Every Christmas the Nativity set is unpacked. The shepherds find their place, and the three Wise Men and their camels join them. It’s likely that one of the Wise Men is Asian, one African, and one Caucasian. The best-informed children will tell you that the names of the three kings are Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar.
The Magi not only take their place next to Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, and the angels; they also take their place among a whole collection of Christmas stories, legends, and myths. The Nativity figures might have pride of place, but they share that place with Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Little Drummer Boy, and Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas.
All these traditions and many more make the Christmas season special, but is there truth to any of it? Are the Wise Men legendary figures like St. Nicholas, or are they pure make-believe like Santa Claus and his sleigh?
Skeptical scholars and believers with blinders
Most New Testament scholars dismiss the story of the Wise Men as a pious tale invented long after Jesus’ birth by the early Christians who wanted to make the birth of the Son of God more special. The story of the magical star, the angelic messages, and the long desert journey seemed too fantastical to be historical.
On the other hand, believers have held to the story handed down through the ages without question. For them the lovely tale of the Wise Men who humbled themselves to worship the Christ Child was beautiful, good, and true, and that was the most important thing. They have assumed it was true in a historical sense, and if the scholars are skeptical, they are believers with blinders.
Because of their simple assumptions, neither the skeptical scholars nor the believers with blinders have bothered to look further and discover who the Wise Men might be and where they came from. In fact, the discovery of the truth is a riveting story of detective work, and like most detective stories, the obvious answer is not the correct answer. To determine who the Wise Men really were, we first have to unpack the story as most people understand it.
The Wise Men and Lord of the Rings
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Galadriel says, “History became legend and legend became myth.” This is precisely what happened to the simple tale recounted in Matthew’s Gospel. The story Matthew tells has few details, but the details we have come to accept were added in the first three centuries of the Church. Gnostic writers of the day were similar to New Age believers today. They were enchanted by magic, esoteric theories and the occult.
The Gnostics wrote expanded accounts of the birth of Jesus that highlighted the miraculous element and the exotic origins of the Wise Men. As the center of Christianity shifted north and west to Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, Matthew’s indication that the Wise Men came “from the East” suggested that they came from Persia. Before long, the full-blown version of the story was circulating. Soothsayers and stargazers — kings from Persia, India, and Africa — followed a magical star across the desert sands on camels, finally arriving after a long and perilous journey to worship the infant Christ.
The problem is that very little of that version of the story is in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew doesn’t say they are kings. He doesn’t number them as three. He doesn’t say they rode camels. He doesn’t say they followed a magical star, and he doesn’t say they went on a long journey. He simply writes, “Wise men came from the East” (see Matthew 2:1). They saw his star. They came to the court of Herod the Great. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The detective work I did for my new book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (Regnery History, 2017) would do pretty well for an Indiana Jones movie. OK, we’d have to add a pretty girl and some bad guys, and I’d have to find my leather jacket, hat, and whip.
But in fact the true identity of the three Wise Men is linked with Indiana Jones, because I believe they came from the city of Petra in Jordan. The famous treasury of Petra was used as the backdrop for the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I began my investigation by asking if the Bible itself might yield any clues about the identity of the Wise Men. The writings of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah pointed the way. In chapter 60 we find a prophecy that is usually read at the Epiphany. It says:
For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you, the wealth of nations shall come to you. Caravans of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and heralding the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered for you, the rams of Nebaioth shall serve your needs (Isaiah 60:5–7).
With a bit of digging I discovered that Midian, Ephah, Kedar, and Nebaioth were all locations or the names of tribes from northwestern Arabia. Starting there I discovered that during the time of Jesus’ birth that territory was occupied by the kingdom of Nabatea. The Nabateans had close links with Herod the Great. Furthermore, their religion was rooted in astrology, and like many peoples from the time, they were looking for a messiah.
Diplomats and worshippers
This began an exciting quest to flesh out my theory. I was similar to an excited archeologist on a dig. The more I researched, the more fascinating the story became. Details fell together in an amazing way to unlock the secret that the Wise Men were indeed historical figures. If the believers with blinders were wrong, so were the skeptical scholars.
Just at the time of Jesus’ birth the Nabatean king, Aretas IV, had a strong motivation to send diplomats to the court of Herod with rich gifts. Learning of the birth of a new king of the Jews by studying the stars, they set out on their historic journey. Coming from the neighboring kingdom, it was not very far, but it was significant because they were not only diplomats bearing peace offerings. They were Wise Men on a spiritual quest to find their true king and the source of true wisdom.