Who Were the Wise Men?

We three kings of orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse so far
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

We add them to the Christmas story every winter and yet, perhaps the most mysterious accessories to the Nativity tale are those “three kings of Orient.” Who are they? And where did they come from?

The only biblical narrative of the wise men can be found in Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 2:1-15. It starts out,

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 NASB)

It would be great if Matthew gave us a few more details on these guys, but all he really tells us is that they were considered to be “magi (Greek, magoi, for “magician”),” which, in its Middle Eastern regional context, is a term commonly applied to a caste of wise men who practiced astronomy, astrology and natural science, located primarily in ancient Persia. They were not sorcerers or wizards, instead relying on natural science to make projections. Magi believed that there were two parts to every person — a human half and a heavenly half. When a person died, those two halves were united and a person became complete. Seeing the Star shining in the east must have sent out a loud signal that someone of special importance was born off to the west. The star, to them, was the bright, supernatural half of a human king.

So, were there three kings? Not likely. According to newadvent.org, a Catholic encyclopedia, the first mention of the magi being kings doesn’t come into history until 200 years after the birth of Jesus, when writer Tertullian calls them “well-nigh kings.” Their being “three kings” is a more modern fiction. Even the exact number of magi is unknown and, through history, has been a few as one and as many as eight! The number three comes from the three varieties of gifts they brought to the Holy Family.

From Orient are? Traverse afar? Well, Persia is more likely. The magi caste were Medes, one of two tribes that formed what became Persia under Cyrus the Great. They were like priests, and they were a constant threat to Persian rulers due to their influential nature. In fact, long before the Greeks came calling under Alexander, the magi had been banished from Persia and scattered along the Arabian peninsula. Some remained in Persia, though, and continued to influence the populous.

Bearing gifts… According to Matthew’s gospel, the magi brought three gifts to the Christ Child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was a no-brainer. Just like today, ancient gold was wealth and to have a little meant you had a lot. Frankincense was a precious aromatic found in northeast Africa. It was traded across the Mideast like money, though it was merely the dried sap of a tree. But it smelled delightful. Myrrh was an ointment or perfume. The overall value of the three gifts was fitting of men of wealth. This, in part, led some to believe the magi were kings. Over the years, many theologians have tried to add typological meaning to the gifts but Matthew does not and neither did the Church Fathers who came after the apostles.

Field and fountain, etc.? Well, No. There are a few smaller mountains in Babylon and they did have to climb up from the Dead Sea region to Jerusalem to meet with King Herod, but that whole region is a desert. It is 1,200 miles between Jerusalem and ancient Persia (modern Iran). Caravan routes either went north (ala Abraham) or south through Petra. It was a long journey by camel — some 9 months to a year — and would have taken weeks in which to prepare. Time to bust a myth, folks. The magi did not arrive at the manger. Your Christmas plays are wrong. Sorry! In Matthew 2:11 it says that they arrived at a house in Bethlehem. No early church writer placed the magi at the stable. It is a more modern creation. Bummer.

So, how did these foreign wise men/astronomers know they were searching for a Jewish king? Once again, newadvent.org has a fascinating theory. Not all of the Jews came back to Israel with Nehemiah and Zerubabel. A small remnant stayed in Persia and Babylon. A small remnant always stays when people groups move. That remnant carried with it rumors of a coming Messiah, rumors that the magi would have likely heard and remembered. So, could it be that the Exile was the start of a chain of events that brought the magi to Bethlehem? Interesting!

What about the star? Well, progressive theologians and skeptics have tried to “explain” the star’s appearance as a comet, or the aligning of planets, or swamp gas over a marsh, or whatever. But no natural phenomenon can explain the actions of the “star.”  It moved. It lasted for a year’s journey. It paused while the magi were with Herod in Jerusalem and then moved six miles south over Bethlehem. It was a God-thing. Maybe an angel, maybe the Holy Spirit. Maybe something completely new to mankind. But completely of God.

The story of the magi sure is interesting, isn’t it? The Lord brought these sky-watchers from across the deserts of Babylon, bearing extravagant gifts, and right to the doorstep of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph. They had to tip-toe King Herod in the process, but God delivered them safely home to tell everyone about what they had seen and heard.

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