The Story of the Magi: Biblical Origins of Anti-Semitism

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing”
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

When Alexander Pope wrote about the dangers of a little learning, he might not have had the Bible in mind. In the eighteenth century, few people realized or cared that Christians who knew the Bible primarily through what they heard in church were absorbing a prejudice against the Jews. What they learned from the Bible strengthened their spiritual well being by convincing them of their moral superiority to the Jews. Their sense of superiority was all the justification Christians needed for pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, and violence directed toward Jewish people. The question for progressive Christians today is this: Can we learn from the Bible without perpetuating antisemitism? As an attempt to come to grips with that question, I will focus on one particular story, the account of the wise men following a star to Bethlehem.

Of all the Bible lessons that Christians have learned, perhaps none has had a more malevolent influence than the charming story read each year at the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Most Jews are only too aware that they have suffered for nearly 2000 years from attitudes Christians have learned in their churches. They may not realize, however, that the celebrations of the Christmas season have helped to perpetuate these sentiments. The stories associated with the celebration of Christmas are so familiar that most Christians also fail to recognize their antisemitic bias. Although the story in Luke presents an unflattering picture of the people among whom Jesus was born, the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew even more clearly betrays early Christian prejudice against the Jews.

(When I use the name “Matthew”, I do so for the sake of convenience. I assume that the gospel that bears this name was composed from both oral and written sources and went through a process of editing, during which new elements may have been added, including the first two chapters.)

To grasp the true nature of Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth, you have to take a fresh look at the gospel passage and put out of your mind all the Christmas cards and carols loosely based on the text. You have to forget about the birth story in Luke. Look closely, and you will find no manger, no stable, no camels, no kings, and no specific number of visitors from the East. What do you have left? What you have is a silly story about a star that even a first-grade child who listens carefully can see is utter nonsense.

This star behaves as no other star ever has or could.. Not only does it move through the sky, but observers can tell what town the star is over. If that is not sufficient nonsense, the reader is supposed to believe that observers could tell which house the star was over. If any people in New England looked up into the night sky, they could not tell if a star was over New York City or Cambridge, Massachusetts. If any star or planet or comet ever came close enough for anyone to know what northeastern seaboard town it was over, the northeastern seaboard already would have been incinerated along with the rest of the world. Even if the author of the story did not have a twenty-first century first grader’s knowledge of astronomy, I imagine that the author had occasionally looked up into the night sky and must have known that stars do not behave like the one in the story. Either the author was a very silly person, or the story is not about what we normally think of as star.

The most plausible explanation for Matthew’s star came to me in a reprint of an article that had appeared in the December 1993 issue of the Bible Review. Written by Dale C. Allison, Jr., the piece was called, “What was the Star that Guided the Magi?” Allison points out that in ancient times the stars were thought to be living beings. He quotes Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher who wrote that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.” Allison goes on to examine the understanding of stars revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job speaks of a time “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:7) These heavenly beings had other functions in addition to singing and shouting. God could send them to support God’s people in battle. “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” (Judges 5:20) The stars, who could be sent down from the sky to do God’s bidding, were sometimes called angels.

Perhaps most revealing is the story of Jacob when he was alone in the desert with only a rock for a pillow. “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12) The heavenly beings could come down out of the sky when God had a job for them. As Allison wrote, the “angels commonly served as guides in ancient literature.” Probably the best known example of a guiding angel is the one that led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the promised land. God said, “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” (Exodus 23:20)

Near the conclusion of his article, Dale Allison points out that thinking of heavenly bodies as angels was “an option for Christian theology” until the sixth century. It was not until the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 that church leaders decided that the stars were not reasonable beings and did not have souls.

If Matthew had an angel in mind in writing the story about the star, the account makes sense in the context of the time. Today, people who believe that the lights in the night sky are angels can accept the second chapter of the gospel as a report of an historical event. Those of a more skeptical nature, such as I, will have to ask: What is the point of the angel in the story? The answer, I am afraid, is that the presence of the angel is to reenforce the impression that Gentiles are good people and Jews are bad people.

Although the word “Gentile” does not appear in the story, the good people are described as coming “from the East.” They are not from Judea, they have no knowledge of Hebrew scriptures, and they do not worship at the temple in Jerusalem. They are definitely not Jews, and they are just as definitely the good guys of the story. These foreigners are called “magi”, translated as “wise men” or “astrologers”. Exactly what Matthew had in mind in using the term is a matter for speculation, as is the number of them who made the journey. Matthew leaves no room for doubt, however, about the qualities with which he has invested these characters in his story.

In the first place, these magi were indeed wise. They studied the sky and perceived a sign that a king had been born in Judea. They realized that it was incumbent upon them to pay homage to the new king. They were wise enough to accept the guidance of the angel/star. They were not taken in by King Herod’s attempts to use them for his own purposes.

The magi were people of courage. Following the angel/star, they were willing to venture into the unknown. They openly asked for directions. They were not intimidated by an audience with Herod, the King of the Jews.

Matthew does not supply any details to give the reader a picture of how he imagined their economic circumstances, but the gifts the Magi brought with them suggest that they were generous people. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not inexpensive presents. They were generous gifts, even if the Magi were wealthy.

The most important characteristic of the Magi is that God chose them to pay homage to the new-born king. As God had sent an angel to guide the children of Israel to the promised land, so had God sent an angel/star “ahead of them . . . until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

In writing his story about the birth of Jesus, Matthew created characters with the qualities he saw in himself and in his fellow Gentile followers of Jesus. They were perceptive, courageous, and generous. They understood themselves to be the people God had chosen to replace the Jews who had refused to accept Jesus as the son of God and as their king. The behavior of the Gentiles in the story stands in marked contrast to the actions of the Jews, represented by Herod and “all Jerusalem.”

Although Matthew does not call Herod and the people of Jerusalem “Jews”, he leaves the reader with no doubt about those whom God had intended to be the subjects of his son Jesus, who was born to be “king of the Jews”. At least that is the way Matthew 2:2 has it in most English translations. The Five Gospels produced by the Jesus Seminar, however, uses the term “Judeans”, perhaps a more accurate rendering of the original Greek ioudaioi. With their choice of “Judeans” the Jesus Seminar has alerted the English-speaking world to a major factor in contemporary antisemitism.

People listening to English translations of the Christian Bible assume that the Jews they hear about are the same people who founded the modern state of Israel. The earliest reference to Judeans, however, can be found in the Hebrew scriptures where the term refers to the tribe descended from the patriarch y’hudah, or Judah. The tribe of Judah was briefly united with ten other Hebrew-speaking tribes under David and Solomon. After the death of Solomon in 926 BCE, Judah became a separate kingdom with its political capitol and cult center in Jerusalem. The northen kingdom was the first to fall to foreign conquest. Judah held out until 587, when Jerusalem was invaded and the temple destroyed. From the time the temple was rebuilt in 520 BCE until the Romans destroyed it 70 CE, people whose worship life centered in the temple were known as Judeans, even if their ancestors belonged to one of the other tribes. By the end of the first century, when a religion centered on the synagogues and the teachings of the rabbis had evolved from the practice of the Pharisees, any adherent of this religion was known as a Judean. The Jesus Seminar has suggested that in English the word “Jew”, which lost the “d” sound during the middle ages, should be used to differentiate a people of a particular religion that did not exist before 90 CE from those who lived at a time when “Judean” indicated an association with a tribe, or a territory, or a cult.

At the same time that rabbinic Judaism was taking form, the followers of Jesus under the leadership of Paul began welcoming Gentiles into their communities without insisting that they conform their diet and dress to rabbinic rules. Neither did they require Gentile men to be circumcised. The leaders of the synagogues, however, were not willing to make such concessions for their Gentile converts. In order to preserve their spiritual identity, the rabbis came to the conclusion that they could no longer tolerate the confusion caused by the Jesus followers in their midst. Even the Christians who were born Jews and followed the rules were no longer accepted. Their rejection from the synagogues left many followers of Jesus feeling hurt and angry, but there was another reason for the hostility that developed between the two groups, Jews and Christians, that emerged from the Pharisee tradition. They found themselves in fierce competition for converts among the Gentiles. The depth of the animosity on the Christian side is reflected in a curse Matthew attributes to Jesus. In The Five Gospels the curse reads, “You scholars and Pharisees, you imposters! Damn you! You scour land and sea to make one convert, and when you do, you make that person more a child of Hell than you are.” (Matthew 23:15)

Another use of the word further complicates an appropriate understanding of “Judean”. During the first century people in the southern part of Herod’s realm were called Judeans while people in the north were Samaritans or Galileans. Apparently the division was as important for them as the division between the northern and southern parts of Ireland are today. In Angelas’s Ashes, Frank McCourt says that living in Limerick he was always suspect because his father, although a Catholic, was from the north. His own grandmother accused him of having “Presbyterian hair”. According to John’s gospel, the Judeans challenged Jesus with a similar kind of guilt by geographical association: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48) Apparently, the people from Galilee and Samaria spoke with an accent different from that spoken in the south. The servant-girl in Matthew 16:73 accuses Peter: “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” According to the gospels, most of Jesus’s early followers were Galileans so to outsiders, Greeks and Romans, the later followers of Jesus – even the Gentiles – were called “Galileans” to differentiate them from the Jews. When these second and third generation Christians wrote their Jesus stories, they naturally identified themselves with the Galileans, in their minds the good people, while they pictured the Judeans as the bad people.

Matthew uses Herod and the people of Jerusalem to embody all the classic traits of bad people. Matthew may not have known that Herod was not a Judean by birth but an Idumuaean. His claim to the throne was based on his marriage to a granddaughter of the last legitimate ruler, but that was all the justification that the Romans needed to appoint him king. Even if he knew about Herod’s ethnic origins, I doubt if Matthew would have cared. The people of a land are represented by their king. The king personifies the whole people, in this case the Judeans. The qualities that Matthew attributes to Herod are the qualities that Christians have assigned to Jews ever since the gospel first appeared. Jews are easily frightened, deceitful, and clever – but not always as clever as they think they are. When in positions of political or economic power, they are capable of great cruelty.

All it took to expose the cowardice of the Jews was an innocent question: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” According to Matthew, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Christians listening to this story year after year come to the obvious conclusion that it does not take much to scare a Jew. They are all miserable cowards.

They are also deceitful, as Matthew demonstrates:

Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

Apparently this meeting had to be in secret because Herod was bent on deceiving the local populace as well as the wise men. He did not want to take the chance that some in Jerusalem might prefer the new king so he excluded even his closest advisors from the meeting. The big lie, however, was his own intention of recognizing the new-born king. As Matthew tells his readers later in the tale, what Herod had in mind was not worshiping but killing the pretender to his throne. Everybody knows that you can’t trust a Jew.

Although the foreign visitors eventually saw through Herod’s lie, Matthew leaves the impression that Herod’s attempt to deceive them was rather clever. The wise men, we are told, needed divine intervention to avoid being taken in by the deception. Only after “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod” did they decide to leave “for their own country by another road.” Herod was clever, but not clever enough. Then when Herod found out that his ploy had failed, as Matthew tells it, his behavior exposed rather fundamental flaws in his ability to reason. “He sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” Most of Matthew’s early readers would have known that Bethlehem was a little town, no more than a village. If mysterious strangers appeared one night at a particular house and left expensive presents, everyone in town would know all about it by breakfast time. To find the child he wanted, all Herod’s agents had to do was ask a few questions. Jews sometimes appear to be clever, but they can be quite stupid on occasion.

The Herod of Matthew’s story was not only stupid, but unbelievably cruel. He killed all those babies and toddlers for no good reason. That is the way Jews are when they get into positions of power. They are capable of great cruelty and will not spare even little children who get in their way. Down through the ages, Christians have chosen to depict Jews as being totally insensitive to the suffering of others. That is an important reason for keeping them in their place.

The flaws in Herod’s Jewish character made his rejection of Jesus all but inevitable. That may be the real point of the story. Herod and the people of Jerusalem damned themselves by refusing to accept the son of God as their king. As a consequence, the Jews are a doomed race. They are no longer God’s chosen people. God has replaced them with the Gentile followers of Jesus. The Christians are now God’s chosen people and have permission to treat all Jews with contempt.

The Christian contempt for Jews probably mattered very little until the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the empire. From that time on, Christians demonstrated their contempt through acts of repression and violence as well as through their words. The Christian attitude toward Jews made possible the Nazi attempt to eradicate them during World War II. Some Christians in America would like to think that our country entered the war to save the Jews from annihilation, but the more likely reason for our entrance into the war was to save our commercial interests from domination by Nazi Germans and Japanese militarists. We Americans turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees during the war. Because we did not want them here, we gave our support to the theft of land from the Palestinians to create a homeland for the Jews far from our shores.

In my opinion, the morally indefensible behavior of “Christian” America was made possible by antisemitic attitudes reenforced by regular readings from the gospels. The typical Jew represented by King Herod has always been present in Christian folk lore and literature, including Shylock in Shakespear’s Merchant of Venice and the jokes about New York Jews told in high school locker rooms. The “little learning” Christians have in regard to their Bible may not have been dangerous to themselves, but it has been catastrophic for the Jews.

The biblically-based Christian prejudice against the Jews has also been a major factor in the oppression of the Palestinians. Not only did we collude in the appropriation of their land for Jewish settlements, but also we have made it nearly impossible for Jews in America to take seriously Christian complaints about the treatment of Palestinians by the government of Israel. Thomas Shaw, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, and his two suffragan bishops joined the picket line in front of the Israeli consulate in Boston to protest the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians. When the media broadcast news of the protest, some Christians in the Boston area were surprised to hear their Jewish neighbors leveling charges of antisemitism against the church leaders. No one should be surprised, however, when Jews interpret as antisemitic any negative comment about present-day Israel. After nearly two thousand years of suffering from Christian antisemitism, Jews have no reason to think that any Christian is capable of holding an unbiased opinion about the modern Jewish state. Jews are not likely to listen to Christians on the subject of Israel until we cleanse our churches of antisemitic teaching.

These observations bring me back to the question with which I began: Can we learn from the Bible without perpetuating antisemitism?

At moments of despair over Christian behavior, I sometimes think that the world would be a better place if we banished the Bible to the vaults of secure libraries where it would be available only for the use of scholars who could prove that they bear no ill will toward the Jews. In more rational moments, however, I am aware of the truth espoused by an evangelical Christian who has supported the reading of Harry Potter. “I learned that anything can be misused when one of our sons picked up a big Bible and clunked his brother on the head with it,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we ban the Bible.” The dangers to young minds imagined by evangelicals who detest Harry Potter cannot be compared with the genuine threats to society inherent in antisemitism, but the point may be the same. Misuse is not a sufficient reason for banning the Bible. Instead we should refuse to be satisfied with a little learning and devote ourselves to the spiritual discipline required for a thorough study of the scriptures.

Oddly enough, we have been more successful in a careful study of the Hebrew scriptures than of the strictly Christian portions of the Bible. We have learned to make distinctions between ancient practice and current values. Although some fundamentalists would disagree, most Christians today do not think that it is appropriate to use the Bible as a means of justifying slavery, polygamy, or concubinage. We no longer follow the voice of the prophet Samuel and hack into pieces our defeated enemies (I Samuel 15). When a study of the gospels and epistles becomes a serious spiritual discipline, Christians can begin to sort out ancient prejudice from teachings of lasting value.

Much excellent work by scholars over the past two hundred years can give serious students of the Bible the background they need to examine any passage of scripture in the light of its historical and cultural context. They can learn about the antagonism that developed between the two groups that emerged from the reforming efforts of the Pharisees: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Once they realize that the gospels are to some extent anti-Jewish polemics, they can identify signs of bias that can be set aside in the search for deeper meaning.

In their study of the Bible, Christians can learn to try other possible translations for troublesome words in the Greek original. Following the advice of the Jesus Seminar, they can practice reading aloud verses in English that use the word “Jews” and substitute “Judeans”. In my experience, when Christians hear the more accurate translation of ioudaioi, their emotional response is different from their reaction to the more familiar “Jews”. For example, make the change in a verse from the passage under consideration: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Judeans?” It is has quite a different ring from “King of the Jews“. Using the appropriate name for people of a particular tribe or geographical location changes the tone of the question. English-speaking Christians do not immediately associate Judeans with their Jewish neighbors or with the government of modern-day Israel

In a study of the Gospel according to John, Christians might want to take retranslation a step further. John uses the word “Jews” 53 times, not counting the times it occurs in the phrase “King of the Jews”. Certainly, the substitution of “Judeans” might reduce the antisemitic sound, but in many passages calling the people of Jerusalem simply “the local people” might make even better sense. Referring to the people who lived in and around Jerusalem as “the local people” would acknowledge the cultural divide between Judeans and those who lived to the north of them in Galilee and Samaria. For example, we can preserve the meaning of John 8:48, cited earlier, by translating it: The local people answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

Once Christians have done their homework, they might be in a position to engage in the next step in Bible study as a spiritual discipline. They can look into a passage as if it were a mirror reflecting back an image of themselves. If we looked into Matthew’s story of the magi and the angel/star, we might see ourselves as fortunate people. Through the life and teachings of Jesus, we Gentiles have been given access to the ancient wisdom of Israel. We have been led to a discovery of the best that is within us. Like the magi, we can be perceptive, courageous, and generous. When we find that at times we really can live up to the best that is within us, we can picture ourselves living as if God’s angel/star were leading us.

When we have identified in the mirror the best of which we are capable, we can look more deeply. When I think of looking into a mirror more deeply, I am reminded of a Charles Addams cartoon. The setting is an old-fashioned barber shop, of the kind we had when I was young. The wall behind the barber chairs was covered with mirrors, as was the wall facing the chairs. The result is that the person in the chair is reflected back not just once but an infinite number of times. In the cartoon, an ordinary man is sitting in the barber chair looking into the mirror opposite, which reflects back an image of an ordinary man. The second of the images is also an ordinary man, as are the third and the fourth and the sixth images, and so on to infinity. But the fifth image is different. It is the face of a werewolf, pure evil.

Look deeply into the mirror that the story of the magi and the angel/star provides. Do you see something in yourself that overtly or secretly delights in ridiculing other people, particularly Jews? Do you see a desire to claim that people of your faith are more acceptable to God than people of other faiths, notably Judaism? Do you see a need to feel superior to other people, especially Jews, to feel solid in your own religion? Do you see a person who must build up self confidence by belittling other people, in particular the Jews? If you can see manifestations of evil lurking five layers deep within you, the mirror has given you a new opportunity for spiritual development. One aspect of most spiritual disciplines is a willingness to be aware of the disagreeable aspects of your own character. If unacknowledged, destructive tendencies buried deeply within will gain control over your behavior. The Bible understood as a mirror, or a series of mirrors, can set you free to be the person you most want to be.

The simple Bible stories that Christians hear, including those read to them during the Christmas season, convey great power. For centuries, Jews have suffered the destructive effects of that power. Through the spiritual discipline of intense Bible study, however, Christians can harness the power and use it to transform themselves. They can gain the capacity to treat all other people, even Jews, with love and respect. Out of that love and respect will come a determination never again to read aloud in church any Bible passage using the phrase “the Jews” and never to read aloud a passage that degrades the Judeans in general or Pharisees in particular without providing a disclaimer.

The results of this change in Christian worship habits will take a long time to produce results beyond the lives of those who have committed themselves to serious Bible study. Daunting as the task may be, I believe the followers of Jesus eventually can rid themselves of the systemic antisemitism that has brought such intolerable suffering to the Jews. If we genuinely make the change, the day may come when we will see an end to the spraying of graffiti that desecrates synagogues. We will note the final disappearance of accusations that Jews are responsible for most of the world’s ills. When that day comes, we may protest the policies of the Israeli government and find that our Jewish neighbors are willing to listen.

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