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

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?