The Wise Men or Magi are major players in the Christmas Narrative. In every production we present these men with certain qualities and it just became common knowledge (despite just being made-up). But what do we actually know? What educated guess and inferences can we make? Here is every fact I can pull out of the Christmas story about the Wise Men:
There Weren’t 3 of Them
If you are transporting gold across the Middle East, you better have a caravan of guards. Rich folks (who give gold bars as baby presents) tend to travel with an entourage. They have a camel guy, an advanced plans guy, an umbrella guy, a tailor, and whatever Turtle did on the show Entourage (the answer is nothing. He did nothing. But you have to have one.) The only reason we invented the idea of 3 Wise Men is because they brought 3 gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But grandparents buy the kids 300 gifts and there are 2 of them. Basically counting the people by the number of gifts brought is a terrible system.
The 3 Gifts Were Definitely Weird
My assumption is that all the Magi were lifelong bachelors. That’s because if there were even just 1 woman in that group, they would have suggested swaddling cloths, a cedar wood crib, a cute Noah’s Arc mobile… you know, a baby item. There’s a lot of commentary on the reason behind the various gifts and perhaps what they foreshadowed, but I’ll share what I think. How the Wise Men came to those 3 gifts I can only assume was through some sort of secret ballot vote. 75% voted for gold/travelers cheques/gift cards. 24% voted for frankincense (or other essential oil). And there was one lone vote for Myrrh. But since they agreed to bring the top 3 items, Myrrh was included in the gift basket. Most agree that gold was the kingly gift and frankincense was the priestly gift (used in various forms of worship), but the consensus was that myrrh is the death gift. Myrrh was most commonly used embalming for burial. (A weird gift for a newborn king.) It was also mixed with wine to make vinegar. (But that doesn’t make it less weird of a gift.)
They Probably Were Babylonian
Fact #1 – They are from the East. Fact #2 – They were aware of the Jewish Messiah. Fact #3 – Babylonian are also called Chaldeans. Fact #4 – Chaldeans were known as Magi or Magicians. Therefore it’s Elementary my Dear Watson, there’s a greater than 50% chance they were from Babylon. We also know that the Babylonians were always intrigued and accepting of other cultures. We can see how Daniel was sought after for advice along with the Kings other magicians. I think these Magi identified the star as peculiar – i.e. fixed over a single point. The Jewish Messianic Psalms jumped to their minds and so they set out to bring their awkward gifts.
It Probably Took Them Over a Year to Get There
When I would set-up manger scenes in my house, I would always put the Wise Men on the other side of the house because they had to travel there. Little precocious me was exactly right. They Wise Men saw the star declaring Jesus’ birth, there’s definitely no indicator in the text (like in the film the Nativity Story) that the star appeared months before Jesus birth. I think it occurred at His birth. So the Wise Men take a few days to figure out what it is. A couple weeks to get their caravans together. Another night to talk about what gifts they’re gonna bring. And then they could actually begin the 2,500-kilometer journey (or 1,550 miles for our American readers. Come on Americans get with the rest of the world and go metric.) I’m not sure how fast you can travel in a day with camels in the desert when you have to set-up camp each night, but it’s not fast. I figure at least 3-9 months.
I Don’t Think the Wise Men even went to Bethlehem
They head first to King Herod’s Palace because that’s the logical place for a King to be born. But as we know Jesus was born in the House of Bread (i.e. Bethlehem), birthplace of King David – the G.U.T2.P. (the Greatest Up To That Point.) But even King Herod’s scribes knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. They popped open the ancient scrolls to what would eventually be labeled Micah 5:2 and it prophecies exactly where Jesus would be born (and the next verse talks about how the women will be wailing but Herod cut off his scribes before he got there.) So the text in Matthew 2 tells us that they pointed the Wise Men towards Bethlehem and sent them on their way. So many assume that’s where they went. But then the Star reappears and they follow it to where the child was. I don’t think they went to Bethlehem. I think they went to Nazareth. In Luke 2 we read that at 8 days old Joseph and Mary got Jesus circumcised in Jerusalem at the Temple. He takes selfies with Anna and Simeon and then it says they returned home to Nazareth. It wouldn’t make any sense to stay with relatives in Bethlehem for months and months. That’s certainly overstaying your welcome. It makes more sense that a few months or even a couple years have passed. Matthew 2 also calls Jesus a child and not a baby. It’s not a huge deal, but could mean He’s not a baby anymore. In His words, “I’m a big boy now.” Finally, when Herod goes all Disney villain and starts killing all the babies in the area, he decrees it as all babies 2 years and under. I don’t think he pulled that number out of the air. I think when he asked the Magi, when did they first notice the star? They said, “about 2 years ago.”
Well, I’m not sure what else we can really pull out of the text about the Wise Men. I hope I didn’t stretch the Scriptures out more than they were supposed to be to begin with. So there you have it; everything you never wanted to know about the Wise Men.