Rethinking the Wise Men

Published in The Calhoun Times Saturday December 5th.

Screenshot 2015-09-23 at 2.19.54 PM - EditedLast week we took a look at Christmas Card theology and compared popular notions about angels to what is recorded in scripture. We decided the heavenly host looks more like an army going into battle than a church choir singing hymns. Let’s turn our attention this week to the wise men.

As much as I enjoy the hymn We Three Kings of Orient Are, they were most likely not kings, not from the Orient and not three in number. So who were the wise men? We cannot say for certain, but the Greek word translated as wise men in the King James is magos (magi in Latin). This word was borrowed by the Greeks from old Persian. The religious cast of Persian priests paid particular attention to the movement of stars and astrology. Some translations plainly call the wise men astrologers. The Persian followers of Zoroaster believe in heaven, hell and a final judgement similar to Christianity. We can’t say for sure the wise men in Matthew 2 were Persian astrologer priests, but it does fit what we know about them.

How many wise men were there? The Bible does not say, but we know the group made a long trip carrying valuable gifts. Such a trip would not have been a safe one for a group of three men. If they traveled the ancient routes of the Silk Roads they would likely have been part of a large caravan. Three is the traditional number because the Bible lists three gifts. Eastern Orthodox Christians traditionally believe there were 12 wise men. Maybe you have heard three names listed; those are from Roman Catholic tradition rather than scripture. You are welcome to believe whatever you wish, but I will always go back to “the Bible doesn’t say.”

We do know they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold has been valuable since the beginning of time. We would all appreciate that gift this year. Frankincense is a fragrant resin (tree sap) used to make incense and perfume. Myrrh is something of a sticking point in this story. It’s also a resin but one that is bitter, not sweet. Myrrh was used by the Hebrews to anoint the dead. What an unusual gift for a newborn. But Jesus was not, after all, just any newborn. His birth was the first step on the long, slow, painful road to the cross. The presentation of myrrh as a gift serves as a literary device known as foreshadowing. Even at Christmastime we are reminded who Jesus is and why he came into the world.

Now let’s examine the manger scene. I’ll be blunt; the wise men weren’t there. They have become a part of our Christmas tradition so please don’t drag your figures back into the garage or re-write the kids’ church pageant at the 11th hour. We know from Matthew 2 they came from the east. They made a journey over mountains and deserts and went to the wrong place first. Seeking a newborn king they visited King Herod in Jerusalem. Joseph and Mary were only in Bethlehem long enough to be registered in the census; they may have only stayed the one night. Matthew 2:11 says “going into the house they saw the child with Mary…” We don’t know if it took two weeks or two years but we do know they fell on their knees and worshipped Jesus in a house, not in a manger and not in a stable.

The traditions, popular art and more recently tv specials and movies create a certain mythology of the first Christmas night. But don’t get discouraged or distracted by all the details we cannot be sure of. The Bible narrative was written for a particular purpose. God shared what he wanted us to know and it will always be enough. We know that Israel had anxiously waited thousands of years for the Messiah to come. We know that Mary was favored among women and that her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We know that the angels appeared to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) and later to shepherds in the field outside Bethlehem. Those shepherds found the scene exactly as the angels described it, and left the city praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. We know that wise men saw the star and brought precious gifts when they came to worship him.

Our Christmas cards paint a pretty picture. But for the record, the real story recorded in scripture is beautiful as well. God loves you; that is the greatest story ever told.

About Clark Bunch

Clark Bunch is the pastor of Unity Baptist Church and author of God is Near. He and his wife Teresa have one child. In his spare time he enjoys blogging, playing guitar and riding his motorcycle. And coffee, he'd be nowhere without coffee.
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