Christmyth #2: Let’s Talk About those Wise Men
By Joel Greenwood
There’s a traditional Christmas song most of us know at least the first line of, which references three kings who have travelled afar, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The song is talking about the Magi, a group of Eastern scholars we first encounter in Matthew Chapter 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 truth is, we aren’t told much about the people mentioned here. History tells us that the Magi (or Wise Men) were probably wealthy studiers of astronomy who would have noticed the star that led them to Jesus. So often, we’re left on our own to get creative with the Wise-Men-part of the Christmas story. Thankfully, through taking a closer look at their account, we can come away with a clearer picture of the gift-bearing visitors to Jesus. Let’s break it down.
1. There were three Magi who visited Jesus: Myth
We aren’t ever told how many Magi visited Jesus. Most nativity sets include three, but that number is only based on verse 11, in which Jesus is presented with three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There very well may have been three men, but Matthew focuses less on the number of the men, and more of their response of worship to Jesus.
2. The Magi were part of a sinister political plan: True
Before they saw Jesus, the Magi stopped by Jerusalem to visit King Herod, asking if he knew about the birth of this child. Herod was aware, but he wasn’t happy. So he sent the Magi with instructions to return to him and give the location of the child, so that he could “worship” him (Hint: in Herod’s context, “worship,” is code for “kill.”). Thankfully, due to a dream, that didn’t happen, but tragedy still took place with the genocide of infant boys around Jerusalem.
3. The Magi visited Jesus while he was still in the manger: Myth
According to the timeline of the events of Jesus’ birth, although the shepherds came and visited Jesus on the night of his birth, the Magi were probably later arrivals, most likely visiting Jesus somewhere between 6 weeks and one year after his birth. If you want to explore the subject more, this article lays out the timeline to help put the pieces of Matthew and Luke’s accounts together.
Ultimately, the account of the Magi reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter into the narrative of humanity with the purpose of only offering salvation to one kind of people. Jesus came for the Jew, like Mary and Joseph. He came for the poor, like the shepherds who saw him in the manger. He came for the rich and non-Jew, like the Magi. Jesus came for all, and the death he would one day face was on behalf of the entirety of the human race, whether first-century Judea or twenty-first century North America (and every country outside of it!). The birth of Jesus was a gift for all, and that’s a reason for us to celebrate this year.