Monday 22 December 2008

Mark Allan Powell on the Magi

Over the course of a few years, Mark Allan Powell published several articles on the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12:

Mark Allan Powell, ‘Neither Wise Nor Powerful: Reconsidering Matthew’s Magi in the Light of Reader Expectations’, Trinity Seminary Review 20, 1 (1998), 19-31; ‘The Magi as Wise Men: Re-examining a Basic Supposition’, New Testament Studies 46, 1 (2000), 1-20; ‘The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62, 3 (2000), 459-80.

The substance of this material was then incorporated into a book-length treatment:

Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

Apart from anything else, this still remains the best book to read on ‘reader-response criticism’ from a sympathetic and not-so-radical advocate; it’s engaging and fun (yes, really…), and shows how the theory works out on passages in Matthew’s gospel.

In Part 1, among other things, Powell introduces a distinction between ‘expected’ and ‘unexpected’ readings of biblical passages (rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ readings). Part Two asks how the ‘implied reader’ of Matthew’s gospel is expected to read, and what he or she is expected to know and believe. Part Three then offers an extended case-study on the visit of the Magi.

Contrary to most current reader expectations, Powell argues that Matthew’s first readers would be ‘expected’ to realise the Magi were servants not kings, and educated in nonsense. In fact, the story shows how God rejects kings (Herod) and the wise (the chief priests and scribes), and reveals himself to foolish Magi. It is their status as fools that qualifies them as candidates for God’s revelation.

[The following few paragraphs represent a mixture of Powell and my own ‘homiletical’ twists on his work.]

By the first century, the term ‘magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. In fact, our words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ come from this word ‘magi’. So, they were certainly not kings, and not even respectable ‘wise men’, but more like horoscope fanatics – a practice which is condemned in the Bible. It might be more helpful to think of astrologers or magicians. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the magician in Acts 8.

So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of gentile idolatry and religious hocus-pocus. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in Matthew’s story! They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God. They don’t belong to the right religion or the right race. And yet they are there.

It’s possible, then, that Matthew intended the Magi to look like bungling astrologers or sorcerers, more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, they give gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have and know. God used what they knew – the star – and gave them what they perhaps didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.

The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed it. The story of the Magi reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly, to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.

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