Picture the wise men in your mind – are they tall, regal-looking fellows in slightly exotic garments?
We can thank St. Bede the Venerable for ascribing nationalities, names, and characteristics to the Magi some time in the late seventh century. Perhaps Bede was attempting to resolve some of the things we don’t know from Matthew’s telling of the story. Matthew says nothing about how many magi there were, or what, exactly a magi even is! He gives us no clues whether or not they are kings, he’s vague about where they’ve come from, how long it took to get to Judea, and we learn nothing about what they do after they ‘depart another way.’
So Bede the Venerable set about giving them names that had meaning – Caspar means Master-of-Treasure, Melchior means King, and Balthasar means Protect-the-King. Bede gave each of the magi a different ethnicity, age, stature, and even described their clothes! He took Matthew’s “wise men from the East” and fleshed it out to create concrete, specific characters for us to focus on. Legend even has it that the magi were later baptized by Thomas. It’s human nature to want to know specifics – we’re a curious bunch, and any time the Bible seems vague on a particular point, we’ve spent two thousand years and more trying to fill in the blanks.
More recently, Bede’s particularly clear and detailed description of the magi has come under scrutiny. Theologians now speculate that perhaps an early tradition of twelve wise men has merit; certainly they would have traveled in a large caravan, likely with horses and mules, rather than camels, for weeks, months, or even years.
When we paint the magi in a certain way; when we accept Bede’s description so that we know what they look like right down to their whiskers – we risk painting ourselves out of the story. Matthew is intentionally vague – if the description of the magi is clear down to the tiniest detail, there’s no room for us in the story. But if the description is vague, all of humanity can be represented in these people who came to see the child. We can see ourselves in the retelling – we are the Gentiles, being welcomed by God into this new story, coming from the far corners of the earth and kneeling, ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow…’
The Rev Janet Taylor
Interim Moderator, Sherwood Park Presbyterian Church