Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Magi travel the Long Silk Road to see the Newborn King

 Anonimo Romanico Cataluna

In Christianity, Epiphany refers to the moment that a person believes that Jesus is the son of God.  To symbolize this, Western Christian churches generally celebrate Epiphany as the arrival of the wise men from the east at the birthplace of Jesus (The Adoration of the Magi) 12 days after Christmas. Traditionally, Eastern Christian churches celebrated Epiphany (or Theophany) in conjunction with Christ's baptism by John the Baptist on January 19th. Some Protestant churches celebrate Epiphany as an entire religious season, extending from Christmas Day until Ash Wednesday.

The biblical Magi, also referred to as the Wise Men or Kings, were – in the Gospel of Matthew – distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense & myrrh.  Matthew is the only of the 4 canonical gospels to mention the Magi. Matthew reports that they came "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews." The gospel does notmentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been 3 in number, based on the statement that they brought 3 gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number 12. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to the anticipatory Psalm 72:11, "May all kings fall down before him."

The phrase "from the east" (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon), more literally "from the rising [of the sun]," is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. The Parthian Empire, centered in Persia, occupied virtually all of the land east of Judea & Syria (except for the deserts of Arabia to the southeast). Though the empire was tolerant of other religions, its dominant religion was Zoroastrianism. Although Matthew's account does not cite the motivation for their journey, the Syriac Infancy Gospel provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the 3rd chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht (Zoroaster).

There is an Armenian tradition identifying the "Magi of Bethlehem" as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, & Gaspar of India. Historian John of Hildesheim relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China & the Far East with the Middle East & Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China & closed them.