Monday, December 24, 2012

A Bunch of
Wise Guys

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”.
Matthew 2:1

Right before Christmas, Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and a supporting cast of characters emerged from their hiding place under the basement stairs and formed a vignette on our dining room buffet. As a child, this for me was the most important part of Christmas. Somehow, it felt that their presence made Jesus himself feel very, very real.

One thing that confused me was the wise men. The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in early January. Why did they get a separate holy day? They were part of the Nativity set along with the shepherds. They were there too, weren’t they?

Tradition names three wise men: Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t mention how many wise men there were, only the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Isaiah 60:6 gives a glimpse into the makeup of the contingent who showed up on Herod’s doorstep.

“A multitude of camels (from the eastern trading tribes) shall cover you (Jerusalem), the young camels from Midian and Ephah, all the men from Sheba (who once came to trade) shall come, bringing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”(emphasis mine)

Matthew 2:3 states the arrival of the Magi not only upset Herod but also all of Jerusalem. Three men on camels would have gone unnoticed in the bustle of the busy city. A caravan of Magi, complete with their security force caused an uproar and for good reason. So, who was this bunch of wise guys?

According to Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, the Magi during the rule of Cyrus the Great became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian (Babylon) empire. Later under Xerxes their scope of influence was extended to strategic military planning. Afforded considerable privileges they were an integral part of the empire’s government.

One unusual responsibility they held was the selection, and if necessary, the removal of the king. Herod’s realm, Palestine, was once under Persian domination. At this time in history, Rome was experiencing internal difficulties. The emperor was old. The retirement of Tiberius, the Roman general, left a vacuum in military leadership. Rumblings of revolt in Armenia shortly proved successful. The only thing preventing the Parthians from re-establishing claims to the extreme provinces of the Roman empire, was its own internal struggles.

The Magi were familiar with Jewish beliefs including prophecies of a coming Messiah/King. Daniel, during the Jews exile in Babylon, was probably a Magi. These men understood the significance of the star announcing the birth of the hope of the Jewish people.

“I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh; There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…”                              Numbers 24:17

Matthew 2:7-12 details the rest of the story. Herod met privately with the royal visitors and pumped them for information about this king they sought. The religious leaders and teachers were consulted. They pointed to Bethlehem as the place to find him. Herod sent the Magi on their way. He requested they return on their way home and share the exact location of this new monarch so that he, Herod, could go and pay his respects also. Resuming their journey, the Magi were delighted to find the star once again pointing the way. Finding the object of their search, they worshipped the Christ child and presented their gifts. Being a bunch of “wise guys” they heeded the warning they received in a dream and returned home via a different route. This gave Joseph, also warned in a dream, ample time to take Mary and Jesus safely to Egypt.

“Truth is stranger than fiction” and in this case the truth is much more intriguing than tradition. The Magi weren’t at the stable; they visited the family in a house much later. Their inclusion into the Nativity scene serves as a reminder of their willingness to undergo the arduous trek to find the new king, not a re-enactment of historical fact. The bible doesn’t mention that the arrival of a bunch of wise guys in Bethlehem even raised an eyebrow. Did the residents of this little town know something their big city counterparts didn’t? I wonder…..


  1. A very interesting entry. Thank you for sharing. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  2. Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wonderful insight and background information, Mary. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nice post Mary. I like the way you think! Thanks for sharing and Happy New Year!