First Christian ‘magicians’: early Christian afterlives of Matthew’s Magi (Matt 2:1-12)
Matthew’s magi (Matt 2:1-12) travel great lengths in the first three centuries CE. This thesis analyzes the early Christian afterlives of Matthew’s magi in the first three centuries in light of early Christian Wirkungsgeschichte of ancient ‘magic’ and ‘magic’ practitioners. In so doing, I arrive at two main findings. First, I show that, for the evangelist and his early Christian readers, Matthew’s magi belonged to a category of people whom they considered both powerful and alarming: ‘magicians’ who also practiced astrology as one of their many ‘magical’ arts. They are experts in the nefarious powers, whose actions nonetheless affirm the evangelist’s claims about Jesus. Second, I demonstrate that, although early Christian authors have diverse takes on the ethnicity and consequently on the cultural contexts of Matthew’s magi, they nearly always explicitly ‘convert’ them, puncturing their ‘magic’ prowess and recasting their identity to accomplish each early Christian author’s desired exegetical goal. Following a history of literature on Matthew’s magi, an outline of ‘reception studies’, and clarification of key terms and boundaries, chapters two and three ground the remainder of this thesis. In chapter two, I provide a brief history of literature regarding ‘magic’ studies. This is followed by a history of the use of ‘magic’ characters in Greek, Roman, and Jewish literature to demonstrate that perceptions of ancient ‘magic’ and ‘magic’ practitioners were a complicated mix of power and ritual that received a mixed reception. While bona fide Persian magi are revered for their powers and wisdom, fraudulent ‘magicians’ and dubious Persian magi result in the term ‘magi’ becoming an increasingly negative term (becoming the final blow to gnostic opponents). In chapter three, I argue that Matthew utilizes these attitudes towards magi to surprise his first readers: Jesus’s birth is punctuated by the arrival and worship of ‘magic’ practitioners, affirming Jesus’s Messianic kingship and deity. In subsequent chapters (4-10) I demonstrate how early Christian authors appropriate Matthew’s magi for new exegetical or theological purposes. In each chapter I distinguish each author’s perceptions of ‘magic’ and ‘magic’ practitioners, situating their use of Matthew’s magi against each author’s own ‘magic’ perceptions. The Protevangelium Jacobi is an exception, where I argue that the protevangelist’s literary reuse of Matthew’s magi pericope is a deliberately stripped-down revision, producing unfulfilling magi (chapter 4). I then show how Justin Martyr produces Arabian magi, identifying Matthew’s magi as ‘Arabian’ to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills Isaiah 8:4; Justin places theological values on ethnic categories for Matthew’s magi to accomplish Justin’s exegetical fulfillment (chapter 5). Similarly, Irenaeus produces ‘giving magi’. Irenaeus is first to find prophetic fulfillment in the magi following ‘Balaam’s star’ and define the prophetic meaning of the magi’s gifts. Irenaeus also sees Matthew’s magi avoid the ‘Assyrian way’, meaning their ‘magic’ practices and idolatry (chapter 6). Tertullian revises and expands Justin’s ‘Arabian magi’—they are idolatrous magi. Tertullian denounces all Christian practice of ‘magic’ and was first to equate Matthew’s magi with kings, yet still finds Matthew’s magi praiseworthy (chapter 7). I then argue that Clement of Alexandria re-envisions Matthew’s magi as ‘Second Sophistic’ philosophers who also practice ‘magic’ (chapter 8). I demonstrate how Origen interprets Matthew’s magi as specifically ‘Persian’, by Balaam’s prophecy transforming them into descendants of Balaam both by genealogy and tradition (chapter 9). Finally, I demonstrate how 'Hippolytus’ used Matthew’s ‘Chaldean’ magi to interpret the story of Daniel, a reversal of the common Daniel-to-Matthew direction of influence, in the first complete Christian commentary from antiquity, Commentary on Daniel (chapter 10).