Summary: Were the wise men as smart as we think?
Were the Wise Men Really So Wise?
Sometimes we think we know more about something than we really know. A perfect case is this morning’s text about the three wise Men. We even think we know their names as being Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We believe that they came from the east bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus at Christmastime. Finally, we call them “wise”. What of this story is true and what is legend?
We can dispense with the fact that there were three of them. The bible simply does not say how many there were. Some assumed that because three gifts were given that there were three wise men. Maybe there were three of them, but all the Bible can tell us is that there was more than one.
Neither does the Bible name the three Magi, so the names tradition has assigned to them is most probably not their names.
Neither can we be sure that they came from the East. This would seem more likely than not, but their report of seeing the star in the east could also be translated that they saw the star in the eastern sky which would mean that they came from the west. But as the Magi were the names of the astrologers and those who examined the livers of animals to predict the future was often associated with Babylon, at least this part of the story is likely true.
We also do not know when the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem other than it seems that it was before Jesus’s second birthday as Herod, having inquired to the time that the star appeared, had all the male children two years and younger killed in the attempt to eliminate the competition.
We also need to examine how “wise” these Wise Men really were. Were they able to figure out something about the birth of the Messiah from their study of the stars that the Jewish people who had the Scripture did not figure out, even though it was clearly prophesied there. Let us now examine the text of the second chapter of Matthew a little more closely and see what the evangelist and apostle is trying to tell us.
Whereas Luke dates his Christmas story from the reign of Augustus Caesar, the emperor of Rome, Matthew begins it by dating it in the reign of Herod the Great who was a client king of Rome. Luke goes into considerably more detail concerning Jesus’ birth, where Matthew mentions it in passing. It isn’t even the main sentence. It only introduces the circumstances that caused the Wise Men to come. They had seen an unusual star appear in the western sky, assuming that they were from Babylon. As Magi, who carefully charted the stars including the wandering ones we now know are planets. A new bright star hanging low in the sky would have caught their attention and would have made them wonder. They would have also noticed that this star remained fixed in the sky and did not move with the rotation of the earth. As they followed this star, they would have noticed that it would have slowly risen higher in the sky as they approached Bethlehem. In other words, this star would have moved from west to east rather than east to west. This was certainly no ordinary star, and the Wise Men would have known this.
But how did they make the connection between this star and the birth of the King of the Jews? Did they have access to the Jewish Scriptures? Or did they have access to some Babylonian prophecies concerning the arrival of Jesus. All the Scripture teaches us is that they made the connection. When they got to Jerusalem, they asked where the King of the Jews was and that they had seen His star in the east.
The Wise Men followed the star until they saw the city of Jerusalem. When they saw the gilded Temple and the palace of Herod, did they take their eyes off the star? After all, Jerusalem was called the city of the great king. Herod had one of his many palaces there. Surely the people of this great and religious city would know about the birth of this king. But apparently no one knew anything about it. King Herod got the news that these Wise Men were seeking for the King of the Jews. Herod thought of Himself as the King of the Jews, even though he wasn’t Jewish. He was so worried that a legitimate Jewish king would rise up and take away his throne. He had once been married to the daughter of the High Priest. But political intrigue and fear caused him to assassinate her. He also had their two sons by her assassinated for fear that the Jews would crown one of them in his place. So Herod was troubled to hear that astrologers from the east had been following the star which announced the birth of the rightful king.