Fascinating legend behind the Three Wise Men | Sunday Observer

Fascinating legend behind the Three Wise Men

Today is Christmas Day. Christmas is celebrated throughout the world to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God.

The nativity of Jesus or the birth of Jesus’ display often has Three Wise Men. Songs and poems have been written about them. They are featured in movies, plays, and Sunday school skits. They are some of the most recognizable figures in Christian culture as nearly everyone has seen images of the three wise men riding on camels and following a star.

The three wise men riding on camels and following a star.

Even someone who has never opened a Bible is very likely to know about the Wise Men, and the gifts they brought for infant Jesus on the first Christmas.

What do we really know about these men? Does the biblical account of the magi support the traditional story surrounding these enigmatic characters? Who really were they? How did they learn about the King of the Jews? How many were there?

This article examines many of the details given in the Scripture and what is told by reputed theologians concerning the magi.

Gospels

The mention of the Wise Men is found only in Matthew among the four canonical Gospels, and leaves many questions unanswered.

Matthew 2:1-12. Verse 1 says they were “men” (meaning male and more than one) and came from the east of Jerusalem. The exact number of wise men and where they specifically came from are unknown. The number three has often been noted due to the fact that they gave three named gifts to Jesus, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Perhaps, if Luke the historian had written about them in his account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery.

Magi

Technically speaking, Matthew calls them magi - but who are magi? Are they kings? Wise men? Sorcerers? Astrologers?

Magi is a term used since at least the 6th century BCE, to denote followers of Zoroastrianism. With possible roots dating back to the second millennium BCE, Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest existing religions. Ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, it exalts a deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), as its Supreme Being. Major features of Zoroastrianism, such as Messiah promising deliverance, heaven and hell, and free-will have influenced other religious systems, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Old Persian texts, pre-dating the Hellenistic period, refer to a Magus as a Zoroastrian priest. Various kings in the ancient world frequently consulted these men because of their skill in interpreting omens, signs, and the stars.

These Men came probably from an area which is now in either Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Although they are often called the ‘Three Kings’, the Bible does not say that they were kings. One theory is that they might have been Kings of Yemen, as during this time the Kings of Yemen were Jews. Three is only a guess because they brought with them three gifts: but however many there were of them, they probably would have had many more servants with them.

From whatever country their origin, they would have probably been held in high esteem in their own society and even by people who weren’t from their country or religion. These Men would have belonged to various educated classes. They would have been of noble birth, wealthy, and influential. They would have been learned in all the wisdom of the ancient East including the Hebrew Scriptures. Legends are narrated about them and they have been given names. This is how they are often described: Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior and Balthazar.

Mysterious Star

On the night of Christ’s birth, a mysterious light appeared in the sky which became a luminous star that persisted in the western heavens (Matthew 2:1, 2). Impressed with its appearance, the wise men turned once more to the sacred scrolls.

 As they tried to understand the meaning of the sacred writings, they determined to go in search of the Messiah, but did not know where to go, and followed as the guiding star led them.

No one really knows what the new star in the sky was, and there are many theories including comets, supernovas or conjunctions of planets.

The actual journey of these wise men could easily have taken a long time. It would appear from Matthew 2:7 that the star, which the wise men had seen, had appeared at the moment of Jesus’ birth. But the wise men had arrived after the birth. If they saw the star at the moment of Jesus’ birth, then it would have taken at least a few months for them to arrive.

King Herod

The Bible says, King Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared (presumably so he could pinpoint the exact moment of this special child’s birth). He later proceeded to have all baby boys killed who were two years old and under. This would indicate that Jesus had been born up to two years previously. So the wise men did not arrive at the same time as the shepherds, who arrived the same day of the birth. Indeed, Jesus’ family was no longer in a stable; they were living in a normal house at that time and Jesus would have been aged between one and two. Then they gave their gifts to him and departed.

We must understand how very troubled Herod and Jerusalem became at the Magis’ arrivals. Both, ancient historians and the Bible make it clear that the Jews of this period expected a new Jewish ruler to arise, based upon Jewish prophecy. It was accepted that the stars could announce such an arrival.

As a Jew by adoption, why did King Herod not actually want to worship the Messiah – the awaited king of the Jews; the promised and expected deliverer of the Jewish people? Why did he want to destroy him instead? It is likely that he was interested in power, and his assumption of kingship with a Messianic title.

Gifts

What is the reason for imparting highly valuable gifts to a small child? Who did these men believe they were honouring?

Matthew 2:2 tells us that the wise men came looking for a king. They did not ask where they could find the Saviour of mankind. They were following the common custom of presenting gifts to royalty or one destined to be a ruling monarch.

Christ’s role as Saviour of mankind is made clear in the New Testament. However, there is another often-overlooked role Christ will fulfil, one repeatedly emphasized in the Gospels - that of Christ being a ruling king.

Notice the statement to Mary when she was told she would conceive a child: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32). Mary was told her Son would be a king and would sit on a throne. This was precisely the expectation of Jesus’ own disciples (Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6).

The Jews had long been anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. He would be a descendant of David who would re-establish the Davidic throne and usher in the prophesied period of restored greatness in a new kingdom (Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 11:2; Daniel 7:13-14).

King of the Jews?

At the time of Christ’s birth, the Jews already had a king, named Herod. He ruled as a vassal under the Roman authorities, but he was a king nevertheless.

When the wise men came seeking Jesus, what did they say? “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2). For the paranoid King Herod, this was very troubling indeed!

At the mock trial, Jesus was continually examined as to whether or not he claimed to be a king. When the high priest questioned Jesus at His mock trial, he asked, “I put you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!”(Matthew 26:63). The high priest was likely not inquiring about his divinity, but was looking for a way to charge him with treason for declaring that he was Israel’s king, the Messiah (Luke 22:67-71). The high priest then told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king (Luke 23:2-3).

John 18:33 states, “Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” (John 18:39; John 19:3, 14). This is why the Roman soldiers shamefully gave Jesus a crown of thorns and why the sign above His cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:2, 19). The whole context of Jesus’ crucifixion from the Roman and Jewish perspective was about his claiming to be a king of Israel not a Saviour of mankind.

Life Lessons from Wise Men

When we seek God with sincere determination, we will find him. He is not hiding from us, but wants to have an intimate relationship with each of us.

These wise men paid Jesus the kind of respect only God deserves. First, they worshiped Jesus. Second, they humbled themselves before God’s Son. Third, they gave their best gifts to Jesus. Fourth, they cared greatly for Jesus and those in His family. Fifth, they followed what they knew of God’s Word. After the Three Kings met Jesus, they did not go back the way they came. When we get to know Jesus Christ, we are changed forever and cannot go back to our old life. 

 

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