Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Feast of the Epiphany

Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi is explored here. It's in the Getty collection. From the Bible Archaeology Review comes a helpful article by Robin Jensen, "Witnessing the Divine: the Magi in Art and Literature." She makes several useful points:
  • Neither their names, their number (three), their physical descriptions nor the date of the magi’s arrival appears in the Bible. Over time these cherished traditions were added to the brief gospel narrative, probably first through oral tradition. By the fourth century, the magi’s arrival was celebrated as the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 (12 days after Jesus’ birth on December 25). (Even today, in some parts of the Christian world, January 6, rather than December 25, is a time for exchanging presents, in commemoration of the gifts of the magi.)
  • Their assumed number was undoubtedly derived from the three gifts presented to Jesus in Matthew. The number wasn’t always taken for granted, however. A wall painting in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla shows four magi; one in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus depicts two. A variety of Syrian documents name twelve.
  • The names and nationalities of the magi also varied throughout the world, especially in the East. An Armenian infancy gospel from about 500 lists them as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia—and is thus closest to the Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar) and Balthassar of the medieval Latin church.
If Origen is correct that the Magi were the first to recognize Jesus as Messiah, isn't it salutary to remember on the Feast of the Epiphany that those recognized as outsiders have insights into and claims upon Jesus that predate ours?

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