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In T. S. Eliot's poem The Journey of the Magi he's offering a imaginative view into the interior experience of one of the wise men from the East who came to Jesus's birthplace.

The last few lines of that poem are:

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, 
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. 
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, 
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

What does he mean by old dispensation here? Does this come from the Bible (I can't find it there)? Does it come from church history?

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"He" is a she: Mary Ann Evans; George Eliot: a nom de plume. –  user1119 Dec 28 '11 at 13:11
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Alack alas, you lack a lass the poet is not she. –  Peter Turner Dec 28 '11 at 14:13
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TS Eliot != George Eliot; and even if it were, this still wouldn't answer the question –  Marc Gravell Dec 28 '11 at 15:59

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

He means the same thing as "the old covenant" (Judaism), but stated in the language of dispensationalism, which classifies the different timeline "slices" of God's plan. We tend to think of it as old covenant/new covenant but if you start getting really anal about it and analyzing "what about before Moses" and "what about after the Rapture" you get a bit more of a complicated set of salvation schemes over time, or "dispensations."

Edit: I guess I'm surprised that this is a contentious or misunderstood point, has no one heard of dispensationalism? I provided the links above for a reason. Mastery and escape: T.S. Eliot and the dialectic of modernism discusses Eliot's dispensationalism specifically and how he uses this term in much of his writing. He was, you know, into it.

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I thought the Magi were pagans? –  Ben Dunlap Dec 28 '11 at 22:32
    
The poem wasn't written by the magi, but an old Pseudo-British white guy, FYI. –  mxyzplk Dec 29 '11 at 5:01
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Right. But if it's about pagans encountering Christ, I don't see how the "old dispensation" can refer to Judaism. –  Ben Dunlap Dec 29 '11 at 5:39
    
1.it's a poem not a documentary, maybe they learned the term wherever they learned English. </sarcasm> –  mxyzplk Dec 29 '11 at 15:39
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I'm just thinking about the poem here. I don't think the poem makes any sense if the speaker of the poem is understood as being Jewish. –  Ben Dunlap Dec 29 '11 at 17:43

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