By Riley Manning
In the Christmas season, when nativity scenes abound in yards, living rooms, and parades, there is no shortage of presence by the legendary three wise men described in the book of Matthew.
However, their appearance on the scriptural stage is strangely brief and equally vague.
Matthew is the only gospel writer to mention them, and only for a mere 18 verses in the second chapter. Though in the 2000 years since, legend has taken creative license with filling in the gaps of these mystery men, the scant information given in the gospel emplores a world of study.
We three kings?
The song goes something like, “We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we travel afar,” (or “tried to smoke a rubber cigar,” depending on your preference) but Matthew never actually says how many men come to visit the baby Jesus.
“The story of the magi and Jesus’ birth is a great example of how tradition and folklore can kind of take over scripture,” said the Rev. David Eldrige, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. “There were definitely three gifts, so we usually portray the accompanying party as three men, but we can’t be sure.”
The Rev. Tom Groome, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, said it is unlikely they were literally kings, but were certainly of royal stature.
“The journey to find Jesus was a very long one. It’s hard to imagine a king leaving an empty throne for years. They were probably more like priests,” Groome said.
Eldridge agreed they were almost definitely non-Jewish, but scholars who studied the stars.
“The magi are usually seen as astrologists, who tried to interpret the stars much in the way horoscopes do today,” Eldrige said. “Rulers have always had a cabinet, people to advise them politically and spiritually as well. That’s what I get the sense these men were, some highly regarded spiritual advisors.”
“It’s interesting that God would reveal the kingdom first to people who were such outsiders, Gentiles really,” Groome said. “But it speaks to the fact that Christ was intended to usher in a kingdom inclusive of everyone.”
The only other gospel that tells the Christmas story is Luke, but instead of magi, he tells about shepherds in the field, visited by terrifying angels in their fields at night.
“Herod’s priests and scribes knew where the king was to be born, but instead of seeking him out, they cling to earthly power,” Eldrige said.
“God sent word to shepherds, the lowest class of people, and outsiders. They would have been the ones farthest from people’s expectations.”
Where exactly the men came from, and how they came to travel together is impossible to know. While they are often represented riding camels, sometimes one may be portrayed riding an elephant.
“They’re generally taken to be from Persia or Babylon,” Groome said. “But the one thing for sure is that it was a long journey. Because Herod ordered the killing of babies aged two and under, we think they actually didn’t get to Jesus until he was two years old.”
The Rev. Gloria McKinney, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tupelo, noted that not only was the distance great, but the road was hard.
“No doubt they travelled hundreds of miles,” she said. “The terrain coming from the east was hard and mountainous, and they would have ridden on the slowest-moving of beasts. It must have taken a lot of time to plan.”
Once they reach Jerusalem, they bring their news to King Herod first, who tells the Magi he wishes to pay homage to the new King as well, and tells them to alert him to Jesus’s whereabouts when they find him.
“Of course, that’s a plot,” Groome says. “When they do find Jesus, they have been told in a dream not return to Herod, so they return to their own country by a different route.”
And as suddenly as they must have appeared to Mary and Joseph, they exit the gospel narrative and are not told of again in scripture. Some traditions hold they returned to their own countries as Christians, and were later martyred. The Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral in Germany supposedly contains the bones of the Three Wise Men, but, as Eldrige said, there is no way to be certain.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh
Perhaps more significant than the magi, McKinney said, were the gifts themselves.
“They presented the gifts as if they were presenting them to a king,” she said. “What they were was very significant in fortelling what would become Christ’s journey.”
Gold, she said, represented and acknowledged royalty.
Frankincense was akin to incense, and was used in religious offerings and rituals, and signified Christ as priestly, hinted at his suffering and sacrifice.
And finally, myrrh was a potent aeromatic fluid used in the embalming process, and nodded to Christ’s death.
“Even at his birth, he was being prepared to die,” McKinney said.
What happened to these gifts after they were given to Mary and Joseph is never mentioned in scripture.
Some legends say the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus, or was entrusted to, then misused by Judas, or used by Mary and Joseph to flee Egypt. Some say the myrrh given to them was used to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.
But as entertaining as these ideas may be, Eldrige said, they are at best mere conjecture, speculation, and imagination.