The Magi – Fact or Fiction?
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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Some wise sage has pondered this question: “What would have happened if there had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?”
The answer is simple: The women would have asked directions immediately upon commencing their trip and so would have arrived on time. This would have given them opportunity to help with the delivery of the baby Jesus. They would also have cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought cute little outfits for the baby Jesus to wear on his trip home. .
Unfortunately, as we all know, the magi weren’t women. They were men. And while we generally think of these men as being part of the Christmas event, in reality they weren’t even present on that first Christmas Day. Instead, they arrived on the scene well over a year later.
For some Christians, the Wisemen present credibility problems. They wonder if the story told by Matthew is really a true story, or merely one made up to impress to readers, that the birth of Jesus was an earth shaking event?
Photography has been one of my hobbies for many years. In fact, I’ve had a camera in my hand since age of 5 years. Up until recently however, whenever I took a picture, what was captured on the film is what I’d print. But that’s not how it is today. It’s all changed now, thanks to software programmes such as ‘Photoshop’.
With the latest versions of Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, I’m able to make radical changes to the images that my camera has captured. I can change and enhance – the colour; correct any distortion that may have been caused by the aperture of the lens; and even remove parts of the picture, or add in other content.
The result of this, is that today, know one can know for sure that what they see in a photograph is a true representation of reality. In other words, you can’t be sure that what you see in the picture is what was there on the day that picture was taken.
So what does all this mean for us, living as we do in the 21st century? Our new found ability to change or manipulate reality means that it is becoming more difficult to establish a true basis upon which to judge what’s going on in the world. It is much harder today to know what is truth, and what is merely relative. .
The point is, it’s not merely photographers who manipulate reality. And perhaps that’s why there are many today who would argue that the Biblical writers took liberties with the truth, in telling the story of faith. Such critics would have us believe that – the virgin birth, the visit of angels, and the magi are symbolic, but not factual events. They claim that because they fall outside the laws of nature, they couldn’t have happened; they are merely myths.
Personally, I believe that it is just such challenges of the authority of the Bible that explains why so many Christians today have either abandon their faith, or put it on a lower priority in their lives.
You often hear people today stating that they are ‘spiritual’, but not particularly religious. Of course, what they mean by ‘spiritual’, is a far cry from the biblical use of the word. In the Bible, ‘Spiritual’ refers to being filled with the Spirit of God. Modern day spiritualism rejects traditional faith in favour of some vague search for meaning and self fulfilment, and it leads it followers into a whole mess of occult ramblings about the paranormal, which are subjective with little foundation in truth.
A recent study suggests that as many as a third of the U.S. population identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. In Canada that number is probably slightly lower, but we know that there are many who are attracted to this way of thinking.
Spiritualism may have its appeal, but it doesn’t offer a foundation upon which to build a strong and lasting faith. It doesn’t provide a creed to anchor faith, such as we have in Christianity. Those who pursue Spiritualism pick and choose among various theories. There don’t adhere to a code of behaviour established by a supreme authority; and they offer no accountability; no final judgment before the throne of God.
For those unexposed or unaware of the truth of the Gospel, such musings have there appeal. They appear to answer that deep and abiding longing of the human soul to find, (as the philosophers call it), ‘the source of all being’, but they do so without demanding very much from their believers.
I mention these things, because I think it’s important for Christians to be prepared to meet the challenge of those who seek to undermine the authority of the Bible. And we need to know how to respond when aspects of our faith are questioned.
The story of the magi is often a subject of criticism and denial. Because these mysterious figures from the East are not clearly identified, and because the story of their search for the infant Jesus appears in only in one Gospel, critics would have us believe that the event never happen; that the story was made up simply to enhance the importance of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
But personally, I don’t agree with such critics, and I’ll tell you why - as we take a close at their role in the birth of our Lord.
I WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE MAGI?
So what do we know about the magi? The first thing to acknowledge, is that, because of the way Matthew refers to them, we are left with a number of questions.
- Who were they?
- How many of them were there?
- What country did they come from? and
- What motivated them to leave the comfort and security of their homeland, to travel – who knows how far to a distant land, to find an infant whose birth, they believed, was announced in the stars?
While we may never have definitive answers to these questions, certain assumptions have been made by scholars, which are certainly plausible. For example:
- Who were they? - The best guess is that they were scholars, most likely trained in medicine, history, religion and most importantly, astronomy. For it is believed that they were advisors to the king of their country.
- How many were there? - Because Matthew mentions three gifts, it has been assumed that there were three Wisemen, but we can be sure that they arrived with a large company of supporters. No one, in Jesus’ day would have dare to travel the 1,000 miles or more, across a desert and waste land, without a small army for protection.
- As to their country of origin, tradition tells us that the Magi came either from Persia (which is present day Iran), or possibly Babylon (which is part of Iraq). Both communities were well established centuries before the birth of Jesus.
- To understand the motivation that drove these men to such great lengths of endeavour in their search for the infant Jesus, we have to rely upon what historians and astronomers can tell us.
We know, for example, that Eastern scholars in that period, frequently consulted the stars for answers to questions such as: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
As for the star that caught their attention, there are two theories. One astronomer from Rutgers University claims that there was an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn around the time of Jesus’ birth which would, almost certainly, have caught the attention of ancient astrologers. And since Jupiter was considered the ‘planet of kings’, any unusual activity involving this planet would have caused a great deal of excitement among astrologers. We also know that ancient Chinese records record the fact that an unusually bright star did appear in the year that Jesus was born.
All of this suggests that there was much to motivate the wisemen and to launch them on their long and dangerous journey.
II WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THEIR VISIT?
The next thing we need to consider is - ‘what’s the significance of the magi’s visit?’ Why did Matthew tell us about the visit of these men?
By way of an answer to these questions, we need first to remember that it is the question asked of King Herod by the Wisemen, that draws our attention to the prophecy made 700 years earlier, by the prophet Micah who proclaimed:
“‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” (Micah 5:2)
But perhaps more important than that are the gifts which the wisemen later presented to the infant Jesus. There were, of course, three gifts.
The first was gold.
Being one of the rarest and most expensive metals, gold was traditionally associated with the power and wealth of kings. The presentation of such a gift to Jesus was a clear indication of the respect and honour which these sages from the East held for this particular child.
From a more practical point of view, without this gift, it is questionable whether or not Mary and Joseph could have afforded that long trip to Egypt which enabled them to flee from the vengeance of King Herod.
The second gift was frankincense, an herb which held almost spiritual significance for people in ancient times. It was used in the temple worship of God. By presenting frankincense to Jesus, the Wisemen acknowledged the deity of this child. He wasn’t an ordinary child; He was truly God born in human form.
The third and last gift - myrrh had a more sinister overtone, for myrrh was a perfume that was used to anoint the bodies of the dead, to prepare them for burial. It was that same perfume which the Gospel writer, John, tells us was used to anoint the body of Jesus before it was wrapped and placed in the tomb.
The gifts of the magi were no ordinary presents. Each one had significance far beyond the material value of the gift. These were gifts which acknowledged the momentous role which Jesus would play in human and divine history; a role which transforms our relationship with God, to this very day.
So let’s agree that the Wiseman make a very significant contribution to the story of Jesus’ birth.
III WHAT IS THE RELEVANCE OF THE WISEMEN FOR US TODAY?
But no doubt the next question on your mind is, - what’s the relevance of this story for us here today? Of what possible significance can the Wisemen be for us in this 21st century?
In answer to this query, we need to refer back to the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament. Because from the days of Abraham, some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, the Jews were told, over and over again, that they were a special people chosen by God, to be the People of God. And it was exclusively for the Jews that a Messiah was promised.
Throughout all the trials and hardships inflicted upon their nation, the faithful held on to the one promise that they knew with certainty God would one day fulfill. He was going to send them a Messiah who would lead His people and establish them above all other nations and peoples. They were going to be the people of the Kingdom of God.
True, of course, they got the message wrong. They were expecting a warrior Messiah, not a helpless infant. But be that as it may, the Messiah was for them; and for them alone.
But then here at the very beginning of the Gospel record, comes a message loud and clear, that this Messiah, which God has sent, has a far wider mission. The entry of the Wiremen onto the stage of human history, is the first, unambiguous indication that this Messiah has come for more than just the Jews. He is to be Lord of all people no matter what race, or colour, or station in life they may hold. Jesus is Lord of all.
That’s the relevance of the story of the Wisemen for us here today, because you see, we like them, are Gentiles, excluded from the Old Testament understanding of the Messiah, but excluded no longer, for through the presence and actions of this child, Jesus, we have been adopted into the family and household of God. Through faith in Him, we too are members of the Kingdom of God.
There can be no great relevance than this. These Gentile scholars from the East who come to worship a Jewish Messiah, assure us that we too can come and worship at the feet of our Lord.