New Gift of the Magi: Wise Women?

While this is certainly not a local story, I thought it an interesting topic as Christmas approaches this week. Rev. Benedict Thomas Viviano, a renowned Gospel of Matthew professor, Dominican friar and priest, has a new biblical theory that may change nativity scenes across the globe: there was one (or more) Wise Women among the Wise Men. His original theory will be published next year in Studies of Matthew by Leuven University Press, according to the St. Louis Beacon.

According to Viviano, a leading Matthew scholar, there are different ways to interpret the magi story. Modern Western convention has embraced a story of three magi to correspond to the three gifts. However, some Christians celebrate 12 magi. And nowhere in Matthew, the sole gospel to mention the story, is there a head count of the magi caravan or reference to them actually being kings.

It’s “perfectly plausible” that Matthew would have understood the magi as some sort of Eastern sages, he said. “On the other hand, the masculine plural magoi does not close the question of gender. Magoi could refer to both male and female sages, if there were women among them. Grammar would not be an obstacle. “

But Viviano offers more than just grammar as his reasoning. His main thesis rests on the idea that Matthew was writing for his audience, who were Jewish.

“The main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king,” Viviano suggested.

Viviano suggests that Matthew looked back to the story of the queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem to King Solomon in the Old Testament, First Book of Kings (Chapter 10:1-29). Two of the queen’s gifts were the same as the magi’s which adds to the parallel, he said.

“If we read the magi story in the light of the Solomon-Sheba background as the closest biblical narrative parallel (as distinguished from motif parallels like the star) to it, some previously neglected possibilities open up,” he said. Those are the wisdom and feminine aspects of the narrative, he said.

His second reason to suspect the presence of the feminine is the Israelite tradition of personifying wisdom as a woman, he said. Viviano sends readers to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs 8:22-30; 9:1-6 and the Book of Sirach, 24 to understand more about the Hebrew idea that wisdom is feminine.

Viviano’s third argument for his female magi cause is that Matthew’s Gospel later characterizes Jesus as embodying wisdom, which Jewish literature considers female and even terms Lady Wisdom. The passages he refers to are Matthew, Chapter 11:19 and 25-30.

Middle East traditions of men not being with women without the presence of other women gives force to the idea that women were among the magi. The phrase “the child and his mother” is used five times in the narrative of the magi visit at Matthew Chapter 2:11, 13, 14, 19, 21.

“The presence of Jesus’ mother Mary is an explicit statement of the presence of a woman at the time of the magi’s visit,” Viviano argues. “It is a question of attending to the feminine resonances in the text.”

It is a very interesting idea that there was a Wise Woman (or Women). As feminists, we often look at historical records and literature and ask, “Where are the women?” Since so much of history was written by men and influenced by overtly sexist societal mores, women are often missing, marginalized or silenced. If there were women among the magi, it would be a significant step to bring them back into the story, not just for accuracy, but to offer visibility to women (and girls) of Christian faith. To me, this is significant even outside of religious circles because greater visibility and respect given to women helps women in those faith traditions. And I think it helps women even if they are not in that faith tradition, too.

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