Ever since I heard a soaring sermon by the late Reverend Peter Gomes on the Feast of the Epiphany, the three Wise Men have fascinated me. (Peter was an African American minister, theologian and author who announced he was gay a generation ago and who became one of America’s most prominent spiritual voices against intolerance. He was also a friend of mine from childhood.) He opened this particular sermon by saying that he had a lot in common with the Wise Men: he too was always late.
So who were the Wise Men? The Bible doesn’t name them and traditions and legends have given them a variety of names, but in Western Christianity they are commonly known as Melchior, a Persian scholar, Caspar, and Indian scholar, and Balthazar, an Arabian scholar. These names come from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria circa 500 AD, which was translated into Latin. They have also been called the Kings of their respective lands with these same names in a Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and also translated into Latin. When you consider the written word was not common in those times and books were handmade and exceedingly rare, this is pretty amazing.
Were they real? Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. One theory is that the Gospel story of the Magi was influenced by an Iranian legend concerning magi and a star, which was connected with Persian beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler. Another source for the story of the homage of the Magi might have come from the journey to Rome of King of Armenia, to pay homage to the Emperor Nero, which took place in 66 AD, a few years before the composition of the Gospel of Matthew. In other words, you have to take it as gospel that the three Kings actually existed.
Where might they have come from? The Bible only says they came from the East. They were initially considered to be Babylonians, Persians or Jews from Yemen; the Armenian tradition is the one having them come from Arabia, Persia and India. Most likely they all came from Persia, a journey of 800-900 miles. It is assumed they traveled by camel, so it is not a mystery why they arrived late to pay homage to the Christ Child.
And why were they called wise? These men are also called the three Magi. From Ancient Greek and old Persian, the term magi refers to practitioners of magic, to include astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge; it was only in the first century AD that magi came to be known as wise men and soothsayers. But the practice of astrology would explain how these three men started on their journey to what is now Israel.
They were supposedly guided by a miraculous stellar event, the “Star of Bethlehem.” In the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi follow the star and arrive at the court of Herod in Jerusalem. There they told the king of the appearance of a star which signified the birth of the King of the Jews; Herod then directs them to Bethlehem, on the basis of information from his advisers, based on the Prophet Micah. Many scholars regard the Star of Bethlehem as a pious fiction, created to establish the child as the Messiah. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was a popular belief at the time, and interestingly, the miracles and portents surrounding the birth of Jesus are very similar to those described for the birth of the Emperor Augustus in 63 BC.
Why only three Wise Men? It appears that no one is even sure there were only three; this number has been inferred from the Biblical reference to the three gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There could have been more. In Eastern Christianity, the Magi often number twelve, so the visitors could have been a crowd.
How late were the Wise Men? The Greek word in the Gospel of Matthew describing Jesus translates as “young child,” so Jesus could have been a day old when the Magi visited or as old as two years. Joseph and Mary almost surely stayed in Bethlehem until Mary could travel again, at least for the 40 days necessary to complete Mary’s purification following the birth, making the five mile trip to Jerusalem easily. The Magi came to a “house” according to Matthew, and it makes sense that Joseph would have removed his family from the stable as soon as possible. Herod, who was Jewish by choice only so he could consider himself to be King of the Jews, must have been threatened by the Wise Men asking where they could find the child born King of the Jews. When he ordered hundreds of innocent children to be slaughtered in an attempt to have this new Messiah killed, he sentenced all male children under the age of two. So it is quite possible that the Magi did not arrive until Jesus was close to two years old.
Where did the Wise Men go after their visit to the Christ Child? Christian Scriptures report them going back to their own country but returning by another way, having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod. One of the many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi has them baptized as Christians by St. Thomas on his way to India, so moved were they by their encounter with Jesus.
The Epiphany, which is the 12th day after Christmas, celebrates the visit of the three kings or wise men to the Christ Child. It falls this year on Tuesday, January 6, today.
Whatever you believe about the Three Wise Men, and this humble blogger does believe they existed, I hope you will find this short description informative.