Feast of the Epiphany 2019 Matthew 2:1-12
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.
Today is the feast of the visit of the three wise men to the Holy Family. I am sure you will recognise that this is one of my favourite feasts – and indeed it is represented by the figures of the three kings in the crib.
There are different ways in which we can consider this feast:
1. The simple, un-embellished story, as we find it in Matthew’s gospel today (see above).
2. As an elaborate story, full of legendary detail. The wise men become three kings, named Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar – one is young, one middle aged, and one is old; one from Africa, one from Asia, and one from Persia. Even the gifts are surrounded in legend – the pieces of gold were struck by Terah, the father of Abraham and were given by Joseph in payment for spices to embalm the body of his father, Jacob. Eventually, the relics of the three kings were discovered by the Empress Helena, and eventually brought to the Cathedral in Cologne. There are extensive stories giving details of the wise men’s journey, their return home after they evaded Herod, and legends about the rest of their lives. Many of these stories were collected together in a chronicle prepared by John of Hildesheim, a 14thCentury Carmelite Friar. This chronicle has been adapted and re-published many times across the ages. It all makes a wonderful story – each king prepared great and rich gifts, and trains of mules, camels, and horses charged with treasure, together with a great multitude of people as they set forth on their journeys.
3. As a scholarly work. In the past year, a book entitled “The Mystery of the Magi” by Dwight Longenecker , has been published in which he attempts to set the Magi in a more exact historical context. The story is complex – Herod the Great was coming to the end of his days – even though from a political point of view, his reign had been successful. Out of the chaos of the Roman Civil Wars he had consolidated his power, sealed his borders, and had become a firm favourite of the Emperor Caesar Augustus. The adjoining territory – what we now refer to as the Kingdom of Jordan – was known as the kingdom of the Nabateans. There had been a number of power struggles and by the time of the arrival of the Magi, the kingdom was ruled by Artemas IV, who had previously gained the support of Herod and the approval of Rome in his bid for power. Certainly it suited Herod to live in peaceful co-existence with a neighbouring king, with both rulers receiving the support and approval from Rome. So the Nabateans would have wished to show respect and friendship to Herod.
The wise men are not soothsayers and priests from remote kingdoms of Persia and India, but rather a formal diplomatic mission from a nearby kingdom – bringing, as they thought, formal greetings to Herod – on the birth of a new member of the Royal family. It is suggested that the gifts that they bring represent the traditional gifts which might be brought for such a mission.
But why did they come – what made them set out on their journey? At this time, on the borders of the Nabatean kingdom was the Essene Community at Qumran  – who combined the study of the ancient Jewish texts – in particular the prophecies of Isaiah – with other texts with a strong messianic dimension, as well as astrological studies. These studies were by no means unique – Herod consulted his own advisors in a similar way. It was from here that the suggestion was made to the Nabatean king that it would be appropriate to send the wise men on their journey carrying greetings and gifts.
The gospel story ends with the wise men returning to their own country by a different route and avoiding Herod. The recent book turns to speculation at this point – that the wise men went back to the Qumran Community to research and study further. Indeed as Qumran was a centre of learning, the book suggests that Paul the apostle may also have spent time there, as there is a gap between his conversion and his work as an apostle.
So not absolute and certain historic proof, but in very recent times, a fascinating way of studying the scriptural texts and relating them to real events – helping to bring us a new understanding of our celebration.
1. The Mystery of the Magi: the Quest to identify the Three Wise Men. Dwight Longenecker. ISBN 978-1-62157-629-7.
2. The Essenes were a sect during the Second Temple period, which flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE.
The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea, but they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the other two major sects at the time. The Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism (their priestly class practiced celibacy). Most scholars claim they seceded from the Zadokite priests.
The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be the Essenes’ library. These documents preserve multiple copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible untouched from possibly as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946. Most scholars dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rachel Elior questions even the existence of the Essenes.
The first reference to the sect is by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 CE) in his Natural History. Pliny relates in a few lines that the Essenes possess no money, had existed for thousands of generations, and that their priestly class (“contemplatives”) do not marry. Unlike Philo, who did not mention any particular geographical location of the Essenes other than the whole land of Israel, Pliny places them somewhere above Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea.
Josephus later gave a detailed account of the Essenes in The Jewish War (c. 75 CE), with a shorter description in Antiquities of the Jews(c. 94 CE) and The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 97 CE). Claiming firsthand knowledge, he lists the Essenoi as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophyalongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He relates the same information concerning piety, celibacy, the absence of personal property and of money, the belief in communality, and commitment to a strict observance of Sabbath. He further adds that the Essenes ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.