Witnessing the Divine Part 2


imagesCANW7YD8

Writing from Carthage a generation after Justin, the apostolic father Tertullian expanded
on Justin’s arguments, suggesting that the magi’s dream instructing them to go home by another
route was not only to be understood literally, but as an admonition to forsake their former
idolatrous habits and practices.
8
This popular interpretation is reflected in art, which often links the three magi with the
three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and with Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6)—
all easterners (Daniel and the Hebrew youths lived in the Persian court) who used their gifts of
prophecy, dream interpretation and perhaps even magic to resist the evil of pagan idolatry. In art,
the magi and these figures are connected in two ways: First, the magi, like the three youths, are
usually garbed in the clothing that Romans associated with Persians and other easterners: short,
belted tunics, cloaks pinned at one shoulder, soft pointed boots and peaked caps.
9
Second,
images of the magi are often paired with the three youths or Daniel, as in the fourth-century
catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus, in Rome (see photos, above), where paintings of the magi
and the three youths are grouped together. In at least one image, the three youths from Daniel
and the magi are conflated: On a fourth-century sarcophagus relief from St. Gilles, France, three
men in eastern dress turn away from an idol and toward a star (see photo, below).
10The First Christmas
© 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 8
Sarcophages Chretiens de la Gaule

Writing from Carthage a generation after Justin, the apostolic father Tertullian expanded
on Justin’s arguments, suggesting that the magi’s dream instructing them to go home by another
route was not only to be understood literally, but as an admonition to forsake their former
idolatrous habits and practices.
8
This popular interpretation is reflected in art, which often links the three magi with the
three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and with Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6)—
all easterners (Daniel and the Hebrew youths lived in the Persian court) who used their gifts of
prophecy, dream interpretation and perhaps even magic to resist the evil of pagan idolatry. In art,
the magi and these figures are connected in two ways: First, the magi, like the three youths, are
usually garbed in the clothing that Romans associated with Persians and other easterners: short,
belted tunics, cloaks pinned at one shoulder, soft pointed boots and peaked caps.
9
Second,
images of the magi are often paired with the three youths or Daniel, as in the fourth-century
catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus, in Rome (see photos, above), where paintings of the magi
and the three youths are grouped together. In at least one image, the three youths from Daniel
and the magi are conflated: On a fourth-century sarcophagus relief from St. Gilles, France, three
men in eastern dress turn away from an idol and toward a star (see photo, below).
10The First Christmas
© 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 8
Sarcophages Chretiens de la Gaule
The parallel between the three youths and the three magi is made sharper in a fourthcentury sarcophagus relief (shown here, compare with photos of frescoes from the
Catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus in Rome) from St. Gilles, in Arles, France. Here,
three eastern men turn away from a Persian official standing beside an idol and point
toward the Star of Bethlehem.
The magi’s special role as witnesses to the true faith was also noted by the church father
Origen, who read the magi’s stories in light of the prophecies of Balaam. According to Origen,
after the star appeared to the magi, they noticed that their magic spells faltered and their power
was sapped. Consulting their books, they discovered the prophecy of the oracle-reader Balaam,
who saw a rising star “com[ing] out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) that indicated the advent of a
great ruler of Israel. The magi thus conjectured that this ruler had entered the world. So, the magi
traveled to Judea to find this ruler, and based on their reading of Balaam’s prophecy, the
appearance of the comet and their loss of strength, they determined that he must be superior to
any ordinary human—that his nature must be both human and divine.
11
The magi, for Origen, are
not simply Jesus’ first visitors, but the first to recognize Jesus as messiah.
Whether or not Matthew intended to link Balaam’s star with the magi’s, the early church
certainly did. Balaam’s figure may be barely discerned behind Mary and Jesus in the painting
(see photo of fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla) of the Adoration from the Catacomb of
Priscilla. He also appears on the fourth-century funerary epitaph of a woman named Severa,
where Balaam stands behind Mary, pointing at the star as the magi approach (see photo of
inscription from fourth-century funerary plaque).
12
By the third century, biblical interpreters were finding echoes of Psalm 72 in the narrative
of the three gift-bearing visitors: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, may all nations
serve him” (Psalm 72:10–11). The magi were identified as these kings of “all nations” who
worshiped the Christian messiah, bowing down to give him homage. They became a potent sign
that Christ’s salvation was predicted and open to the whole world. The rising of the new star
marked the coming of the new age envisioned in the Old Testament.The First Christmas
© 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 9
Scala/Art Resource, NY
“Severa—may you live in God” reads the inscription on this fourth-century funerary
plaque from the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome. Severa appears at left; at right is the
familiar magi scene, with an unusual addition: A man standing behind Mary points out the
star. Although some art historians have speculated that this is Joseph, others believe it
represents the Old Testament prophet Balaam, who predicted that a rising star coming out
of Jacob would herald a great ruler of Israel (Numbers 24:17). According to the secondcentury church father Origen, the magi headed to Judea after reading Balaam’s prophecy.
The passage from Psalms cemented the magi’s identification as kings and led to a fresh
understanding of their origins.
13
The earliest writers had understood the magi to come from one
region (usually identified as Persia).
14
But in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon historian and
theologian known as the Venerable Bede recorded a later tradition that the three magi signified
the three parts of the world—Africa, Asia and Europe—and that they thus might be linked with the
sons of Noah, who fathered the three races of Earth (Genesis 10).
This development is also reflected in art. In the earliest sarcophagi reliefs and catacomb
paintings, the magi appear to be three of a kind, all in “eastern” dress. Gradually, however, each
acquires distinguishing characteristics. As we have seen, in the sixth-century mosaic from
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the magi are represented as being different ages, with
different color hair. By the 14th century, one of the three would appear as black (see photo of
Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi”).
15
As “kings” of all nations, the men also wear
elaborate golden crowns in many later paintings.
16
What may be the most impressive and influential understanding of the magi weaves
together many of the interpretations expressed by the church fathers: that the magi were the
world’s first witnesses to the Trinity. This explains their appearance in almost all artistic images
and literary traditions as three men, different, but alike.
The fourth and fifth centuries (when many of the images of the magi shown here were
made) were a time of great theological debate—first over the relationships of the three persons of
the Trinity, and subsequently about the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. As the first
visitors to recognize who this newborn child was, and what his birth would mean to the wholeThe First Christmas

  1. © 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 10

The parallel between the three youths and the three magi is made sharper in a fourthcentury sarcophagus relief (shown here, compare with photos of frescoes from the
Catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus in Rome) from St. Gilles, in Arles, France. Here,
three eastern men turn away from a Persian official standing beside an idol and point
toward the Star of Bethlehem.
The magi’s special role as witnesses to the true faith was also noted by the church father
Origen, who read the magi’s stories in light of the prophecies of Balaam. According to Origen,
after the star appeared to the magi, they noticed that their magic spells faltered and their power
was sapped. Consulting their books, they discovered the prophecy of the oracle-reader Balaam,
who saw a rising star “com[ing] out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) that indicated the advent of a
great ruler of Israel. The magi thus conjectured that this ruler had entered the world. So, the magi
traveled to Judea to find this ruler, and based on their reading of Balaam’s prophecy, the
appearance of the comet and their loss of strength, they determined that he must be superior to
any ordinary human—that his nature must be both human and divine.
11
The magi, for Origen, are
not simply Jesus’ first visitors, but the first to recognize Jesus as messiah.
Whether or not Matthew intended to link Balaam’s star with the magi’s, the early church
certainly did. Balaam’s figure may be barely discerned behind Mary and Jesus in the painting
(see photo of fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla) of the Adoration from the Catacomb of
Priscilla. He also appears on the fourth-century funerary epitaph of a woman named Severa,
where Balaam stands behind Mary, pointing at the star as the magi approach (see photo of
inscription from fourth-century funerary plaque).
12
By the third century, biblical interpreters were finding echoes of Psalm 72 in the narrative
of the three gift-bearing visitors: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, may all nations
serve him” (Psalm 72:10–11). The magi were identified as these kings of “all nations” who
worshiped the Christian messiah, bowing down to give him homage. They became a potent sign
that Christ’s salvation was predicted and open to the whole world. The rising of the new star
marked the coming of the new age envisioned in the Old Testament.The First Christmas
© 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 9
Scala/Art Resource, NY
“Severa—may you live in God” reads the inscription on this fourth-century funerary
plaque from the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome. Severa appears at left; at right is the
familiar magi scene, with an unusual addition: A man standing behind Mary points out the
star. Although some art historians have speculated that this is Joseph, others believe it
represents the Old Testament prophet Balaam, who predicted that a rising star coming out
of Jacob would herald a great ruler of Israel (Numbers 24:17). According to the secondcentury church father Origen, the magi headed to Judea after reading Balaam’s prophecy.
The passage from Psalms cemented the magi’s identification as kings and led to a fresh
understanding of their origins.
13
The earliest writers had understood the magi to come from one
region (usually identified as Persia).
14
But in the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxon historian and
theologian known as the Venerable Bede recorded a later tradition that the three magi signified
the three parts of the world—Africa, Asia and Europe—and that they thus might be linked with the
sons of Noah, who fathered the three races of Earth (Genesis 10).
This development is also reflected in art. In the earliest sarcophagi reliefs and catacomb
paintings, the magi appear to be three of a kind, all in “eastern” dress. Gradually, however, each
acquires distinguishing characteristics. As we have seen, in the sixth-century mosaic from
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the magi are represented as being different ages, with
different color hair. By the 14th century, one of the three would appear as black (see photo of
Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi”).
15
As “kings” of all nations, the men also wear
elaborate golden crowns in many later paintings.
16
What may be the most impressive and influential understanding of the magi weaves
together many of the interpretations expressed by the church fathers: that the magi were the
world’s first witnesses to the Trinity. This explains their appearance in almost all artistic images
and literary traditions as three men, different, but alike.
The fourth and fifth centuries (when many of the images of the magi shown here were
made) were a time of great theological debate—first over the relationships of the three persons of
the Trinity, and subsequently about the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. As the first
visitors to recognize who this newborn child was, and what his birth would mean to the wholeThe First Christmas
© 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society 10

About brakeman1

Using every tool reaching out to those who seek the shinning light Jesus Christ gives to those who have faith. Keeping uninformed aware of bable with truth and meaning
This entry was posted in Discipleship and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s