Monday, January 2, 2012


Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Christmas has come and gone. We’ve already looked at one set of visitors, the Shepherds, and now we turn our attention in another direction. But before we address those stalwarts of every Nativity Set, the Wise Men, also known as the Magi, there are a few misconceptions that need to be laid to rest. Nearly everyone is familiar with the standard division of the Gospels into the three (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Synoptic Gospels [from the Greek syn — together and opsis — appearance] and the Gospel of John.

Instead, consider dividing the Gospels into those that provide a birth narrative and those that do not. This splits them down the middle with Matthew and Luke on do have side and Mark and John on the don’t have side. Both Matthew (20%) and Luke (35%) offer a considerable amount of unique information and nowhere is it more apparent than in their birth narratives. Matthew ignores the shepherds in favor of the Wise Men, whereas Luke does just the opposite.

Over time, the Magi have been imagined to have been everything from traveling entertainers, to magicians, to kings. Yes, Kings. All together now, “We Three Kings from Orient are...” However, all Matthew says is, “…in the days of Herod the King, behold, wise men (in Greek μἁƴος, that is, Magos…an Oriental scientist or Wise Man) from the east came to Jerusalem…”

Typical Nativity Set with Shepherds and One Black Magi
A standard Nativity Set comes with three Wise Men although Matthew never mentioned any numbers in his Gospel. In Medieval times there were sometimes thought to be as many a dozen Wise Men. What Matthew does say is that they brought three gifts and this is what led to usual conclusion that there must have been three of them.
History has given them a variety of names. Hormizdah, Yazdegerd and Perozdh are mentioned in one account. In another, they are called, Hor, Basanater and Karsudan. The Western tradition names them Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. In a 6th Century mosaic, Balthasar is middle aged and has a black beard, Gaspar is old with a white beard, and Melchior young and beardless.

Notice also that Matthew says they all came from the same place, the east. Yet a typical Nativity always includes one black Wise Man. This is because a tradition developed that they represented three races…i.e., the entirety of mankind. Balthasar was often portrayed as an Asian, Gaspar a white European, and Melchior an African and therefore black. Their ages and races have tended to vary. In reality Africa is south and west of Israel, so if they came from the east they wouldn’t have been African.

Roman Empire, Parthia and Bethlehem with a Star

Interestingly enough, Magoi ― the original phrase Matthew used, was the title given to members of the upper house of the Parthian Government and advisors to Phraates, ruler of the Parthian Dynasty. And that camel stuff? They may have used camels for baggage, but Parthians were more than likely to have traveled on horseback. The Parthians were known as expert horsemen and their cavalry routinely outflanked and defeated the Roman army.

Combine that with the fact that the Province of Syria formed the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire and bordered the Parthian Empire. Parthia’s influence extended from there to the Indus River.

The Parthians also had a history of meddling in Jewish politics. Prior to Herod the Great gaining the Jewish throne they supported Herod’s rival, Hyrcanus II, a Hasmonean claimant. A civil war of sorts was fought over the right to rule the Jews. Herod's brother, Phesaelus, was killed in this fighting and Herod and his family were very nearly captured. Matter of fact, Josephus writes that at one point Herod was so demoralized that he was ready to commit suicide.

Parthia’s capitol was Babylon, home to a large contingent of Jews who were very familiar with the Prophecies of a coming Mashiach. And, finally, Matthew says the Magi followed a star to Bethlehem. The Parthians themselves were Zorastrians and strong believers in astrologic influences.

From this evidence one could reasonably conclude that the Magi, or Wise Men, were Magoi from Parthia sent on a diplomatic mission to investigate the possible fulfillment of prophecies relating to the coming birth of the Jewish Mashiach.

Even though statues of the Wise Men are included in every Nativity set and nearly everyone puts them in the stable along with the shepherds, most experts believe they arrived much later. Since Jesus was a firstborn son, Mary and Joseph would have had to make trips to the Temple to “ransom” him back and then again for Mary’s purification. She had family ties in Judea, so it only makes sense that they would have chosen to remain in Bethlehem to complete these requirements. Matthew also refers to the Wise Men visiting the Christ Child in a house and, when the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt, they clearly left from Judea not Nazareth. All of this leads to the conclusion that Jesus was most probably a toddler by the time the Wise Men arrived.

This separation of time and place is also seen in the Church calendar in regards to the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany (from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia — appearance or manifestation). This is the Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. Closing out the Christmas season, it falls on January 6th, but is typically celebrated on the Sunday which falls between January 2nd and January 8th. (This year, it falls on January the 8th.) The Western Church traditionally commemorates the visitation of the Magi, i.e., his manifestation to the Gentiles, on this day.

This post concludes our series of Christmas posts. In response to many requests, all of the Christmas posts have been accumulated into an eBook entitled, appropriately enough, All Things Christmas. It’s available worldwide at Amazon for the Kindle, at Barnes and Noble for the Nook, or Smashwords in multiple formats. All versions are priced at just $3.99.

Next time we’ll continue our posts on Foods of the First Century when we look at Spices and Herbs.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

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