We’re all familiar with the image of three men on camels, traveling trackless sand dunes by starlight: “Field and fountain, moor and mountain, / Following yonder star.” But how accurate are our Hallmark greeting cards?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (Micah 5:2)
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Our modern account of three wise men dates back to the sixth century, and the three or more names vary considerably among the legends. Among the Latins, from the seventh century, we find variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph; the Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma and Badadakharida. The fanciful third-century Syriac Revelation of the Magi names twelve Magi.
St. Matthew doesn’t define Magi for us. But the word was old when he used it. Matthew’s Greek word μάγοι comes from Persian maguŝ. The Magi were the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian faith, which before Islam was the national religion of Persia, and remains so among Parsis outside Iran. In the Eastern Christian churches, the ancient troparion [festal hymn] for the Nativity of Christ is:
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, dawned upon the world the light of knowledge; for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee.
When those led by Nehemiah and Ezra returned to Jerusalem., a significant, influential Jewish community never left Babylon. Governed by princes of the line of David, this community prospered in Persian Mesopotamia; five hundred years after Christ, they produced the important Babylonian Talmud.
Jewish scholars have never been shy about practicing and discussing their distinctive faith, and it was during the Babylonian captivity that the fierce, exclusive monotheism of later Judaism was forged. While Jews in first-century Alexandria were interacting with Hellenic thinkers, what kind of dialogue were their contemporaries in Babylon and Persepolis getting up to with Parsi philosophers? If nothing else, the strictness of Jewish dietary, funeral and household laws ensured that food merchants, house builders, and animal vendors would all be learning how to sell to the growing Jewish demographic. And the Jews’ monotheism, in contrast to the Parsis’ dualism, must have made for fascinating debates.
To those who accept the scriptural book of Daniel at face value, the prophet was for a time in a position of authority over the Magi class (Dan. 2:48) and might well have have contributed some specifically Messianic expectations to their tradition.
Meanwhile Messianic expectation was growing in the centuries nearer the time of Christ – especially among nonconformist Jewish communities like Qumran, who, like the Persians, awaited a last great war between sons of light and darkness. And at the same time the Parsis had their own prophecies of a coming savior, Saoshyant, who was to be born of the virgin they called Eredat-fedhri. If the Magi learned – through divination, astrology, or divine revelation – that the Savior was about to be born in the far west, might they have hoped the Jews in Judaea, who also expected a Savior, would know where He’d been born?
How about the Star? Every year, around Christmas, reports appear in the papers or on television which claim to give an astronomical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem: It was a comet, or a supernova, or a reading in an astrological horoscope. These speculations miss the early Christian understanding of the Star that led the magi. Fourth-century master preacher John Chrysostom notes the impossibility of an actual star leading anybody to the Child:
You know that a spot of such small dimensions, being only as much as a shed would occupy, or rather as much as the body of a little infant would take up, could not possibly be marked out by a star… the moon, which being so far superior to the stars, seems to all that dwell in the world to be near to each and every one of them. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child?
Chrysostom insists the magi had to have been following a divinely-provided guide, a manifestation like the pillar of fire that led Israel through the desert. Many other teachers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa link the star to Balaam’s prophecy and insist the star was a revelation of Christ himself.
What about the camels? Can’t we at least keep them? The camel had of course been domesticated millennia before, but Persian VIPs didn’t need to ride those nasty, vicious, stinky, ungainly animals; the Persians’ pride was their horses. At Carrhae it was Persian horsemen that routed the Roman army. What we know today as Arabian horses only developed in large numbers when the conversion of the Persians to Islam in the 7th century AD brought knowledge of horse breeding to the Bedouin.
The trip from Persepolis to Bethlehem is just over 1,000 miles as the crow flies; more than 1200 miles via Aleppo and Palmyra to Judea; at least a few months travel. Our band of Parsi priests is not about to travel that distance alone, or across a trackless waste; a journey of this length for men of importance meant hiring a caravan for protection, provisions, and negotiating lodging on the way. Caravans regularly traveled the established trade routes of the Silk Road through Hellenized Mesopotamia and Syria, to the cities of Roman Judaea.
So picture a significant caravan with guards, carters, merchants and fellow-travelers accompanying a delegation of Parsi priests along the west end of the Silk Road, finally arriving after months of travel in Caesarea, at the court of the Edomite King Herod, whom the Romans had made King of the Jews.
And imagine Herod’s consternation when this august delegation seeks audience with him and – disregarding his own son and heir Antipas – asks him: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”