The Magi as Models for Christian Scholars

Pope Gregory the Great and Ambrose of Milan are the patron saints for teachers and learning, respectively. But this Epiphany — when Christians celebrate the revelation of Jesus, Son of God, to the world, and when many professors are starting a new term — I’ve been thinking about another, perhaps unlikely model of faithful scholarship from history: namely, the Magi of Matthew 2.

Burne-Jones, "The Adoration of the Magi"
Edward Burne-Jones, “The Adoration of the Magi” (1904) – Google Art Institute

John Henry Hopkins’ carol can make us forget that the “three kings of Orient” were not political leaders, but “wise men” who gathered and interpreted data. So, without making any claims for the legitimacy of astrology as a field of study, I do wonder whether those of us called to academic vocations might not mine this famous text for some guiding principles.

(This is one of those days when I’ll stress that blogging is a kind of thinking aloud, or musing. I’m sure I’m pushing some of this exegesis past the point of useful speculation.)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (vv 1-2)

Most obviously, the example of the Magi suggests that scholarship can have profound spiritual meaning. Not only do they expect to encounter the divine as they study the material, but the instinct of the Magi is to connect their intellectual labor to the act of worship. So their story might suggest some questions for us to ask of ourselves as we begin a new term: Are we ready to see God revealed in our work? Do we engage in scholarship to the glory of God? Do we lay our teaching and research and writing at the feet of Christ, naming him king (gold), God (frankincense), and the one who dies for us (myrrh)?

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star;
Come and worship,
Come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

(James Montgomery)

For that matter, could we suspend our painstaking, life-consuming, identity-shaping work if called to do so? Would we “leave our contemplations” and all that we knew? (“A hard time we had of it,” says one magus of their journey, in narrating T.S. Eliot’s poem.) Perhaps we should: the completion of the Magi’s adventure left them “overwhelmed with joy” (v 10).

He Qi, Adoration of the Magi
He Qi, “The Adoration of the Magi” (2001) – Creative Commons (Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

Or perhaps the true significance here is that the Magi were not of the Chosen People, and had no prophetic revelation telling them to expect God’s work in history. Maybe we’re more like the priests and scribes of verses 4-6, who knew the words of Micah but had been blind to what was transpiring mere miles from the Temple. The lesson then might be that we need to be humble about the limits of our understanding and pay attention to the learning taking place in “the East” of our time.

But it’s actually the preceding verse that really caught my attention this time through the Epiphany reading:

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him… (v 3)

He had good reason to be, and would soon go to murderous lengths to preserve his power. But what hadn’t struck me until now was that the Magi can’t have been surprised by this response.

If, as most commentators assume, they were astrologers from the Persian or another royal court, the Magi can’t have been political naïfs. Did they approach the man ruling over the Jews to inquire after a newborn “King of the Jews” and not expect that he would be unnerved? If they didn’t intend to leave him “frightened,” they at least did not fear the consequences of seeking what they believed to be true.

So a final takeaway: we ought to be prepared to speak truth to power, to unsettle those who rest comfortably in their injustice. (Or at the very least, we ought to avoid being complicit in their machinations, remembering that we owe allegiance to another Lord.)

3 thoughts on “The Magi as Models for Christian Scholars

  1. Great post Chris! I appreciate your insights (“musing”) and the reminder that we need to speak truth to power.

  2. Thanks Chris. I’m preaching on this text Sunday. I like your point that the wise guys were not political naifs. I may need to borrow that point as I speak about the fear in Jerusalem over the rumors of a new king. That line stuck out for me too as I read the text again.

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