In almost every nativity scene today are shown three kings presenting gifts to the newborn baby Jesus, and though everyone is familiar with the three wise men, they are also some of the most mysterious characters from the Bible. According to scripture, they journeyed from an unnamed land to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for Jesus Christ, and then disappeared. They were the first Christian pilgrims, they later became the patron saints of travelers, and their image is on millions of Christmas cards.
Nevertheless, over 2,000 years later, little is known of where they came from and where they went, and most of what people think they know about the Magi does not actually come from the Bible but from assorted myths that have emerged over the millennia. The Bible does not, in fact, say that the three men were kings - this was a detail added later. Most startling of all is that the Bible does not even say that there were three men.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that the Magi were actually present on the night that Jesus was born. According to the Book of Luke, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after Jesus was born, which means they had remained in Bethlehem for some time after his birth: "And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord." In fact, in the course of describing the visit of the Magi, the Bible clearly notes there had been time enough for Joseph and Mary to find a house in Bethlehem: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."
These Magi were wealthy and well-educated. They likely came from Persia, but they had been ordered by King Herod to discover the location of Christ, purportedly so that Herod could pay homage to the child, but in all likelihood to murder the newborn threat to his power. Word quickly reached King Herod of the arrival of a new-born "King of the Jews", and since he was understandably unwilling to allow any threat to his own authority, Herod was determined to do away with this child. He sent soldiers to kill all of the boys that were up to two years old in and around Bethlehem – an event known as the "Massacre of the Innocents". It was a tragic event for many families in the city, but Jesus was evidently safe on his way to Egypt with his parents.
So what exactly is known of these mysterious figures that lived in the time of Christ? There is still plenty of intrigue and mystery surrounding the story, but it's apparent they were inextricably linked to that of Herod the Great, who ruled over Judea when Jesus was born and who is to this day reviled as the evil king who tried to kill the Christ child during the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, the king that the Romans had placed on a throne he had no right to, was prone to violent rages and extreme paranoia. He had a fearsome reputation, having already killed his own wife, several sons, and hundreds of political opponents, and is said to have suffered from all kinds of ailments, including chronic kidney disease and gangrene. Yet there was another side to this brutal king; he was the greatest builder in the history of the land, and he left behind magnificent monuments that still dazzle the eye 2,000 years later. Who was Herod the Great – a murderous madman, a brilliant king, or both?
©2016 Charles River Editors (P)2016 Charles River Editors