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Who were these mysterious wise men?

Men dressed as the Magi Kings ride camels through Prague (Getty Images)

I have been reading a book highly appropriate for the Feast of the Epiphany: Mystery of the Magi: the Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (Regnery History) by Fr Dwight Longenecker, a well-known blogger and, by his own admission “an amateur scholar and freelance sleuth.”

Longenecker is not merely animated by a passion for detective work concerning an intriguing passage in Matthew 2: 1-13; as he points out most Biblical scholars routinely dismiss the story of the wise men from the east as a fable – thus implicitly calling into question the veracity of the Gospels.

Taking as his starting point Matthew’s reference to the wise men Longenecker, whose bibliography shows he has done much spadework in his quest, quotes the scholar Raymond Brown who suggests the simplest explanation for the Magi story is that “it is factual history passed down from the time of Jesus’ birth in family circles.” Bearing in mind that the most recent date of Matthew’s Gospel is now thought to be between AD 50 and AD 55 – only twenty years after Jesus’s death – there is no reason to think that it would not have originated with people who were close to the actual events.

Over the ensuing centuries, as Tolkien’s Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings put it, “History became legend. Legend became myth”, leading eventually to the parade of gorgeous Renaissance paintings of three kings, coming to Bethlehem from different parts of the world, and named (from the Emperor Justinian’s frescoes in Ravenna a thousand years earlier) as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Needless to say, Matthew makes no reference to kings, their number or their names.

These exotic characters, a gift to the artistic imagination with their sumptuous robes and their elaborate equipage, are portrayed in the Ravenna frescoes as wearing Persian dress. This is where Longenecker’s investigations seriously challenge the myth. Accepting St Matthew’s account at face-value, rather than the elaborate accretions of subsequent centuries, he argues that the wise men came not from Persia which, by the time of Christ, no longer had the “wealth, power or motivation” to set out on such a long journey, but from Petra, the capital of the Nabatean kingdom, which was a major middle eastern power at that time.

From this argument he builds up a coherent and convincing hypothesis that accounts for the star, the astronomical knowledge of the wise men, King Herod’s interest (he was the son of a Nabatean princess) and the gifts. These were not luxury foreign gifts or mystical symbols but “the ordinary currencies and commodities of the Middle East in the first century.” And, as Longenencker observes, if you live in Judea, the “East” is Arabia, not Persia.

Uncovering the truth from the myths surrounding it, the author makes a credible case for stating it “is not a fabulous fiction after all.” If the Magi story is true, “we must treat the rest of the Gospel stories with similar seriousness.” In other words, we must be prepared to “confront the reality of Jesus Christ.”