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Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)
This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).
One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.
That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.
What are the implications including the Magi here?
Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome. And Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence in the story as signaling.
We’ll start with these implications, next.