Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Magi Tradition in the Early Irish Church

Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi (1423)

The Three Wise Men or Magi are an integral part to our conception of the traditional Christmas Nativity scene. The Magi’s cameo appearance in Scripture is confined to Matthew’s Gospel, where they are simply referred to as Magi (μάγοι), not kings and not three. Not surprisingly much of the traditional Christian nativity scene is taken from Patristic exegesis and apocryphal writings. For example, how many Christmas cards have we seen with Mary on a donkey en route to Bethlehem? This story of the donkey is not found in the Bible but is drawn from the apocryphal work known as the Protoevangelium of James (17.2). Also, why do we always see nativity scenes with an ox and a donkey peering into the crib? They are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts; rather this is the direct influence of Patristic exegesis, which applied the ox and donkey of Isaiah 1.3 to the birth of Jesus and the acceptance of Christ by the Gentiles (Greg. of Nazianzus, On the Birth of Christ: Oration 38.17). A reminder that Israel had rejected her Messiah but the Gentiles had believed.

The brief account of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel was soon supplemented with plenty of legend and lore. The early Irish church was among the earliest parts of the western church to develop the Magi stories. The names of the Magi are given in two eighth century works associated with the Irish tradition (Collectanea et Flores, and Excerptions partum). The Magi are named as; Balthasar, Melchoir and Gaspar. These names were not invented by the Irish but were taken from earlier Greek Magi traditions.

The tradition of the Magi being three in number was derived from the three different gifts listed in Matthew’s Gospel (gold, frankincense and myrrh). The idea that they were kings was derived from Psalm 72.11, "And all kings of the earth shall adore him: all nations shall serve him." (Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 3.13). In the east, however, there is an ancient tradition that the Magi were 12 in number. Several lists of the 12 Magi survive in Syriac and Armenian manuscripts.

Early Irish works (e.g. Expositio IV Evangeliorum, and In Matthaei Evangelium Expositio) interpreted the three Magi as representing descendants of the three sons of Noah, which encompassed all of humanity. Furthermore, since the three Magi had come to see the Word incarnate, they also represented the means of interpreting the written Word of God, namely the historical, theological and eschatological aspects!

The seventh century Irish writer, Augustinus Hibernicus, suggested various interpretations on the nature of the star that guided the Magi. He rejected the idea that it was a natural star on the basis that God had already fixed the stars in the firmament (Gen 1.7). He argued that the guiding star might have been an angel (cf. Rev 1.20 where stars are symbolically referred to as angels), or more likely the Holy Spirit.

The Story of the Arrival of the Magi in
an Leabhar Breac
fol. 137a.
Perhaps the most interesting development of the Magi tradition in Ireland is an extended account of their arrival in Bethlehem. The manuscript an Leabhar Breac preserves the story in Gaelic. The story begins with St. Joseph standing outside a house in Bethlehem chatting to Simeon. He sees the colorful Magi approach and wonders if they might be Druids because they seem to be arguing over astrology. Joseph is not impressed with the strange visitors and pointedly asks them, “Tell me, for God’s sake, who you are, and from where have you come to my house without my permission?” Unperturbed the Magi inform Joseph that they have come from India and Arabia and “various lands in the eastern world.” They even inform Joseph on the names of their horses; Dromann-Darii, Madian, and Effan (this is borrowed from Isaiah 60.6 dromedarii Madian et Epha (i.e. “camels of Madian and Epha”). They tell Joseph that they have come to worship the king of the world. Reluctantly Joseph lets them enter the house, but sends Simeon after them to keep an eye on things.

Simeon reports back to Joseph that these Druids are fine fellows for they all kissed the child’s feet in reverence and presented him with beautiful gifts, moreover, “they are not like the shepherds who gave him no gifts!

The Magi bless Joseph informing him that he is truly blessed to be the foster father of the Son of God.

O righteous and holy man, you have great good fortune, if you but know it, for the son of the King of heaven and earth is under your fosterage. For we, indeed, have more knowledge of the one who is in your care than you have. The boy who is with you is the God of gods, and Lord of lords, the creator of the elements, the angels and the archangels.”

Joseph’s initial suspicion of these strange men gives way to joy and he invites them to a meal. The Magi decline the invitation, “For we have already been satisfied with the heavenly banquet!” The whole visit is interpreted by the narrator as marking “the beginning of the Gentiles’ belief in Christ, and the gifts they offered were the first offerings of the Gentiles to God, their first-fruits.