Welcome, everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
They are every bit as ubiquitous as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree—three iconic yuletide symbols, attending the Christ child in his crèche, bearing gifts befitting the king of kings. I speak, of course, of the three Magi. And as we array them in our nativities each year, we take certain things for granted about these wise men: they are fabled kings from the Orient who followed a magic traveling star to pay homage to a newborn Messiah. You might even remember their names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. But beyond that, what do we really know about the Magi? Well, as is often the case, the possible answers are a heck of a lot more interesting than the traditional biblical interpretation.
In fact, the Magi appear only once in the New Testament, and briefly, in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Listen carefully for what it DOESN’T say:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea 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 are come to worship him… When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 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.”
Okay, wait a minute. Where’s the manger? They came into a house? Who are these wise men and how do we know there are three instead of two or thirty-three? And what about this impossibly wandering star? Can it be tied to any verifiable astronomical events?
Well, first, the scenario of no room at the inn, Mary giving birth in a barn and laying Jesus in a manger is from the Gospel of Luke, not Matthew, which tells the Bible’s only other nativity story. And Luke’s version wildly contradicts Matthew’s in almost every respect.
Because of this many biblical scholars believe the nativity stories are largely made up; Matthew especially seems to be chiefly interested in making Jesus’ birth jive with various Old Testament messianic prophesies. And the fact that Matthew has the Magi finding Jesus at a house implies that they arrived well after his birth—by perhaps as much as two years—allowing Joseph and Mary time to become established in Bethlehem. So the classic nativity scene you know so well is already dead wrong.
But say you’re still going to take Matthew’s words as Gospel—as many people do. Then who were these three kings from the Orient?
Actually, they weren’t kings at all, which busts another fallacy that eventually became institutionalized over the centuries, along with their supposed names and kingdoms. In all likelihood they were Persian Zoroastrian astronomer priests. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion, once widely practiced in what has since become Iran, and the term Magi derives from the Old Persian word that refers specifically to the Zoroastrian priestly caste. The handful of practicing Zoroastrians left these days are mostly still in Iran, which is why we don’t hear about the religion very often. But Zoroastrian priests were renowned in the ancient world for their wisdom, and became fabulously wealthy for their ability to interpret dreams and see signs in the stars. It is from the word Magi that we get the word magic, so you get an idea of how pervasive their influence was. Of course, this astrological mysticism was founded on hard astronomical science.
Which brings us to that mysterious star they saw in the east. There is no one verifiable event that gives us a definitive, historical Star of Bethlehem. Competing theories say it’s a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. The inherent problem is in the physics-defying nature of the star, and its apparent ability to lead the Magi to Bethlehem and cast a direct light on Jesus’ whereabouts. Given the screwy motion of this celestial beacon, the most logical explanation to me is that it’s planet related; planets were also called wandering stars in those days, and there were some planetary events around the time of Jesus’ birth that definitely would have caught the Magi’s attention.
In August of 2 B.C., just before dawn, looking east from Babylon, the planets Mercury, Mars and Jupiter aligned close to the horizon at the foot of the constellation Leo. Further marking the event was Venus, which rose above the horizon a short distance away. About a year and a half later, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, Venus rose again, this time in the constellation of Aries, and was lost to sight in the sunrise—perhaps stopping, after a fashion, over Jesus’ house. So you have the metaphorically convenient Lion (Leo), and Lamb (Aries) leading a troupe of astrologers to the Christ child.
Another possible astronomical explanation could be the retrograde motion of the planet Jupiter. Retrograde refers to the apparent reversal of a planet’s course in the sky for a time before it stops and resumes its normal progression. This means the wise men would have needed something like an astrolabe to make nightly observations and calculations. But considering their business, that assumption isn’t too far-fetched.
A final planetary possibility arises around the year 3 BC, when there was a series of celestial conjunctions—an event where heavenly bodies get so close they appear to merge. This happened three times between Jupiter and the star Regulus—the brightest star in the constellation Leo—and twice between Jupiter and Venus.
And it may even stand to reason that this so-called light in the east was only apparent in the context of the Magi’s Zoroastrian mysticism. One modern astrological interpretation says the Star of Bethlehem was a rare celestial configuration visible only to the wise men, as revealed by an astrological chart from 5 BC.
Of course this is all conjecture. Even fixed astronomical events become malleable and suspect when viewed through the lens of prophecy and divinity. And what about other celestial events like a supernova, or a comet?
Well, a supernova does have a certain appeal to stargazers, being such a rare and dramatic event. And though a supernova did occur at that time that might have been observable over Jerusalem, it was in the Andromeda galaxy and would have been extremely difficult to detect. Such fancies are better left to the imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, and his wonderfully poignant story, “The Star” in which the supernova we interpreted as the Star of Bethlehem destroyed a peaceful and advanced alien race.
As for the comet theory, Chinese astrologers observed a comet for seventy days during the Han Dynasty around 5 BC. The comet didn’t move, its hanging tail apparently pointing out specific cities. This coincides with a belief among many Chinese Christians that one of the Magi was actually Chinese. Liu Shang, the chief astrologer in the Han Dynasty around the time of Jesus’ birth, discovered a new star (called the “king star” conveniently enough) and disappeared from the imperial court for two years shortly thereafter—perhaps traveling the silk road to Bethlehem.
Whatever their origin, these mystical Magi are widely embraced by almost all branches of Christianity because they were the first ones to lay prostrate before Jesus in worship. At the time in Jewish and Roman society, the act of kneeling before someone was considered extremely distasteful. But in the Orient, it was the standard way to show respect to a king. As the kingly connotation could only reinforce Jesus’ messianic status, kneeling became widely adopted. Remember that next time you’re at Mass.
But the biggest question remains: what compelled these pagan priests to seek out the King of the Jews? Various Biblical prophesies are often cited, but they miss the point. The Magi wouldn’t have been compelled by portents from another religion. It gets back to their great wealth and power. They may not have been kings—but they were kingmakers, the mystical power behind many thrones, and were adept at political manipulation. Their trip to Bethlehem had more to do with a perceived threat to that power, as viewed through their own philosophies and prophesies.
These ancient Persians had a traditional bond with a Jewish sect called the Essenes, who ascribed to a more mystical interpretation of the Jewish faith. There are some startling parallels between Zoroastrian and Essene religious texts. The Essenes composed the Dead Sea Scrolls, which espouse a very Zoroastrian belief in a direct, inner spiritual truth—not one as prescribed by some doctrine.
Now Jesus’ father Joseph was high up in the Essene hierarchy, as he was heir to the line of David. In this context, it is much easier to understand why the Magi may have been interested in Jesus’ birth. To them is signaled a coming rift in the existing religious power structure, a battle between inward spirituality and outward, faith-based religious obedience. Their way of life had a lot riding on this Jewish messiah.
This is just the short version of a fascinating theory posited by author Paul William Roberts in his book, In Search of the Birth of Jesus: The Real Journey of the Magi, which I highly recommend.
Of course, we know which belief system won, and over the years as Christian doctrine became increasingly rigid and elaborate, the Church transformed and augmented the Magi from wise men to kings—kings falling down before the King of kings, a de facto symbol of the defeat of pagan mysticism and philosophy.
But regardless of why or even if the Magi were cribside for the big event, they have a much more historically intricate and credible connection to Christmas than most other yuletide mainstays, one with a neat esoteric and mystical flair to boot—a Christmas gift not, perhaps, worth its weight in gold. But it sure beats myrrh any day!
Merry Christmas, everyone!