Friday, December 23, 2016

Who Were the Wise Men?

Just because Quest Forums articles frequently deal with contentious issues does not mean they always must. This question provides an example. It is just an historical curiosity from the Bible. Also, it is one where I will probably leave more questions than answers. But the point is, this is something we sometimes wonder about, particularly at this time of year, and it is interesting to look into it.

The Wise Men and the Birth of Jesus

 Fewer people than ever in this country are really familiar with the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, and those who still are can always use a refresher, so it is probably a good idea to take a moment to read Matthew 1:18–2:12. Also, if you want the full story of the Nativity, you can check out Luke 2:1–38, but I am going to be looking mostly at the Matthew passage because that is where the wise men are mentioned.

The first thing worth pointing out about the wise men is that their inclusion in every manger scene is a conflation. Yes, Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger, and yes, he had visitors that first night, but they were local shepherds, not wealthy foreigners. This is made clear by Matthew 2:7, 16. The wise men had only had a general estimate of the time of Jesus’ birth to share with King Herod, apparently of more than a year, and only by assuming the star had appeared at the same time he was born. If that was the case, as seems likely, then they had traveled for a while after Jesus was born before they finally found Him. Also, it is noteworthy that they found Jesus in a “house” (Matthew 2:11), not a stable. The wise men were there shortly after, but not on, Christmas night.

Really, though, that is an aside. More to the point, we are trying to determine something about the identity of the wise men. What can we learn from the biblical text? Well, not as much as we might like. They are not named, and neither is their home country or the prophecy that brought them to Judea. But there are a number defining characteristics mentioned about them that we can take in turn.

Their Title

The first and most important one is their title. We most often call them “wise men” or “the three kings.” The second of those is not really accurate. By the middle of the 3rd Century, Christians like Tertullian were calling them kings, probably because of the value of the gifts they brought. And since there were three gifts, it seemed natural to assume there were three wise men. That is entirely possible, but we cannot be certain. Making them monarchs is much more of a stretch.

“Wise men” is a much better title because it is very nearly a direct translation of the term used for them in the original language of the New Testament. That word is magos, and from its plural form, we get the word Magi, another name by which we are familiar with the wise men. It is also the source for our words “magic” and “magician,” which tells us a little bit about what these men did in their homeland. And for one last connection, the Old English word for “wise man” was “wizard.” So it all ties together. Also, if you happen to imagine Gandalf and Merlin showing up to welcome Jesus to the world, it creates a funny but more-or-less accurate mental picture.

The Magi of the ancient world really were thought to have supernatural powers, but who exactly were they? The Bible gives a bit more detail outside of Matthew 2. In Acts 8:9–25, a man named Simon is discussed as someone who practiced magic (a better translation than “sorcery”). And in Acts 13:6–12 we can read the story of Elymas the Magician (again, better than “sorcerer”). Finally, we can also look at Daniel 2:2, 10, to read about magicians. Of course, it should be noted that “magicians” here is a translation from Hebrew rather than Greek. But the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the 3rd Century B.C., and magos shows up in that translation, so I am counting it.

The thing all these other biblical examples of magicians have in common is that they are not presented in the best light. Their powers are dubious at best, they are manipulative, idolatrous, and they are put in their place by those who act in the true power of God. Only the wise men of Matthew 2 are discussed positively, and even so, early Christian authors made a connection. They believed that Isaiah 8:4 was a prophecy of the visit of the Magi. It says, “Before the child shall have knowledge to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother,’ the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken.” The aforementioned Tertullian said,

The Magi themselves, on recognizing [Jesus], honored Him with gifts, and adored Him on bended knee as Lord and King. They did this on the evidence of the guiding and indicating star. Accordingly, they became the “spoils of Samaria,” that is, of idolatry—by believing, namely, on Christ.

In other words, the wise men had been idolaters of the worst type, just as the Samaritans of the Old Testament had been. By coming to see Jesus, however, their old religion was despoiled. Of course, this is a pretty tentative connection as a prophecy. It is true enough as a conversion story, though, whether Isaiah 8:4 applies to it or not. Their appearance in Matthew 2 is meant to be shocking. While the religious authorities of Judea missed their own Messiah’s coming, He was found and worshipped by a group of foreigners who had only known false gods all their lives. They showed both that Christ was for all people, and that those of Jesus’ own people who refuse Him have a special shame.

If we go outside the Bible, we can learn a bit more of interest to our investigation. By the time the New Testament was written, a magos was anyone who practiced magic anywhere in the Greco-Roman world. It does not necessarily tell us anything about the wise men’s place of origin. But it might still suggest the original home of the Magi.

Their Homeland

As a formal group, rather than a general title, the Magi were the priests of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia (modern-day Iran), probably sometime in the middle of the 2nd Millennium B.C. It was an influential regional faith by the time of the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews in the 6th Century B.C., explaining the appearance of Magi as members of Nebuchadnezzar’s court. And they were still noteworthy at the time of Jesus’ birth.

There is no need here to get into their beliefs, but it is at least noteworthy that Zoroastrians practice astrology, providing a possible link to the wise men. And this is in keeping with the small amount of geographical information Matthew gives us.

All we are told in the gospel is that the wise men came from “the East.” There is an awful lot to “the East” of Bethlehem, so we do not really have a way to narrow it down with absolute certainty. But Persia does fall under that heading, and would allow them to be actual Magi rather than simply magicians. It also further undercuts the idea of them as kings, since their priestly functions would have been separated from political rule. We would be justified, at this point, in thinking that the wise men traveled to see Jesus from the opposite side of the Arabian Peninsula.

Their Star

There is one other intriguing possibility, however. People have wondered for a long time what the star was that led the wise men on their westward journey. Also, how could it have been missed by those living closer to home? A brightly shining, brand new star would be hard to miss, wouldn’t it? And finally, where did it go?

One of the most interesting suggestions I have heard asks us to think small (or big, depending on perspective). Look back at Matthew 2. It does not say that the star was bright. It only says that the wise men saw it. Navigating by the stars is certainly nothing new, so we do not have to picture it wandering around the sky like an arrow on Google Maps. It may have simply been a small point of light that was out of place.

And it could also have been impermanent. Rather than being a new star, it was a dead one. The suggestion is that the star was a supernova, an exploded star either not normally visible or slightly more visible than it had previously been. Without telescopes, it could be difficult to notice without the most expertly trained eyes. The average person could miss it. Even most ancient astrologers failed to see some of them. Furthermore, they eventually burn down. But they are visible for months, or even a few years, which also fits the details of Matthew 2.

What does this have to do with identifying the wise men? Well, the Magi of Persia were not known to have identified anything like a supernova. The only ones doing that remotely near the time of Jesus’ birth were Chinese astronomers. The first accepted, documented recording of a supernova was in the late 2nd Century. It is at least possible, however, that they noticed one 200 years earlier and merely did not leave a record. Also, if the wise men were from China, it could explain why it took them so long to reach Judea. It is a much longer trip than from Persia.

Their Prophecy

With all that said, however, I still think the Persian connection is more likely. Just because there are no Zoroastrian records of supernova-type stellar activity does not mean no one there saw anything of the kind. Beyond that, it seems likely that the wise men needed to have some type of affinity to Judea and the religion of the Old Testament. Chinese astronomers were not likely to have access to Israelite prophecies or to speak a language understandable in Jerusalem.

Persia is another matter. The Persian Empire had once included Judea, and it had played an important role in Jewish history. The first Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, had liberated the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity, returned them to their homeland, and directed them to restore their temple and religion. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that educated men from Persia could have spoken Hebrew. But even if they did not, they would have known Aramaic, the common tongue of the Ancient Near East, as well as Greek, which would have been brought to them by the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C., just as it had been to all other Bible lands.

Magi, then, can easily be assumed to have been familiar with the languages of Jerusalem. What’s more, they could have known a great deal about the Jewish religion. Not only had the Persians once ruled Judea, but there had been Jewish communities in Persia, as the book of Esther illustrates. There are a few points of similarity between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, making cross-reference a worthwhile pursuit for those with an interest. These outsiders must have known the Old Testament, the Torah, in order to see the star as the fulfillment of prophecy and as a guidepost to the Messiah.

But what prophecy? The religious leaders in Jerusalem did not seem to know, though they did know well enough to identify Bethlehem as the city where He was to be born. Also, Matthew does not say how the wise men knew to associate the star with the birth of Christ. While we cannot be certain, then, it does seem plausible to make a connection to Numbers 24:17–19: “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…. Out of Jacob One shall have dominion.”

These verses are part of a prophecy, but they are not the words of an Israelite prophet. Instead, they come from Balaam. Balaam was a Mesopotamian (modern-day Iraq) soothsayer who had been hired by an enemy of the Israelites to curse them on their exodus to the Promised Land, but who was instead forced by the Lord to bless them. This passage is part of one of those blessings.

It is possible, though not necessarily likely, that Balaam was Zoroastrian, an early mage and a precursor to the wise men. Even if he was not, later magi may have felt a certain affinity to him. It could have led them to give his words recorded in Hebrew Scripture special notice. If so, they would have known to expect a mighty king to be born out of Israel. And if a “new” star appeared in the night sky, it is plausible that they would have connected the dots and realized the Star mentioned by Balaam 1,500 years before had finally arrived.

Their Gifts

One last detail Matthew gives us is worth discussing here. The gifts themselves can potentially tell us something about the wise men. Gold is ubiquitous, but frankincense and myrrh are slightly more unusual. Both are aromatic wood gums found mostly in the Middle East. They are also of great importance to the Israelite religion. Myrrh was used in the making of anointing oil, and frankincense was an ingredient in the incense used in the temple (see Exodus 30:22–38). These scents were symbols of holiness. If the wise men were as familiar with Judaism as I am suggesting, then they would have known this. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, would have been a statement of Jesus’ royalty and sanctity.

One other point about the gifts has long been noted, though it stretches even my willingness to speculate to think the wise men did it purposefully. Still, it is worth mentioning. Frankincense is only discussed once in the account of Jesus’ life on earth, here in Matthew 2. Myrrh, on the other hand, is mentioned three times. In Matthew 2, it is part of the story of His birth. In Mark 15:23 and John 19:38–40, it is present at His death. Again, I cannot see the wise men having known this would be the case and pointing to what would happen three decades later. But I do believe in the power of Providence. For them the gifts were merely an offering, but to God they served as identifying markers: Gold for Christ as King, Frankincense for Christ as Priest, and Myrrh for Christ as Sacrifice. His entire mission is spelled out in what the wise men presented to Him.

Their Purpose

With all the evidence we have in hand, I believe we can draw some conclusions. None of them is unassailable, but taken together they make a strong case. The wise men were familiar enough with the Prophecy of Balaam to recognize the coming of the Messiah. They understood enough of the Hebrew religious system to know the right gifts to bring. They had enough astronomical knowledge to recognize a stellar event most other people overlooked. They were from far enough away for their journey to take some time, and yet near enough to have a shared language and contact with the religion of the Jews. Taken together, the likeliest candidates are those named in the text. The wise men were Persian Magi.

There is one last characteristic of the wise men worth mentioning, however, and it encompasses their entire story. It is their purpose in the biblical narrative. The reason they came to Jesus was to acknowledge Him as King. In so doing, they still stand as an illustration of what we ought to do. They remind us of the importance of the holiday we are about to celebrate.

The Incarnation is an incredible miracle that is all too easily overlooked. Jesus was, is, and always shall be eternal God, but He entered humanity in a moment of time. Rather than doing so in an explosion of glory, He came as the baby of a humble family and in the most humbling of circumstances. His birth was only noticed by a few, even when those supposedly waiting for Him were told about it. There is a lesson in that. But above all, it allowed for the most important event in all of history. A few decades later, Jesus was unjustly murdered and became the sacrifice for our sins, satisfying the justice of God on our behalf. And three days after that, He rose again, proving Himself to be the Way to eternal life and the open Door to resurrection. Christmas leads to Easter, and is worthy of celebration for that reason more than any other.

The wise men, as part of this celebration, provide us with an example and a contrast. It is easy enough to go on with life as usual, as the gentry of Jerusalem did. We can be blasé and miss the signals of our need. Or we can acknowledge them. We can give up on our old manner of life and approach Jesus, who came to save us. And if we do, we will find that what we offer Him in gratitude is so much less than the gift God has given us, leading us to gratefulness again. Like the wise men, we should follow the “Star out of Jacob” and worship Him as God and King. We may not know exactly who they were, but we know enough about them to keep telling their story. It is the story of all of us who find the way out of darkness.

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