“We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…”
This month I’ve been focusing the bible study class on Christmas, a season of grace. That grace was extended in a spectacular way to one of the most iconic of nativity scene figures: the wise men, or more historically known as “Magi”. Mysterious, is one word that comes to mind when thinking about these men; they suddenly appear in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, following a star and carrying gifts to present to the newborn Messiah. Their country of origin is never clearly stated, nor what they were exactly either. I’m told a Japanese bible translation calls them “doctors/scholars”, others say magi, and the classic Christmas carol names them “kings”. The idea of there being three of them is also never stated in the bible, with the tradition probably stemming from the fact that they gave three gifts to baby Jesus. It can all be pretty confusing to even the most dedicated bible reader, but there are nuggets of truth embedded in history waiting to be mined that provide some clarity, so let’s try to unravel the enigma.
Magi, or magus in Greek and mogh in Persian, roughly translates to “magician”, which included practitioners of astrology and alchemy. The earliest known usage of the word is part of the Behistun Inscription, a partial biography by Darius the Great of Persia. The meaning of the word goes deeper than the modern understanding of “magic” though, as it was a term often used to describe followers of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, whose priests, among other things, endeavored to understand dreams and omens in the unseen spiritual world. This information seems to point to an origin of Babylon or Persia for the Magi, which coincides with further evidence pointed out in Matthew 2:1-2:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him…”
The regions east of Israel are modern-day Iraq and Iran, which would have been Babylon and Persia 2000 years ago.
So, we have a pretty clear idea about where the Magi may have come from, but how did they even know about ‘the king of the Jews’? It is always possible that they also received an angelic dream as others did. Then again, there are other hints that make sense as well and further corroborate the evidence above that these men were from either Babylon or Persia. Hundreds of years before Christ, Israel had been conquered by both empires, with many Jews sent away to live as exiles in those foreign kingdoms. By the time of the nativity, many still called these lands home and so the Magi would have had access to books of the Torah (Old Testament) that told of all things concerning the Messiah.
That last point really lifts my heart out of the history lesson and back into the arms of grace. It’s amazing that men of another race and tribe, another religion even, whose practices were condemned by Old Testament law, were allowed to see the Messiah’s star. They received the herald of a great light dawning into the world, even before His own people did. Yet, what is even more remarkable is how the Magi responded to this beacon in the night: not with excuses or drowning in their own guilt, but bearing gifts and heartfelt worship. How will you receive the king?
Merry Christmas and keep on digging!