Was the Magi’s Mission History or Myth?
In just twelve short verses the Gospel of Matthew records the visit of the mysterious Magi to pay homage to the baby Jesus. The allure of mystical wizards from exotic lands captured the imagination of early Christians. Matthew’s short narrative was expanded and elaborated to the Christmas tale we hear today.
But did any such wise men exist, and if so, who were they and where did they come from? The predominant opinion among New Testament scholars is that the whole story is a fabrication—a fantastic myth devised to make the birth of Jesus extra special, but are they correct?
Making of the Magi Myth
The Magi story began to be elaborated along with the growth of Gnosticism and early Christianity. Extra Biblical writings about the mysterious Magi proliferated. The earliest apocryphal version of Jesus’ birth is a document called The Gospel of James or The Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium tells the story of Mary’s birth and childhood, her betrothal to Joseph and the birth of Jesus. The account of Jesus’ birth follows Matthew and Luke’s account, but there are some extra details: Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem, there is no mention of an inn as such, and the stable where Jesus is born is in a cave.
There is a midwife named Salome present, and as Jesus is born, a wonderful, mysterious light appears. In the Protoevangelium there are no shepherds, but the story of the Wise Men is told— obviously quoting from Matthew. Adding to Matthew, the Wise Men in the Protoevangelium say, the star was so bright on its appearing that all the other stars dimmed in its light.
Around the same time one of the earliest Christian writers, Ignatius of Antioch (d.108) in his epistle to the Ephesians, waxes eloquently about the star, “a star shone in the night brighter than all other stars. Its light was indescribable, and its strangeness produced wonder. And all the rest of the stars with the sun and the moon made a choir around that star which outshone them all.” The exaggeration and glorification of the Magi story had already begun.
By the third century the idea that the Magi were kings was starting to get traction. Tertullian and Origen mused on the Old Testament prophecies that kings would come to worship the Messiah bearing gold and frankincense, and concluded that the Magi must have been kings.
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Journey of the Magi. (Eric Wilcox / CC BY-NC 2.0)
It was also in the third century that the Magi story began to take the leap from legend to myth. The Legend of Aphroditianus is an apocryphal writing that originated in Syria, where there was a strong Persian influence. The tale begins with the account of a miracle in the temple of a pagan goddess in Persia at the time of Christ’s birth. According to the myth, the statues in the temple danced, sung and announced that the goddess Hera had been made pregnant by Zeus.
Suddenly a star appears above the statue of the goddess Hera. A voice from heaven is heard, and all the dancing statues fall on their faces. The wise men of the court take this to mean that a king is to be born in Judea. That evening the god Dionysus confirms their interpretation. Then the god sends the Magi to Judea with gifts, the star pointing them along their way. The story tells of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, and how they meet the Jewish leaders, and finally Mary and Jesus. They return to Persia bringing a portrait of Jesus and Mary, and subsequently put it in the temple, where the star first appeared.
Depiction of The Magi following the star in search of baby Jesus. (Kevin Phillips / Public domain)
In another third century work, the opus imperfectum, a writer named Ephraim said the Magi saw a human image in the star. While the eighth century Chronicle of Zuqnin says there were twelve Magi, all of whom saw a different human image in the star. Clearly, the Magi story had found its wings and soared to mythical heights impossible to imagine by the simple storyteller Matthew.
Another bizarre apocryphal text is The Revelation of the Magi. This story pretends to be told by the Magi themselves. The Wise Men are residents of a mythical land called Shir in the Far East. They are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy from his father that one day a star of amazing brightness would appear to announce the birth of God in human form.
The story continues as every year the mystical Magi of Shir ascended their holy mountain where the Cave of Treasures is located. This cave contains the wisdom of Seth and the treasures of Adam, and it is there that the super bright star, brighter than the sun, appears to them as a tiny radiant human. The star child tells them to go on a long journey to Bethlehem. After long preparations they set off only to find that the star child accompanies them, removing all obstacles and miraculously providing them with food and protection.
Apart from being historical curiosities, these Gnostic texts have no value apart from being mildly entertaining. They are about as important to the search for Matthew’s Wise Men as Disney’s Sword in the Stone is to the search for the historical King Arthur.
The Medieval Myth
By the sixth century Christians may not have believed the wildly fantastic Magi stories of the Gnostics, but the idea that the Magi were wise men from Persia had taken root. So in the sixth century we find the Emperor Justinian commissioning the famous mosaic of the three Magi in Ravenna. Justinian’s mosaic actually named the Wise Men, and it is at the beginning of the sixth century that their names were first documented.
Mosaic of the Three Magi (young, middle aged & elderly) in Sant Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. (vvoe / Adobe stock)
The Excerpta Latina Barbari composed in Alexandria, calls them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa or as we now know them, Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. In contrast, Syriac Christians named the Magi, Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopian Christians called them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenians said they were named, Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.
The various ethnic names of the Magi also indicate a widening out of the Magi tradition from the assumption that they were Persian priests. The Syrian, Ethiopian and Armenian Christians were among the first to accept the Christian message, and their independent Magi traditions attests to both the antiquity of the Magi story and affirms St Augustine of Hippo’s (d. 430) suggestions that the Wise Men represented the whole of the Gentile (non-Jewish) world.
Some two hundred years after Justinian’s famous mosaics, an eighth century Irish manuscript Collectanea et Flores offers more details about the appearance of the Wise Men, explaining that they represent the three ages of man (youth, middle-age and old age). By this time, they were no longer Persian Magi. Instead the Wise Men assumed three different racial characteristics showing that they represented Europe, Africa and Asia - the three regions of the known world. At the same time, the British historian, Venerable Bede mused that the international origins of the Three Wise Men could also signify the three sons of Noah who, as tradition had it, re-peopled the globe and were the source of humanity’s three basic racial groups. These accumulated traditions explain why, in Christian artwork, the Magi are shown to be young, middle-aged and elderly: African, Asian and European.
Detail of the Three Kings from The Adoration of the Magi (elderly, middle-aged, young / European, Asian, African). (Edward Burne Jones / Public domain)
The legends about the Magi continued to develop, so that according to the 12th-century life of St Eustorgio , the bodies of the Three Kings were discovered in Persia in the early fourth century by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine and eventually translated to the cathedral in Cologne.
In the fourteenth century the Venetian explorer Marco Polo recorded that he had visited the village in Persia where Helena had identified the tomb, and in the same century, the Carmelite monk John of Hildesheim wrote Historia trium regum, (History of the Three Kings). John of Hildesheim recounts how the star was first sighted in the forty second year of the Emperor Augustus from the summit of Mount Vaus in the East by a group of pagan astrologers who were aware of the Old Testament prophecy of Balaam.
Hildesheim says the star was as bright as the Sun, and that the Three Kings from their own lands set out to follow the star they had seen. Melchior travelled from Nubia and Arabia. Balthasar from Godolia and Saba, and Caspar from Tharsis and Egrisoulle. Each with a magnificent retinue, they followed the star for thirteen days and arrived at the same time in Jerusalem, where they were amazed to discover that they understood one another’s languages. After their audience with King Herod, and instructed by his scribes, they continued their journey to Bethlehem, again guided by the magical star.
The Magi before King Herod, on a 13th-century stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral, France. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
History or Mystery? A Quest for Investigation
Matthew’s simple story burgeoned into a fantastic tale as no other Biblical narrative had. But what if the wildly elaborated myth, like that of King Arthur, was rooted in historical circumstances and real individuals? What if it could be shown that there were circumstances and players in first century Judea who fit the story? Always wanting to stand orthodoxy on its head, I set out on a quest of my own. I began to investigate whether there might be a foundation of historical truth beneath the accumulated legends surrounding the Magi story. To do this, I had to strip away the accretions that encrusted Matthew’s simple story.
What I found was astounding. First, I discovered that because of their assumption that the Magi story was a fairy tale, very few scholars had taken the time to investigate thoroughly the possible identity of the Wise Men. My research brought me into contact with an almost forgotten ancient civilization and new technologies, which shed light on the subject. Some fresh archaeological findings and new understandings from the Dead Sea Scrolls also contributed to the quest.
Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, Israel. (byjeng / Adobe stock)
Matthew said the Wise Men were “from the East.” By the end of the first century, because of the destruction of Jerusalem, the center of Christianity shifted north and west to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. If you lived in present-day Turkey or Greece “the East” is clearly Persia. The fact that Matthew used the word “Magi” was also a powerful pointer. There was indeed an ancient caste of shamans from Persia called ‘the Magi’. But like most mystery stories, the first and most obvious solution is rarely the correct one.
Christianity’s hub may have shifted north and west, but Matthew’s Gospel was written in Judea to the Jews of that area. “The East” for them was the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, in the Old Testament the “people of the East” are always the nomadic tribes of Arabia. The Persians come from the North. The earliest Christian witness outside the New Testament is Justin Martyr, who is also situated in Judea. He says that the Wise Men came from Arabia. I therefore began to search for possible candidates from Arabia.
Petra and the Nabateans
This led, of course, to the fabulously wealthy and mysterious kingdom of Nabatea with the ancient city of Petra as its capital. Suffice it to say that once I discovered the Nabateans, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The politics, economics, religion and culture of the time all combined to make the Nabateans the obvious choice.
The Nabatean monastery ruins in Petra. (carbo82 / Adobe stock)
Just two details will illustrate the wealth of evidence that combines to strengthen this theory. The finest gold in the ancient world was mined in Western Arabia, and the shrubs from which incense and myrrh are sourced only grow in Eastern Arabia and Northeast Africa, which is all territory controlled by the Nabateans. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were clearly diplomatic gifts (representative of the Nabtean kingdom) from King Aretas IV of Nabatea to honor a grandson or great grandson of his neighbor King Herod.
Secondly, new discoveries by archaeo-astronomers from Spain have shown that the Nabatean temples were aligned to the solstices and constellations, and the archaeological dig at the temple of Khirbet et Tannur, uncovered a stone carved zodiac proving that the Nabatean Magi were star gazers.
These are just two pieces of evidence that direct the quest for the identity of the Wise Men to Nabatea. It is perfectly probable that there were wise men who had the motive, the means and the method to pay homage to Jesus Christ, just as Matthew recorded.
My findings not only stand the established academic orthodoxy on its head, but they should cause everyone interested in New Testament scholarship, ancient history and the historical veracity of the Gospels to think again.
Like the story of King Arthur, the tale of the Wise Men who visited Bethlehem was embroidered and embellished over many years. But beneath it all there is a foundation of historical truth, which is fascinating and compelling.
The simple facts of the Magi story undermine the assumptions that the nativity narratives are fairy tales made up to make Jesus more special. Instead my findings show that beneath all the mystery, there is history.
Dwight Longenecker’s book The Mystery of the Magi - The Quest for the True Identity of the Three Wise Men is published by Regnery Press. It is available on Amazon and from his website: dwightlongenecker.com
Top image: The Magi with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Source: Henry Siddons Mowbray / Public domain