We all know the story: right after Jesus’ birth, three wise men (also called “magi”) follow the star in the sky to Bethlehem. Having visited Herod already, the three men, named Gaspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar, visit the newly-born Jesus on the night of his birth to worship and adore him. They present the family with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before heading back home. We sing about the event in the hymn “We Three Kings,” which is both hauntingly beautiful and historically inaccurate.
In our recent series of posts, we’ve been discussing aspects of the Christmas story. In many cases, the details we think we know are the result of bad interpretation or suffer from legendary elements added over time. Of course, we might say the same for some Christians doctrines also!
The Gospel accounts indicate that these “magi”—the plural is used, but the precise number is unknown—visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as much as two years later. The traditional number of three wise men likely is derived from the three gifts presented to the family, although the Eastern Orthodox Church often depicts twelve. What form the gold took, we don’t know. Frankincense is an aromatic resin or incense produced today in northern and western Africa, western Asia, and India. Myrrh is similar to frankincense in that both are resins, although they come from different trees. Myrrh is produced in northwest Africa and Saudi Arabia and is still used in religious ceremonies in the Eastern Orthodox Church today.
The magi were astronomers, although a little-known legend suggests that they could have been the original Essential Oils salesmen. The text says nothing about their status as kings (early believers might have inferred this from Isaiah 60:3, 6b). We can trace the evolution of traditions involving the wise men, who are described as coming from different parts of the world and are different ages. The inclusivity of the men in terms of their origins, cultures, gifts, and ages may have been taken its present shape for a theological reason, showing all people acknowledging the rule of Christ (cf. Matthew 10:32; Philippians 2:11).
The timing of the magi’s visit to Bethlehem is often thought to have been virtually concurrent with Christ’s birth (one notable exception was Queen Victoria of England, who sent Christmas presents on New Year’s Day under the assumption that the magi had arrived a week or so after Jesus’ birth). Although artwork and Christmas cards frequently show Jesus laying in the manger as an infant surrounded by the three wise men, we have to notice that Herod issues a kill order for all the boys in Bethlehem aged two years and younger (Matthew 2:16). Jesus could have been a toddler by the time the wise men arrived.
The wise men play a minor role in the Gospels, but people have taken great pains to remember them. Marco Polo claimed to have seen the tombs of the three magi in Tehran in the 1270s. The Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral in Germany supposedly serves as the resting place for their remains.
Although their role in Christ’s story may be small, the magi set an example for us. They knew the signs. They traveled a great distance—no easy feat. They recognized Christ’s greatness and worshiped him accordingly. Their wisdom is sometimes expressed in the saying, “The wise still seek him.”
Yes, they do.
Image courtesy of Ben White / Unsplash.com