Saturday, February 14, 2004

Blogwatch: Three Wise Men (not)

Jim Davila has been covering the story about a new Church of England prayerbook which apparently decides to refer to "magi" rather than "three wise men". See his blog entry on Magi, Wise Men, Wise Women? and a follow-up More on the Magi. One reflection -- I wonder whether some of these newspaper reports, and perhaps also the CofE's prayer book, witness to a kind of residual fundamentalism which insists that we can only allow ourselves to focus on what is clear from the Biblical text. The evolution of the tradition, the development of the legend -- these are all part of what is delightful about retelling the story. When I go annually to my children's nativity plays at church and school, I don't stand up and say "There are no 'kings' helpers' in my text of Matthew" or "Luke does not specify the number of shepherds" or "How do you know it was a stable?", let alone "There are no lobsters in the Biblical text". I would rightly be thought a fool to do so, the theologian's equivalent of the Lord of the Rings nerds who disapprove of every place where Peter Jackson departs from Tolkien.

When did the number three begin to get fixed, though? There's an interesting web page with some useful background here:

Concerning the Magi and their names

This is from a site called The Hymns and Carols of Christmas by Douglas D. Anderson. The page quotes a certain Otfried Lieberknecht who cites Metzger:
A good study to check in cases like this is Bruce M. Metzger, "Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition", in: Kyriakon. Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. Patrick Granfield & Josef A. Jungmann, vol. I, Münster: Aschendorff, 1970, p.79-99. Metzger has a whole chapter (p.78-85) on "The Names of the Wise Men", which includes a rich bibliography of earlier studies of this topic (p.79 n.3).

According to Metzger, the earliest source giving names to the magi are the anonymous _Excerpta Latina Barbari_, the Latin redaction of a Greek chronicle which seems to have originated in Alexandria during the first or second half of the 6th century: "In his diebus sub Augusto kalendas Ianuarias magi obtulerunt ei mundera et adoraverunt eum: magi autem vocabantur Bithisarea Melchior Gathaspa" (cit. p.80).

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