The Return of the Wise Men
The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story
Richard C. Trexler
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997) 289 pp., $35.00 (hardback)
We all know the story of the magi—or think we do. But when did we learn that there were three wise men from the East who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus, and how do we know their names? The Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12) provides very little information about the magi (it never mentions how many there were or what they were called), and yet popular imagination has made them familiar fixtures in all sorts of presentations of the Christmas story. Richard Trexler, a professor of history at the State University of New York, Binghamton, shows how these shadowy actors in Matthew’s spare account came to play a key role in the formation of myths and symbols that gave authority to the Christian story, legitimized secular monarchies, supported religious authorities, imparted status to communities and cities, and helped to effect social transformation and address injustice. For example, Trexler argues that the appearance of the magi in the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was designed to contribute to papal glory, especially for Pope Sixtus III, who commissioned the work. In the late Middle Ages and in early modern Europe, Trexler suggests, the magi tradition was transformed into a cult of royalty (“princely power”). But this tradition was suppressed during the age of revolution, in the 18th century.
The Journey of the Magi is thick with detail and packed with analysis covering an impressive amount of material. Trexler takes the reader from the first century to the present, and ranges geographically from Europe to the Americas as he traces the fascinating evolution of the magi from enigmatic pilgrims to figures of worldwide importance. He provides more than 50 illustrations that show how the magi have been portrayed throughout history and integrates the images with other historical materials at his disposal. However, Trexler has a wider purpose than simply collecting and disseminating data on his subject. He uses the 2,000-year history of the magi story to study how religious myths develop in relation to their social circumstances. Myths and symbols such as the magi story transform their social contexts, sometimes subversively. Trexler is above all interested in how the magi story is used to fashion political propaganda. In his last chapter Trexler takes on the commercialization of the magi and shows the irony of the secular use of the magi story to promote the purchase of expensive gifts, which he calls the “ultimate fusion between modern merchandising and a mysterious quasi-sacral past.”
Trexler, a social historian, is far less interested in the theological or devotional (or even art historical) aspects of the magi legend than he is in its social and political appropriation. This limitation will disappoint those readers who are more interested in the other approaches.
Despite many riches in this volume, the density of Trexler’s writing and his overly academic prose style will put off many. He presumes that readers will understand specialized terminology and esoteric technical arguments, and his use of such unfortunate plurals as “sarcophaguses” is mildly irritating. More importantly, Trexler seems unaware of some key recent scholarship, including the writings of Thomas Mathews on early Christian iconography and Thomas Talley on the Christian liturgical year (Trexler erroneously asserts that western Christians have heard the gospel of the magi on January 6th for “almost two millennia,” although the tradition dates no earlier than the fourth century).
Most egregious, however, are Trexler’s references to patristic sources only as they appear in the writings of modern historians and his citing only those secondary works rather than leading the reader to the primary texts themselves. This will frustrate readers who wish to follow up on Trexler’s references, since many of the sources he cites are neither widely available in North America nor in English. For this reason, one might question the thoroughness of some of Trexler’s research, but even more the quality of the editing by Princeton University Press, which should have caught most of these problems in the manuscript stage.
Trexler does make an important contribution in his description of the development and significance of “magi theatre” and the place of processions and players in the drama of social, political and liturgical invention. Trexler describes, for example, the cabildos (confraternities, or brotherhoods) that moved from Spain to the New World and staged magi plays that took on an element of social or class rebellion, offering a vehicle for solidarity among disenfranchised Creoles or mestizos. “The dramatized story of the magi induced some devotees to rebellion,” notes Trexler.
Trexler’s basic thesis is quite correct: The magi legend is most powerful—and its purpose is most realized—when it is embodied in the pageantry of kings and peasants, children and bishops, diplomats and revolutionaries. Trexler’s appeal, in his concluding paragraph, for a return of the magi as the powerful mythic figures of scripture—rather than the “infantile, poor, scruffy” figures they have become in our modern age and in popular culture—shows just how affected he has been by his project and how much he hopes his reader will be challenged to take the story up again, this time in the pilgrimage toward a “new world order.”
Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel
Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 352 pp., $36.95 (hardback)
Susan Ackerman’s subject—women and the biblical tradition—is one of the hottest topics in biblical studies and has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about the Bible. She comes at the topic by focusing on some of the major female characters in the Book of Judges, among them Deborah, Jael, Delilah and Samson’s mother.
Ackerman begins by identifying each character as a type—military hero, cult specialist, 046queen mother, wife, mother, daughter—and then investigates how these types appear elsewhere in the Bible and in the literature of the ancient Near Eastern world. She concludes by reflecting more broadly on the ways women are defined by their sexual relationships with men (and the consequences thereof); here she considers virgins, prostitutes, widows, concubines and barren women.
Ackerman sees the Bible as primarily a religious document as opposed to a historical or literary one. Thus, she is interested in what it conveys about “the theological and ideological influences and suppositions concerning women.” Ackerman not only explores how the Book of Judges articulates such influences and suppositions, but she goes on to compare Judges in this regard to other biblical books and to other ancient religious works produced by the Canaanites, Egyptians and Greeks.
Ackerman believes her method represents a middle way between old-style historical analysis (that is, the search for “what really happened”) and a purely literary analysis that seeks to understand these stories as literature, with their own internal logic, and not as the products of a particular time and place. Thus Ackerman does not assume any historical reality behind the narratives she analyzes, but she does presuppose a historical reality for the authors and audiences who fashioned, cherished and passed these narratives on.
This approach works especially well when Ackerman notes how Canaanite descriptions of the bellicose goddess Anat influenced the depictions of Deborah and Jael in Judges 5. While Judges portrays Deborah and Jael as clearly human, each woman retains some of Anat’s military and sexual characteristics. For example, Anat’s military exploits are comparable to Deborah’s decisive actions on the battlefield (Judges 5:7). And Anat’s bargaining with Aqhat for a bow and arrows is laced with eroticism, just as Jael’s killing of Sisera has strong erotic overtones (Judges 5:27). (Of course, when adopting such Canaanite traditions, the Israelites altered them so there was only one divine actor—Yahweh.) Ackerman’s method succeeds here because the two traditions date to about the same time and come from neighboring areas—the Anat traditions can be traced back to the 13th century B.C. and to Ugarit in particular, while most scholars date the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 to 12th-century B.C. Israel.
More tenuous, however, is the analysis of Jael’s role as a cultic functionary, which depends heavily on a supposed constellation of meanings around the term Kenite (Jael is identified as the wife of Heber the Kenite in Judges 4). Also less successful is Ackerman’s 048attempt to find parallels between Judges 21, in which the daughters of Shiloh, while dancing in the vineyards, are kidnapped by a group of Benjaminites to be their wives, and ancient Greek stories about dancing maidens who are abducted. Given the geographic and cultural gaps involved, Ackerman wisely refrains from asserting direct influence in either direction. As a result, she never reaches any clear conclusions here.
But these are minor cautions. The book is a real step forward in understanding the roles and imagery of women in the biblical tradition, thanks to Ackerman’s skill in drawing upon and synthesizing a wide range of primary and secondary materials. It is also blessedly free of typographical errors. Copious endnotes follow each chapter, a practice preferable to grouping them at the end of the book; still, this reader yearns for the increasingly rare practice of placing notes at the bottom of the page.
The compendium of materials written a feminist perspective that Ackerman draws on is striking . It is worth noting that Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen is the first book written by a woman in the Anchor Bible Reference Library, which forms one leg of the prestigious Anchor Bible project (along with the Anchor Bible Dictionary and the Anchor Bible series of commentaries). More generally, Ackerman’s book is part of a new generation of work that moves us forward in our understanding of the place of women in the life and literature of ancient Israel. May we have many more like it.
The Return of the Wise Men
The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story