Perhaps if Luke the historian had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matt. 2:1).
–“Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated”
Following the passing comment about Jesus’ birth at the end of chapter one — “…until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” — chapter two begins at “about that same time.”
About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
That is, the wise men saw the star and began making their way to Jerusalem. Walking or riding camels (if popular depictions are to be trusted, though I’m not suggesting they should be) likely took a significant amount of time. The only clue we are given as the time frame is later, when Herod demands t he death of all boys two years of age an lower. So, there is at least the possibility that these events took place several months, even a year or more, after the actual birth of Jesus.
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
Apparently, Herod knew nothing of Jesus’ birth before these “wise men from eastern lands” came and inquired about Jesus. [If you’re like me, this brings up an immediate line of thinking that goes something like this–Didn’t Luke, in his story, talk about heavenly choirs, bright lights, and shepherds giving witness to the “glad tiding of great joy?” How could Herod have not known about this? We’ll tackle this questions like this in another post]
Herod, worried about the news of a new “King of the Jews” having been born, calls in these men known as the Magi (which likely meant they were astrologers and interpreters of omens, which makes sense in this story that Matthew tells). So Herod calls them in with a devious plan to trick the Magi into telling him where this baby is located. The Magi–sometimes known as “wise men”–are too smart for Herod, though, and manage to visit the baby (who may have been a toddler by the time they found him) and then return home without giving up anything to Herod. Well-done, Magi!
[Quick note–Matthew pulls out another Old Testament prophecy and puts it in the mouths of these Magi. I’m curious as to where Matthew got the information. Did Mary tell him this story as it was told to her by the Magi? Did Mary tell Jesus this story and then Jesus told it to his friends? Was this a generally-accepted oral tradition with which people were aware? Was Matthew creatively integrating his knowledge of the Old Testament with the story of the Magi, or was it by divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit that Matthew was able to make this connection? Good questions.]
They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The important part of the story for Matthew’s purpose is the fact that they found him by following a star and then came and bowed before him. In Matthew’s gospel there are no angels singing, no stable, no shepherds, no glorious announcement of Jesus’ birth. For Matthew, the first post-birth glimpse of Jesus’ identity is found in these reaction of Herod and the visit of these mysterious non-Jewish men from the East. There is no mention of how many of these Magi made the journey to Jesus [so much for “we three kings of orient are”], though we do know that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh [“…bearing gifts we traverse afar”].
These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6). Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the magi, many believe that the number of the gifts is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men.
–“Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?”
In contemporary church life, preachers often preach on these gifts in a sort of mystical way–gold is symbolic of Christ’s kingly status, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his anointing. None of this is in Scripture, of course, so when this happens there is a healthy dose of theologizing going on, along with a little bit of artistic license in an attempt to fill in some gaps and make the story meaningful for contemporary audiences. This is fine. The gospel writers, I believe, did these same things as they wrote their stories of Jesus.
But again, this interpretation of the three gifts of the Magi does not come from Matthew. According to some, these three particular gifts represent a likelihood that these Magi came from the Arabian peninsula, from the court of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, some say. The Nabateans–likely descendants of Ishmael and predecessors of the Arabian people from whom Muhammad would arise–controlled the Arabian peninsula and the vital trade routes from Yemen to Gaza and from Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor and Persia.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were, without a doubt, the richest of gifts that could be offered to a newborn king, but their significance lies not so much in their religious symbolism, nor in the fabulous wealth they represented…[rather], not only were tribute gifts given to conquering kings, but it was customary for neighboring monarchs to offer gifts at the birth of a future king.
— “Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh Matter”
In the years just prior to Jesus’ birth the political situation between the Nabatean King Aretas and Herod the Great was shaky. When the Magi announced that a new king had been born, it would have made sense for King Aretas to send gifts and tributes as a sign of goodwill. I wonder, however, if not for the dream, would these Magi have gone back to Herod and told him the whereabouts of Jesus? That’s one question to which we’ll never know the answer.
In the case of the Magi, understanding a little bit of the historical background helps us understand this story in a more pragmatic way. I do not understand the purpose of the gospels to be primarily historical, but understanding the historical context in which they were written can help us gain a fuller understanding of some of the details that are hazy to modern readers.
To finish, let me add just one additional thought. If, indeed, these Magi were Arabian mystics sent by their king, several thoughts come to mind:
- They could have really “messed over” the nation of Israel by allowing Herod to seek out and destroy this child, but they didn’t because of a dream. People today, across the Middle East and throughout the descendants of Ishmael, continue to tells stories of dreams and visions that lead them to Jesus.
- The first people that Matthew mentions bowing in adoration to Jesus (for whatever reason they may have done so) are non-Jews, a symbol (perhaps) of the mission that Matthew come to see as Jesus’ purpose on earth. And not only are they not Jewish…they are descendants of Ishmael. God had given Hagar a promise of blessing for Ishmael. That blessing would come–and continues to come–through Jesus.
- If we are the body of Christ in our world today, then we are the conduit through which all others are to be blessed; not in some sort of nebulous, unclear, abstract, or theoretical way, but rather in real, concrete, meaningful ways each and every day. How well do we carry out this task? How good are we at being a blessing to the people around us?
“Heavenly Father, Almighty God; Most loving, most compassionate, and most holy. Thank you for your guidance and inspiration as I read your written Word. Teach me how to let you Spirit shape and form me as I read, meditate, and pray over the gospel of Matthew. Let the Living Word dwell so powerfully in me that my life becomes a blessing to others; that they might see Christ in me and be drawn to you. Thank you.
Articles you might enjoy:
- “Eastern Wise-Men, or Magi, Visit Jesus, the New-born King”