Of all the gospels of the New Testament, only Matthew recorded the coming of the Magi. In Matthew 2: 1-12, he describes the visit of these men who were also called Wise Men and Kings. He wrote, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
While many Christmas traditions portray the number of wise men as three, there is no scriptural basis nor historical basis for this number. So why do we sing songs such as We Three Kings? The number appears to have been derived from the number of gifts mentioned in Matthew’s account. Since only three gifts were mentioned, some have reasoned that there must have been only three wise men. This assumption goes against tradition of the East. Magi traditionally number twelve. So, why are they called kings? Are kings and Magi the same thing? No, the term king was probably a direct link to a scripture found in Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”. The word Magi is actually the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magus. In the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew, magus is derived from Old Persian magus from the Avestan magauno and refers to the priestly caste of astrology.
Do we have names for any of these men? Several names have been attached to the Magi as a result of a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500 A.D.: Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar. So, if these are the Magi, what do we know about them? They were all learned men, therefore deemed wise. Melchoir was a Babylonian scholar. Caspar which is also called Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, and Gathaspa, was said to have been a Persian scholar. Balthazar was an Arab scholar.
Where did they come from? According to Matthew’s account, they came from the East. The exact origin continues to be debated and speculated. A very traditional view holds that they were Babylonians, Persians, or Jews from Yeman, a nation ruled by Makrebs, kings of Yemen who at the time were Jews. Many believe that they came from Babylon which at the time was the center of Zurvanism, astrology. It is thought that they may have retained knowledge from the time of Daniel’s leadership. Matthew’s writing shares that the Magi discovered Jesus by “following” a star, the Star of Bethlehem. The star that burned both day and night has been a phenomenon that scholars have debated theories about for centuries. That’s another story for another year…a whole different debate. For the Christian, the issue is not debatable. Believing all of the Bible literally is an act of faith.
So, what about those gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh? I have often heard it asked, “Why would you bring a baby gold, frankincense, or myrrh?” Before we can answer this question, we must determine what exactly these gifts are. Everyone in the world today understand what the precious metal gold is and can see the power it possesses. Scholars have estimated that the gold brought by the wise men would have been worth a half million dollars in today’s market. May I point out that the other two gifts were more valuable than the gold. Frankincese was valuable in rituals and in death, while myrrh was said to have the power to sooth aching and tired muscles. In all, the gifts were said to have easily been valued at well over a million dollars, some even estimate two million. But again, what would a baby do with these gifts? Since the decree of Herrod to kill the innocent children to prevent a Messiah from being reared up at the time, Jesus’s life was in danger. His family had to leave the country and go into hiding. No doubt the valuable gifts helped sustain them as they traveled to and survived in exile in Egypt. What actually happened to these gifts is not known, though man has conjured up many ideas.
Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover. Credit: Creative Commons
Photo 2: The Wise Men visit the baby Jesus. Credit: Public Domain
Photo 3: The Wise Men on their Journey. Credit: Public Domain
Photo 4: Shrine of the Three Magi in the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany. Credit: Arminia
Photo 5: Frankincense. Credit: Public Domain