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They are among the most beloved characters of Christmas; appearing annually in school pageants, celebrated at Epiphany, and in carols sung throughout the season. But how much do we really know about the mysterious wise men who sought out the Christ Child? It turns out very little – and most of what we know is wrong.
Despite the famous song “We are three kings of the East”, they were more than three (the Gospel mentions three gifts, not three), they were not kings, and they were not from the Far East.
Historical, biblical, and archeological evidence paints a very different picture of the biblical “wise men from the East.” Using these neglected early sources, I created an adventure picture book called The Wise Men Who Found Christmas. But in the course of the narration I could only hint at what I discovered.
First of all, who were the “Wise Ones”? Magicians are mystical characters who are trained to see the unseen. They were stargazers, mathematicians, theologians, interpreters of dreams, and perhaps part of a priestly caste with Zoroastrian or even Jewish roots. He would have served the king like other sages of that time. But which one?
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We know that magicians did not come from the Far East or even Persia. Saints and scribes of the first and second centuries, including Tertullian, Eusebius, and Clement of Rome, affirm that the Magi came “from the east of Judea.” It is even more clear that Justin Martyr wrote less than 100 years after the resurrection of Jesus: “Magi came from Arabia and worshiped Him…”
There are several good reasons to suspect that they came from the then capital of Arabia, the Nabataean Kingdom – now Petra. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown tells us that “the Jewish community in northern Arabia was one of the largest ancient Jewish communities in the history of the Jewish people.” Thus, the Jewish prophecies about the coming of the Messiah would have been well known to the people of Nabatea.
Father Dwight Longenecker, who has spent years researching the historical sages, points out that the gifts brought by the magi also point to the Nabatean kingdom as their home. There, frankincense and myrrh were produced exclusively from the sap of Arabian trees. And Nabatea controlled the Midean mines, also known as the mines of the legendary King Solomon.
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What was the nature of the journey of the wise men? Matthew’s Gospel is only twelve lines long, and interspersed with personal spiritual questing, describes a possible royal diplomatic mission to the perilous Herod.
Old Testament scholar and Cambridge-educated linguist Margaret Barker offers a truly fascinating opportunity. Barker suggests that the wise men may have been descendants of the royal Jewish priests of the First Temple – the Order of Melchizedek – who were expelled from the Temple around 700 AD.
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Far from being a “gift drop” of the Magi, which has become a cultural relic, what they carry indicates a much more serious religious mission. Barker points to Philo of Alexandria, who reported that gold was used in the garments of the royal priests of the First Temple.
In the first temple, incense was burned and myrrh oil was kept in the holy of holies. Why? It was used to anoint the members of kings and royal high priests.
It makes more sense that a group of exiled Jewish high priests came not only to worship this Messiah, but also to anoint him as a priest and rebuild the first temple, breaking the account of later emperors bringing gifts to Christ.
There’s so much we don’t know about these famous magicians that it’s important to figure out what we’re doing. The historicity of the Wise Men points to the historicity of the light they sought—the Christ Child in the cradle of Bethlehem, still glorified centuries later.
The sages also teach us an important lesson: in spite of all the dangers, in spite of all the perils, they looked not to things on earth, but to things above. Their brave journey gives them not only dirt, but an eternal light that will continue to burn brighter than their stars.
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