An episode of the BBC Television’s The Art Detectives was screened. One of the paintings was said to be of Balthazar, allegedly one of the group of Magi who were said to have visited the infant Christ at a house in Bethlehem, described as a “king” by one of the presenters.
There might have been an opportunity to correct the record, to have explained that the popular perception of the Magi was wrong, but instead a priest was rolled out to reinforce the medieval traditions of the church. Standing in front of a painting that sought to depict the Magi visiting the child Jesus, he suggested that the three kings were seen as Europe, Asia and Africa coming to worship the Messiah. Why did he seek to perpetuate a myth.
The story of the Magi is encountered in Saint Matthew Chapter 2. It is an odd tale. Some biblical scholars would suggest that the story is a piece of poetic license on the part of the Gospel writer, but, if it is, then it is an odd way of employing poetic license. A fabrication of the story would probably have been closer to the sort of scene described by the priest, where the infant is worshipped by kings.
Saint Matthew is seen as writing for a Jewish audience, yet introduces these Gentiles. Interpreted by the church as a sign that Jesus is for all people, it seems an odd way of making a point. The Magi are not just Gentiles, not just the sort of non-Jews with whom Jesus had many encounters during the course of his ministry, they are strange and mysterious figures.
The church might have created the sort of revisionist version of the infancy that the priest on the programme did not disavow, but the revision does not reflect the plain facts of the story. Certainly, traditions grew over the centuries, but traditions reflected the interests of those in power. After 314 AD, when the Emperor became Christian, the church increasingly became a tool of the rulers.
The paintings of the Magi are retrojected interpretations shaped by centuries of adaptation of the stories. It is a pity that the church could not simply have admitted that it did not know. Saint Matthew does not even say there were three, simply referring to Magi.
The Magi were mysterious men. Why, when the church has lost all of its influence, can there not be an admission that much of the Gospel story is mystery? Why can there not be a setting aside of the Magi of the paintings, and all of the other accretions, and a recovery of the Gospel as it was?