At Epiphany you may hear a homily about the symbolism of the gifts the Magi presented to the Christ Child: gold for his royal status, frankincense for his divine status and myrrh which foreshadows his sacrificial death.
You may also hear about how the coming of the Magi fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah or how the three kings represent the light of Christ coming to all the Gentile nations of the world.
These theological points are, of course, later reflections on the story in Matthew’s Gospel. They are part of the tradition and are not unworthy, but the theological and symbolic points are not part of Gospel story.
Unfortunately, the story of the Magi, more than any other story from the New Testament, attracted not only significant symbolic accretions, but was embellished by gnostic writers and embroidered by theologians down the centuries. The popular narrative of three royal wizards from India, Persia and Africa named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar who went on a camel-laden trek following a miraculous star is actually far from the simple story in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
In my book The Mystery of the Magi: the Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, I strip away the legend and myth that encrusted the story and explore the geography, politics, economics, religion and culture of the time and place of Jesus’s birth. While many of the beloved traditions crumbled under examination, it was astounding how perfectly Matthew’s account fits with the details I uncover. Those details also illuminate the traditional meanings of Epiphany, but in fresh and unexpected ways.
The three gifts symbolise royalty, divinity and death because a later preacher saw the symbolism and wove it into his reflection. While this symbolism was inspiring to the faithful, it also clouded one’s ability to see the true significance of the gifts. In fact, gold, frankincense and myrrh indicate the origin of the Magi. These three commodities were the cash crops of the Nabatean civilisation.
At the time of the birth of Christ, the Nabateans dominated the Arabian peninsula. With their capital at Petra, they controlled the trade routes from Yemen in the east to Gaza and from Egypt, north to Syria and beyond.
Arabia was famed in ancient times for its gold mines. It was also the one place where the shrubs grew from which they collected the sap to make incense and myrrh. The three gifts were therefore not so much symbolic of Jesus’s identity as they were representative diplomatic gifts brought to Herod in homage to the child the Magi thought was Herod’s new heir.
Nevertheless, as I show in my book, there was a royal dimension to the visit since the Magi were (according to my theory) courtiers to the Nabatean king Aretas IV. There was a divine dimension because they would have known the prophecies of Isaiah and would also have been looking for the divine Messiah.
Death was also foreshadowed inasmuch as the Magi themselves were threatened by Herod’s psychopathic rage, which was ultimately fulfilled in the slaughter of the innocents.
The prophecies of Isaiah 60 stated that “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Midian, Ephah and Sheba are all located in the Arabian peninsula so the Arabian origin of the Magi was foreseen by the prophet.
Or so it would seem. However, biblical prophecy should not be understood simply as old-fashioned fortune-telling. Most of the prophecies are more like predictions than supernatural prognostications about the future. Scholars have concluded that the second half of the Old Testament book of Isaiah is composed some time after the original prophet lived and wrote. The prophecies about the Magi date from after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
At that time the Jews were not only taken into exile in Babylon, but also many escaped into northwestern Arabia and settled in the Jewish communities there. Consequently, some scholars believe that the prophecies of second Isaiah may have been composed among the Jews settled in Arabia.
If this is the case, then the prediction that the kings of Arabia would come to pay homage to the Jewish messiah were predictions about their own people. The prophetic element is therefore much more interesting than it simply being understood as a supernatural vision of the future.
Finally, when we realise that the Magi were Nabatean diplomats, the traditional reflection that the Magi represent all the gentile nations of the world also has a new angle. The Nabateans were a trading nation, shifting goods from around the Roman Empire eastward to Yemen then on ships to India and China and beyond. Their reach extended into North Africa and East Africa, North to Persia and Asia Minor and beyond. Where there is trade in commodities there is also trade in religion, language and culture. The Nabateans at the time of Christ were fabulously wealthy and cosmopolitan. Their melting-pot society and international trade and diplomatic links make them the perfect symbol of the nations of the world coming to pay homage to the child of Bethlehem.
The research for The Mystery of the Magi may have demolished many beloved details of our received Epiphany story, but the facts have also illuminated those same details in a fresh, profound and convincing way.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi – the Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com