Magi at the Manger: A Hermeneutical Meditation for Epiphany

By Joseph Mangina
A camel caravan in the desert

One of the most treasured items that gets hauled out of storage in our household each Christmas season is the crêche, or Nativity scene. Ours is a simple affair. It is composed of wooden folk-art figures made, as I recall, in Costa Rica. We see gentle Mary, kneeling in wonder before the child she has just delivered, and faithful Joseph, holding a lamp. A shepherd has just wandered in, accompanied by two of his sheep. There is also a random cow milling about; it is after all a stable.

Our particular crêche does not have any wise men, although they are a standard feature of more elaborate sets, just as they have been in artistic representations of Jesus’ birth across the ages. Three kings, each bearing a symbolic gift. And since the kings must have journeyed to Bethlehem somehow, it often seems fitting to add a camel to the mix, camels being vaguely eastern and exotic and just plain fun.

Now the critical scholar (who might also be a first-year M.Div student) would have good reason to look askance at all of this. First, she would point out that Matthew’s gospel says absolutely nothing about camels. Out go the camels. Second, she would quibble with the three kings, since magi are not kings, but philosophers or sages; also Matthew doesn’t say that there are three of them, just three gifts. Third, and most embarassingly, our scholar would note that if we want our crêche to be accurate the magi really should not be there at all.The manger[1] is part of Luke’s story, where there are no magi; and the magi are part of Matthew’s story, where there is no manger. Indeed, Matthew has his magi arriving at a “house,” suggesting that Joseph and his family are actually well established in Bethlehem (though not for long, as they will soon have to flee into exile in Egypt to escape Herod). The fact that the magi enter the house and find not an infant (brephos) but a child (paidion) confirms our impression that some time has elapsed between the birth recounted at Matt. 1:25 and the arrival of the magi at 2:1. Out, then, with the magi—conveniently for our family, since our crêche doesn’t include them anyway.

Learning to make distinctions like those made in the previous paragraph should be an important part of anyone’s theological education. Good readers notice details and mark differences. Luke’s story of Jesus is not Matthew’s, and neither would easily be confused with Mark (who ignores Jesus’ birth, and jumps right in with John the Baptist) or John (who begins with the absolute beginning, the Word’s pre-temporal existence alongside the Father). Simply conflating these stories would make for bad reading and bad theology.[2]

On the other hand, isn’t there something profoundly right about the exuberant mixing of stories we see in a “naïve” crêche? What would a children’s Christmas pageant be without a riot of sheep and shepherds, angels and wise men, innkeepers and innkeepers’ wives? Obviously not all of these are “in” the text of the gospels as this is read according to the “literal sense” or approved by theologians. 

But there’s a place for pious midrash. Maybe this is the best way of thinking about crêches, Christmas pageants, and other forms of enacted exegesis: as a kind of midrash. In Jewish midrash, as in Christian figural reading, the different parts of Scripture are allowed to talk to one another in interesting and unpredictable ways.

Take, for instance, our friend the camel. As I’ve said, there are no camels in Matthew. But there are camels in Isaiah, in a passage Matthew presumably knew well: 

A multitude of camels shall cover you,

the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense

and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD (Isaiah 60:6).

Camels are surely not the “point” here. But camels are a natural part of the tribute that an Arabian people might bring to honor the king of the Jews. Even amid the chaos of a Christmas pageant, they remind us of the essential ties between the Old Testament and the New. The Queen of Sheba was wise, and Solomon wiser still. But wisest of all are those Shebans who recognize that Israel’s Messiah is king not of the Jews only, but of all the nations—a truth we acknowledge and celebrate this Epiphany season.

So bring on the camels. Let the philosophers—philosopher-kings, maybe?—gather around the manger with the shepherds and Mary and Joseph. The Father’s eternal Word become flesh is not particular about times, places, and conditions of people, but summons all to come and live by his Light. There is none of us who is not so summoned. Happy Epiphany.


[1] Luke has Mary laying Jesus in a manger, but says nothing about a stable. Indeed, an older tradition of Christian art shows the holy family taking refuge in a cave. Only in the later Middle Ages does ithe cave become a stable.

[2] The student who wants to know more about both the differences between, and ultimate unity of, the gospels might be interested in reading Francis Watson’s The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament  (Baker Academic Press, 2016).