Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Three Wise Men were Arabs. And this was in the Bible All Along

El Greco
The approach of the Feast of Epiphany annually brings renewed curiosity about the so-called “Wise Men from the East” (Matt 2:1). How many of them were there? Where were they really from?

Some matters regarding these mysterious visitors will never have complete answers. But I will demonstrate in this post that the Gospel of Matthew itself contains a crucial clue about their origin that has been somehow overlooked for over 2000 years. An important detail found in that Gospel answers definitively the question of the national origin of the Magi.

The Origin and Meaning of the Word Magoi

We first meet the “Wise Men” in Matthew 2:1:

“After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judaea, in the days of King Herod, Magoi arrived in Jerusalem from the East.”

While the word magoi is generally rendered “Wise Men” in biblical translations, it denotes a magical practitioner in other contexts.

The oldest extant use of the word magos, in the 6th Century BCE Behistun Inscription, demonstrates its Persian origin. The word traveled widely to eventually denote various practitioners of magic, regardless of their nationality.  (For example, in Acts 13 a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas is called a magos.)

The Number of Magoi

The Greek text of Matthew does not state how many magoi there were. Numbering them as three is
Peter Paul Rubens
perhaps a reasonable assumption based on the fact that they bring three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). But various traditions within Christendom saw that number range as high as twelve.

What Were Their Names?

Traditions about the magoi develop through the centuries. They are given the names Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa in the Excerpta Latina Barbari, an 8th Century CE Latin translation of a 6th Century Greek chronicle. The more widely known names of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, clearly derived from the above, come to us from a 14th Century Armenian Tradition, which further claims that the men come from Arabia, Persia, and India respectively.

Where Were the Magoi From?

Given the known Persian origin of the word, it has been natural, even Romantic, to imagine Zoroastrian astronomers traveling all the way from the area of modern-day Iran in search of the newly-born Jesus.

But despite the Persian origin of the word magos, the 2nd Century CE Christian writer Justin Martyr states that the magoi were from Arabia (Dialogue with Trypho 78). Perhaps this was influenced by Isaiah 60:6:

“All from Sheba (Southern Arabia) shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.”

Or Psalm 72:10:

“The Kings of Arabia shall come bringing tribute.”

The Secret Clue to the Origin of the Magoi

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magoi were asked by King Herod to return to Jerusalem after they had found the new-born King, so that he might also worship him. After finding Jesus, however, the magoi were warned in a dream not to do so. Their story ends simply with the words:

“They went away into their own country by another way” (Matt 2:12).

Notice that the text does not state that they left Judea to travel in the direction of their own country.  The key piece of information here is that, when they left Judea, they entered directly into their own country. In other words, “their own country” shares a border with Judea. Justin Martyr was correct. They came from Arabia.

If you look at a map of the Roman provinces in the time of Caesar Augustus, you will see that you cannot leave Judea to the East or South East and enter anything but Arabia. If the magoi were from Persia or any point even farther East, they would have had to travel through a portion of Arabia to get there.

And so, this upcoming Epiphany, celebrate the magoi who came from the East. We’ll never know with certainty their names. We can’t even be certain how many there were. But the fact that they came from Arabia is a sound interpretation of the biblical text that tells their story.

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