Who were the Three Wise men from the East and what were they following?

// December 26th, 2012 // Strange Events

The story

The story is known throughout the world embodied in story and song. Sent by King Herod and following a shining star in the sky, the Three Wise Men travelled throughout the East until they reached the newborn king, the baby Jesus where they embellished him with gifts. But who were the Three Wise Men and what was the mysterious star that they followed?

From Matthew 2:1-12:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Astronomical events

In the seventh century, German astronaut Kepler solved the mystery of the star when he proposed that the star was actually the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. This occurs occasionally and gives the appearance of a single, bright star. However, using astrological calculations, it has now been proven that no such conjunction took place during the period that St. Matthew mentions but rather, this conjunction occurred on June 17 in the year 2 BC (note that the Bible does not mention December 25 nor even December as Jesus’ birth date although Luke’s mention of shepherds in the field would give credence to the date being in the months of April through October).

Others proposed various theories for the mysterious star. Hailey’s Comet (which actually appeared 10 years before Christ’s birth) was proposed as one solution. Chinese astronomical texts from the era recorded a “supernova” in 4 BC that flared up in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle and it has been computed that from the South Gate of Jerusalem the star would have appeared to be over Bethlehem. This theory loses water though due to the fact that a supernova would appear to move across the sky (all heavenly objects move across the sky from east to west as the earth rotates) and not hover in one place as the Bible describes the Star of Bethlehem. The time however is most likely accurate in this case. Scholars believe that Jesus’ birth occurred sometime prior to 4 BC given that 4 BC marks the date of Herod the Great, the ruler who sent the magical Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

We are no closer today to solving this mystery.

The Wise Men or Magi

Contrary to common belief, the book of Matthew does not state that there were three wise men, only that they were from the East and that they brought three gifts (or that they rode camels). In fact, earl medieval versions of the Nativity have 12 Magi depicted. Historians even debate their time of arrival surmising that it would have taken some time for them to travel and rationalizing this with the passage from the bible that mentions that they entered the house (indicating that this was some time after Jesus’ birth) – some think they visited Jesus when he was a toddler.

Most scholars believe the visitors to Bethlehem were probably Babylonian Jews but Matthew only said that they were from the East which could cover a region stretching from Aleppo in the north-west to present-day Mosul in Iraq (which means they may not have even been Jewish at all).

Another theory proposes that the Three Wise Men were Medes, an ancient race that settled near the Caspian Seas and formed the nation of media. Early historical documents mention their visit to the East. Amongst the Medes, were a caste credited with amazing occult powers whose commandments were “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. These mysterious men were known as the Magi (plural for magus which means sorcerer). Tradition claims that there were three kings – Melchior (who brought gold), Gaspar or Caspar (who offered frankincense), and Balthazar (who gave myrrh).

These three kings were eventually buried in Cologne Cathedral, Germany. Their remains made a marvelous trip to Germany from the East in the fourth century, then later to Milan, and then given as a gift to the people of Cologne. They are recognized by a plaque on their tombs that reads:

Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa in AD 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died. S. Melchior on January 1 at the age of 116, S. Balthazar on January 6 at the age of 112, and St. Gaspar on January 11 at the age of 109.

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