How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik--Part II

Eb wanders in the room looking a little disheveled. His hands are in his pockets.

“Where have you been, Mr Milk Groootto?” I smirk.

He rolls his eyes. “Nowhere.”

After the whole Divine Indiscretion fiasco, I wasn’t sure when I would see Eb again. But I’m glad he’s here and I know just what he needs. I produce a plate of sugar cookies. He perks up when he sees all the colored frosting. We sit at at the table, munch, and talk texts. It is Epiphany after all, the 12th day of Christmas. Wise-men day.

Christmas cookies, image from here.

“Look at this.” I tap my finger on Matthew 2:3. “At the sight of the mágoi, old Herod got shook up. And this was not just one little squeak either. All of Jerusalem was abuzz!”

Using my linguistic skills (as sharp as a rolling pin), I flip deeper into Matthew’s gospel. “A second use of the Greek verb, tarasso is found in 14:26. Here, the same word describes how the disciples felt when they saw Jesus strolling around Lake Galilee. They were spooked! They thought he was a ghost!”

Eb’s eyes are wide now. He stops chewing. We are close to a coup de grâce.

“Even better (or more perverse, I muse) is the description of Belshazzar when he saw the proverbial writing on the wall. Remember that one in the book of Daniel? Tarasso is hiding in there too! You can actually watch as the color drains from the king’s face, the alarm goes off in his head, and the knots of his bowels are loosened. (To get the full affect of this, however, requires a shift over to the Aramaic. I don’t bother Eb with these finer details since he is, at the moment, eating the legs off of a reindeer.)

Rembrandt, “Belshazzar’s Feast.” About 1636-8. Image from here.

“It’s a jump,” I confess. “But when I read about Herod in Matthew 2 my brain does a flashback to Daniel 5. It’s that intertextuality thing.”

Eb never went to seminary, but he is sharp enough to know that the intertextuality thing can be pretty subjective. He reaches for another cookie, a yellow star this time. “Can you nail it down any better than that?”

I pause, realizing that I am climbing out on a very small branch.

“OK, so why is everybody so shook up when the Magi appear? It’s not because these camel jockeys just wandered out of the cold with a few gifts. They were celebrities! Mag means ‘Priest’ with a capital P! These dudes were the educated elite: mathematicians, astrologers, dream-readers. They knew how to manipulate stuff and interpret signs. Do you know that our English word “magician” comes from the Persian mag?”


My eyes cross. “T-th-that’s right, Eb. And check this out. The Parthian senate was called Megisthanes or the “nobles.” Magi were represented in one of the two assemblies that governed the empire.”*

Eb is almost back to his chipper self again. It’s either the sugar or the conversation.

“You mean when the three wise guys came to Jerusalem, it was like three senators coming from another country?”

“Yup. Except the text doesn’t actually say there were three of them. That is just tradition squawking. The text only says there were three gifts.”

“Details, smeetails,” Eb scoffs.

Image of the Wise Men bearing gifts. This mosaic is from the New Basilica of Saint Appollinaris in Ravenna, Italy. Image from here

“I happen to think that there were more than three. Given the value of the gifts the prestige of the bearers, and the distance traveled, I reckon this was a royal entourage that came with guards, servants, animals, black limos, the whole nine yards. That’s what happened when Magi visited the Emperor Nero later on in the first century AD. It was a huge procession.”**

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

“You bet. Impressive and diplomatically immune. Word of such an unlikely visit would have raced to Rome like a fire. Remember, the Roman Empire was in the middle of a Cold War with Parthia. And Herod was the tripwire between these superpowers. If he messed with these guys in a serious way, he would have brought down a World War.” I pause a moment longer. “That’s probably part of the reason why the mágoi left town without saying goodbye to Herod as well. Like Daniel, they read the signs. They sensed how explosive the whole situation was.”

Eb whistles. Crumbs fly. “So everybody was all shook up! I guess it didn’t help that Herod was nuts too. Maybe Jerusalem was nervous because they knew what the Magi were about, but didn’t know how the King would respond. Hey, didn’t he kill his own wife and kids?”

“Mm’hm. Power can flip that way. He wasn’t into competition when he got old.”

“So how did these Parthian sign-readers make the leap from seeing a star to the conclusion that a new Jewish king had been born?” With this question Eb pokes the nose of biggest mystery of the story.

“Daniel,” I suggest. “He’s the missing link. Maybe even Daniel 7, but that’s a stretch. Of course, the wise guys may have had access to some revelation that we don’t know about too. Remember the Belshazzar account. Daniel was counted among the elite in Babylon. He hung out with the magicians, astrologers, dream-interpreters, and sign readers hundreds of years before that first Christmas. Maybe they searched his locker and found some old notes!”

I lean back to admire my own cleverness but Eb doesn’t respond. He is deep in thought.

“I never knew Jesus’s birth was so politically charged.”

I reach for a cookie, a Christmas bell.

“More than you think, Eb. More than you think. It was like the writing on the wall. It made kings tremble.”

James Tissot. “The Magi in the House of Herod.” (between 1886-1894). Brooklyn Museum. Image from here.

* See Strabo, Geography 9.9.

**See Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.6.