Book Review: The Magi: Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate by Eric Vanden Eykel

[1] The Magi is a hybrid book by teacher/scholar Eric Vanden Eykel that seems designed to engage scholarly literature sufficiently to establish his reliability as a biblical scholar while also offering an analysis that will be both accessible to and engaging for college students and laypeople.  His project is essentially one of “high popularization”—a commitment to (and considerable skill and verve in) presenting difficult or technical subject matter to a general audience. He traces the origins of the book to his celebratory dinner with his committee at Marquette after his successful defense of his dissertation on the Protevangelium of James. In the good-natured conversation about his future research path, he found himself declaring that “a study of the reception history of the Magi would be a lot of fun” (vii). What may have thus begun as a purely scholarly venture has clearly been shaped to a large degree by his experiences in the classroom where he has often had to undo a dearly held clutch of wrong suppositions before he could help his students toward a reliable understanding of the biblical texts under study.

[2] Vanden Eykel is certainly right that the “very odd” story of the Magi told in (and only in) twelve verses at the beginning of the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel has had an outsized influence on the subsequent tradition.  Thus, the history of the rich and various interpretations of and the related history of the reception of this story are fascinating subjects for study.  They can also be somewhat jarring subjects for lay audiences who view the meaning of Scripture as clear and inerrant and believe that the authentic tradition does not depart from it.  His willingness to treat the Magi “not as historical figures but as fictional characters in Matthew’s narrative” (xviii), together with the political reading that he advances, may be embraced enthusiastically by some but may be disturbing to others.

[3] These are, of course, precisely the reasons that hybrid texts such as The Magi are invaluable in helping young people and adults who have not had formal biblical study find their way past oversimplified approaches to a sacred text that is at once multivocal, complex, and historically grounded.  By extension, such books can be equally invaluable to clergy who wish to help congregations grow toward a richer and more religiously mature understanding of the stories they revere.

[4] Vander Eykel identifies his purposes in The Magi variously as

  • “To examine the story of the Magi as it exists in Matthew and to understand its literary and theological significance in that context” (xx)
  • To “defamiliarize” Matthew’s story (24); “to read the story of the Magi afresh, as if we had never read it before and as if we don’t already have answers to what may seem like simple questions” (14)
  • To “knock holes in some of the walls [of the biblical ‘house’] and see what’s behind them” (16)
  • “To think in new ways about the Magi and the people who have told and retold their story” (202)
  • To explore the two-thousand-year “journey” of the Magi “through the minds of authors, readers, theologians, biblical scholars, and artists” (xvii)
  • To appreciate “the enormous impact that these visitors continue to exercise on our collective imaginations” (182) and to probe “all the ways they have been understood, misunderstood, and appropriated” (203)

[5] There seems to be a bit of a paradox here: on the one hand he wants to explore the way in which the story has been received and revised through Christian history; on the other hand, he wants to negate that history in order to read Matthew’s account, without conceptual “baggage,” as it would have been understood at the time of its writing. I would have liked to see the author address this tension a little more intentionally. What is the point of working so hard to get back to Matthew’s original intent, to strip away the interpretive lens that belong to other times and places, if we are to blithely leave it behind as we consider all the interpretations those alien lenses have produced?  Does Matthew’s original text and intent function normatively in any way? Or is it just a benchmark that allows us to highlight and compare the variations that we find in later retellings?

[6] Leaving aside the introduction, the book is symmetrically organized around chapter 4, which is the chapter in which Vanden Eykel lays out plainly how he believes Matthew intended his audience, first- and second-century Greek readers, to read the story. The three prior chapters discuss obstacles to reliable reading in an effort to recover the “cultural encyclopedia” (11) within which Matthew wrote and was understood.

[7] Chapter 1 takes on the problem of the interpretive lens the reader brings to the text: “Our perspectives always affect how we make sense of what we read” (7), a difficulty that is compounded when it is not acknowledged. Nonetheless he declares that “authorial intent [is] the critical question that should drive all scholarly inquiry into biblical literature” (8), and he sets about, as he says in a later chapter, “strip[ping] away as many of these [interpretive] lenses as possible, with the aim of rediscovering Matthew’s Magi in their first-century context” (69).  He acknowledges that all communication is a responsively dialectical exchange between speaker and hearer, and he incorporates that into his three “guiding principles” for negotiating the thorny path between, on the one hand, delusionally thinking that we can get inside of Matthew’s mind and, on the other hand, stumbling into “the trap of making someone else’s words convey whatever we want them to” (10).

[8] Chapter 2 (probably the least engaging for a lay reader) addresses the difficulties of translating the original Greek text when we do not know what the Greek word magoi actually meant, whether the Greek word Ioudas meant “Jews” or “Judeans,” or whether the Greek verb proskuneō meant “to worship” a deity or simply “to honor” a rightful heir to the throne. The author takes the reader through his own decision process as he concludes with his own translation of the Greek text (33-34).

[9] Chapter 3 returns to magoi, examining references to magoi in multiple ancient sources, from the Book of Daniel to Herodotus and Strabo, in the hope of discovering who or what magoi were in terms of social rank or expertise at the turn of the eras. This effort uncovers a great deal of disagreement and thus does little to illuminate Matthew’s intention beyond establishing that magoi consistently occupied a position in close proximity to power. In the end the author is thrown back upon such clues as Matthew himself offers. It is here that Vanden Eykel introduces his hypothesis that “they and their journey seem to be one of Matthew’s ways of validating Jesus’s own claim to the throne” (64).

[10] Thus, after three chapters of prolegomena, we arrive in chapter 4 at the author’s own interpretation of the verses. He argues “that Matthew imagines Jesus as the rightful Judean king and that the function of the Magi is to clarify and bolster this claim” (70). Only this understanding of Matthew’s intention explains why the gospel opens with the royal genealogy, as well as why the narrative places the birth of Jesus, a Nazarene, in Bethlehem. The Magi’s initial destination is Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the center of Judean government, the obvious place to look for the legitimate king. In response to the Magi’s question regarding the one who is born King of the Judeans, Herod and his court are thrown into panic because Herod, though a Judean, has been arbitrarily and illegitimately set upon the Davidic throne by Roman power. The possibility that a legitimate claimant to the throne, an “anointed one,” has appeared constitutes a military and existential threat. To be sure, “kingship leads to an unexpected and violent place” (102), but not in the fashion Herod feared. The end of Matthew’s Gospel hews to this theme. Jesus is the legitimate heir to the throne, and the placard that Pontius Pilate orders affixed to his cross is true: “This is Jesus, the king of the Judeans.” But the intervening narrative systematically and deliberately revises our understanding of what that means. “What changes over the course of Matthew’s Gospel is not the legitimacy of this title but how readers are meant to understand its implications” (103).

[11] This central and anchoring chapter (which the reader may want to read first) is followed by a trio of chapters that explore how subsequent authors have (re)interpreted, elaborated, and even repurposed the story Matthew crafted—“in light of their own contexts and experiences and in service of their own rhetorical aims” (146). Interestingly, though most of the retellings seem benign, Vanden Eykel finds some pretty dark shadows among the glitter. He gives attention to what he considers to be disturbing elements that enter almost unnoticed into some of the reconstructions, only to become steadily more lethal in the subsequent centuries: Judeophobia and supersessionism.

[12] Multiple noncanonical or apocryphal early Christian manuscripts give attention to the story of the Magi. In chapter 5, Vanden Eykel selects four that represent a continuum that runs from a close replica of Matthew’s telling through increasingly divergent, altered and enlarged texts: the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, and the Revelation of the Magi. Aside from using these narratives to make clear the origins of a lot of facets of the story that we know but do not get from Matthew (the Magi are kings, there are three of them, they are named Gaspar, Melkon, and Balthsar), the author reflects in this chapter on the apparently irresistible purchase Matthew’s elusive and ambiguous story has on the imagination of subsequent readers who, possibly out of a simple urge to understand, addressed the questions that the original provokes—usually by reconstructing and inventively developing the story to “fill in the gaps.”  Chapter 5 is also one of the sites of the author’s discussion of the Judeophobic potential of the story and its retelling.  He introduces this in relation to the Armenian Gospel of Infancy in which a very odd tension emerges toward the end in which the three Kings (who have brought with them armies numbering 12,000 men) foretell that they will “denounce the savior” (131), even though all their behavior in the presence of the child is imbued with (otherwise) unmitigated joy. Unlike other narratives of the Magi, in this one they have been presented as belonging (though unconventionally) to the house of Israel. Vanden Eykel thus reads the text to say that these Magi, even though they can recognize and rejoice in Jesus as the true God and the savior, yet know that as Jews they will be bound to reject him as a movement within Judaism comes to be seen as incompatible with Judaism.

[13] These noncannonical writings share roughly the same window of time with the composition of the more plainly theological and ethical works of “the fathers of the church.” Chapter 6 considers six texts from the patristic period (broadly understood as extending from the early second century to the late seventh century CE). In these six writings, Vanden Eykel discovers three predominating preoccupations. (1) The authors return again and again to the star (which had little significance in Matthew beyond setting the story in motion). The patristic authors worry intensely about the meaning of the star because it raises difficult questions about the legitimacy of astrology, which some retellings of the story had seemed to credit. (2) The conversion of the gentiles emerges as a notable theme in patristic writings. The pagan or gentile Magi, by reason of their encounter with Jesus, are presented as undergoing “a spiritual transformation” such that they become “exemplars of conversion” (177). (3) Regrettably, a third and too common theme in the patristic texts is the deleterious contrast between the interested and worshipful gentile Magi and the indifferent and hostile Jews. Thus, Vanden Eykel worries that in these patristic retellings “Judeophobic and supersessionist readings of the Magi story” (177) gain a firm hold on the body of Christian self-understanding. The chapter ends with the author’s solemn warning: “When reading these texts, we would do well to remember that interpretations have consequences and that this is true regardless of the purity of the intentions that undergird them” (177).

[14] Suddenly, in chapter 7, we find ourselves transported to a set of four almost randomly chosen American literary works published over the past 130 years (short stories by Henry van Dyke and William Sydney Porter [O. Henry], a novel by Christopher Moore, and a children’s book by Barbara Brown Taylor). All of them lean toward the sentimental and moralistic—a fact that he does not remark, though it is certainly pertinent to their place in reception history since there is nothing either sentimental or moralistic about the biblical account. Vanden Eykel’s particular scholarly focus is early Christian Apocryphal literature (especially traditions related to the infancy and childhood of Jesus), so it is hardly surprising that the “reception” of the story that takes up most of the last part of the book is its reception in apocryphal and patristic texts. Still, it is somewhat jarring to leap from the patristic fathers in chapter 6 to a 2018 children’s book in chapter 7. To some extent my frustrated expectations are created by the publisher’s marketing of the book as “the journey of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel to modern readers” (back cover), yet the author also bears responsibility because he promises in his introduction to examine not just Matthew’s text but “the tradition it inspired” (xix) and writes, “for nearly two thousand years, the Magi have journeyed through the minds of authors, readers, theologians, biblical scholars, and artists. This is a book about that journey” (xvii). The author clearly has not set out to write a systematic, let alone a comprehensive, history of interpretations; his examples are all selected for illustrative purposes. Still, it does seem that he could easily have included a chapter dealing with a few telling examples from the intervening eleven centuries. As it is, the book constitutes an invitation to us all to collect examples of our own.

[15] It is curious that, after introducing the borrowed notion of a “cultural encyclopedia” for a reading of Matthew in his first-century context, the author does not use this notion in the last three chapters. His premise is that readers receive and reinterpret texts by reason of their context, but when he turns to the re-reading of the story in the early centuries of Christianity and in our own time, he does not analyze the changed “cultural encyclopedia” that produced the revised readings. The most he offers is the generalization that in these later texts “the story of the Magi has been made to conform to various settings and ideologies” (140).

[16] The intriguing question that remains for us at the end of this study is the one in the title that the author has only partially answered: Why have the Magi fascinated Christians for 2000 years and why do they still fascinate? Vanden Eykel has argued that the sketchiness and ambiguity of those original twelve verses, with so many gaps and so much left unexplained, have stirred our “curiosity and creativity” (202) to complete the story. He also notes that the sheer mysteriousness of these figures turns them into blank screens onto which subsequent writers have projected “the characteristics, hopes, dreams, and ideologies of their readers” (203). But dozens of more central biblical stories are equally sketchy. And Luke’s angel-anthemed shepherds are also pretty blank screens, yet their thirteen-verse story has not been similarly retold and elaborated—and they certainly don’t regularly turn up on Christmas cards sold by the Metropolitan Museum. So what is it that so fascinates us about the Magi? Could it possibly be that, despite all our pious Christmas rhetoric about a God who humbles himself to live among the poor and befriend the marginalized, what really captures our imagination is stupendous wealth, exotic distance, and regal proximity to worldly power (affording the opportunity, or so we think, to act into history for the good of all)?

Diane (D.M.) Yeager

After retiring from teaching ethics and philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Diane Yeager is now delighting in a totally new phase of learning as a docent at the Smithsonian's  National Museum of Asian Art.