Zeffirelli’s Wise Men

The wise men of Matthew’s nativity narrative are called 'magi from the east'. They were likely members of the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrian astrologers familiar with the prophet Daniel who had once over-seen their Babylonian chapter. They may also have been aware of other Jewish holy writings, such as Balaam’s messianic prophecy in Numbers, courtesy of the Jewish presence in the Persian empire during the years of captivity.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, the lengthy but faithful mini-series, has an interesting interpretation. He depicts three wise men each independently coming from different countries and backgrounds, meeting up in the middle and conferring. A white clad Zoroastrian consorts with an Arab and a black African, each superbly served by the series’ wardrobe department. All three had begun their quest having seen the star in their homeland. Each one had dim expectations of a coming deliverer. According to Catholic scholar, Fulton Sheen:

Not only were the Jews expecting the birth of a Great King, a Wise Man and a Saviour, but Plato and Socrates also spoke of the Logos and of the Universal Wise Man 'yet to come'. Confucius spoke of 'the Saint'; the Sibyls, of a 'Universal King'; the Greek dramatist, of a saviour and redeemer to unloose man from the 'primal eldest curse'. All these were on the Gentile side of the expectation. What separates Christ from all men is that first He was expected; even the Gentiles had a longing for a deliverer, or redeemer.

God had promised Eve, mother of us all, that from her a serpent-crusher would arise, righting the wrong done by she and Adam. In our hearts, we know this life of suffering with its vales of tears is not how it should be; we each yearn for remedy.

I’m not sure I agree with Zeffirelli’s representation of the magi; I suspect they all set off form Persia and that there may have been several hundred of them. I do believe, however, that there were many people around the world who were seeking a saviour. Many seek one today; some find Him, others don’t, for even His own received Him not.

Image by alinemorais20120 from Pixabay