googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Who Were the Wise Men?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Who Were the Wise Men?

Matthew 2 tells us about the coming of the wise men. At Christmas time, these iconic characters are included in nativity scenes all over the world venerating the baby Jesus. Unfortunately, very little is known about these persons and I feel much of our conception about them is wrong.

First off, the Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. Since the Bible refers to them in the plural, we can only be sure there was more than one – beyond that is speculation. The number three is likely derived by the fact that there were three gifts mentioned in the text (Matthew 2:11) - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But this cannot be conclusive since each wise man could have given more than one gift. Further, the gifts named might simply be representative of the kinds of gifts given (such as in describing gifts at a baby shower as “clothes, diapers, and toys”).

From tradition, the wise men were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These names, however, do not appear in the Bible nor any Christian literature until around the 6th century AD. The Bible only refers to them with the Greek term, magoi (plural of magos, Strong’s word # 3097) from where we derive the word, Magi. Strong’s defines the word as:
Of foreign origin (Rab-Mag); a Magian, i.e. Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician -- sorcerer, wise man.
Outside of Matthew 2, the word occurs only twice more – both times in Acts 13:6,8. There it is used of the false prophet, Elymas Bar-Jesus, and is translated as “sorcerer” in the KJV. Since the men described in Matthew declared they were coming to worship the King of Israel (Matthew 2:2), it’s not likely they were Eastern mystics or astrologers as some have asserted. They likely were learned men who were at least somewhat familiar with the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah. I do not see the need to believe they were astronomers and, in another post, I stated my reasons for believing the “star” seen by the Magi was not any astronomical event but was more likely an angel.

The Bible does say they saw His star “in the East” but again we are not sure precisely where that means. It could be the Middle East or it could mean the far East. We know they did travel for some distance because the text suggests they traveled for perhaps as long as 2 years! Consider first Matthew 2:7:
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
Then later we read (Matthew 2:16):
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
So Herod chose to kill all the children under two because that’s about how long ago the wise men had told him they had seen the star.

Which leads me to another point: Matthew 2:13-14 tells us that after the visit of the wise men, an angel warned Joseph of Herod’s plans and so Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus that very night. Yet in Luke 2:21-22 we read that Jesus was circumcised after 8 days. And after the “days of her purification” (40 days according to Mosaic Law), Mary presented Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. So, were Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in Jerusalem or Egypt?

The answer is really very simple: The shepherds visited Jesus on the very night He was born. Jesus was circumcised 8 days later. Mary presented Him at the Temple 40 days later. And the wise men did not visit Jesus until He was nearly two years old! The nativities showing the wise men with the shepherds presenting gifts to an infant Jesus are all wrong!

There’s much we don’t know about these men. There’s also much we think we know but instead we err. But even these nameless men can teach us a valuable lesson – wise men still seek Him!

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