Matthew didn’t expect his readers to take it literally. He had a bigger agenda. He was comparing Jesus with Augustus, the first Roman Emperor and, at the time of Jesus’ birth, the most powerful man in the world. Augustus had a virgin birth. Jesus had one too. Augustus was revered across his empire, from Spain to Syria. Jesus was revered from even further, from Persia where magi studied the stars.
The magi were the forerunners of our horoscopes. There was a logic to their thinking. The stars were gods. In that part of the world the ancients could be pretty fatalistic: the gods determined everything that happened, so the future was fixed. Studying the stars was one way to get information from the gods about what was going to happen next.
Some biblical texts disapprove. Deuteronomy is explicit:
When you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19).
Less explicit, but probably connected, is the otherwise puzzling description of the creation of the universe in the first chapter of Genesis. First, God creates light. The sun, moon and stars come later. Scientifically this sounds wrong, but the authors would have been familiar with Deuteronomy. They were insisting that, contrary to what others believed, the lights in the sky were not gods.
So Matthew exalts Jesus in another way too. Jesus is revered not only from outside the Roman Empire – unlike Augustus, who was feared outside it – but also from outside the Jewish tradition, by people with very different gods.
Studying the stars as the magi did is a form of divination. Linda Woodhead’s recent article describes how widespread divination still is, and how diverse its role is. It has many different technologies: horoscopes, palm-reading, tealeaf-reading, Tarot cards, all sorts. Linda describes the purpose as
for discerning the significance of events with a view to making choices and taking appropriate action.
I find this a helpful description because it takes the focus off the technology. What matters is the function it performs.
I think of it as a sliding scale. At one extreme is fatalism. If the future was fixed by the gods, divination provided information about what was going to happen.
Once in the 1980s, when I was a vicar in a run-down area, a woman I knew very well – not a churchgoer – was agonising about what to do. She had recently left her husband to live with another man. Things were not going well. ‘If only I had £5’, she lamented, ‘I would go to the spiritualist. Then I would know what do to.’
There, culture reflected political reality. All the significant decisions were imposed by outsiders. People had grown up to expect that their own power to affect their circumstances was so limited as to be negligible. When the woman described why she had left her husband for the other man, it was as though fate had made her do it.
Years later, at a fair in a local park, I spotted a gypsy caravan displaying a notice saying
This woman can tell you whether you will spend your life with your husband or your lover.
Fatalism again. It is as though we cannot decide for ourselves about these things.
This is one end of the spectrum. For more constructive versions, Linda’s article tells of personal engagement with women
who travel together in small friendship groups to consult a medium or fortune-teller and then spend many happy hours together chewing over the results. The process of interpretation can indeed extend over years, as the significance of predictions is reflected on in the light of events – or events and choices are considered and taken in the light of predictions.
Here, divination does the opposite. Far from disempowering decision-making, it provokes it. Reflection on the situation begins with the divination but then takes on a life of its own.
This reminds me of the Old Testament prophet Amos:
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’ (Amos 7:7-9)
It seems that the prophet’s openness to a vision produced the image of the plumb-line. He then interpreted it in the context of the state of the nation. Somebody else might have had a vision of a plumb-line but interpreted it in a different way.
This more open-ended, less fatalistic use of divination seems to me to be doing something very different. Far from revealing the future, it offers images upon which to reflect. The image, when subjected to concentrated thought, brings to awareness intuitions which might otherwise have remained buried in the subconscious.
Between the extremes are other possibilities. From my parish experience I have come to believe that some people are exceptionally good at intuiting the character and lifestyle of the person sitting in front of them. Maybe one day there will be a scientific explanation of this ability, though I doubt it. Instead, diviners attribute their insights to their chosen technique: a personal skill is explained in terms of tea-leaves or the stars.
Back in that parish of the 1980s I decided to write an article in the magazine telling people not to believe their horoscopes. I looked up the horoscope in the local newspaper. If I had been a Taurus I would have been destined for an active love life. But I was a Capricorn, so I wasn’t. Nothing unusual there – except that my wife was a Taurus! If I had taken that horoscope seriously, it might have undermined our relationship.
I included that point in the article. The local newspaper picked it up. Its letters page continued the debate for three months. In the process I was contacted by a professional astrologer. He was anxious to stress that astrology does not foretell the future. I can’t remember exactly what he said but the gist was that it advises people how to respond to circumstances in the light of their personality. Less fatalism, more image to ‘chew over’.
Quite clearly, this wasn’t the reason why so many people were reading their horoscopes and taking them as seriously as they did. Linda’s research shows that divination, in its many forms, remains popular across the world; why? What do people expect to get from it?
My guess would be that most people don’t think it through that much. If all you want is a helpful image to inspire you as you wonder what to do, why seek it from the stars, Tarot cards, reading a random text in the Bible, or other techniques of divination? Because those techniques have a reputation for doing a lot more: for foretelling the future, or at least telling us what we should do. So people turn to them when there is nothing better to turn to.
The future is not fixed. It depends on what people do. When we reflect on what to do, it often helps to be given an image to start with. One good image is Matthew’s story of the magi, learned astrologers travelling hundreds of miles across the desert to venerate a baby boy as King of the Universe. As you chew it over, may it evoke in you new insights about your place in that universe, and that baby.