21 December 2022

The magi show up.

Matthew 2.1-3.

A fact too many Christians forget is our words Messiah and Christ both mean king. We tend to translate these words literally—as “anointed [one]”—and forget what Jesus was anointed to do, and presume he was only anointed to save us from sin. He did that too, but he didn’t need any anointing for that. Anybody can do great things. But Hebrew and Christian custom is to anoint people to lead.

Because Messiah means king, you couldn’t just wander ancient Israel and call yourself Messiah. It’s a loaded title. It means you’re king. It also heavily implies the person who currently holds that job (unless he’s your dad and he arranged for your anointing, like King David ben Jesse did with his son Solomon 1Ki 1.32-40) is not king. Not the legitimate king, anyway. He’ll have to be overthrown.

In 5BC the king of Judea was Herod bar Antipater, and a lot of people were entirely sure he wasn’t the legitimate king. For the past century and a half the head priests had taken over the role of king, but 32 years before, the Romans made Herod king. He was neither a priest nor related to King David; he was an Idumean (i.e. Edomite) whose people had been grafted into Judea, and whose father worked for the Romans. God didn’t anoint him king; Marc Antony had.

And Herod was super paranoid about anyone who might try to overthrow him. ’Cause many had tried, and failed. Herod’s own family members, including his own kids, tried and failed. He knew the Judeans didn’t want him there. It’s why all his palaces were fortresses, in case he had to defend himself from his own countrymen; it’s why most of his bodyguard were Europeans, not fellow middle easterners. So you don’t wanna get on Herod’s bad side. Caesar Augustus used to joke he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son. (Herod executed three of his sons, and since Judeans didn’t eat pork, Augustus’s comment was quite apt.)

How’d baby Jesus get on Herod’s bad side? Well, you might know parts of the story, and if you don’t I’m gonna analyze the story a bit. It begins with some people whom the KJV calls “wise men.” Contrary to the Christmas carols, these weren’t kings.

Matthew 2.1-3 KWL
1 At the time Jesus is born in Bethlehem, Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
look: Magi from the east come to Jerusalem,
2 saying, “Where’s the newborn king of the Judeans?
For we see his star in the east,
and we come to worship him.”
3 Hearing this agitated King Herod,
and all Jerusalem with him.

Triggering Herod was dangerous, but the magi didn’t know any better. More about Herod later, though if you want his backstory I already wrote about it.

These wise men are magi (Greek μάγοι/máyë) whom our nativity crêches tend to depict them as two white guys and a black guy, wearing either turbans or European-style gold crowns. Matthew states they came from the east, so they were Asian, not European and African. (“But they could’ve been Europeans and Africans who went east study with the magi!” Yeah, unlikely.) There’s also a common western assumption they were kings, but there’s no evidence of this.

What are magi?

The Greek word mágos translates the Persian word مجوس/magus, meaning priest. Priests of what? Of Zoroatrianism.

It’s a religion founded by the Avestan/Iranian prophet Zarathustra (Persian زرتشت/Zartošt, Greek Ζωροάστρης/Zoroástris). We’ve no idea how long ago he lived; he could be a contemporary of David (the 1000s BC), or Abraham (the 2000s BC) for all we know. The history’s been lost. But by the time of Kuruš 2 (KJV “Cyrus”) it was the state religion of the Persian Empire.

To ancient Greeks, Persia was the bad guy in their history, and they really didn’t know squat about its kings and religions. Their historians relied on rumors and legends about ’em—some of which were totally fabricated, but the Greeks spread these stories anyway, ’cause it’s what they had. They described Zarathustra (whose Greek name Zoroástris means “star worshiper”) as the creator of magic and astrology. To them, the magi were all about learning the dark arts, and magic. Yep, the Greeks thought they were wizards.

No they weren’t. They were priests.

But… but the astrology! They were following a star in Matthew. Isn’t that what astrologers do?—think the stars are connected to human lives and destinies, and try to foretell the future through them? Isn’t that what the magi were doing in this passage?

Well yeah, it certainly looks like it. And I’m certainly not gonna say these magi weren’t astrologers. But astrology isn’t part of the Zoroastrian religion. It’s like a pastor who’s seriously into nature documentaries, because he finds animal life just fascinating, and won’t stop using illustrations from these docs in his sermons. Lots of Christians love nature… but it’s not part of Christian faith and practice! Likewise astrology isn’t part of ancient Zoroastrianism—even though many a magus probably found it fascinating, and wasted lots of time trying to connect the dots between planetary movements and their own fortunes.

As did most ancient astronomers. Remember, the scientific method was invented by the medievals, whereas the ancients simply guessed at how the universe works, and defended their guesses with clever (and not-so-clever) reasoning instead of experiments. That’s not science; it’s philosophy. And it’s why the ancients constantly mixed up astronomy with astrology, and thought it was all the same thing.

Anyway, the astrology in Matthew appears to confirm all the stuff the Greeks claimed about magi, so the ancient Christians simply repeated all the Greek myths. You wanna know about magi, you gotta read what Zoroastrians say about themselves.

Like Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians are monotheists. They worship Ahura/“Supreme Being,” who’s mazda/“wise.” They seek wisdom, so “wise men” isn’t a bad description for ’em. Ahura Mazda is the One God, who created the universe and truth. He’s opposed by the Angra Mainyu/“the destructive principle” which produces all the chaos and lies in the universe. (Some westerners presume this is another, equally powerful god to Ahura Mazda, and that Zoroastrians are really dualists. They’re not. Angra Mainyu isn’t Ahura’s equal.) Ahura’s Spenta Mainyu/“generous principle”—sort of a holy spirit through whom he interacts with the universe—fights the Angra Mainyu. At the End, Ahura Mazda will send a savior, the Sayoshyant, born of a virgin; the dead will be resurrected, and Angra Mainyu will be destroyed.

Notice a few similarities between Zoroastrianism and Christianity? Some pretty significant differences too; so no, they’re not Christians who are just using Avestan words for the same things. Still, the matching beliefs make a lot of scholars wonder just how much Zoroastrianism and Judaism interacted with one another—even influenced one another—once the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the 500s BC. ’Cause both Nabú-kudúrri-usúr of Babylon (KJV “Nebuchadnezzar”) and Kuruš 2 of Persia had Zoroastrians among their wise men.

Wait, astrology works?

While Zoroastrians don’t dabble in astronomy and astrology as part of their religion, clearly these magi noticed something unexpected in the sky. Somehow it communicated to them a new king was born in Judea. An important king. Someone they oughta go honor. So wait: Does this this mean astrology works?

A lot of Christians figure it totally does, and use this as an excuse for why they’re so big on astrology and horoscopes. Hey, if God led the magi to Jesus, it means searching the stars for signs ain’t nothing. And this is why we find Christians who dabble in astrology throughout human history. Many great astronomers got into the study of the stars because they also believed God might reveal the future through it. Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler—all these titans of science were actually court astrologers. That’s astronomy’s, and Christianity’s, dirty little secret.

But if you ever bother to read horoscopes, you’ll notice most are nothing more than vague Barnum statements which could be true of anyone. Seldom do they go out on a limb and state anything truly specific to an individual; after all, their predictions have to work for everybody born within the same 30-day period. (Or, in the case of Chinese horoscopes, everybody born in the same year.) The whole practice feels like a con.

It may very well be these magi were Zoroastrian heretics—dabbling in astrology despite their religion, trying to read nature instead of talking with God in their prayers. Lots of ignorant Christians do this too. And shouldn’t. It’s a waste of time.

So if astrology is rubbish, how on earth did these magi figure out a great king would be born? Well, when we earnestly seek God, even when we’re totally looking the wrong way, sometimes God meets us where we’re at. These magi sought truth through the stars, as scientists and nature-lovers will. This one time, the Source of all truth actually waved hi. Why not?

Your average Christian has no trouble with angels appearing to sheepherders, because even though preachers tend to (incorrectly) describe shepherds as awful Jews, they were still Jews. We’re mostly okay with the idea God can appear to ordinary people. But deep down, we still kinda have a problem with the fact God sometimes speaks to pagans. That, we balk at. Maybe God might communicate to devout pagans on the verge of converting, like Cornelius the Roman. Ac 10.1-3 But certainly not ordinary pagans. Particularly not pagans who are actively practicing magic. Sinners.

Yet God does this in the bible. More than once!

We don’t know what lifestyle Abraham or Moses or Gideon or Saul had when God first made contact with them. We do know Balám was an unrepentant pagan prophet-for-hire. Nu 22.5-14 We also Abimelech of Gerar was a wife-swiping pagan king. Ge 20.1-7 But God talked to these people regardless. He’s awfully gracious like that.

It’s understandable that we get anxious about the idea. We don’t want to give people the idea that salvation comes through any other route than through Jesus. ’Cause it doesn’t. Ac 4.12 However, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came up with an interesting idea, which I largely agree with: Like Abraham, there are certain pagans who, because they believe in God as best as their limited pagan understanding can, he’s credited them with righteousness same as Abraham. Ro 4.3 “Anonymous Christians,” Rahner calls ’em. They’re saved by Jesus the same as any Christian; they just haven’t yet heard of Jesus. He saved them anonymously.

There’s a very good biblical basis for Rahner’s idea. But let’s be careful not to make the mistake of assuming every good pagan is therefore one of these “anonymous Christians.” Doesn’t matter how much you like Mohandas K. Gandhi; the man read his New Testament and was impressed by Jesus, but ultimately decided Christianity wasn’t for him, and Hinduism was. We still have to do our job and share Jesus with people, and they still have to respond to him in faith. If they do have a saving relationship with God, it’ll be no trouble at all for them to say, “Yes; your explanation fills in all the blanks!” and become Christian. And if they don’t, ’cause they have no such thing, they won’t.

Nor should we take the opposite extreme and claim God never talks to pagans. Obviously he does. After all, how’d we come to Jesus when we were pagans? How’re we gonna ever accept the good news unless the Holy Spirit has been working on us? In fact God talks to everybody. Pagans too. He’s not just our God; he’s everyone’s. He encourages pagans to follow him, same as Christians. “Prevenient grace,” the theologians call it. Granted to Zoroastrians too.