Wise Men HeaderMagi, or Wise Men.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

3: Where did our Magi come from?

Map of Eastern countries The Bible tells us that the Wise Men came from the East. Exactly how far east, and to what extent that description can be interpreted is largely unknown. Much later legend has the each of the Wise Men coming from different countries. However, three (because of the 3 gifts) Wise Men coming independently to the same place and perhaps meeting up upon the way is not suggested by scripture. Neither is it a strong argument to say they could only have bought a particular gift from its country of origin. The trade routes would have made any gift available from almost any country in the area.
Here are 3 main possibilities.

Persia -
Did the Wise Men of Matthew's gospel come from Persia, the home of the Zoroastrian Magi? This is possible and it was certainly a main belief of the early Christian Church. In a letter associated with the Synod of Jerusalem in AD. 836 an incident was related to have happened in AD. 614 when Persian armies invaded the Holy Land destroying Christian Churches. Apparently when they came to the Basilica in Bethlehem they refused to destroy it because of a mosaic depicting the adoration of the Magi. It turns out they recognized them because of their dress; the belted tunics and full sleeves, in trousers wearing Phrygian caps. They were fellow Persians! Clement of Alexandria believed that Persian writings actually refer to the coming of the Son of God. The apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, 7:1 says in its account of the Magi that they came to Jerusalem 'according the prediction of Zoroaster.' They may have been referring to a doctrine of Zoroastrianism where says that a son of Zoroaster will be born many years after his death by a virgin who will bathe in a lake where Zoroaster's semen is preserved. This son will apparently raise the dead and crush the forces of evil. Later Christians got rather excited about this apparent pagan prophecy of the coming of the Messiah since there is no evidence that it was known by the gospel writers or by the apostles. It is possible that our Magi knew of this prophecy and others concerning this figure of salvation.

Arabia -
Another way of approaching this is to look at the Old Testament expectations and its idea of 'the East.' . The gifts brought by the wise men mentioned in Matthew are also mentioned in the Old Testament.
In Isaiah 60: 6 it says,
'Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.'
Psalm 72:15 says
'Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given to him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long.'
Sheba was a country located in south-west Arabia. It was known for its wealth by trading spices, gold and jewels with Mediterranean countries. At this time Sheba was ruled by Priest-Kings who oversaw the worship of stars, sun and moon. A temple to the moon-god, Ilumquh, dating from the 7th century BC has been discovered by archaeologists at Marib, once the capital of Sheba. These Biblical passages clearly refers to the tributes of gold being brought from Sheba to the new ruler in Israel. The Jewish religion would have some familiarity in Arabia since there were colonies of Jews in the area and as we have seen the Shebans had an interest in stars. Also the 'people of the east' or 'bene-qedem' are often associated with wisdom; for example in 1 Kings 4:30 we are told, 'Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. ' The term 'people of the east' refers to a number of tribes including Midianites, Amalekites (Jdg. 6:3), Moabites, Ammonites (Ezk. 25:10) and Kedarites. All of them roughly in the area known as Arabia. It is also significant that the earliest references to the Magi in Christian thought are that they came from Arabia. Justin, in AD. 160 wrote in his Dialogue, 'Magi from Arabia came to him. (that is Herod)' In AD. 96 Clement of Rome wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians that he associated frankincense and myrrh with 'the districts near Arabia.' Arabia then seems to fit in best with Old Testament expectations as the origin of the gospel Magi.

Babylon -
The final possibility for the home of our Magi is Babylon. This is based upon the facts that we have concerning the Babylonians. They had apparently studied the night's sky to a most excellent degree. Their meticulous research and extensive records of astronomical phenomenon were unmatched in the western world. In addition to this was the widespread Jewish influence in Babylon due to the large numbers of Jews who stayed in Babylon after the Exile in the 6th Century BC. Babylon was in a unique position then of having well informed Magi, both of astronomical events and Jewish Messianic expectations. In addition the book of Daniel frequently mentions Magi in the Babylonian Court. (Daniel 1:20, 2:2, 4:1, 4:9, 5:11) Despite all this the early Christian writers seem not to have heard that the Magi came from Babylon. The theory never occurred to the early Christian writers; at least none of the writings we have mention the possibility of the Magi being Babylonian. It is strange therefore that it seems to have the backing of most modern scholars. Many of them take it as established fact that the Magi were Babylonian.
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