The Journey of the Magi

The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story

Richard C. Trexler
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 292
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Journey of the Magi
    Book Description:

    Matthew's Gospel reveals little about the three wealthy visitors said to have presented gifts to the infant Jesus. Yet hundreds of generations of Christians have embellished that image of the Three Kings or Magi for a myriad of social and political as well as spiritual purposes. Here Richard Trexler closely examines how this story has been interpreted and used throughout the centuries. Biblically, the Journey of the Magi presents a positive image of worldly power, depicting the faithful in progress toward their God and conveying the importance of the gift-giving laity as legitimators of their deity. With this in mind, Trexler explains in particular how Western societies have molded the story to describe and augment their own power--before the infant God and among themselves.

    The author demonstrates how the magi as a group functioned in Christian society. For example, magi plays, processions, and images taught people how to pray and behave in reverential contexts; they featured monarchs and heads of republics who enacted the roles of the magi to legitimate their rule; and they constrained native Americans to fall in line behind the magi to instill in them loyalty toward the European world order. However, Trexler also shows these philosopher-kings as competitive among each other, as were groups of different ages, races, and genders in society at large. Originally modeled on representations of the Roman triumphs, the magi have reached the present day as street children wearing crowns of cardboard, proving again the universality of the image for constructing, reinforcing, and even challenging a social hierarchy.

    Originally published in 1997.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6458-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    Each holiday season, newspapers, television, and planetaria bring us up to date on the star of Bethlehem. We are told what is new about this old “star,” that marvelous astronomic event said to have announced the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The star (or comet or planetary conjunction) is reborn, as is the child: a heavenly event that seems ever new as we would be renewed.

    Most people today, including many Christians, suspect the story of the star because they know that the arrivals, or epiphanies, of many famous leaders, and not just Jesus, are associated with such unnatural manifestations...

  6. Chapter 1 THE STAR ARRIVES
    (pp. 9-43)

    For almost two millennia, western Christians have heard the gospel of the magi on 6 January, the feast of Jesus’ “epiphany,” a word that means “appearance” or “manifestation,” “revelation” or “coming out.” For almost that long, the faithful in most of western Europe have thought that these wise men arrived at the crib on that same date, the twelfth day of Christmas, when Jesus was thirteen days old. During the Middle Ages, 6 January and the previous evening were also called the feast of the kings, when Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar had their annual moment in the sun. Let us...

    (pp. 44-75)

    The years from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 until 1164, when bodies said to be those of the magi were solemnly installed in the archepiscopal city of Cologne, witnessed the slow emergence of Europe as a political and cultural entity. Charlemagne having established himself as a competitor of the eastern Roman emperor, his successors in the West emulated the marvelous Byzantine court rituals before that empire fell to westerners, if only briefly, in 1204. With the end of the Germanic migrations, the new Europe burst outward: in the Crusades against the Moorish civilization of Iberia, in violent attacks on...

    (pp. 76-123)

    Writing about 1172, Werner von Tegernsee pictured all three magi as Chaldeans. They had come together not to follow the star, but to enter into parliament (tagedinge) so as to determine peacefully the borders of their empire¹: again, the magi as structure. It was just such a meeting of the magi in the liturgical drama of St. Benoît that brought its kings to proclaim, “O admirable commerce.”²

    With that comment these dramatic kings did not mean to praise trade (or, corrosive usury), but rather the honorable, even courtly, skill of conversation, that is, the diplomacy by which the “best of...

  9. Chapter 4 EL DORADO
    (pp. 124-157)

    In the years after 1406, when the ports of Pisa and Livorno fell to the previously land-locked city of Florence, diarists recorded a steady stream of details regarding the arrival of the first Florentine galleys and their bundles of new and often exotic materials. It was a new world, and the Arno city reveled in it. Among other reports, one by Paolo Pietrobuoni of 1423 is particularly interesting. He reports that among other valuables incense and myrrh had arrived on the galley from Alexandria.¹ There was no mention of the magi, probably none intended, and yet that offhand observation has...

    (pp. 158-186)

    Martin Luther was having none of it, that eve of Epiphany 1531. Into his second decade of rebellion against Roman Catholicism, Luther in a sermon that day exhorted his listeners to forget the three kings, and instead honor the baptism of Jesus, which as we know was also commemorated on 6 January.¹ That occasion had been truly historic, the preacher said, whereas the memory of the so-called three kings was insignificant and could be dumped. Their cult had been created in the first place to make money (pecuniae causa), and but for the credulity of Christians, it might as easily...

    (pp. 187-205)

    The political importance of the magi came to an end in early modern Europe, but their social significance, transformed for modern needs, has persisted. This transformation has been significant, even as the movement from a traditional to a modern world has been massive. Lay society has increasingly turned the magi into ahistorical ghosts in their recent Epiphanies. An ancient symbol of power and triumph anchored in the notion that they had indeed once visited Jesus, the magi have been transformed by modern cultural pessimists into fetishes producing gifts. The magi embody a peculiarly modern spirit of hope.

    In general, the...

    (pp. 206-210)

    Gustave Doré’s (d. 1883) majestic drawing of the evangelical magi on their way to adore the infant (fig. 53) appears to us as in a dream. Mounted atop an enormous camel, the aged third and last of the wise men towers above his retinue of desert people. All move away from us, back toward the star shining luminously against the blackness of the desert night sky. Can it be that this image was produced scarcely a century ago? The wise man looks back as if beckoning us, one last time, to join his procession back into history. We have indeed...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 211-254)
    (pp. 255-270)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 271-277)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 278-278)