Goodacre comments at NT Gateway. I'm afraid I'm pretty close to being one of "the Lord of the Rings nerds who disapprove of every place where Peter Jackson departs from Tolkien." Not because I object to artistic interpretation in principle, but because most of the changes in the movies tend toward the cheesy and the melodramatic. But I do like the magi mythology.

I suspect that the change in the prayerbook comes not so much from residual fundamentalism as from a combination of P.C. concerns with a residue of the traditional Protestant sola scriptura approach to the Bible. Both (not to speak of the combination) have the potential to be irritating, but in this case I can't say I mind. "Magi" has a perfectly good liturgical ring to it, it represents the Greek accurately, and it doesn't try to interpret a word whose meaning isn't very clear. Does that mean girls will get to play magi too in children's nativity plays? Why not?

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