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So Who Were Those “Wise Men” Who Play Into The Christmas Story?


By James Donahue


The Archbishop of Canterbury may have shocked the Christian world when he recently declared that the Christmas tale of the Three Wise Men was a myth and probably never happened.


Dr. Rowan Williams claims there is little evidence that the Magi even existed and if they did visit the child Jesus, it didn’t happen at the time of his birth, there is no evidence that there were three of them, or that they were kings.


The only reference to the wise men is found in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 1 and 2: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east, and we are come to worship him.”


Verse 11 offers more detail: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him, and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”


Over the years, and especially since the Christian celebration of Christmas has become such a major capitalistic-driven commercial event, the story of the wise men has been embellished until it plays a major part of the nativity story.


Because there were three gifts named in the Bible story, there apparently was an assumption that only three wise men made the trip. Because the mode of travel in that part of the world has been by camel for thousands of years, the image of three robed men riding on camels and following a bright star has been injected.


Perhaps it was the Rev. John Henry Hopkins Jr., composer of the popular carol We Three Kings of Orient Are,” who elevated the wise men to the role of kings. The song was written in 1857 for the General Theological Seminary in New York as part of a Christmas pageant, and has been part of the Christmas myth ever since.


The same thing happened after Clement Clarke Moore penned the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822,”  Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, and Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a promotion for Montgomery Ward in 1939.


Somewhere along the line, the wise men have also been referred to as Magi. This may be another attempt to zero in on just who these travelers were and where they came from, or there may be an element of truth here, if the story of the visiting gift bearers can be believed at all. That is because there was a tribe of the Medes, within the ancient Persian Empire, known as the Magi.


As legend has it, the Magi were gifted in wisdom, astrology and magick, and were often called upon as advisors of kings. It was said the Magi went as far as Egypt to give counsel to the pharos. Thus it would be possible that a delegation of Magi appeared to visit Jesus sometime during his youth. The Bible story, however, does not confirm such a premise.


As Dr. Williams explained: “Matthew’s gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that’s all we’re really told.”


That the wise men arrived in time to visit Jesus at his place of birth also is highly unlikely. Even if the star gave them a head-start, moving hundreds of miles by camel across the Middle East would be a journey of months. If there was such a visit, it probably happened when Jesus was a young boy living at his home, and not while he was a babe in a manger somewhere in Jerusalem.