According to Scripture scholars, the story of the Magi is a type of Scripture called “haggadah,” a type of Jewish story fashioned from diverse biblical material to make a theological point. This does not mean that the story is not true. Rather, the truth of the story is more in the total story and its meaning than in any or all of its details.
The story has acquired additional haggadic details that have added our own interpretation to the story. For instance, the Gospel story says there were three gifts, not three men. It identifies the three gifts but it does not relate the gold to kingship, the frankincense to deity and the myrrh to humanity. These ideas have been added by our interpretation of the story. The Gospel does not say that their names were Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar, nor does it tell us that one of them was black. These details have all been added by us. The Gospel tells us of Magi or astrologers. However, we have come to regard them as kings. All of these details are haggadic additions.
The Gospel uses the story of a star that figures in the prophecy of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, the references to the kings of Tarshish, Seba, and Sheba who come bearing tribute in Psalm 72, and the oracle of Isaiah 60 which speaks of dromedaries bringing frankincense and gold from Midian, Sheba and Ephah to fashion a story that reveals the truth of who Jesus is.
Lest we think that these details invalidate the truth of the story or somehow make it merely a myth, Matthew the evangelist locates the story in our human history by including Herod, Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the story. The entire royal court is living in suspense over the prophecy that tells them that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Through them the Magi learned the whereabouts of the newborn King. Following their star, they go to Bethlehem and find the child and his mother. The Gospel relates a brief but stirring story of adoration and veneration. We are also told that the Magi do not trust Herod and return to their home by a different route.
Matthew is a Jewish evangelist, unlike Luke, the evangelist whose infancy narrative we hear on Christmas Day. Matthew’s account differs from Luke’s completely. So we must assume that the truth behind Matthew’s story is leading us to ponder the significance of these foreigners who seek Jesus. The biblical references used to create this story all come from the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps the one that is most compelling is that of Isaiah 60 which claims that the whole world will benefit from the Light that comes from Jerusalem. It is obvious that Jesus is the Light of which the Scripture speaks, leading all humankind out of the darkness of sin and into the glory of life with God in our midst.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator