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THE MAGI AT BETHLEHEM,
AND THE MUHAMMADAN LEGEND OF THE NATIVITY.
Oh, never rudely will I blame his faith
In the might of stars and angels: 'tis not merely
MANY attempts have been made to identify the wise men who having seen the star of the King of the Jews"in the east," (not as Bishop Porteus long ago pointed out, that they saw the star to the east of themselves, but they, being eastward of Judea, saw the star probably seeming to hang over that country,) came to Jerusalem, and, guided by the same star, went thence to Bethlehem, where they worshipped the young child and presented unto him gifts. One learned writer has gone so far as to seek for the country of these "wise men" in the east, identifying them with certain Khans of Tartary, supposed to have been in the flesh at the epoch of the birth of our Saviour.
But the simple term of "Magi," used in the Vulgate, is sufficient to show that they were in reality fire-worshippers, who came from Persia, or from such parts of Arabia as the fire-worshippers had extended themselves into. The presents made, and which consisted of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, would seem to indicate southern Arabia; but this does not necessarily follow, as the magi, as well as the Jews, may have been in possession of such articles by the ordinary means of commerce.
It is certain, as Suetonius and Tacitus inform us, that an expectation prevailed through the whole East, that about that time a king should arise out of Judea, who should rule over all the world; and there were Jews enough in Persia, and far more in Arabia, to propagate this doctrine, and show it to be contained in their sacred books, from whence, therefore, the more learned wise men may well be supposed to have received it. The star in the east has been viewed by some as the light of the Shechinah or Divine glory, the appearance of which is mentioned in Exod. xvii. 5, and 2 Pet. i. 17, by others, as by Dr. Hales, as the same as the "glory of the Lord," or the miraculous light which "shone round about the shepherds," and which may have appeared to the magi, in the same night, at a great distance, diminished to the size of a star
But taken simply as the luminous heavenly body commonly known as a star, it would appear from Numb. xxiv. 17, that such were figuratively known among the Jews as designating selection or royalty; and this would be still more the case with the Magi, who were addicted to the study of astronomy and astrology, as well as to the worship of fire, as the emblem of the purer element existing in the heavens.
The following legend, although purely fabulous and containing those anachronisms which are not uncommon in Oriental legends, is not only curious in itself, but it is to a certain degree interesting as illustrating the question, as to whether or not the Magi came from Persia, and showing such to be an olden belief; and it is also illustrative of the principle by which the fire-worshippers were guided in the selection of their temples, almost invariably in places where there was a natural supply of naphtha or mineral oil, which, conducted from the earth by pipes, burned perpetually on their altars. The legend is related by Mosa'er, son of Moehlehl, who is supposed from an extract of his works given in the "Mojemol'Beldan," in which he states himself to have travelled with Abû Dalafu-l'Ajeli, who died at Baghdad in A.D. 839, to have lived in the early part of the same century.
Mosa'er relates then that King Hormuz was informed that a child, blessed by God, was about to be born at Jerusalem, in a village called Beit Lehem, (House of bread, now Beit Lahm, house of flesh), and that it was necessary that he should offer it perfumes, oil, and milk. He accordingly entrusted these presents, together with a large sum of money, to a trustworthy person, and bade him go to Jerusalem to obtain information regarding this child. He further bade him, when he had found it, to give the presents to the mother, congratulating her upon having given birth to a man whose glory and virtues would spread all over the world, and begging her at the same time to pray for Hormûz and for his kingdom.
The messenger journeyed, accordingly, to Mary, presented her with the offerings entrusted to his keeping, and informed her of the blessings bestowed upon her child.
When he was about to return, Mary gave him a sackful of earth, and said to him: "Tell your master to erect a building with this earth."
The "wise man of the east' set out for his own country, but arriving at the spot where is Shîz, and which was then a desert plain, he was overtaken by sickness, and feeling his end approaching, he buried the sack in the ground.
The Persians relate that King Hormûz, having been informed of the death of his envoy, sent one of his officers with orders to raise
a fire temple at the place of his decease. The officer asked the King how he should be able to discover the spot; whereupon the latter said:
"Go, and have no fear but that you will be enabled at once to recognise the spot.”
Arrived at the site of Shîz, the officer fell into a state of great embarrassment, as to how he should acquit himself of his mission; but no sooner had night come on, than he saw a light (a not un. common occurrence where there are springs of naphtha) issue forth from the ground. He hastened to trace a line of demarcation round the flame, and the next day he laid the foundation of a fire temple, which afterwards became the celebrated Pyræus of Shîz.
Sir Henry Rawlinson, to whom we are indebted for a learned and exhaustive memoir on this fire temple which rose upon the site of the Atropatenian Ecbatana, quotes Masudi to prove that it was really of much greater antiquity, and dated anterior even to Zardusht, or Zoroaster; nor, it is also to be observed, was the first of the Hormûzds a contemporary of Jesus Christ.
Tzetzes, in his poetical history (Tzetzæ Chiliad, iii. c. 66), describes the sacred fire at Shiz, as having being originally lighted by a thunderbolt from heaven; which supposing such a statement to be correct, and there is nothing impossible about it would still imply the existence of fuel to be kindled. What Milton has well depicted in his description of Pandemonium, where: RARY
Of starry lamps and blazing crests, YORK.
With naphtha and asphaltus, yielded light
As from a sky."
The Muhammadan account of the Nativity, as derived from the Koran and its commentaries, as also from other legendary sources differs greatly from that given in the Gospel narrative. According to these legends, there once lived in Palestine a man named Amram Ibn Matham, who had attained to a great age without being blessed with posterity. Shortly before his death, his wife Hanna prayed to the Lord that he might not suffer her to die childless. Her prayer was heard, and when she was with child she dedicated her offspring to the service of the Lord. But, contrary to her expectations, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Mariam (Mary), and was naturally in doubt if her child would be accepted as a servant in the Temple, until an angel cried to her, "Allah has accepted thy vow, although he knew beforehand that thou should'st not give birth to a son. He has, moreover, sanctified thy daughter, as well as the man-child that shall be born of her, and will preserve him from the touch of Satan, who renders every other child
susceptible of sin from its birth (on which account, also, all children -cry aloud when they are born).”
These words comforted Hanna, whose husband had died during her pregnancy. As soon as she had recovered from her childbed, she carried her infant daughter to Jerusalem, and presented her to the priests, as a child dedicated to Allah. Zachariah, a priest whose wife was related to Hanna, was desirous of taking the child home with him; but the other priests, who were all eager for this privilege, (for, on account of his piety, Amram had stood in high repute among them) protested against it, and forced him to cast lots with them for the guardianship of Mary.
They proceeded, therefore, twenty-nine in number, to the Jordan, and flung their jîrîds, or javelins, into the river, on the understanding that he whose javelin should rise again, and remain on the water, should bring her up. By the will of Allah, the lot decided in favour of Zachariah, who then built a small chamber for Mary in the Temple, to which no one had access but himself. But when he brought her some food, she was already supplied; and though it was winter, the choicest summer fruits were laid before her, To his inquiry where she had obtained it all, she replied, "From Allah, who satisfieth every one according to his own pleasure, and giving no account of his proceedings." When Zachariah saw this, he prayed to Allah to perform a miracle even in his case, and to bless him with a son, notwithstanding his advanced age. Then Gabriel called to him, "Allah will give thee a son, who shall be called Jahja " (John). Zachariah went down to his house filled with joy, and related to his wife what the angel had announced to him; but as she was already ninety and eight years of age, and her husband one hundred and twenty, she laughed at him, till at last he himself began to doubt the fulfilment of the promise and asked a sign from Allah.
"As the punishment of thy unbelief," cried Gabriel unto him, "thou shall be speechless for three days; and let this serve thee as the sign thou hast required."
On the following morning Zachariah, as usual, desired to lead in prayer, but was unable to utter a single sound until the fourth day, when his tongue was loosed, and he besought Allah to pardon him and his wife.
Then there came a voice from Heaven, which said, "Your sin is forgiven, and Allah will give you a son, who shall surpass in purity and holiness all the men of his time. Blessed be he in the day of his birth, as well as in those of his death and resurrection."
Within a year's time, Zachariah became the father of a child which, even at its birth, had a holy and venerable appearance.
He now divided his time between him and Mary and John in the house of his father, and Mary in the Temple, grew up like two fair flowers, to the joy of all believers, daily increasing in wisdom and piety.
When Mary had grown to womanhood, there appeared to her one day, while she was alone in her cell, Gabriel in full human form.
Mary hastily covered herself with her veil, and cried, "Most Merciful! assist me against this man."
But Gabriel said, "Fear nothing from me. I am the messenger of thy Lord, who has exalted thee above all the women of earth, and am come to make known to thee His will. Thou shalt bear a son, and call him Isa, the Blessed one. He shall speak earlier than all other children, and be honoured both in this world and in the world to come!"
"How shall I bear a son," replied Mary, affrighted, "since I have not known a man?"
"It is even so," replied Gabriel. "Did not Allah create Adam without either father or mother, merely by his word 'Be thou created?' Thy son shall be a sign of His Omnipotence, and as His prophet, restore the backsliding sons of Israel to the path of righteousness."
When Gabriel had thus spoken, he raised, with his finger, Mary's robe from her bosom, and breathed upon her.
"Thereupon she ran into the field, and had scarcely time to support herself on the withered trunk of a date-tree before she was delivered of a son. Then cried she, "Oh that I had died and been forgotten ere this, rather than that the suspicion of having sinned should fall upon me!"
Gabriel appeared again to her, and said, "Fear nothing, Mary. Behold, the Lord causes a fountain of fresh water to gush forth from the earth at thy feet, and the trunk on which thou leanest is blooming even now, and fresh dates are covering its withered Lianches. Eat and drink, and when thou art satisfied, return to thy people; and if any one shall inquire of thee respecting thy child, be thou silent and leave thy defence to Him."
Mary plucked a few dates, which tasted like fruit from Paradise, drank from the fountain, whose water was even like milk, and then went, with her child in her arms, unto her family; but all the people cried out to her, "Mary, what hast thou done? Thy father was so pious, and thy mother so chaste."
Mary instead of replying pointed to the child.
Then said her relations, "Shall this new-born child answer
But Jesus said, "Do not sin in suspecting my mother. Allah