The most beautiful story in history is the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which we celebrate every Christmas. Joseph and Mary, along with a string of other characters, remind us of how holy His birth was to all Christians. But through centuries of translations, this special event has become inundated with a lack of facts and/or misinterpretations. Let’s revisit a section of the nativity’s chain of events – that which involves the three wise men. I think it will surprise you to learn a few details never explicitly revealed in the Bible. For this blog, I will refer to the nativity story as written in the Book of Matthew 2:1-12.
Who Were the Three Wise Men?
Matthew tells us they came from “east of Jerusalem.” If we examine the historical facts, east of Jerusalem was the Parthian Empire (also known as Persia), which is today’s ancient Iran. They rivaled Rome during the time of King Herod’s reign and occupied much of Palestine.
When the Medes (ancient Iranians) and Persians conquered Babylon, the Persians formed a priesthood of wise men known as magicians or magi. This appears to be the point of origin for the wise men, who held dual priestly and governmental authority. They were called the magi of the Parthian Empire but were NOT considered kings. (So, how did we invent the Christmas song, We Three Kings??) They were perhaps advisers to the kings.
Most residents of the empire practiced the Zoroastrianism religion, now considered being the oldest practice in the world. They believe in one universal, supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, or the “Wise Lord.” Despite their religion, they understood a new Savior would be born through the prophet Daniel’s prophecy. (Daniel 9:24-27)
Names of the Three Wise Men
Following the format of most stories in the Bible, the three wise men were never named, and only legend and many interpretations assigned the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The Catholics kept the names and honored them as kings and saints, but their real names were never revealed in scriptures.
The three wise men, today, are called “Magi,” “the Three Wise Men,” and “three kings.” We’ve already confirmed they were not kings. “Wise men” translated is “magos,” which means an Oriental scientist, magician, sorcerer, or wise men. They interpreted dreams, were fortunetellers and royal astronomers. The gospel writer, Matthew, referred to them as ma’goi, or magi.
How Did the Wise Men Become Involved in the Birth of Jesus?
Many territories around Bethlehem had close links with King Herod, including the Parthian Kingdom. They knew Herod as a treacherous king who committed many murders, including his wife, her brother, and father, many friends, and military leaders. He didn’t trust anyone.
The day arrived when the wise men appeared in Jerusalem, and they began asking questions around town. They wanted to know where they could find the new King of the Jews. A major stir developed because people believed their earthly king was Herod.
When Herod learned of the chatter, he became furious because he was the only king of the land. He approached Jewish religious leaders who told Herod what was written in God’s word. They told him the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
Furious at the news, Herod secretly called a meeting with the wise men. They told King Herod they witnessed a star which they believed to be the prophecy of the Jewish King. (Many Christians conclude the wise men followed the star, but the Book of Matthew only says they SAW a star).
King Herod, the conniving leader he was, acted thrilled about the magi’s news, but he was seething inside. He sent them to Bethlehem to find the Messiah.
“Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” Matthew 2:8
The Magi’s Journey
The Gospel of Matthew does not place the wise men at the birth of Jesus. It is written they arrived at a house with a young Jesus, by His mother’s side. It’s estimated He was about forty days old to two years of age, but not in a manger. They dropped to their knees and gave praise to the new Savior.
The evening of the magi’s visit, David, the archangel, paid a visit to the wise men. He warned them not to return to Herod, and he also told Joseph that night to pack up his family and move to Egypt for safety.
The wise men “departed into their own country another way.” (Matthew 2:12) Realizing he was snubbed by the magi, King Herod madly ordered the death of every boy between the ages of birth and two years old. He thought he would find the Messiah, but not before his death.
How Wise Were They?
I believe they were quite wise men! The word wise means having good judgment. They studied the word of God and obeyed His commands, even though they were of another religion.
Are the three wise men fact or legend? We can decipher the answer by reviewing the written facts above, but there is one profound message in their story… wise people acknowledge their need for a Savior.
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