Article in Stretton Focus, December 2019
So who were the three wise men, some call them kings, who Mathew tells us visited the infant Jesus? We must not take the story literally. The story of Jesus’ birth was created in the latter half of the first century to address the need for a ‘biography’ which the emerging new religion wanted. Mary may have contributed a few memories, handed down in oral tradition, but the rest is imagination.
It is most likely that the story of the wise men reflected recognition within Christianity that they should learn from influences beyond Judaism. The deference which the wise men receive stems from their wisdom; they were philosophers, people that the new faith should respect, even though they were gentiles, not Jews. So we can ask some questions. Why choose wise men from the east? Why not a wise Greek or two? Surely a follower of Aristotle could have been among them? Or an Egyptian? What lay further east to make them more attractive in the story?
To the east of Judaea was the Parthian Empire, centred in what is now Iran. Its religion was Zoroastrianism. To the south-east was Nabataea, covering the Arabian Peninsula. They had a polytheistic religion of the kind which Judaism had faced down since the time of Moses. Further east was the Indus Valley empire in what is now Pakistan, the centre of Buddhism at the time and with routes to China and Confucianism. These faiths were all known about at the time the gospel was written because Alexander the Great and his armies had encountered them. Sadly Judaism was inward-looking and these faiths are not mentioned in the New Testament.
The gifts from the wise men are symbols usually accepted as signs of kingship and divinity. Gold, however, could represent the wealth of Parthia and Zoroastrianism; frankincense and myrrh both come from Arabia but maybe they reflect the thoughtful and meditative qualities of Buddhism. We can only speculate.
Today these mysterious visitors have been idolised and together with their gifts feature in countless works of art and endless nativity plays. This helps obscure the deeper meaning. Wrapped up in the tale is the message to Christianity to respond, to reach out and seek to understand other faiths. Theologians have strived for nearly two thousand years to identify the wise men, taking them literally, but I think the writer of Matthew’s gospel was subtle. The wise men are a highlight of the Christmas story, enjoy them as part of the tale but do not forget that there is a deeper meaning of friendship in faith.