The Magi once got me into trouble. I was asked to include a lesson about them in a Sunday School curriculum I was hired to write for a Mennonite publishing house. My rendering of the Magi narrative was definitely Biblical but strayed from the traditional way the story has been relayed on Christmas cards, in famous paintings and in children’s Christmas books. My version of the Magi visit caused a surprisingly passionate response from some of the people who used my lesson.
I did my research and found that contrary to the way the story is depicted in traditional nativity scenes at Christmas the Magi did not see Jesus as an infant but as a toddler, living not in a stable but in a house with his parents.
The famous visitors weren’t wealthy royal kings but ordinary astrologers. Early Christian writings say there were four of them and St. Augustine said there were twelve. A pope in the year 400 decreed their number to be three.
Some translations of the Bible don’t mention ‘men’, they just say astrologers. Could some have been women? Did they ride on camels? We have no idea. The Bible makes no mention of camels.
I asked Denny Bond the artist illustrating the curriculum I wrote to draw a half-dozen Magi, not in royal robes, but in ordinary clothes, perhaps a little dusty and dirty from travel. I suggested he make a couple of the Magi women and make the Magi different ages and from different races. I requested Jesus be a two-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap. Denny created this watercolour rendition of the Magi Visit and I loved it!
I wanted to make the Magi story inclusive and inviting, demonstrating that all kinds of people from different backgrounds and races and genders and classes of society had been invited into Mary and Joseph’s circle to get to know Jesus.
I had read Richard Gardner’s commentary on the book of Matthew and he said modern-day versions of the Magi might be human rights activists, new-age mystics or ardent feminists. Gentile astrologers would have been considered outsiders in Jewish religious circles two thousand years ago, so it is interesting the Matthew account includes them.
After hundreds of copies of my curriculum had been sold my editor informed me she was receiving phone calls questioning my interpretation of the Magi visit. Some asked for my Magi story and the accompanying artwork to be withdrawn or changed. My version which strayed from the traditional ideas we had about the Magi proved upsetting to some people. My editor stood by me and the materials I’d written sold for another decade and at one point were translated into Spanish to be marketed outside North America.
In retrospect, I can understand why some people were troubled by my Magi story. It is never easy to see things in a new way. So much of faith is bound in tradition and that tradition provides stability in a changing world. But if we want a faith that speaks to people in the modern-day we just might have to look at some of our traditional stories in new ways so that they remain realistic and relevant.