Who were the Magi? Were they kings, wise men, or practitioners of magic? What was the star over Bethlehem?
“If the stars would align then it will be so.” Whether we have realized it or not, many of us have most likely heard and quite possibly used this adage at some point in our lives. Needing to get a new car? Hunting for a soul mate? Or maybe just trying to figure out where to grab dinner? From simple decisions to life-changing events, we if even passingly chalk up our fate to the stars.
But for some, especially in a more ancient time, the aligning of the stars meant more than a phrase tossed around as an excuse for our indecisiveness. To some, it was the answer to the deepest questions life could conjure up. Where heaven met earth, there in the dark void could be seen glimmers of the mysteries that both history and the future held. And on one fateful night, the sky revealed more than one could ever imagine for those who took the time to look.
If you flip over to the first page of the New Testament you will quickly come across at least a part of the story of Jesus’ birth we have all come to familiarize ourselves with. While you won’t find accounts of shepherds or a census and a traveling Joseph and Mary, what you would find is a story about a few “wise men” traveling from the east to deliver the three most famous gifts ever given. I am sure your imagination is already coming alive as you recall a church play or nativity scene where three robed figures come riding in on the backs of camels to deliver their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Of course, we have no idea how many of these men there were or even at what time they came to visit the baby, Jesus. Tradition has filled in a lot of the gaps but what our minds have conjured up does not make for a factual representation of the events that took place. Even our Bible translations have skewed the truth in favor of a more… um, superstitious gospel. So who were these wise men? What was the so-called star that shown over Bethlehem upon the arrival of the savior? And how has our tradition shifted our understanding of what occurred that fateful Christmas morning? Well, that’s what we are about to find out.
Let’s start by setting something straight. The word we have construed into “wise men” comes from the Greek word Magoi. This word, magoi is the same word we get our English word, “magic” from. Many of us have heard these men referred to as wise men, kings, and magi though if your bible is like mine (or most translations for that matter) I am sure it opted for wise men over the other two.
While I am quite certain these men were, in fact, wise, magi or “magician” is the proper name we should be using. We will come back to that in just a bit but first, let’s note that we have no idea if these men were kings in any way. This is not a biblical narrative and has no root in biblical history. We adopted this idea based on a greek chronicle known as the Excerpta Latina Barbari. In this work, we find an account of historical eastern kings in chronological order. In verse 49, we see the Magi’s names listed as Bithisarea, Melchior, and Gathaspa.
The problem is that the Excerpta Latina Barbari isn’t exactly an accurate account of history. We are quite certain Jesus was not actually born on the 25th of December but according to verse 44 of this text, He was. Also, on more than one occasion we find pseudographical names listed as if they were real-life rulers. Oh, and not to mention the aforementioned text doesn’t actually ever even state these Magi were kings, to begin with. We can chalk this one up to yet another example of tradition passed down via seasonal tales and Christmas folk tunes. like a verse in a game of telephone, the truth becomes a bit more fragmented with each new retelling.
While we are on the topic of fake Bible news, one other little mental image needs to get scrubbed before we move on and that is the idea that there were only three wise men and that they showed up right when Jesus was born. While we are quite certain the magi did, in fact, show up before Jesus was 6 weeks of age, there is almost complete certainty that they did not come to the manger to offer up their gifts. Sure, it makes for a great scene in just about every Christmas play but if we read with a bit more intent, that narrative quickly falls apart.
It is said that the Magi came to visit Jesus in the home which they were staying there in Bethlehem. They were no longer in a stable but had not yet departed town so this places their arrival somewhere between two to six weeks after Jesus’ birth. Hey, better late than never, right? And while they did give three gifts: one that was most likely used to fund their escape to Egypt to dodge king Herrod’s wrath, one that was symbolic of the death Christ would face and to help stave off mosquitos, and the other that was used as an ointment for general wellness, there is no account of only three wise men showing up to pay homage to the newly born King. Not that this detail is all that important in the grand scheme of things, but it is at least worth noting.
So now that we have established what the magi were not, now let’s turn our gaze at who they actually were and repaint this nativity scene a bit more accurately.
In order to understand the origins of the magi, we must first travel back 1900 years or so to the birth of a man named Zarathushtra. Born into a polytheistic religious culture riddled with excessive animal sacrifice and overconsumption of intoxicants, Zarathushtra saw the world in a more noble light. After a vision, he received from God, named Ahura Mazda in his language, he was shown the principle of Asha, the cosmic order which governs and permeates all existence. Everything that is observable was governed by the principle of Asha. The planets, stars, seasons, days, and even down to the movement of cattle was governed by this law. All physical creation was operated according to Ahura Mazda’s master plan and Zarathushtra, tired of all the cruelty towards creation he had seen, established a new religion based on these principles known as Zoroastrianism.
Practitioners of Zoroastrianism are to follow a threefold path: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. They are to respect nature and to learn from her movements. That is why Zoroastrian priests over time became associated with the word, Magoi. These Persian priests were one of, if not the first group of people to map the heavens, tell of signs and wonders, as well as study the art of peace through their actions, thoughts, and words. All of this along with their studies of world philosophy garnered them the label of magicians.
This group of philosophers/astrologers had a large influence on the ancient Babylonians as well as our current Abrahamic religions; even Christianity. Their initial understandings of how time and seasons worked are still encapsulated to this day in our modern clocks and calendars. So yes, these men were wise, but the phrase “wise men” waters down so much of what the Bible reveals to us about these Zoroastrian priests. I guess we can thank King James’ superstition and complete ignorance of magic and ancient practices for that one. It amazes me that hundreds of years later we still openly adopt some of his more hair brain views. I mean, it’s not like this exact same conversation lead to hundreds of witch burnings or anything.
So now we have an understanding of how the magi would have noticed the star but that doesn’t explain the star itself. And while there are a few different opinions on what the star might have been, it helps to take a peek into the magi’s heads and garner a bit of their understandings of astrology for ourselves.
In Daniel chapter 9, we find Gabriel paying a visit to the Babylonian captive-turned-ruler. Here a prophecy is given concerning the arrival of a savior. But as you may know, the story of Daniel goes far deeper than this episode has time for today. Long story short, Daniel rose to a place of authority after answering king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream accurately, a feat his own magicians couldn’t pull off. This earned him the position as chief over the Babylonian Magi, a group we have already discussed that had primitive roots with the Zoroastrian magi we have been discussing.
Why is this pertinent? Because Daniel was a prophet. And as a prophet, magi across the lands would have gone over his words with a fine-tooth comb. By coming in contact with Daniel, the Magi would have no doubt have been introduced to even more ancient texts to study and learn. This is how they would have been exposed to the prophecy in Genesis 49 where Jacob prophesied, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his”. All that to bring us back to that fateful night when the Magi would have looked up to the heavens and witnessed an astrological event so precise there would be no denying that the prophecy of the savior was about to come to pass.
On the 24th of August, 2 BC, the planet, Venus became visible in the morning sky. It was at this exact moment three other planets: Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter all aligned to form a straight rod in the heavens. This event was commonly referred to as “The Kings Scepter”. And while this wasn’t the first time it occurred, it was most certainly unique. As the planets lined up, Venus passed before them glowing a brilliant, fiery red, being that it is the brightest celestial object in our sky other than the sun and moon. It’s actually so bright, it’s the only other celestial body we can see during the day which gave it a nickname: the bright morning star. And this is the same planet that had revealed Christ in the heavens since the dawn of religion herself. Prophecies have revealed Venus as a symbol of the savior as it can shine bright on even the clearest of days.
As Venus rose, it aligned with the head of the scepter right before the planets moved out of alignment. But it wasn’t just a random occurrence, no one other thing set this particular astrological event off. You see, the scepter and its radiant head aligned between the rear legs of the constellation, Leo. This fulfilled the prophecy we just read in Genesis where it said the scepter would rest between Judah’s feet. Which of course, Judah means lion. And to add a bit of icing on the cake, as Venus would have risen through the sky it would have passed directly through the constellation, Aries the ram. Yet one more symbolic representation in the heavens declaring the savior had come to take away the sins of the world. To fulfill the law and give rise to grace freely given.
Once the magi had witnessed the scepter at Leo’s feet as Venus began its first dawn treading of the season, they would have begun to follow it’s path across the sky. Matthew states that the star went before them until it came to rest over the home where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus resided. The star would have set behind the horizon just about the time they would have walked up the house, seemingly disappearing into the evening sky. From here the scene plays out and we have yet another account to justify Jesus’ divinity.
Some believe the entire account of the magi was completely made up to add a missing backstory to the life of the Christ. Others cringe at the idea that their beloved wise men might have been practitioners of forbidden arts, not unlike many of our other beloved bible characters I might add. Still, some view the magi with wonder and astonishment. Reading through ancient texts wasn’t as easy back then as it was for us now. There was no canonical volumes decided by some council and universally accepted. There were pieces that were nothing more than folk tales and other pieces that were prophecies since lost in time just for that season. yet these gift-bearing individuals would have had to invest their lives to figure out what was true, what was false, and what was an exaggeration of the truth.
And yet I find it all so beautiful. just two paragraphs are all that the Bible has to say about these men and yet time from its initial creation began its celestial dance as the heavens moved like the gears of a clock to notify these Magi at just the right moment, in just the right place, and to guide them in the perfect direction. The sky came alive in a way our modern satellite GPS systems could only dream of. All for two tiny paragraphs to add just the right amount of seasoning to make this story come out perfectly seasoned. Just enough revelation and yet just enough intrigue as well.
The story of the Magi is one of the most beautiful parts of the Christmas tradition and while the specifics are a minor detail in the major picture, when you come to realize all that creation expounded upon to align itself at this moment, well, I think it just adds to the whimsical beauty of the Christmas season all the more.
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