This evening the Christmas fact we want to look at is the fact of the Magi. Who were these magi, or wise men as they were called? Again this evening, as with Christmas Eve, I am leaning on research done by our own Paul Maier from his book, In the Fullness of Time, p. 45-50.
Matthew writes, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’ (Matthew 2:1-2).
Exactly how much time elapsed between the adoration of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi is not known, but the mysterious men from the East do not seem to have arrived until after Jesus’ presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, forty days after he was born, and until after He and His parents were settled in a house in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, fewer more facts are known of the Magi than of the shepherds.
“We three kings of Orient are . . . .” So the beloved Christmas carol begins, but already it has made at least three errors. First, how many Wise Men made the trip to Bethlehem is not known. And they were not “kings.” And they did not come from as far away as the “Orient,” that is, the Far East.
Tradition, of course, has placed their number at three, probably because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they presented to the infant Jesus, the assumption being one gift for each giver. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve. Legend has also supplied names in the case of the three (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), and has even reported their ages (twenty, forty, and sixty), as well as their skin colors (white, yellow, and black). But these names arise first in the sixth century A.D., too late for any authenticity, and their ages and races are too obviously spaced.
Supposedly, Thomas, the apostle to India, found and baptized the Magi into the Christian faith and ordained them as priests. Later, they suffered martyrdom, and their relics were presumably buried in Constantinople but then transferred to the cathedral at Cologne in Germany during the twelfth century, where they rest today. But no one takes such claims seriously.
The Greek of the New Testament calls them simply magoi apo anatolon, “magi from the East,” and the term magoi is usually translated as wise men, astrologers, or magicians. “The East” has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but no farther east.
Most of the evidence points to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were an old and powerful priestly caste among both Medes and Persians. These priest-sages, extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any other profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced black magic. The Persian magi were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed imposters.
The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originates among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names. Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman catacombs dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of Early Church fathers interpret them as Persian. Indeed, the reason invading Persians spared the Church of the Nativity in 614 A.D. was that they saw a golden mosaic over the doorway, depicting the wise men in Persian headdress.
However, if the astronomical aspects of the Christmas story are emphasized—the great star and its role as we talked about on Christmas Eve—a case could be made that the Magi were late Babylonians, since astronomy reached its highest development in Mesopotamia.
Whatever the origin of the Eastern sages, their visit was of great significance for later Christianity: the Wise Men were pagans, not Hebrews, and the fact that Gentile magi performed the same adoration as Jewish shepherds symbolized the universal outreach for future Christianity. “Nations [Gentiles] shall come to your light,” the prophet Isaiah had written, “and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3).
The star that guided them to Bethlehem, again as we talked about on Christmas Eve had both local and international significance. The Hebrews expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah (Num. 24:17)—a later pseudo-Messiah tried to capitalize on this belief by calling himself Bar-Kokhba, “Son of a Star”—and Eastern sages were acquainted with Hebrew beliefs because of the large Jewish colony in Babylon and elsewhere. Even Roman authors of the time spoke of the grandiose things expected in Palestine. “There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world,” wrote Suetonius. Therefore when the Magi inquired of Herod, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” their question was not really spoken out of a vacuum.
The scene of proud and richly costumed sages worshiping a baby in the humblest of circumstances has etched itself on the world’s imagination, for it is a graphic study in contrasts. The gifts they presented are usually interpreted symbolically. Gold, a royal gift, signified Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense, a fragrant gum resin burned as incense, denoted his future priesthood. This substance consisted of small whitish beads or chunks that were ground into powder and that gave off an odor like balsam when burned. The third gift, myrrh, called Smyrna in Greek, was an aromatic orange-colored resin from the small, thorny trees of the Commiphom family. Myrrh was expensive and much esteemed for use in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine, and embalming. That, years later, the crucified Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a pain reliever (Mark 15:23) and was also buried with the substance (John 19:39) renders this gift of the Magi predictive enough.
After their adoration at the manger, the Wise Men disappear from history, leaving a multitude of questions in their wake. Almost unidentifiable, they have still become some of the most familiar figures in Western culture, for their clumsy camels have lumbered back into the Nativity scene every year since Christmas was first celebrated.
And they did achieve their purpose in the total story of Christmas, which was to expand it. Up to now, the Nativity had been highly local in nature: only a few people of the lower classes of just one nationality had been involved. But the visit of the Magi burst all that, as rich Gentiles joined poor Jews, as King Herod and the priestly establishment in Jerusalem became concerned, and even the stars looked in.
So, we might conclude that these magi were star gazers, astronomers, but not necessarily astrologers or fortune tellers (putting the best construction on everything), who saw the “signs and wonders,” the “signs for seasons,” in the sky and followed the star to where Jesus was staying. As we have said, they did not show up until Jesus was about a year and a half old and was in a house.
The visit of the Magi might remind us that in Eden God’s promise was to send a Savior for the world, for all people, of all cultures and languages, of all places of all times. Epiphany, which is the celebration of the visit of the Magi is seen as the Gentile Christmas, because these were the first non-Jews to visit and celebrate Jesus’ birth. For us, we rejoice in the fact of their gifts, and their meaning, as well as in their Gentile-ness, as we too are Gentiles.
The visit of the Magi is not simply an add on to extend the Christmas story, rather it is God’s way of reminding us of our sin and our need for a Savior and the fact that Jesus, true God, born as a true man, who was our Prophet, Priest and King, was born to save all people of all places, of all times, including we Gentiles who by faith in Jesus are indeed children of Abraham and children of the covenant of grace. To this we rejoice and say, to God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.