No nativity scene would be complete without those three wise men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, kneeling reverently before the manger while their faithful camels look on. And of course, there’s one African, one Caucasian, and one Asian in appearance. Who knew that the first Christmas was so diverse and inclusive, even before that was a thing?
Yeah, unfortunately almost all of what we think know about these guys comes not from the Bible, but from legends and traditions. The Scriptures never mention how many there were, that they had camels, or even where they came from except that they were “from the East.”
Here is the only mention of them in the Bible, from Matthew’s Gospel:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”Matthew 2:1-18 (ESV)
So, first off, let’s just acknowledge that this is not a nice story. In fact, it’s a terrible story! And those “wise” men? By stopping off to see King Herod on their way to following the star, they inadvertently caused the deaths of countless infant children. Understandably, they didn’t have our benefit of hindsight, but if they were really that wise, you would think that they would have been aware of Herod’s reputation for violence, brutality and jealousy. Even if we ignore who Herod was, you would certainly think that they would have had the common sense to know that the sitting King would probably not be super excited about the birth of the kid who was prophesied to take his throne…
Of course, we might not be so surprised if English translations of the Bible had chosen to translate the Greek word magoi (magi) more carefully. The word shows up two other times in the Bible, in the Greek translation of the book of Daniel, originally written in the Hebrew language. In Daniel 5:15, the Greek text refers to both sophoi (wise men) and magoi (magicians). In Daniel 4:7, it refers to epaoidoi (enchanters), magoi, yazarenoi (diviners) and kaldaioi (Chaldeans, a race of people from Mesopotamia). That means that the vast majority of English translations of the Bible chose to use the term ‘wise men’ instead of ‘magicians’ (or even ‘conjurors’ or ‘astrologers’), even though ‘wise men’ would be sophoi, not magoi, and magoi is the term used here. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s unfortunate because there is something amazing about seeing conjurors from foreign religions kneeling down to worship the baby Jesus.
Early Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have recognized the magoi from the book of Daniel, where they were exposed as charlatans and frauds who could not interpret the king’s dreams while the humble Daniel did. These foreigners who practiced the occult arts of astrology and fortune telling by using magic tricks to prove their ‘power’ were unable, just like Pharaoh’s conjurors before them, to do anything when confronted with the real power of the one, true God.
So when these guys showed up to recognize the birth of the promised Messiah, it demonstrated some things that were very obvious to readers then, but which are largely lost on readers now, and especially readers who mistake these wise guys for wise men.
First, it demonstrated that Jesus truly was God’s promised Messiah. Fulfilling literally hundreds of biblical prophecies and marked by countless signs, the birth of the Christ child was obvious even to foreign fools who only pretended to know what they were doing. Yet the Jewish scholars who should have been studying the signs were clueless as to Jesus’ birth.
Second, it demonstrated that Jesus had come, not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. Even if God’s chosen people had missed the signs given specifically to them, God’s promise extended to them and beyond to all who are willing to see, hear and believe. Like the shepherds who appeared in Luke’s Gospel (shepherds were the dregs of society: dirty, untrustworthy and looked down upon by all), the magoi in Matthew’s Gospel would have elicited in readers a “What are they doing there?!?” reaction. But God’s promise of salvation in Christ alone transcends divisions and boundaries of class, status, education, wealth and power. And the Messiah was born for all, Jew and Gentile alike – and even those of us who, like the magoi, pretend to be smarter than we are…
It is this second point that is represented and celebrated on the Christian holiday of Epiphany, which takes place on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas. Twelve days is the time it is said to have taken for the magi to arrive at the house Joseph and Mary and Jesus were staying in.
Yes, you read that right. “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”
Those magi weren’t at the manger on Christmas Eve. They showed up a few days later, and brought him gifts. Those gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, were kingly gifts – recognizing Jesus for who He truly was (and is). That’s probably where we get the idea that there were three magi – it’s just an assumption based on the three gifts described.
Magi were advisors or counselors to rulers, so they almost surely were not kings, themselves. “The East” was probably (but not definitely) still somewhere in the middle East, perhaps as far as Iran, which is modern day Persia, and they were not likely of different ethnicities, since they traveled together in a region and time when various ethnicities were often violently divided. Their names come down through traditions, and differ from culture to culture.
So, should you yank those camel-toting wise guys from your nativity scene? Well, what is the point of a nativity? To remind us of the events of that first Christmas: the beauty, the wonder and the enormity of the most pivotal event in all of human history. Does it need to be perfectly historically accurate to do that? I should hope not, since we also have no idea whether Joseph and Mary were in a stable, a cave, a barn or out in a field, we don’t have descriptions of their clothing or faces, and we don’t even know if there were animals present.
But when I look at a nativity, I see an artist’s interpretation of an image of my Savior that reminds me of what God did for us on that first Christmas, and every day since. That, to me, is why it’s all about.
So Happy Christmas, a Blessed Epiphany, and may your days be merry and bright!