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Why so much of our wisdom about the 3 Wise Men of the Christmas story is actually incorrect

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They are among the most beloved characters of Christmas; appearing annually at school pageants, celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany, and in carols sung throughout the season.  But how much do we really know about those mysterious wise men who sought the Christ Child?  It turns out very little—and much of what we think we know is incorrect.   

Despite the famous song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” there were very likely more than three of them (the Gospel mentions three gifts, not three men), they were not kings, and they did not hail from the Far East. 

Historical, biblical and archeological evidence paints a very different picture of the Gospel’s “Wise Men from the East.” Using these neglected early sources I created a picture book adventure titled, “The Wise Men Who Found Christmas.” But in the course of a narrative, I could only hint at what I discovered.   

First off, who were the “Wise Men”?  Magi were mystical characters, trained to see the unseen.  They were star-gazers, mathematicians, theologians, interpreters of dreams, and quite possibly part of a priestly caste with Zoroastrian or even Jewish roots.  And like other wise men at the time, they would have served a king.  But which one?  


We know that the Magi did not come from the Far East or even Persia.  Saints and scribes in the first and second century—including Tertullian, Eusebius, and Clement of Rome all attest that the Magi came from “East of Judea.”  Justin Martyr writing less than 100 years after Jesus’ resurrection is even more explicit: “The Magi came from Arabia and worshipped Him…”   

There are a couple of good reasons to suspect that they came from what was then the capital of Arabia, the Kingdom of Nabatea—modern-day Petra.  Raymond Brown, the biblical scholar tells us “the Jewish Community in Northern Arabia was one of the largest ancient Jewish communities in the history of the Jewish people.”  So the Jewish prophecies of a coming Messiah would have been well known to the inhabitants of Nabatea.   

Father Dwight Longenecker, who has researched the historic Wise Men for years suggests that the gifts the Magi carried also point to the Kingdom of Nabatea as their home.  Frankincense and myrrh were produced there from the tree sap extracted solely from Arabian trees.  And Nabatea controlled the Mines of Midean, also known as the legendary King Solomon’s mines.   


What was the nature of the Wise Men’s journey?  Matthew’s Gospel in a mere twelve lines describes what was very likely a royal diplomatic mission to the dangerous Herod, mingled with a personal spiritual quest. 

FILE – DECEMBER 10, 2020: Volunteers portray the manger scene outside the Church of Jesus Christ in Fountain Valley, California, as part of the church's living creche.

FILE – DECEMBER 10, 2020: Volunteers portray the manger scene outside the Church of Jesus Christ in Fountain Valley, California, as part of the church’s living creche.
(Getty Images)

Old Testament scholar and Cambridge-educated linguist, Margaret Barker offers a truly tantalizing possibility.  Barker believes that the Wise Men may have been descendants of the First Temple royal Jewish priesthood—the Order of Melkhizedek- expelled from the Temple 700 years before Christ.  


Far from the Magi “gift drop” that has become a cultural fixture, the items they carried suggest a far more serious religious mission.  Barker points to Philo of Alexandria, who reports that gold was used in the vestments of the Royal priests of the first temple.  

Frankincense was burned in the first temple and myrrh oil was kept in the holy of holies. Why? It was used to anoint kings and members of the royal high priesthood. 

Shattering the later day accounts of the emperors bearing gifts to a messiah, it makes far more sense that a group of exiled Jewish high priests came, not only to worship this Messiah, but to anoint him into their priesthood and restore the first temple.      


There is so much we don’t know about these famous Magi that is it important to nail down what we do.  The historicity of the Wise Men points to the historicity of the light they sought—the Christ Child in the cradle of Bethlehem who is still venerated all these centuries later.  

The Wise Men also furnish us with an important lesson: despite all the risks, all the dangers in their path, they kept their eyes and minds fixed on the things above, not the things of earth.  Their daring journey would not only gift them with immorality, but with a perpetual light that has continued to burn brighter than even their star.  

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