“The Nabatean Magi”
Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
January 3, 2021
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Although we are still in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas, because Epiphany falls on a Wednesday this year, we have the choice of celebrating the Epiphany today or next Sunday. But next Sunday is more properly dedicated to the Baptism of Jesus, so the church lectionary opts for today. They – and the star they followed – are among the most mysterious figures in the Bible, raising many more questions than they answer, so let’s dive right in.
The first mystery is the Christmas star: what exactly was it? The Bible says that the Magi saw “a star” that rose in the east. But in the ancient world, everything in the sky was called a “star” – today, we differentiate between stars, planets, comets, supernovae, the sun and the moon – but they didn’t know the difference between them. Even more confusing, in the Bible angels are sometimes called “stars,” so it’s possible that the Magi may have been following an angel; in fact in the Book of Numbers the prophet Balaam prophesied the appearance of an angel called a “star”. In our modern imaginations, we envision a big, bright, glowing, maybe twinkling star that somehow moved across the heavens until it stopped and hovered “over the place where the child was” – notice the text does not say “over the place where the child was born.” Here is something you might not know: the Magi’s visit could have taken place years after Jesus was born, not when he was an infant, but possibly when he was two years old. Since Herod orders all baby boys two years old and younger to be killed on the basis of when the Magi tell him they first saw the star, it seems they had already been traveling for nearly two years. Also, notice that Matthew says that the Magi visit Jesus in a house, not in a manger – so it’s certainly possible that Jesus was not newborn when they arrived.
Here’s an obvious question: If there was something spectacular and bright in the sky, how come only the Magi see it? Although astronomers have many theories about what this “star“ was, including a comet, a supernova or even a planetary conjunction like the rare one we just experienced where Jupiter and Saturn appear to be so close together in the sky that they seem to merge into a giant star. But any of these would all have been noticed by everyone, plus, all of those would all have been considered bad omens, not good ones, perhaps foretelling the death of a king, not the birth of one. There is one theory that makes sense, but it’s complicated so I’ll give you the shorthand version: suffice it to say that there is a certain array of the planets, the sun, and the moon that’s considered especially auspicious, which experts would definitely have noticed and considered significant. And the Magi were surely such experts.
Yet another question: why would the Magi care that the king of the Jews was born? They were not Jewish. The Jews were expecting a Messiah, but they were not looking to the heavens for signs proclaiming his birth because Jews made a point of specifically condemning the kind of astrology that the Magi practiced; it is a sin in Jewish law called divination. But something compelled the pagan Magi to not only notice and rejoice in what they saw, but to come to worship the king of the Jews.
This brings us to the second big mystery: the Magi themselves. Who were they, exactly? Were these three visitors kings? No, Matthew never says that they are kings, they are called “wise men” in our translation, and “Magi” in the original Greek, and “Magi” has a hazy meaning, although it’s clear that as a class they were highly respected. These “wise men” were a cross between astronomers (who study the heavens), and astrologers (who use the stars to cast horoscopes and predict the future). This was the same job description in ancient times – those who learned about and interpreted the stars, and only the most learned and accomplished men could become magi.
How many magi visited Jesus? Look carefully in your gospel reading; you’ll notice it doesn’t say. The tradition of three Magi comes from the three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is, however, an ancient tradition that says that there were twelve Magi, and there are paintings to prove it. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a painting from the early 15th century by the Sienese artist Sassetta that shows a dozen magi with their attendants carrying gifts, following the Christ Child in the star.
Finally, from whence in “the east” did they come? We aren’t certain, and until recently scholars were reduced to guessing, mostly from ancient artwork in which they are depicted wearing hats that look vaguely Persian, which would mean that they came from what is modern-day Iran. But currently there is new thought about the Magi’s native country, and I think it makes sense.
Recently, some scholars have come to believe that the Magi were Nabateans. Now if you’ve heard of the kingdom of Nabatea, it’s likely because their capital city was Petra, now in present-day Jordan. Petra is the spectacular city carved out of red sandstone that’s featured in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But Petra was built a century after Jesus lived; the thing about the Nabateans is that up until the point when they began to build cities, they were a kingdom of nomads who amassed tremendous wealth by running trading caravans over the desert roads of what we call the Middle and Near East. Their camels carried spices, frankincense and myrrh and of course they often received payment in gold. That sounds very magi-like, doesn’t it?
There is more. Like all nomads, the Nabateans had to be very familiar with the heavens, which told them when the seasons were turning, prompting them to move their camps. And because they were traders, they had to navigate by the stars, so they were always looking up, studying the skies not only for directions but for anomalies, signs that portended either blessing or trouble. So if there was an especially auspicious constellation or planetary conjunction, they surely would have noticed it.
All of that still doesn’t tell us why they would take off searching for a child in response to an astral sign. There’s one final thing about the Nabateans that to me makes it virtually certain that they were the Magi: the Nabateans were becoming monotheists at the time of Jesus’ birth. For a long time they had worshipped a loose collection of pagan gods, but by the time Jesus was born, Dashurah, their main god, was supplanting all the others, becoming the great king above all gods (remember that language, “the great king above all gods,” is exactly how the Psalms refers to Yahweh). Plus, they traded in Israel so they would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and Yahweh. So the Nabateans already had camels, caravans, gifts, the knowledge of how to navigate far from their homes, and the hunger for their version of Yahweh. They were waiting for a sign of the manifestation of God, that great King above all gods, come to earth. So when the Christmas star appeared in the sky, they were ready and eager to hit the road to find him and worship him as their king. The Jews had been waiting for him at least since the time of Isaiah and Jewish shepherds found him on Christmas Eve, but the ones who were seeking word of his arrival in the heavens found him, too.
Look at the amazing thing that God did – when Jesus was born among us, the first to know were poor uneducated Jewish shepherds, and wealthy, wise Arab nomads. Together, they constitute the Epiphany – the first manifestations of God in Christ to the world. Why did God do it this way rather than, say, appearing to the priests in the Temple and to poor Arab goatherds? Because God picked the people most likely to be the most effective evangelists to their own people. The shepherds were not politically or religiously controversial, like the priests in the Temple were, and the Nabatean traders were trusted by – and experts in dealing with – the many different peoples they had long histories of doing business with; they knew how to talk to everybody. This made the Nabateans almost astonishingly multicultural; even when they settled down and built their cities their buildings were a kind of a stylistic mish-mash of Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, Roman styles and elements. That natural crossover ability made the Nabateans a brilliant choice for the first evangelists to the gentiles.
Ancient church traditions bear traces of the groundwork that the Magi laid for apostles who followed them back to their eastern lands, particularly the apostle Thomas. The tradition of Thomas (remember him? doubting Thomas?) is that he went first east of the Holy Land and then south, all the way down through India, where there is a strong tradition of Mar Thoma (Saint Thomas) churches from ancient times and – Thomas has been connected to the Magi. The book I mentioned to you last week – The Revelation of the Magi – ends with Thomas visiting their land, where he finds the actual Magi who visited Jesus and commissions them to preach the gospel.
The Epiphany story of the Magi may seem mysterious, very long ago and very far away, but the challenge for us during our season of Epiphany is for us to embark on our own evangelistic journey, following in their nomadic footsteps, not necessarily traveling the world in caravans, but proclaiming the gospel in our own way, in our own time, even from our own living rooms, even over Zoom. God has not stopped doing amazing things: look at what Christ is still doing. In a year filled with disruption and challenges, God still is with us, giving us signs, strength and hope, helping us work miracles like the incredibly fast development of COVID vaccines that will put an end to the pandemic, sooner than we could have imagined even a few short months ago.
If we look around us and inside of us, there are Epiphanies every day for us to rejoice in. It is up to us to seek Jesus, then praise, worship, and share the Good News, the same Good News that the Magi found when the Christmas star proclaimed Lord’s birth to them, so many years ago. Evangelism and Epiphanies are still happening, for us and through us. If we are up to the challenge, we can all become modern-day Magi and bring the gospel to the world that so badly needs to receive it.