Thursday, December 1, 2016

Magi, Gentiles or Jews?

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Damien F. Mackey
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’.
Matthew 2:1-2
Just because they were “from the east” does not necessarily mean that the Magi had hailed from the Far East (Persia, India, China), because Job himself, who was a Naphtalian Israelite:
Job's Life and Times
(hence a non-Gentile), from Transjordanian Bashan, “was the greatest man among all the people of the east” (Job 1:3).
In Part One of this series: I tentatively listed the Magi amongst various biblical candidates generally considered to have been Gentiles, writing as follows:  
Here it will be argued that - contrary to what is often believed about the following biblical characters - none of these can really accurately be designated as an ‘enlightened pagan’:


2.      RAHAB (in genealogy of David and Jesus)

3.      RUTH

4.      ACHIOR (in my Catholic Bible, Book of Judith)

5.      JOB

6.      (Probably also) the Magi.

And later I noted briefly:
6.      THE MAGI. There is some tradition that has them descending from the family of Job. I would suspect that the “east” in which the Magi dwelt was, not Persia by any means, but the same approximate “east” wherein Job dwelt, in the land of Uz, in Transjordanian Bashan. …. 
Now, I have come across an article by David C. Sim, entitled The magi: Gentiles or Jews?, which opens the door to the possibility that the Magi may have been Jews.
Sim’s Abstract for his article reads as follows:
From the second century onwards the Christian tradition has almost without exception accepted that the magi in Matthew's infancy narrative were Gentiles, and this view also completely dominates modern Matthean studies. Yet this identification of the magi as Gentiles is built upon a number of unconvincing arguments, which fail to stand up to closer scrutiny. A re-assessment of the evidence reveals that the evangelist did not stipulate the racial origins of the magi. They may have been Gentiles, but it is equally plausible that they were Jews.
After proceeding through the usual “seven arguments” raised by scholars in favour of a Gentile ethnicity for the Magi, Sim concludes his article by writing:
The preceding discussion has attempted to show that not one of the seven arguments produced by scholars to prove that the magi of Matthew 2:1-12 were Gentiles has any validity. Much of the evidence is in fact ambiguous and can apply just as much to the Jews as to the Gentiles. Despite scholarly claims to the contrary, there were Jewish magi and/or Jewish astrologers who lived to the east of the Jewish homeland, and there were Jews who used the expression "the King of the Jews". The fact that the magi appear not to have known the prophecies concerning the birth-place of the messiah need not necessarily identify them as Gentiles. As the Treatise of Shem demonstrates, it is quite unreasonable to expect Jews who devoted themselves to astrology and other esoteric arts to be experts as well in scriptural exegesis. The arguments concerning the fulfilment of certain Old Testament prophecies, the star of Balaam in Numbers 24: 17 and the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, simply cannot be sustained in view of the absence of formula quotations. Moreover, the claim that Matthew has modelled the magi on the Gentile Balaam is rather incredible, given the universal condemnation of this figure in both Jewish and Christian sources. The final argument, that in this narrative the evangelist establishes a dichotomy between believing Gentiles and unbelieving Jews that is reflected throughout the Gospel, is based upon an incorrect assessment of Matthew's view of both the Gentiles and the Jews.
What conclusions should we draw from this discussion? The first thing to be said is that it would exceed the evidence to suggest that Matthew did not intend the magi to be taken as Gentiles. While none of the seven arguments usually offered in support of this hypothesis is convincing, it must be said that there is no definitive evidence which proves
that they could not be Gentiles. This a small and insignificant victory, however. Precisely
the same can be said of the alternative hypothesis that the evangelist depicted the magi as
Jews. The information Matthew provides about these figures is completely consistent with the thesis that they were Jewish astrologers, but nothing in the story explicitly identifies them as Jews and not as Gentiles. The reality of the situation is that the evangelist did not make clear the racial origins of the magi. We have to presume that Matthew assumed this knowledge on the part of his readers. Unfortunately we modern readers are not privy to this information, so we are faced with a choice between the two alternatives.
The very uncertainty of the evidence does, however, have an important consequence. As noted above, scholars make considerable use of the (Gentile) magi in developing an argument for Matthew's positive view of the Gentile world and for substantiating the  evangelist's universalistic perspective; it is in fact one of the main pillars on which these
theses are built. If, however, the certainty is removed and the Gentile nature of the magi
becomes a possibility to be considered alongside the equally plausible possibility that they were Jews, then these hypotheses are dealt a significant blow. From now on scholars must attempt to build their case without any reference to the magi in the Matthean infancy narrative.
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