One of the many funny set pieces in John Irving’s spectacular novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is a Christmas pageant at a small New England church. After a children’s choir rehearses the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” a boy in the choir asks, “Where are ‘Ory’ and ‘R’?” It’s been 20 years since I last read Owen Meany, and remembering the scene still makes me giggle.
But are they kings, the Magi of the New Testament? (No.) Are there three of them? (There are three gifts, but the precise number of gift-givers is not stated.) “R” they from “Ory,” or put another way, where are they from? (“From the East” is the vague geography.) These are some of the questions that Eric Vanden Eykel addresses in his engaging new book, which sets out to examine various traditions and ideas surrounding these mysterious figures in the Gospel of Matthew. Vanden Eykel also describes a fascinating legacy. Third-century frescoes of the Magi, wearing Phrygian caps, can be found in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla.a A sixth-century mosaic in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna includes the traditional names of the Magi: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. The apocryphal Armenian Gospel of the Infancy adds even more details to the canonical story, portraying the Magi as both kings and military commanders. To scholars like me, who have studied and written about apocryphal infancy gospels, the early Christian impulse to “fill in the gaps” of Gospel narratives is well known.1 Even so, it remains exciting to be shown these examples by an expert guide like Vanden Eykel.
Readers of BAR, I suspect, will be most interested in what Vanden Eykel has to say about the slender account of the Magi in the New Testament. Their sole appearance comes in a dozen verses in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12). The Magi emerge first as figures “from the East” who, because of a star they see, travel to Jerusalem in search of a king. When Herod hears about their quest, he summons the Magi and asks them to report back on what they find. Warned by a dream, the Magi never pass along the intelligence Herod seeks about an apparent rival.
What could this story mean? Vanden Eykel’s theory is based on exploring the range of meanings attached to the Greek word magoi, and the use of the term in ancient narratives.b From these sources, Vanden Eykel identifies a theme of proximity to power. So too for Matthew’s Magi. Their presence in the home of the infant Jesus and their offering of gifts serve at once as proof of the power of the newborn and of the illegitimacy of Herod’s rule.
In his introduction, Vanden Eykel states clearly that the book examines the Magi “not as historical figures but as fictional characters” (emphasis mine). But the subtitle of the book—“Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate”—may nevertheless lead some to expect a verdict on historical accuracy. The tension between the book’s subtitle and contents could trigger frustration. If so, it would be a shame, since The Magi, in all other respects, delivers on its promises. Readers learn the literary and cultural context of Matthew’s story in rich detail, and much else besides.
To me, the most important “value added” of The Magi comes from getting to know its author. Vanden Eykel mixes in just the right amount of real-life examples and personal anecdotes. The voice of Vanden Eykel, often witty, comes through loud and clear. He is a thoughtful interpreter of Christian rituals and a sober critic of the ills of anti-Semitism in Christian texts and the use of blackface in pious dramas. But the tone is never preachy. In the final chapter, which surveys allusions to the Magi in contemporary storytelling—examples include O. Henry’s sentimental “Gift of the Magi” and Christopher Moore’s edgy The Lamb—Vanden Eykel poignantly reflects on why the Magi still matter. It’s a fitting conclusion. Reading the book is akin to following a gifted docent around a museum: The works on display come to life because we encounter them through the love of a true and learned guide. We may never solve all the mysteries of the Magi, but, thanks to Vanden Eykel’s new book, readers can gain a richer appreciation for the 2,000-year journey of the Magi through the Christian imagination.
One of the many funny set pieces in John Irving’s spectacular novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is a Christmas pageant at a small New England church. After a children’s choir rehearses the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” a boy in the choir asks, “Where are ‘Ory’ and ‘R’?” It’s been 20 years since I last read Owen Meany, and remembering the scene still makes me giggle. But are they kings, the Magi of the New Testament? (No.) Are there three of them? (There are three gifts, but the precise number of gift-givers is not stated.) “R” they […]
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.
2. Related to our word “magic,” the term in Matthew has been translated in a bewildering number of ways: “magi,” “wise men,” “astrologers,” and more. Vanden Eykel wisely leaves magoi untranslated in the book. When discussing the Christian literary characters, he uses the calque Magi.
1. See my book Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).