Friday, January 06, 2017

The Epiphany - Some Ancient Sources

The arrival of the Magi as depicted
on a Roman sarcophagus fragment,
ca. 4th century AD.
The Scriptural recounting in the Gospel of Saint Matthew of the mysterious wise men who visited the baby Jesus bearing gifts is one of the most enduring and compelling scenes in Sacred Scripture. The rudimentary nature of St. Matthew’s description of the Magi’s arrival has encouraged a flowering of apocryphal literature across the centuries which has added depth and detail to the occasion of the Epiphany.

There are numerous references to the Magi in early post-Scriptural literature. Saint Justin Martyr mentions them prominently in his debate with Trypho (Chapter 78) in the mid-first century AD. Magi were of the priestly caste in Persia and were considered wonder-workers throughout the East. Christians did not deny that the Magi were capable of supernatural acts. Justin, for example, termed such “miracles” as counterfeits wrought by the devil. A converted pagan himself, Justin uses the Magi as a kind of archetype for the pre-Christian gentiles more generally who believed in false divinities because of the deceits of demons. However, upon finding Christ, the Magi were converted to the true belief. St. Justin says:
“For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive.”
Artistic images of the Magi also date back to the earliest days of Christianity. The image above is from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome and shows a faded fresco of the Magi offering gifts to the Virgin and Child above the archway. (Click for a larger image). The artwork in this catacomb is thought to have originated in the mid-third century AD.

With the arrival of Constantine and toleration of Christianity, artistic representations of the Magi become more plentiful. Above is an example from an early 4th century Roman sarcophagus. The three Magi offer their gifts to the Christ Child and Blessed Mother, while St. Joseph looks on from behind. The first Magi points to a set of three dots above the Virgin’s head. Normally a star was represented here. Perhaps three dots represent the Trinity. (Click for a larger image.) For an excellent discussion of the Epiphany in art, please see this site maintained by Prof. Richard Stracke.

The names of the Magi are drawn from a later source: the apocryphal Armenian Gospel of the Infancy. This work, which is believed to date from the early 6th century AD, gives a detailed and fanciful account of the arrival of the Magi, making them kings in command of an army 12,000 strong. Here is a short excerpt drawn from Abraham Terian’s English translation:
And Joseph and Mary, together with the child, stayed (there) not openly but secretly—they say—lest anyone should know. After two days had passed, which was the 23 of the month Tebeth and 8 January, behold, behold the Magi from the east, who had left their land with many armies, arrived in the city of Jerusalem within nine months. And the three Magian kings were brothers. The first, Melkon, was king of the Persians; the second, Gaspar, was king of the Indians; the third, Baltasar, was king of the Arabians…. And the Magi came with joy to the entrance of the cave and saw the child seated in the manger for brute animals, and falling prostrate they worshipped him, both kings and princes and the whole multitude of their throng. And bringing gifts, they presented them to him….

They [the other two] asked Gaspar, the king of India: ‘How did you see him when you were presenting him the frankincense?” Gaspar said: “I saw him as Son of God embodied, seated on the throne of glory and armies of bodiless beings were serving him.” They said to him, “Well said.”

Then they asked Baltasar, the king of Arabia: “How did you see him when you were presenting him the treasure?” Baltasar said, “Physically, I saw him as Son of Man, son of a king, seated on the highest of thrones and countless armies before him.” They said to him, “You too have spoken well.”

Then they asked Melkon, the king of Persia, “How did you see him when you were presenting the myrrh?” Melkon said: “I saw him bodily tortured and dead, then risen from the dead.” They said to him: “You too have spoken well.”

When the kings heard this, they marveled with amazement and said to one another: “What are these new wonders that were shown to us, (our) testimonies being different from one another? We believe the facts we saw with our eyes!”
You have to purchase the book to read more. Warning, it’s an Oxford monograph, so it’s pricey.

Another ancient source, the so-called Incomplete Commentary on Matthew, which appears to be a transcription of homilies delivered by an Arian priest of about the sixth century AD, relates that the Magi continued as believers in the Christ after returning to their homelands, and were later baptized by the apostle, Saint Thomas:
“When they returned, they continued to worship and glorify God all the more eagerly than before, and they proclaimed to everyone in their nation and made many learned. At last, when the apostle Thomas went to that province after the resurrection of the Lord, they joined themselves to him, were baptized by him and assisted in his preaching.”
This excerpt is taken from a translation by James A. Kellerman, available for purchase here.

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