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Were the three wise men from China?

The Magi took two years to come from “the east”, far too long to be Babylonia or Persia, opening up the intriguing possibility that Christianity might not be alien to China

By on Friday, 6 January 2012

The Magi, as traditionally viewed   CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

The Magi, as traditionally viewed CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Who were the Magi?

The most brilliant answer to that question is undoubtedly given by TS Eliot in his poem “The Journey of the Magi”, which is freely available online here (I am slightly surprised to find it online, as the TS Eliot estate has the reputation of guarding its copyright with great care).

In Eliot’s poem the Magi are old men – and we know from elsewhere in his oeuvre that he believed that old men ought to be explorers – who see the infant King and who thus witness the death of their world and await the birth of the new world that the King will bring through the Paschal mystery. The Magi are, in other words, marooned in the between times, moored half way between Old and New Testaments. The second death, mentioned at the end of the poem, which they long for is the death of Christ, which will bring salvation, or their own death, perhaps, which will release them from a world grown old and meaningless as it waits for the light of redemption.

It is a bleak, wintry but beautiful poem, but I am not sure if I approve of its theology, for while it rightly values the revelation of Christ, it seems to undervalue the role of natural theology. The Magi were stargazers and it was their astrology, or astronomy, that led them to find Christ, which is a sure indication of the usefulness and value of science in itself. The Biblical story of the Magi, found only in Matthew’s gospel, is one of several scriptural indications that humanity before Christ was not utterly lost.

The Magi come from “the East” and the Matthean story seems to indicate that their journey took two years, as Herod later has all the male children under the age of two put to death “in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Matthew 2:16). Herod may well have been erring on the side of caution, but it is a pointer to their journey being a long and arduous one – a point that Eliot dwells on. The East could mean Babylon, the home of mathematics and astronomy, but Babylonia is not that far from Palestine. The furthest East one could take as a starting point is of course China. Are we meant to understand the Magi as Chinese scholars who took to the long overland route from China, the fabled Silk Road, in their search for the infant King of the Jews whose star they had seen?

It is an idea that I very much like. As one who has been a missionary in Africa, and who now is a missionary at home (in a manner of speaking) I have a very strong desire to see China become Christian. One reason the Church’s mission in the Far East has not been the success it might have been is because it has been perceived as something foreign to the East. But the Matthean story of the Magi puts people from the East at the very front of the line in the long succession of nations that have come to know the Lord. Might this understanding of the Magi help with the evangelisation of China?

  • Patrick Heren

    It’s a very good thought Fr Alex, and might even assist the Chinese government to drop its objections to Rome. China is crying out for evangelisation.
    However I know of various elderly parties who set out on short car journeys only to spend many hours going round the M25!

  • Tyrone Beiron

    It’s a lovely meditation, and the Lord of History has His own way of weaving in intricacies not visible or known to us at one time, only to make it manifest at another. The Epiphany is an event of irony by itself, in as much as the discovery of scriptural scrolls of the Deuterocanonicals in whole and fragments in Hebrew at Qumran. Whatever Asiatic peoples were represented in the mixture of the Magi who travelled from the east, or Farthest East, genetically we are all Africans. But God seems to look not at the genes but at humanity’s heart – that which is open and eager to perceive and welcome Him, and do His Will. Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand have their martyrs, and very nascent churches still. Archbishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong was just named a new Cardinal yesterday, which adds to Asia and China’s joy. I believe Asia’s time is still ahead as we are very much a missionary land, even the Philippines for its large numbers of Catholics, or Korea, seem to trouble of their own. For my part, I see the Matthean report of the Magi being a revelation that all cultures, deities, sciences and schools of knowledge being made subject to this Truth of Christ at the Incarnation, rather than just a manifestation to the gentiles per se. In effect, making the words of the Apostle Paul to Ephesians wholly true (Ep 1:17) “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him.”, that we have been marked out (v5) by grace and given this insight to know Christ (v8) in order for him (v10) for him “to act upon when the times had run their course: that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.” (New Jerusalem Bible). So, to me, all ideologies, knowledge and sciences, are revealed to be subject to the singular truth of the Incarnation and Redemption.
    PS: But I love what Pat Heren says about some folks taking a short trip only to end up hours on the road. Same-old, same-old thing everywhere! :-)

  • Carol Dunne

    Thank you for directing me to TS Elliott’s poem, which I enjoyed very much!

  • bt

    You make a good case for their journey being a long one.  Thanks for an interesting article.

  • Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

    And to think that China was almost made Catholic, with a distinctly Chinese Catholicism, back in the 18th century, if it hadn’t been for the bickering and intrigue of jealous euro-centric reactionaries. An opportunity lost, which I hope we don’t lose again!

  • Anonymous

    What is really sad about that episode is that the Jesuits were forbidden in 1704, thanks to Dominican anti-Jesuit intrigue, to use “Chinese rites” to inculturate the Gospel, and that in 1939 Pius XII said such methods were permissible. It took only 235 years for the Jesuit methods to be re-permitted by Rome.