As we saw last time in this space, the notion that Christianity is “really” warmed-over paganism is contradicted by the fact—abundantly in evidence not only in the New Testament but in the writings of the Fathers and the liturgy of the Church—that, well, early Christians just don’t care much about pagan things, while both the New Testament and the Fathers are positively drowning in the images, words, ideas, thought forms, questions, and concerns of the authors of the Old Testament. Reading the New Testament in the hope of discovering the secret paganism that it is the real root of Christianity is like reading Shakespeare with the undying conviction that sufficient scrutiny will uncover his massive debt to Korean literature: it just ain’t gonna happen. The New Testament is obsessed with the Old Testament, not with paganism. It makes reference to paganism only very occasionally, and to pagan literature only a handful of times.
Meanwhile, the New Testament is soaked in Hebraic thought, imagery, poetry, prophecy, law, and wisdom. The early Christians don’t care too much about paganism, seeing it as, variously, 1) a dim hunch about things Jews and Christians were privileged to know by revelation from God; 2) a demonic deception; 3) a source of human wisdom, but not divine revelation. For that, they turn with obsessive fascination to what Paul calls “the oracles of God” (Romans 3: Early Christians will turn to it to illustrate a point, as when Paul quoted a Greek poet or two to connect with the Greek locals, just as a stump speaker might mention the local football team in attempting to connect to his audience). In much the same way, even today modern Christians offer punning riffs on current cultural phenomena (“Jesus: He’s the Real Thing,” “Christ: Don’t Leave Earth Without Him,” etc.).
But exactly what these Christians did not do was take passages of Scripture that referred to Jesus and apply them to Apollo or some other pagan deity. Nor did they look to any pagan deity to tell them about Jesus; they knew perfectly well that Jesus could be represented as the Sun of Justice and Light of the World long before Aurelian invented his pagan festival. That’s because early Christians were behaving in a way perfectly consistent with Scripture, becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22), not “holding the form of religion while denying the power of it” (2 Tim. 3:5).
This matters immensely because it bears directly on the first moment the early Catholic Church really did borrow something from pagans. And not just any pagans, mind you, but actual adherents of Babylonian Mystery Religion. And most amazingly, the early Catholics’ decision to do so receives the complete approval of, and even hearty defense by . . . Bible-believing Christians!
We Three Kings of Orient Are /Astrologers Who Traverse Afar
As a young Evangelical, one of the things I routinely heard from critics of Christianity was that “everybody knows” the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 is a pious fiction invented by the Evangelist. Since Evangelicals take a very high view of Scripture and believe (in the words of Dei Verbum) that “Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,”it mattered to me whether Scripture was preserving truth or was just a bunch of legends. And since my first investigation, subsequent reading has only added to my conviction that there are ample historical grounds for the story of the Magi.
First—and often overlooked by moderns who have an irrational prejudice against treating Scripture as one source of ancient historical testimony—is Matthew 2 itself, which says “wise men (Greek: magoi) from the East” appeared in Jerusalem one day, seeking “he who has been born king of the Jews.” They claimed to have “seen his star in the East” and came to worship him. Matthew tells us they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts and that their visit provoked the paranoid Herod to kill all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old. Matthew also notes they returned to their own country in secret after having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
Not that there’s no hint of legend attaching to the Magi, of course. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many Magi there were, nor does he claim any of them were royalty. So how did they attain their legendary crowns and fixed number of three?
The number part is pretty easy: three gifts, three magi. Also, as Christians reflected on their significance as the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, it was natural to connect the Magi with the three biblical races of human beings descending from the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth—and thus representing all of humanity.
As to their alleged royalty, this is more complicated. Beyond the biblical record, there is other evidence about them.The historical magoi appear to have been a priestly caste in eastern lands. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes.And Jeremiah refers to one of these eastern priestly figures, a Nergal Sharezar, as Rab-Mag, “Chief Magus” (Jer. 39:3, 39:13). Magi had long been involved in the various religious and political struggles of Persia and their influence continued through the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Parthian empires. By the time of Jesus, they had long provided priests for Persia and been a major religious influence in the region. One ancient writer named Strabo says Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.
Magoi is, of course, related to our English word “magic” but it’s not really accurate to speak of Magi as “magicians.” They lived in an age which hadn’t yet distinguished between the attempt to understand and control nature by what we now call “science” and the attempt to understand and control nature by what we now call “magic.” So we might say the Magi practiced the rudiments of astronomy and the rudiments of astrology.
Precisely what star they saw, and whether it was a natural or supernatural event, we do not know. We do know Jupiter conjoined Saturn three times in seven months in 7 B.C. We also know Mars joined them and produced a very striking configuration at about that time. Further, there’s some speculation that the Star of Bethlehem may have been an occultation of Jupiter by the moon that occurred in 6 B.C., with the royal planet dramatically re-emerging from behind the moon. We even have an ancient Chinese chronicle, the Ch’ien-han-shu, which states that an object, probably a nova, or new star, was observed in March in 5 B.C. and remained visible for 70 days.
Those who assume that any contact between biblical and pagan beliefs can only lead to paganization of biblical teaching should note that there’s very good reason to think the Magi’s beliefs were a mix of Persian astrology and messianic ideas floating around their country, courtesy of the significant Jewish population that had lived there since the days of Nebuchadnezzar, five centuries before. An American culture that’s quite familiar with Fiddler on the Roof or the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer should not marvel that, after 500 years, stories far more sacred to the Jews than these folk tales would be widely known among the educated elite in Persia. And a Magian knowledge of sacred Jewish texts certainly fits with Herod’s behavior in slaughtering the innocents of Bethlehem.
Some critics have found this story of Herod’s brutality absurd. Yet we know from non-biblical sources that Herod was indeed profoundly paranoid about rivals to his throne. He had his own children put to death to protect it (whereupon Augustus, who had granted Herod his puppet kingdom, remarked that since Herod observed kosher laws to placate his Jewish subjects, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son”). But beyond this psychological evidence, there is in Scripture itself a tantalizing suggestion about why Herod would react so ferociously to the news of a newborn “king of the Jews”—a reason that dovetails remarkably well with what we know of the Magi.
You see, Herod—the “king of the Jews”—was not a Jew. He was an Edomite, or Idumaean, as they had become known by the time of Christ.Edomites were descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Jacob, you will recall, received the blessing and birthright from Isaac that Esau was supposed to get (Gen. 27). From that time on, rivalry existed between the brothers (and their descendants). Centuries after Jacob and Esau, when Israel escaped from Egypt and was journeying to the Promised Land, Moses requested passage through the land of the Moabites (a people closely allied with the Edomites) and was refused. In fact, the Moabites tried to destroy Israel. As part of their plan, the Moabite king, Balak, hired Balaam the prophet to curse Israel (Num. 22–24). However, as hard as Balaam tried, he found he could only bless the Chosen People.
What’s significant about this is Balaam’s third blessing on Israel. For he declared, in a prophecy that was, by Herod’s time, widely regarded as messianic:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed,
Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed,
while Israel does valiantly.
By Jacob shall dominion be exercised,
and the survivors of cities be destroyed!
(Num. 24:17–19; emphasis added)
“Edom shall be dispossessed” by a “star . . . out of Jacob.” Would a paranoid Edomite king with Herod’s psychological track record be unnerved by the Magi’s report of a star and their question, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”? Would such a king, who had proved himself willing to murder his own son to protect his throne, hesitate to slaughter the children of nameless peasants in an obscure village if he thought it would keep him from being “dispossessed”? To paraphrase Augustus, in such a situation, it would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s subject. So it turns out there’s good reason, both biblical and extra-biblical, to think that—in an age especially inclined to look for signs and portents in stars and holy books—Persian astrologers would have seen such signs and portents in the skies and sacred books of Israel and Herod would have acted upon them.
So are there other examples of zodiac mysticism in Scripture? Yes. Of which more next time.
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