Magi, magicians and deepening mysteries

by John Wijngaards

THE story of the Magi who sought out the newborn Saviour at Bethlehem has fascinated Christians down the ages. They were the scientists of the time and their story is a comment on the notion, common today, that science has replaced religion, and in particular Christianity, as the focal point of Western civilisation.

Eastern tradition set the number of the Magi at 12 but Western legends and wall paintings showed two, eight and six but finally settled on three. From as early as the third century, they were considered to be kings and by the eighth century their names had crystallised as Balthazar  (Arabia), Melchior (Persia) and Gaspar (India). The Legend of the Three Holy Kings by John of Hildesheim (1366 AD) became one of the most popular books of the late Middle Ages.

Recent studies however, suggest that the Magi were not meant to be kings but astronomers (not just astrologers). It has long been recognised that the story of the Magi in Matthew 2, 1-23, is not so much an account of historical events as a midrash (teaching), a theological meditation weaving facts and legends into a coherent pattern. The Magi link the Christ event to the outside world of science and politics.

The word magos was at times used by rabbis as well as Greek playwrights to denote a diviner or soothsayer – as the magician Bar Jesus mentioned in Acts 13, 6. The Magi in the Gospel, however, are presented as serious and trustworthy men. In Babylon and subsequently in Persia, magi served as scientific counsellors at court. Philo of Alexandria, said they “investigate the works of nature from a desire to know the truth”.

The Babylonian magi laid the foundation of much of present day science. They were the first to study the stars methodically, recording the constellations (the signs of the zodiac) and plotting their movements. In the 27th century BC they devised the lunisolar calendar with “years” that follow the sun and “months” that follow the moon, a mixed calendar we follow today. To solve discrepancies between solar and lunar calculations, they hit on the notion of having “leap years” .

It was magi who invented the first true mathematics with a so-called place-value system of numbering including fractions. We still copy this in our own decimal notation: the number 2 in £ 22.22, for instance, means progressively less as it moves to the right. By 1000 BC Babylonian magi carried out all arithmetical operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squaring, cubing and extracting roots. Their system was sexagesimal, not decimal; which explains why we still have sixty minutes to the hour and why we measure the degrees of angles in sixtieths.

Much Babylonian science was mixed up with superstition, no doubt, and some magi were charlatans who made money by drawing up astrological nativity charts. But these were not the magi Matthew had in mind. In constructing his midrash he seems to contrast theological scribes, those text crunchers, with the pagan scientists of his day who watched stars and who tried to understand the universe. “Studying the scriptures is necessary,” Matthew seems to say (he probably was a Christian rabbi himself), “but the future lies elsewhere. Strangers will come, like these scientists from the East, who will find Christ when we rabbis will not”. Matthew could not foresee the upsurge of science and technology since the 17th century but a glimpse of unexpected things to come was certainly there.

It is often gratuitously assumed, especially by people who are not themselves scientists, that science has answered the fundamental questions of life. Nothing is further from the truth. The enigma of our existence deepens the further we push the boundaries of our knowledge. Even if we can unravel the mechanics of the brain, the riddle of our intelligence in a cold, physical universe remains. And. why is kindness superior to cruelty, or honesty to lying? In popular imagination, scientific gurus “out there” have laid down a secure basis of knowledge on which human well-being can safely be constructed. The reality is otherwise.

Scientists inhabit two separate worlds. Occam’s razor forbids any consideration of purpose or ethical value within their discipline. But physicists, biologists, and other professional students of nature are rightly concerned, as caring human beings, that their discoveries will not serve nuclear blackmail, genetic manipulation, commercial extortion and similar malpractices. Questions like “Why do we exist?” and “Will this experiment lead to a better world?” may be irrelevant in the laboratory: for the researcher who lives within a wider context, they are crucial. And he or she knows these basic questions are not addressed, leave alone answered, by what happens in a test tube or nuclear reactor.

Outside the scope of science, but at the heart of human wholeness, lie wonder, respect. even humility. Ludwig Wittgenstein lambasted the scientifc mandarins of his time for spurning reverence “for everything and everyone”. We live in a culture strongly devoted to means and poorly equipped to talk about meaning. We submerge ourselves in facts and lose sight of values. We can see more than any generation before us, but we fall short in contemplation. The idea of scientists respecting mystery and “kneeling in adoration” may not be as absurd as we are at times made to believe.

First published in The Guardian 12 December 1992.