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Was a wise woman among the magi who followed Bethlehem's star?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - As St. Louis Christians set up their Nativity scenes and give church Christmas pageants, they may want to add a new character: a woman among the magi.

The figure of a woman would put their creche scenes on the cutting edge of a fascinating and fresh idea in serious biblical scholarship that is likely to get much more attention next year.

A revered international authority on the Gospel of Matthew, the Rev. Benedict Thomas Viviano, who spent much of this year teaching New Testament at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, offers this original theory.

The professor, Dominican friar and priest used his command of Old Testament references and his ease with gender in ancient Hebrew words to suggest that one or more women may have been among the magi who visited the infant Jesus in the brief story told in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 2.

Viviano's full theory about the possibility of women among the magi will be published next year in "Studies in Matthew" by Leuven University Press, edited by another august biblical scholar Joseph Verheyden.

Viviano talked with the Beacon about his theory during his annual visit St. Louis.

Viviano, a St. Louis native, who has spent the past quarter century teaching New Testament in Europe and Israel, is neither a biblical hysteric nor populist. He's written several scholarly books. The deliberate friar, like most scholars, excels at long footnotes linking his reader to texts in half a dozen languages by biblical scholars of several Christian denominations. He writes clearly with occasional flashes of wit, which are evident in person.

Once they heard that a leading Matthew expert suggest the idea of a woman "wise man," all but one of a dozen church women we interviewed this month expressed immediate delight. The exception was a Christmas play director and adult religious education director who said the idea was too controversial to act on.

The visit of the Magi, symbolic of Christianity's welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, is celebrated as the major Christian feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6.

Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar?

Before some readers run off to add a wise woman to their creche, no doubt they'll puzzle over the tradition that the magi were three men named Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar? Not to worry. Those three names, which delight church Trivia Night players, don't pop up in Western Christianity before the 8th century. Eastern Christians' tradition holds that 12 magi were traveling in a caravan. Some Eastern traditions give the magi names but not those three names.

Matthew's Gospel, second chapter, the sole Gospel account of the magi, never calls them kings. A 5th century bible scholar in Gaul offered that interpretation. Matthew gives us no count of dignitaries in the group.

Translators often translated the Hebrew original magoi as wise men in English and other languages, Viviano said. In fact, the word magoi meant Persian priest in Jesus' time.

It's "perfectly plausible" that Matthew would have understood the magi as some sort of Eastern sages, he said. "On the other hand, the masculine plural magoi does not close the question of gender. Magoi could refer to both male and female sages, if there were women among them. Grammar would not be an obstacle. "

Three explanations of the magi have been proposed over the years, he said.

  • The first is that magi were leaders of a non-Jewish Middle Eastern religion, Zoroastrian priests, from Persia.
  • The second, with a bow to the attention that Matthew gives to the unusually bright star that they followed, is that they were Chaldean astrologers from Babylonia, modern Iraq.
  • The third explanation is that magi were Nabatean merchant princes from northern Arabia, a region that today includes Jordan and Syria, Viviano said. A good case also can be made for the merchant princes because Matthew mentions gifts of gold and spices that were available along the great trade route through those lands, Viviano said.

The Western Christian idea -- so celebrated in places like the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and followed by gifted German and Swiss creche wood carvers, and Italian potters -- that there were just three magi may have evolved from Matthew's mentioning just three gifts.

Matthew's Sources

Viviano sees much more than grammar as reason that there might be a wise woman among the magi. Scholars, literature majors and even good book club members examine an author's influences. Viviano is skilled at examining Matthew's literary sources in the Hebrew bible. The professor's wide-ranging studies included study of the Hebrew bible at a Jewish rabbinical seminary.

Matthew's Gospel was aimed at a Jewish audience.

"The main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king," Viviano suggested.

Viviano suggests that Matthew looked back to the story of the queen of Sheba's visit to Jerusalem to King Solomon in the Old Testament, First Book of Kings (Chapter 10:1-29). Two of the queen's gifts were the same as the magi's which adds to the parallel, he said.

Herod: The Villain of the Story

Anyone who has been in or attended a children's Christmas Nativity play can't forget its villain, King Herod the Great. Boos often follow him. The feminine aspect of wisdom that Viviano sees in the magi story help balance that evil king, Viviano said.

On their trek following the star, the magi stopped at Herod's palace to ask for directions to visit this newborn king. The wily Herod, ever jealous of his power, feigned interest and asked the magi to return and tell him where they found the babe, Matthew writes.

Viviano makes no claim that a woman must have been among the magi because they stopped to ask for directions, but it's irresistible.

Herod's evil reputation must have reached the magi. They slipped away without reporting to him. Matthew's Gospel said Herod ordered all male Jewish infants in the Bethlehem area under the age of two slaughtered. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus.

Herod's slaughter of the male children, Viviano called "an egregious abuse of power."

Herod got the moniker the "Great" because of his ambitious building program and his effective military leadership. He rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, built pagan temples and a grand palace for himself. Wednesday evening new archaeological evidence of the grandeur of Herod's palace and what may be Herod's tomb were presented at the Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society's monthly meeting at the Missouri Historical Society. Dan Bahat, an archaeologist who has worked on the Herod digs for three decades showed photos.

Intimate details of Herod's life have come down to us from the memoirs of his grand vizir, Nicolas of Damascus. That memoir was part of the commentaries of the great first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

"Herod was cynical, devious and cruel, effective but unloved, especially because of his high rate of taxation," Viviano wrote two years ago in "Matthew and His World."

Murder was one of Herod's tools for staying in a power at home and at work. He killed three of his sons and three of his 10 wives.

Matthew's magi narrative balances what Viviano calls beautiful elements of the star, the magi, the gifts, the mother and child, with the king's mendacity and ugly abuse of power, Viviano said.

"The need for a nonviolent wise lord is made more pressing."

"If we read the magi story in the light of the Solomon-Sheba background as the closest biblical narrative parallel (as distinguished from motif parallels like the star) to it, some previously neglected possibilities open up," he said. Those are the wisdom and feminine aspects of the narrative, he said.

His second reason to suspect the presence of the feminine is the Israelite tradition of personifying wisdom as a woman, he said. Viviano sends readers to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs 8:22-30; 9:1-6 and the Book of Sirach, 24 to understand more about the Hebrew idea that wisdom is feminine.

Viviano's third argument for his female magi cause is that Matthew's Gospel later characterizes Jesus as embodying wisdom, which Jewish literature considers female and even terms Lady Wisdom. The passages he refers to are Matthew, Chapter 11:19 and 25-30.

Middle East traditions of men not being with women without the presence of other women gives force to the idea that women were among the magi. The phrase "the child and his mother" is used five times in the narrative of the magi visit at Matthew Chapter 2:11, 13, 14, 19, 21.

"The presence of Jesus' mother Mary is an explicit statement of the presence of a woman at the time of the magi's visit," Viviano argues. "It is a question of attending to the feminine resonances in the text."

Many modern ideas about the magi come from artists. A few years ago Viviano wrote that Matthew's "dense, compact narrative of Jesus' origins, has long been a favorite of artists because it gives them a chance to use their gold paint." In that book ("Matthew and His World" published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, distributed in the U.S. by Eisenbrauns Press of Winona Lake, Ind.), Viviano explained that artists speckled gold on cloaks and crowns after the scholarly 5th century Bishop Caesarius of Arles called magi "Oriental kings." Caesarius based the idea of kings on what he took for prophecies in his reading of the Old Testament books of Isaiah (Chapter 60:3) and Psalms (No. 72:10-11).

While artists and hymn composers have loved the story, few modern Matthew scholars have given the magi much attention, Viviano said. Biblical scholarship is in a relooking phase. Since 1980, many scholars have sought fresh perspectives on well-known texts using a "newer accent in theology called theological aesthetics." Matthew's Gospel contains not just history. It also has elements of "theological typology, midrash, the fulfillment of Hebrew scriptural prophecies understood as messianic," Viviano said.

Mathew's concise narrative of the magi visitation corresponds to a pilgrimage of the nations to Israel prophesied by Isaiah Chapter 2:2-5; Micah Chapter 4:l-4.

Local Reaction

Smiles came to the faces of several St. Louis women when the Beacon asked for their reaction to the idea that a major scholar of Matthew sees evidence that a woman might be among the magi. Most were delighted with the idea that a woman might have been among the first non-Jews to visit the child Jesus.

"That would be wonderful, women among the magi," said Ellie Chapman, a longtime member of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Central West End where her late husband the Rev. Bill Chapman was pastor. "I love the idea. It will change the way I think about the magi story."

Chapman sees a practical aspect. The pastor's widow recalled that for the 15 or so years she was involved in her parish's annual children's Christmas nativity pageants.

"We would have loved having one more role for a girl," she said. "It was always easier to find a girl willing to dress up in costume and walk down the aisle than a boy. My two sons had to be in it, you know as the preacher's kids. They never wanted to dress in costumes."

She was so excited about the idea that a serious scholar had proposed the theory that she immediately planned to phone a parishioner who years ago made other figures for the church's nativity display to ask whether the woman might add a "wise woman" by Christmas Eve.

"Oh, I think Trinity will love it," Chapman said.

Many said they knew lots of women who could quickly find a figure of a woman of the correct scale to add to their displays.

"A lot of women would love to help do this, I know they would," said Marie Therese R. Kellar, a member of St. Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood and a retired reading teacher at St. Ambrose Parish School in the Hill neighborhood. Every Advent on the Hill, stores place creches in their display windows. Families walk from beauty parlors to bakeries to sausage shops viewing the variety of treasured creches.

"Families can find something at home to add a woman magi," Kellar said. "I love it."

For two nights early each December, St. Matthew Methodist Church in Belleville draws more than 1,500 to its musical narrative of the Christmas story called, "The Glory of Christmas." Liz McGlasson, the church's head of adult education directed the 75-person production that closed Monday night. She said that reading Viviano's theory might be interesting but she can't imagine ever adding a woman to their cast of three male magi. The church traditionally has a walking toddler as the child Jesus in its Magi visitation scene.

"I'm very much a traditionalist and would not ever do anything like that," McGlasson said. "This is a very evangelical church. It's not something that would be accepted here. It's not going to happen here. You see, we end (the performance) with an invitation ... join the church."

For those who might want to add a figure of a woman to their creche scene, there are a few places to shop.

The gift shop at Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville has one of the largest collections of creche figures in the region. Many of the pieces are made by the Italian company Presepi Fontanini. While the company's official magi are male, several collections have a few "Bethlehem" women bearing baskets of food and flowers. These figures might easily be elevated to a wise woman with the addition of silky cloth as a hooded traveling cape. Gifts in their baskets might be upgraded.

French clay, hand-painted nativity figures called Les Santons feature a range of farm women, townswomen and women of several professions, all more French than Bethlehem residents. All bear gifts of their trade for the infant. Some easily might be elevated to female magi. Santons are sold or can be ordered at the Provence Boutique in Ladue.

Area craft experts who make creche figures from beeswax or clay or fabric and show their wares at Christmas markets including Hermann's annual Kristkindl Markt or Millstadt's Weihnachtfest might be enlisted to make original creche figures in time for Jan. 6, if not Christmas Eve.

Viviano's Background

Viviano is professor emeritus at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and lives in a Dominican friary there. Last year, he retired after 13 years on its New Testament faculty.

He began teaching in 1972 at Aquinas Institute of Theology, then in Dubuque, Iowa. Nine years later, he was among the Dominican faculty who moved the graduate religious school to St. Louis' Grand Center. After three years in his hometown, he accepted an appointment as professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique, in Jerusalem, where he taught for 11 years before moving to Switzerland.

Viviano graduated from CBC-Christian Brothers College, then in Clayton. While in high school in the late 1950s he was researching a paper on the bible and a teacher sent him two blocks north of CBC, to helpful librarians at Concordia Lutheran Seminary. His life of bible research began among ecumenical scholars, he said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist, whose work includes extensive coverage of religion. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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