Honours. Honestly?

Every year, for as long as I can remember, around this time of the year, there are media stories that report the honours that are being bestowed upon citizens in our society.

Every Australia Day in January (as well as every Queen’s Birthday in June), a long list of names is published, honouring lots of people. The awards are categorised under various levels in the Order of Australia: Companions (AC), Officers (AO), Members (AM), as well as a list of people awarded a Medal (OAM). There are both Civil and Military sections in each of these levels.

The reasons identified for the various honours given are identified by various activities undertaken by the recipients. This can include “service to the community” in philanthropic and other worthwhile ventures, often in voluntary capacities with charities, religious groups, community organisations, and the like. These awards say something like “we appreciate that you gave your time, energy, expertise” to this good cause, usually over an extended period of many years, even decades.

I’ve got no complaint about such recognitions being made. Indeed, this seems to fit very well with the stated aim of the awards system, to honour “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement” (see https://www.gg.gov.au/australian-honours-and-awards/order-australia)

There is also “service to the community” through the various professional sectors of society—basically, awards which say “you did a good job in the work that you were paid to do over these many years”. That’s a different kind of recognition. Surely, if a person is paid to do their job, and they do it well, even very well, then their employer should recognise and celebrate this—and perhaps even hold an event to make this acknowledgement more public than just within the in-house of employment?

It is instructive to read the reasons for the upper levels of awards given. Here’s a sampling from the AC and AO awards issued in June 2020. First, there is “For eminent service to the people and Parliament of Australia, particularly as Prime Minister, and through significant contributions to trade, border control, and to the Indigenous community” (yes, that was Tony Abbott); “For distinguished service to the people and Parliament of New South Wales, particularly as Premier, and to the community” (Mike Baird, in NSW); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of New South Wales, and to women in politics” (Bronwyn Bishop, NSW Senator); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of Queensland, and to fisheries research and development” (Ron Boswell, Qld Senator). Enough said.

After all these political personages, there follows awards for “distinguished service to business in the energy, gas and oil production and infrastructure sectors … to aerospace and mechanical engineering, to education and research … to business, particularly through a range of travel industries, to professional tourism organisations … to public administration, and to international legal practice, through senior counsel and advisory roles … to higher education, particularly in the field of economics and public policy, and to professional societies.”

So that’s one way to analyse the awards. The higher awards go to politicians and people at the peak of their respective professional fields. All for doing their jobs well. Occasionally the phrase “and for community service” sneaks in, but not often. So it’s really about awarding the privileged and powerful who have “made it”.

They have “made it” by the hard slog of winning lots of elections, or by the hard slog of doing their demanding job really well. We could well debate whether we need this whole complex system to pat on the back those who’ve already received accolades, the trappings of office, the height of their professional work, for this hard slog.

There’s another way to looks at all of this. That’s an analysis that our own Governor General, David Hurley (pictured below), has offered this year.

As the person responsible for overseeing this whole process, he has noted some very striking biases. Such as:

The higher awards – the Companion of the Order of Australia and the Officer of the Order of Australia – tend to go to the rich, male and powerful. About 130 directors of boards of ASX 300 companies are members of the Order of Australia, and the suburbs in which AC and AO members are most likely to live are Toorak in Melbourne and Mosman in Sydney, followed by Melbourne’s South Yarra and Kew, and Sydney’s exclusive Vaucluse.

No one in the “Multicultural” or “Disabled” fields of endeavour have been made members of the AC, but the “Parliament and Politics” category has 42 ACs, while “Business and Commerce” leaders have 48 of them.

And indigenous Australians are completely under-represented in the honours system. In fact, there has not even been an indigenous member of the Council for the Order of Australia for almost a decade, now.

That’s an extraordinary admission by the very person charged with overseeing the system—a clear, public recognition that (as he wrote recently to the various peak bodies who need to bring recommendations), “quite candidly, ‘I don’t think you’re doing well enough.’ ”

It’s a system for rich, white, privileged blokes — rich, white, privileged blokes, who reward other rich, white, privileged blokes — and who sometimes let others squeak in, just a little, but not at the upper level, no thank you, just at the lower levels of recognition.

It’s a system that is completely inappropriate for the current context. It’s a system that needs to end. And there is already one extremely high-profile award in this year’s Australia Day honours that has highlighted, once again, the embedded inequities, biases, and discrimination that is at the heart of a system that rewards a person for things that are so far removed from recognising “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement”.

So here’s the deal: what if all those “little people” who are nominated for an award, actually say, “thank you, but no thanks”. What if all the folks who genuinely merit such recognition — women, Aborigines, faithful community group leaders, devoted church and charity people, and even philanthropists, and the like — what if they turn it down, and leave only those rich, white, privileged blokes as the recipients?

And wouldn’t it be great if this mass rejection movement was led by all those folks (good, honourable, decent devoted) who are people of faith? Who live by the guide, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44)?

Who adhere to the instruction, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others … when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (Matt 6:2-4).

Who pattern their whole lives on the word that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)?

Such a wholesale mass repudiation of the honours system would expose that system for what it is. And would hopefully drive us closer to closing down this biased, anachronistic, self-congratulatory system once and for all.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/order-of-australia-biased-against-women-admits-governor-general-20201222

Textual interplay: stories of Jesus in Mark 1 and the prophets of Israel

The Revised Common Lectionary is shaped with deliberate intention, offering a selection from Hebrew Scripture each week, alongside a portion of the designated a gospel for the year (this year, Year B, it is Mark). For about half the year, there is no specific intention to correlate the Hebrew Scripture passage with the Gospel passage. In some seasons, however, there is a careful selection of the Hebrew Scripture passage, so that it resonates with and complements or intensifies themes in the Gospel passage.

This appears to be the case in the season of Epiphany, during Year B. Whilst the Gospel sections largely trace the opening scenes of Mark (1:1-3:6), the Hebrew Scripture sections are drawn from a range of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, 1 Samuel, Jonah, Deuteronomy, Malachi, Hosea, and stories about Elisha in 2 Kings. (Not all of these passages, nor all of Mark 1:1-3:6, appear in Epiphany in 2021; in other years, when Easter is later in the year, the season of Epiphany stretches over more weeks, as the image below indicates.)

The selection of a prophetic passage alongside, and directly oriented towards, a Gospel passage, invites readers and hearers of these scripture passages to explore in creative ways what themes are highlighted. Back in Advent 2, Isaiah 40:1-11 was offered alongside Mark 1:1-8, the account of the activities of John the baptiser in the wilderness. The logic of this is clear; the Gospel actually directly quotes Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:2b-3, depicting John as “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.”

On the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Hebrew Scripture passages underline the breaking open of the heavens for the voice of the Lord to be heard (Ps 29:3-9 and Gen 1:3; see Mark 1:11). The words of that heavenly voice are drawn from Psalm 2:7 (“you are my Son”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“with you I am well-pleased”).

In following weeks, there are clear resonances of theme between the two selections. On Epiphany 3 (24 January), both Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20 recount call stories. We read the story of Jonah, called to proclaim God’s message to the city of Nineveh, alongside the story of Andrew and Simon Peter, John and James, called to become followers of Jesus.

Jonah is effective in his proclamation to Nineveh, which in turn provokes God to change his mind about the calamity that he had promised for them. That is power!! But this was the second call that Jonah had received (3:1); the first had ended in quite a catastrophe (Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed whole, 1:15-17).

Andrew and Peter, John and James undergo a period of learning-on-the-road with Jesus, before they start to proclaim with power. Theirs was a slowly-evolving call, requiring diligent attention and persistence. And other calls following this pattern are narrated by Mark—Levi (2:15), a crowd following him (8:34-36), and women in Galilee (15:40-41).

On Epiphany 4 (31 January), words attributed to Moses in Deut 18:15-20 are placed alongside Mark 1:21-28. These passages address the question: once we are called by God—then what?? Deut 18 contains a story about the promise God made to Israel, to “raise up a prophet”, while Mark 1 tells the story of the man possessed in the synagogue in Capernaum, who was exorcised by Jesus.

Both stories focus on the distinctive nature of faith in the particular contexts of these stories. The prophet of Israel stands over against “other gods” (Isa 40:20). Jesus of Nazareth is recognised as one who speaks “a new teaching—with authority” (Mark 1:27).

Both stories indicate that being faithful to the call will place us in challenging, daunting, perhaps even threatening situations. Faith is a call to trust in God as we enter into those situations. How is your call being challenged? How are you responding?

On Epiphany 5 (7 February), Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39 offer stories at the start of a significant period of ministry; an unnamed prophet of Israel, speaking to the people as they prepare to step into the wilderness, journeying to the promised land; and Jesus, interacting with people soon after his own wilderness experience (Mark 1:12-13). Both passages are set at the start of a significant period of time; both stories reveal important things about the nature of God, and the ways that God engages with human beings in their lives.

God is portrayed as powerful and sovereign in Isaiah 40; that was comforting and reassuring for the journeying Israelites. God comes with power, also, in Jesus; yet in his humanity, Jesus needs time to replenish and rejuvenate (Mark 1:35).

His example tells us that we need to hold in balance the desire to do great things, with the need to care for ourselves and remain connected with God.

In other years, we would follow on to explore the interplay of passages in Mark 2 and 3 with excerpts from 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 43, Hosea 2, and Deuteronomy 5. But this year, Epiphany ends on 14 February, the last Sunday before Lent. On this day, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9) is linked, quite understandably, with the account of Elijah ascending into heaven, after his mantle is passed on to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12).

This account contains the second of three occasions in Mark’s Gospel where we encounter the voice of God, affirming his Son, in the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7; cf. Ps 2:7). The other instances are at the Baptism of Jesus (1:11) and at his Crucifixion (15:39, although this affirmation is placed on the lips of the centurion who was guarding him).

The three occurrences of this affirmation encompass the whole Markan narrative within this clear claim about Jesus—echoing the very title of this work: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God “ (1:1).

Readings for Epiphany 2021, from the website
of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in the USA,
http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

“Let’s get down to business”: beginning the story of Jesus (Mark 1)

“Before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus, so you know this is about a real person” (so says the author of the book of origins, whom we label as Matthew).

“Before *I* begin, let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this” (so we read in the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us that we attribute to Luke).

“Well, before I begin, let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (in the book of signs, as the author we name as John launches into his Gospel).

By contrast: “Let’s get down to business”, says Mark. And so he does!

The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel rips right in to the story. No preface, no prologue, not set up; just straight down to business. The various scenes in this opening chapter are offered in the revised common lectionary in Year B, largely during the season of Epiphany.

First, the striking moment when Jesus of Nazareth was declared to be the beloved Son, anointed by the Spirit, equipped for his role of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 1:1-13, offered in the lectionary back during Advent, and part-repeated two Sundays ago for the Baptism of Jesus). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

Then, the succinct summation of the message of Jesus; just four short, snappy phrases: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe in the good news” (1:14-15). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

This summary is followed by two compressed accounts, told in formulaic exactitude, in which Jesus calls four of his key followers, brothers Simon and Andrew (“follow me; they left their nets, and followed him”), and then brothers James and John (“he called them; they left their father, and followed him” (1:16-20). Mark 1:14-20 is the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (24 January).

These two call narratives establish the nature of the movement that Jesus was initiating. He sets out a call to all four brothers; an exclamation, to which they must respond: “follow me!” The call invites a specific, tangible, and radical response: “leave everything”. And both encounters result in a new, binding commitment to Jesus: they “followed him”. The same pattern repeats with Levi in 2:14, and then with others (2:15; 8:34-36; 15:41). A rich young man comes to the brink, but then pulls away at the last moment (10:21).

Ched Myers offers a good exploration of how this scene establishes the dynamic of radical discipleship which permeates Mark’s Gospel, at https://inquiries2015.files.wordpress.com/2002/08/02-1-pc-mark-invitation-to-discipleship-in-ringehoward-brook-discipleship-anthology.pdf

After these stories of announcement and call to follow, there comes a scene in a synagogue, revealing the authority that Jesus had, in calling people, to command “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, [to] come out of him” (Mark 1:21-28—the lectionary Gospel for 31 January).

This scene defines the cosmic dimension in which the story of Jesus is set, as he grapples with unclean spirits (1:23-26; 3:11; 5:1-13; 6:7; 7:14-29), also identified as demons (7:24-30; 1:32-34, 39; 3:14-15, 22; 5:14-18; 6:13; 9:38). Jesus is a human being, situated in first century occupied Palestine—but he is engaged in a contest in a cosmic dimension.

Ched Myers offers a compelling interpretation of the scene in the synagogue: “The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).” See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/29/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice-2/, and the complete commentary on Mark by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

This is followed by a number of scenes (Mark 1:29-39) which are offered in the lectionary for Sunday 7 February. We begin with a pair of complementary scenes—the first set in the hustle and bustle of the village, where Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons (1:29-34); the second an early morning start, where Jesus prays “in a deserted place” (1:35-37). This contrast is deliberate, and instructive. Both settings are vital for his project of radical discipleship.

This latter scene evokes an earlier scene, immediately after the public dunking of Jesus in the Jordan river (1:9-11), when Jesus spends a highly symbolic forty days “in the wilderness” (1:12-13). Although it was the Spirit which drove him into wilderness (1:12), it was Satan who tested Jesus during this period (1:13). And that seminal encounter sits alongside the first public declaration of Jesus as “beloved Son”, made over the waters of the Jordan (1:11).

The author then provides a characteristic summation of the activity that Jesus was called to do: “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38-39). Subsequent summaries in this vein appear at Mark 3:7-8, 4:33-34, 6:12-13, 6:56, 10:1. The opening chapter sets the pattern of behaviour by Jesus.

A final, intensely emotional scene brings this substantial opening sequence to a close. Jesus is approached by a leper, seeking to be “made clean” (1:40-42). The way Jesus responds to this need is striking: what the NRSV translates as “moved with pity” is actually better rendered as “being totally consumed by deep-seated compassion” (1:41). An alternative textual variation renders the emotions of Jesus more sparsely: “and being indignant”.

The command to adhere to the law by bringing a sacrificial offering to the priests for his cleaning (as any teacher of Jewish Torah would advocate—Lev 14) is, strikingly, expressed in the typical manner of a wild magic healer; the NRSV translation, “sternly warning him”, is better expressed as “snorting like a horse”—the use of striking, dramatic language being a characteristic feature of ancient healers (1:43-44).

The final scene collects all the activity of the opening chapter into the bustling energy of the swarming public square. Jesus can no longer remain isolated or removed; “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). This passage, along with other section of chapter 2, appears in the lectionary only in a year when Easter is later and thus the season of Epiphany is extended by further weeks.

*****

It is worth our while considering the flow of events and sequence of scenes that Mark provides, as he hurriedly “gets down to business” in his narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Why has this author chosen these particular scenes? What insights into Jesus, and his followers, does he want to offer us, as his story gets underway?

One clue is in the way that he portrays Jesus: Jesus is intensely religious (1:9-11, 35), articulately focussed on his key message (1:14-15, 22, 39), building a movement of committed followers (1:16-20), regularly living out his faith in actions alongside his words (1:26, 31, 34, 39). Jesus was energised by personal contacts with individuals: the brothers whom he called (1:17, 20), the man in the synagogue (1:25), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), and a begging leper (1:40). In the midst of all of this, he makes sure that his central message (1:14-15) is conveyed with clarity and passion (1:27, 39, 45).

Jesus is nourished by quiet moments, in his wilderness testing (1:12-13) and in early morning prayer (1:35), and yet is consistently immersed in the public life of his community. Mark most likely exaggerates, but he does indicate that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5), teaching a crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33), told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45).

It is an holistic portrayal of Jesus, setting the scene for the story that follows. Jesus is passionate and articulate, compassionate and caring, energised and engaged, focused on a strategy that will reap benefits as the story emerges. And yet, as we know, that passion and energy will also lead to conflict, suffering, and death; a conflict already depicted in some of these opening scenes, as the story commences, but soon to make its presence felt in full force as the narrative continues.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

Let there be light: the season of Epiphany (Gen 1)

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany refers to the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation. It is applied to this season, which follows on from Christmas, and is initiated by the story of “the star in the east” told in Matthew 2:1-12.

The birth of Jesus, and the story of the Magi following the star, signals the early Christian belief that God was acting in a new way through this child. The Magi come from the east, following the star, to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Light is of symbolic significance in this story, as is the theological claim that the child Jesus provides a revelation of God.

During the five Sundays of Epiphany, we start into the long haul of this year, following week by week the stories contained in the earliest account of Jesus, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know more typically as the Gospel according to Mark.

Alongside these Gospel excerpts, the passages set in the lectionary from the Hebrew Scriptures have been carefully chosen. These passages illuminate the message of the Gospel which we hear each week from the New Testament, as we celebrate Christ as the light that comes into the world, illuminating and enlightening.

The Hebrew Scripture passage this Sunday (Genesis 1:1-5) tells of the creation of light, the first act of creation. It stands at the head of the whole story about creation. All that happens after that is bathed in the light of God’s creation. Telling of the creation of light establishes a pattern which is then repeated, five more times, for each of the various elements whose creation is noted in this narrative.

This repetition provides a structure, an ordering of the story. That reflects the very strong likelihood that the origins of this narrative lie, not in the distant mists of “the beginning of time”, but in the period after the exile of the people of Israel, in the 6th century BCE.

Many ancient cultures had their own creation stories, told in dramatic narratives and recorded for posterity. The ancient Israelites had their stories, but the account that we have in Genesis 1:1-2:4a comes from that time of returning from exile.

As the people returned from their decades of living in Babylon, they encountered the distressing scene of their former glory, the city of Jerusalem, in ruins. The hard work of rebuilding the city lay ahead of them. Under the leadership of the priests, the work of construction was inspired by the story of the creation. The structure and order in the creation narrative reflected the needs of the people at that time.

The same structure and order also reflected the liturgical structures set up in association with the rebuilt temple. Books were written, drawing from older oral traditions, that set out a complex and highly regulated system of sacrifices and offerings, to be brought to the temple overseen by a priestly class (the Levites, men descended from Levi).

The first two verses introduce the key characters: God, first described as the one who creates; a formless void, which is how the earth is first described; darkness, an entity in and of itself (not defined in any further way); and the breath of God, sweeping over the waters of the void. The fundamental image of God, then, is of a creative being, bringing order out of chaos; an image pertinent to the situation of the returning exiles.

The third verse introduces light, which comes into existence through a single word of command. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (1:3). Light is the key entity in the creation story, the first creation of God, a signal of the creative process which then ensues.

Each subsequent creative action results from something that God said (verses 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). And each creation is affirmed with the phrase, and it was so (verses 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, and then verse 30). The pattern is regular and clear.

The fourth verses tells of God’s approval of what had been created: And God saw that the light was good (1:4). Likewise, God then affirms as good the creation of earth and seas (1:10), vegetation (1:12), the sun for the day and the moon for the night (1:18), all living creatures in the seas and in the sky (1:21), then the living creatures on the earth (1:25).

Finally, after the creation of humanity in the image of God, there comes the climactic approval: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (1:31).

In a number of the six main sections of the narrative, God explicitly names what has been created: he called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night (1:5), then God called the dome Sky (1:8), God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas (1:10), followed by plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it (1:12), and the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars (1:16).

After this, the categories of living creatures are identified (1:21, 25), before the climax of creation is identified: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27); and finally, God’s blessing is narrated (1:28).

Finally, each section concludes with another formulaic note: “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5; likewise, at verses 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), before the whole narrative draws to a close with the note that “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (2:2).

Of course, it is from this demarcation of the sections of the creative process as “days” that there came the traditional notion that “creation took place over seven days”. But this flat, literal reading of the “days” is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the narrative in Genesis.

The story is thus told with a set of simple, repetitive phrases, but arranged with sufficient variation to give aesthetic pleasure, and with a growing sense of building towards a climax, to shape the narrative arc towards the culmination of creation (humanity, 1:26) and the completion of the creative task (sabbath rest, 2:2-3).

The noting of the “days” gives the story a shape that we can appreciate—they are not literal 24-hour periods, but a literary technique for the story, much like we find that some jokes, some children’s songs, and some fairy stories are constructed around threes (“three men went into a pub …”, or “three blind mice”, or “Goldilocks and the three bears”, etc).

And on the first “day”, God speaks and Light is created. It is a fine passage for us to reflect on at the start of the season of Epiphany, when we focus on the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation.

Tales from the Magi (the Revelation of the Magi)

Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).

Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.

The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.

In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.

The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:

The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.

The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.

The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.

*****

Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).

The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.

We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)

The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).

Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.

And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).

So there are a lot of accretions clinging to the story in Matthew 2, about the Magi from the east visiting Bethlehem. The basic story itself is an expanded midrash on older scriptural prophecies, worked up for the purpose of telling a fine tale. (See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/04/herod-was-infuriated-and-he-sent-and-killed-all-the-children-matt-2/)

*****

Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.

The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.

Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.

See also https://www.apocryphicity.ca/2014/08/20/more-christian-apocrypha-updates-2-revelation-of-the-magi/ and https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/magi