The word “epiphany” has been overused the last few years. Many people use it as a synonym for discovery, especially a discovery about one’s self. The word means “shining out” or “shining upon.” In the original Greek of the New Testament it usually refers to the glory or grace of God shining upon his people, although in Acts 27:20 it is used literally of the sun and stars.
In the traditional Christian calendar, the season of Epiphany follows the twelve days of Christmas and extends to the night before Ash Wednesday, which starts the penitential season of Lent. The Sundays of Epiphany are bookmarked by the first Sunday of the season, in which the Baptism of Jesus is considered, and the last Sunday of the season, which recalls his Transfiguration (in which Jesus literally shone with light). On both occasions, the voice of God the Father claims Jesus as his Son. The other Sundays of the season also reflect upon the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior, evidence coming from his miracles and from his teachings.
The Day of Epiphany, January 6, is a festival which remembers the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the King of the Jews. This event is also evidence of the identity of Jesus, as these foreigners honor him with gifts worthy of a king—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As poems and songs over the centuries have revealed, these gifts describe the identity of Jesus as “king and priest and sacrifice.”
The Bible does not say how many Magi came bringing these gifts. Traditionally they are depicted as three—one for each gift—and many depictions of the Magi show one as Asian, one as African, and one as European. This reflects the theme that Jesus, as King of the Jews, is Lord and Savior of the entire world. As an artistic theme, it is beautiful, but it is not historically accurate. Historians debate the origin of the Magi. Because the word is Persian, some think they came from Persia. However, the word was in general use by this time in history. Others think that, because they were following a star, they came from Babylon, the center of astrological studies. Since the Word of God forbids astrology, this interpretation is problematic. The best hint of their origin is the gifts that they brought. Usually gifts to a king (or other national leader) represent the products of the givers’ homeland. The one part of the world which produces all three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—is Arabia.
Moreover, the only prophecy linking the King of the Jews to a star came, not from a prophet of Israel, but from an Arab prophet named Balaam. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). Who was more likely than the Arabs to preserve this prophecy and to discern its fulfillment?
Picture a group of Arabs showing up in Jerusalem asking for the newborn King of the Jews. The man the Romans had named king of the Jews, Herod, was an Idumean, not a Jew. He was suspicious of any threat to his rule, even killing his own sons for fear they would take the kingdom from him. When his scholars showed Herod and the Magi that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem (so he could inherit the throne of David), Herod first tried to trick the Magi into leading him to the child, then ordered the murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, Joseph took Jesus and his mother to Egypt, sparing his life as a child so he could later save the world by his sacrifice.
The nature of the star that led the Magi to Jesus is also uncertain. It probably was not a comet or a nova, since ancient civilizations do not report such an event at the right time in history. A very scholarly website links the star of Bethlehem with the motion of the planet Jupiter, involving retrograde motion near the star Regulus at approximately the right time. While I appreciate the thoroughness of the research and its faithfulness to the Biblical record, I am uncomfortable with its reliance on astrological symbols to communicate to the world the Incarnation of the Son of God. Given that God spoke at other times through the casting of dice, I suppose I cannot totally dismiss the possibility. J.