THREE WISE MEN
“In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out when they went to worship Jesus Christ; and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, carefully kept. The bodies are still entire, with the hair and beard remaining.”
“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington D.C. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”
One of my favorite Christmas season memories is gathering with friends to sing Christmas carols as we strolled through the neighborhood. We did this on several occasions at our former house on East Juniper Avenue: called the “Christmas Street” by locals, where several neighbors decorated their houses in a honoring tradition tracing back to the tragic Yuletide death of a neighborhood youth. (I have written about this in a previous missive).
Among those songs I really enjoyed singing on those outings—or, in my case, tried to sing—was the classic We Three Kings of Orient Are written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857. I’ve loved that song as long as I can remember. The song was written while Hopkins was rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and was for an upcoming Christmas pageant in New York City. Some claim the song is the first widely popular Christmas carol written in America.
I was reminded of the well-known carol during a pre-Christmas church sermon last Sunday morning. The pastor stitched together several illustrations to make his point that believers must be receptive to God’s challenges in their lives, must listen for God’s voice, and must step out and act on what they’ve heard. One of the examples the pastor used was the three wise men mentioned in Matthew 2:1-12:
“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 … When they had heard the king [King Herod], they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, offering their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.”
As soon as the pastor mentioned the three wise men, and the fact that it may have taken as long as two years to make the trip, a small still voice whispered in my spirit: “do you have any idea how difficult it was for them to make the trip, the number of times they had to fight off robbers along the route, or the personal spiritual doubts they had to overcome?” In a short moment in time, I gained a new respect for these wise men mentioned in scripture and determined to learn more about them.
I found that what I believe about these incredible men of faith has been a patchwork quilt of sermons I have heard (based on the scriptural passages above), traditional church teachings, and popular conceptions. First and foremost, the wise men from the East are only mentioned in the canonical gospel of Matthew. Why? The gospel of Matthew written (according to early church tradition) by the apostle and former tax collector, somewhere between 50-75 A.D., aimed to present Jesus not only as the Jewish Messiah but also genealogical son of David. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and the Law, was the fulfillment of all messianic hopes and expectations; the gospel contains some 41 Old Testament citations. Thus, in Matthew’s account, it only made sense that royalty would make the long, arduous trip to bow, worship and present costly gifts to the future King-of-Kings.
Why do we say there were three wise men? Matthew’s passage does not mention a specific number. Western Christendom traditionally assumes them to be three in number because of the three gifts enumerated in the text (reinforced by the messianic passages in Isaiah 60). Eastern Christianity, however, especially the Syriac church, maintains there were as many as twelve wise men.
What type of individuals were they? In the Koine Greek they were magoi (from the Old Persian magu “Zoroastrian clergymen”). As part of their religious training, this priestly class carefully studied the stars and other physical phenomena. Several later translations refer to the men as “astrologers.” Certainly, they were part of an educated religious elite who carefully studied the stars. The description of the three wise men as “kings” was of later vintage, an attempt to link the event with the prophecy in Psalms 72:10 “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.”
And what about the so-called “Star of Bethlehem”? One of the most amazing things about these wise men, in my view, is that they had the patience, perseverance and spiritual maturity to keep their eyes focused on the star above them. How many times, I wonder, were they ridiculed in their quest? The star led them first to Jerusalem (where else would a King of Israel be located) and then, later, to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus and Mary were located. Over the years, I have been interested in the variety –not to mention spiritual motives—for the various explanations of the Christmas Star. On the spiritual side, for example, these range from “pious fiction;” to a prophetic fulfillment of the “Star Prophecy” in Numbers 24:17; and Origen’s view (one of the most influential of the early Christian theologians) that the timing of the Magi studies perfectly coincided with the prophetic appearance of a unique man in this world as well as the appearance of the star as foretold of old.
As you can imagine, that just touches the surface.
Moreover, as if that isn’t enough, there are an abundance of naturalistic explanations. One of the more interesting to me involves the German astronomer, mathematician, astrologer and natural philosopher Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler was a key figure in the 17th century Scientific Revolution—one of my favorite topics when I taught college-level Western Civilization classes—best known for his laws of planetary motion which, in turn, provided one of the foundations for Sir Isaac Newton’s breakthrough theory of universal gravitation. Kepler had a notion that in God’s perfect creation, the planets themselves emitted musical notes of attraction which he sought to explain mathematically. A drastic departure indeed from today’s scientists who seek to drive the very God of creation out of creation itself. At any rate, Kepler held the view that three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn created a nova which he linked to the appearance of the Christmas Star.
Other naturalistic explanations for the Christmas Star have followed. Indeed, as late as 2014, an international colloquium on recent naturalistic theories for the Star of Bethlehem was held at the Netherland’s University of Groningen involving several noted scientists, theologians, and historians. There is an amazing array of theories: eclipses of the planet Jupiter by the moon in 6 B.C.; Jupiter’s retrograde motion; a supernova explosion on February 23 in 4 B.C. (now known as the PSR 1913+16 or the Hulse-Taylor Pulse, recorded by Chinese observers); a comet viewed by Chinese and Korean stargazers around 5 B.C.; a new constellation rising; and many more.
There is a handful who still hold that the star’s appearance was miraculous: a special one-time creative work of God to glorify the entrance of His Son into this world.
Count me among those.
King Herod couldn’t see the Star. Neither could the Jewish religious elite in Jerusalem, even though they knew of the prophet Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The wise men obediently followed the Star to Bethlehem; the religious, legal and political leaders of the day didn’t.
They couldn’t; their blinded eyes simply missed the Star.
As always, this missive omits at least as much as it contains: the specialness of the Epiphany holiday (the celebration of the visit of the wise men in Western Christianity on January 6); Herod’s massacre of the innocents; the spiritual meaning of the three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the traditional church identities of the three wise men—Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar; or the Eastern Orthodox Church traditions and iconography. Perhaps a future missive …
In sum, after my brief spiritual encounter in church last weekend, I will never view a traditional Christmas nativity scene the same—especially as concerns depictions of the adoration of the three Magi. Of course, we live in a country where such public displays of the birth of Christ are under increasing attack by godless voices in the media, in national and local legislative bodies, in courts, in Hollywood, and the White House itself. But if history shows anything, the true meaning of the Christmas story—the hope of a child born in a manger (where else would the Lamb of God be born), the sacrifice and perseverance of the wise men, the offering of gifts, and the amazing Star—will endure until Christ Himself returns.
 Marco Polo, The Book of the Million, book1, ch. 13.
 Doug Storer, “America’s first Christmas carol written in Huron,” The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg), Dec. 17, 1982. Citation from the Wikipedia article on the song.
 New Revised Standard Version.
 Here I have used Jack W. Hayford’s excellent Bible and study guide, Spirit Filled Life Bible (New King James Version), [Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville] 1991, pp. 1401-1406. Church tradition says that for 15 years following thew resurrection of Jesus, Matthew preached in Palestine and conducted various missionary activities in other countries.
 The list includes: New English Bible (1961), Phillips New Testament in Modern English (1972), Twentieth Century New Testament (1904, revised edition), Amplified Bible (1958), and The Living Bible (1962).
 One of my favorite biographical studies about Kepler is by Arthur Koestler, The Watershed: A Biography of Johannes Kepler in 1960. The book is an excerpt from Koestler’s seminal study The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959). For students of the Cold War period, Koestler’s classic work Darkness At Noon (1940) is without peer.
 The colloquium particularly discussed astronomer Michael R. Molnar’s theory that the star of the east was linked to ancient Greek astrological observations. See, Gordon Govier, “O Subtle Star of Bethlehem,” Christianity Today, Vol. 58, No. 10, p. 19 (Dec 22, 2014); as cited in the Wikipedia article on the Star of Bethlehem.
 See A.J. Morehouse, “The Christmas Star as a Supernova in Aquila,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 72:65 (1978).