“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.”

As we hear once again the familiar story of the Wise Men, following a star which eventually leads them to Bethlehem, there are a few questions that we may ask to fill in the story.  Just who were the “wise men”, what did they think they were seeking, why did they take such an arduous journey, and did they find what they expected to find?

There have been many attempts to answer these questions in the time since Matthew first wrote his story, and perhaps hundreds of scholars and story-tellers have contributed their share to these attempts, some based on good historical research and many more based mostly on people’s imaginations.

Tradition says that there were three wise men and that their names were Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar, but since the Bible does not say, we have no way of knowing whether the tradition is accurate. We know that there were at least two, but perhaps there were five or six.  The tradition that there were three is based on the fact that there were three gifts presented.  In the Eastern churches the number of Magi is set at twelve. There are at least 85 paintings of the arrival of the Magi in the Roman catacombs, dating from the first three centuries of Christianity. In some of them there are only two, in some there are four or more. As for their names, the early Church father, Origen of Alexandria, circa 250 A.D., was the first to give them names.

Depending on your Bible translation, they are called wise men, Magi, or astrologers. They were not kings. Most likely they were astrologers/astronomers from the Parthian Empire,  successors of what had been the Persian empire.  The majority of scholars think they were linked to the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, which practiced astrology.  Their studies also included mathematics, alchemy, and many other sciences of their day.  Compared to the average person they were indeed “wise men”. Their main drive was to gain knowledge and understanding, unlike kings, who sought wealth and power. Actually, because of their position in Parthian society they had both wealth and power without seeking it.  It was the Magi who appointed new kings.

And this brings us to the beginning of an answer as to what they were seeking. As scholars they were probably familiar with the prophetic writings of other cultures, and as astrologers may have sought to see whether there was any relationship between ancient prophesies and what they read in the heavens.  As an example of what they might have read in the stars: for them the people of Judah were associated with the constellation Leo, the lion. The Lion of Judah was, and still is, considered the symbol of the tribe of Judah, the dominant tribe of the people of Israel, also called the Kingdom of Judah.  The main star in this constellation is Regulus, the “king” star. So, to the Magi, any unusual event in the constellation Leo would be associated with the Kingdom of Judah.  Such an event did occur near the end of 3 B.C., Jupiter, the “king” planet, came into conjunction with Regulus, the “king” star, three times that year. The Magi would, by their very nature, search ancient prophesies to see what this might portend.  They probably had access to the Book of Daniel, where they would have found that something very important was to happen 490 years after the Hebrew exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem.  [Modern precise dating would make this about 29 A.D., but with the various uncertainties of the records at that time it could mean an event as early as 3 or 4 B.C. Or it could mean the beginning of an event which would climax in around 29 A.D.]  And with the “king” planet dancing with the “king” star, it could only mean the birth of a new King for Judah.  [Now, all of the above is speculation as to what the Magi saw and what interpretation they made of it; it may have been something rather different, perhaps it was the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred in 7 B.C., but whatever they saw it was something of this sort. In fact, some scholars say that the stellar events of 3 B.C. occurred about two years too late, since King Herod is supposed to have died around 4 B.C.]

Perhaps the Magi had also come across the prophesy of Baalam which appears in the book of Numbers:

“I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

Whatever they saw, they were sure enough of their interpretation that they undertook a trip of about a thousand miles to see for themselves what they read in the heavens.  They were, above all, seeking the truth behind these portents.  They had the power to appoint kings in their own land; and may have wondered who or what had such power to appoint a king in Judah and then to proclaim it in the heavens? So, when they reached Jerusalem, the seat of power for the Kingdom of Judah, their main question was “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” This question both bewildered and frightened King Herod, bewildered because he had no idea what they were talking about, and frightened, because these visitors from the East, probably accompanied by many servants and guards [remember that in their own country they were prominent and important citizens] were known to be highly knowledgeable and highly respected for their ability to read portents and, perhaps, to predict the future. They seemed so certain that there had been born a new “King of the Jews” that Herod was shaken to the core. Who could it be? Certainly not one of his own family. Herod was not even Jewish. He was Idumean and had become King by right of conquest and the blessing of the Roman Senate. His hold on the throne was shaky, dependent upon the recognition of the Roman government, which could end at any time. Fear of usurpation by one of his relatives caused him to have many of them killed. There had not been a real Jewish King of the Jews since the reign of Zedekiah, almost 600 years earlier.

But these high-ranking visitors were seeking a baby “born to be King of the Jews”. Thus, Herod and all of Jerusalem with him were struck with fear. He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people and inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him,

“In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.'”

So, Herod directed the Magi to Bethlehem, asking them that if they found the new king, to come back and tell him so that Herod could also go and pay him homage [or so he said]. They went to Bethlehem, found the baby Jesus and Mary his mother, and knelt, presented him gifts, and paid him homage.  They found he whom they were seeking, but was he the one whom they thought they were seeking? I’m sure they had some preconceived pictures of what they would find, and it probably came as quite a shock to them when they found the actual Jesus. He wasn’t at all what they imagined. Instead of being in a palace or even a home of the wealthy, Jesus and Mary were probably in a partitioned-off part of a peasant’s four-room house, which probably belonged to some of Joseph’s Bethlehem relatives, near the outskirts of the village. [Remember this may have been a year or more after Jesus’ birth in a stable] This was a poor family; remember that when Mary went to the Temple for her ritual of purification on the 40th day after Jesus’ birth, as required by Jewish law (and described in Luke’s Gospel), Mary gives an offering of two small birds. The Law said that at this time the woman should present a ram and a bird.  But if the woman could not afford a ram, then two pigeons could be offered instead.  So, Mary and Joseph were at this point too poor to make the customary offering.

Thus, the Magi had to make, in modern parlance, a mental attitude adjustment. They were convinced that they had not made an error in their calculations or in their reading of the heavens; this had to be the right place and the right child. But not what they expected. Nevertheless, they knelt, opened their gifts, and paid him homage.  Warned in a dream, they did not go back to Herod, but made their way back to their own country by a different route.  There must have been a great deal of discussion on the way back on what they had found, and of how they needed to recalibrate their preconceived notions.

Thirty years later a similar problem was presented to Pontius Pilate.  He asked Jesus, sarcastically and probably sneeringly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, and Jesus answers him “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Astonished by this answer, Pilate responds “so you ARE a king!”  So also, for the Magi, Jesus was the one they sought, but not the one they expected to find. Although they were probably slow to realize it at the time, they had found something far more precious than what they had set out looking for, not an earthly and temporal king for a revitalization of the ancient Kingdom of the Jews, but the past and future king of all creation, a heavenly and eternal king