Who were the Magi?

Jared Staudt

What comes to mind when you think of the wise men presented by the Gospel of Matthew? You might think of three figures, we refer to as kings, who come from various nations throughout the world, arriving on camelback, and who followed a miraculous star leading them through the desert. In fact, none of those details come from the Gospel, but accrued to the story through the years.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has been researching the Magi for years and has written a book to get to the bottom of the real identity of the wise men, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (Regnery, 2017). He asserts that the Gospel of Matthew gives us enough historical clues to discover what really happened surrounding the birth of Jesus. When these clues meet Longenecker’s meticulous research into the political, religious, and cultural setting of time, a compelling case for the identity of wise men emerges.

The story of the wise men quickly took on mythical additions in the ancient world, especially in Gnostic circles. A backstory and names were given to them, along with many other embellishments on the nature of the star and their mission. For instance, it came to be accepted that there were three figures (though the Gospel mentions only three gifts) of various ages (representing the different time periods of humanity) and from different parts of the world. Overtime we’ve accepted many of these later additions as part of the Christmas story.

If we move beyond myth, most people would argue that the wise men are from Persia, as the name Magi comes from the Persian priests, scholars, and magicians (yes, this word comes from Magi) of that region. Longenecker, however, makes a strong case for why the Magi did not likely come from Persia. First, by the time of Christ’s birth, the Magi had long lost favor in Persia and actually had scattered throughout the Middle East. Also, the Parthian Empire, which ruled Persia, was early into a tenuous peace with Rome, requiring them to remain on the other side of the Euphrates River. The Magi of Persia also had less exposure to and hope for a Jewish Messiah (though some contact did occur long before in the Babylonian Exile).

If not Persia, then where did the Magi come from? Converging evidence pointed Longenecker to the kingdom of Nabateans. Although you may have never heard of the Nabateans, you may know of their rock-carved capital, Petra, a major tourist destination (and site of the last scene of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”). Their culture, location, and heritage was much closer to the Israel and many Jews took refuge there during the Exile, spreading prophecies of a coming Messiah. They were Bedouins with a very eclectic culture, influenced by the Babylonian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman cultures. They also studied the stars and dominated the trade of frankincense and myrrh. The Nabatean king, Aretas IV, also had reason to send emissaries with gifts to King Herod (who himself was half-Nabatean), as Herod had just helped him to solidify his kingship with Caesar Augustus.

As I mentioned, the Gospel does not describe the star as guiding the wise men (whatever their number) on their journey, which would only have been a few days from Petra. Rather, they told Herod that they saw the star of the new king rise and Jewish scholars then pointed them to Bethlehem. It is not likely that the star made a dramatic appearance as the news surprised Herod Rather, it took study, probably astrological in nature, to decipher the star’s meaning. Longenecker goes through many possibilities, but recent scholarship points to a convergence of planets in conjunction within a constellation (especially Aires, which the Greeks associated with Judah). When the wise men saw the star stop over Bethlehem, it seems to indicate the retrograde movement of a planet.

Christmas has become trivialized in many ways. Fr. Longenecker points out that many people are just as willing to dismiss the wise men as they are Santa Claus and his reindeer. A recent Pew survey relayed that “there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story – that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example – reflect historical events that actually occurred.” By researching the historical plausibility of the account and by making sense of the Gospel clues, Longenecker defends the reliability of the Gospel and the truth of the Christmas story. “Christianity is rooted in the facts of history,” he says, “not in fanciful fiction, superstition, secret knowledge, and bizarre cosmic theories” (30). Uncovering the identity of the wise men constitutes one step toward recovering the reality of Christmas.

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.