Minister's Moment: Who Were These Wise Men, Anyway?
Who Were Those
Wise Men, Anyway?
We’ve seen manger scenes with all kinds of figures. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are always there. Sometimes there’s an angel hovering over the stable. There are usually animals—cows, sheep, perhaps a donkey—and shepherds. Fontini has created a huge number of figures to add to these: women, a flute player—anything and anyone, it seems, in order to increase the size of the crowd, sell more figurines, and make more money.
We know there weren’t many people at the stable that night—just the immediate family and the shepherds who heard the angels’ announcement—and probably not many of them. It didn’t take many people to watch a flock of sheep. Shepherding was a lonely profession.
There are two problems with the traditional manger scene. First, the setting is all wrong. We usually see a barn-like structure with a pointed roof and an open entrance. This last we can understand: if there were doors, we wouldn’t be able to see much. The truth is more likely that the stable was in a cave cut into a hillside. It would have been cheaper for the innkeeper, since he wouldn’t have to build anything, and it would be well-protected from the elements.
The second problem is the wise men. They weren’t there at the birth. Matthew offers proof in v. 11: “And when they [the wise men] were come into the house they saw the young child…” (italics mine). By the time the wise men arrived (a year or so after Jesus’ birth), Jesus had grown from a baby to a young child, and had moved with his parents into a house. Joseph wouldn’t have wanted to put his young wife through the rigors of another trip too soon after she had given birth. And, as a carpenter, he would have been able to earn a living in Bethlehem as easily as in Nazareth, supporting the family until Mary and the baby could travel.
We refer to these visitors from the east as “wise men,” or “kings,” or “magi.” What title fits them best? It is unlikely that they were kings, in spite of the carol. Kings would not have wanted to leave their countries for as long a time as the journey would have required. On the other hand, the gifts they brought—unimaginable riches for a man of Joseph’s social class—certainly indicate the wealth of nobility.
When we read the word “magi” we think of magicians, and that was one of the functions of magoi (Greek, plural). They were also astrologers (remember the star?), interpreters of dreams, and prophets. Certainly these men were steeped in the knowledge of the Middle East. Wherever they came from (Persia, Arabia, and Babylon are all possibilities), they would have studied the writings of many cultures, including Israel/Judah. When they asked Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews” they knew what they were talking about. There was no hesitancy, no doubt in their mind. In fact, they must have been perplexed by Herod’s lack of knowledge and understanding.
Whatever we call them and wherever they called home matters less than what they represent in the Christmas story. If the shepherds represent the common folk and the native population, then the wise men represent the upper classes and the world outside Judah. Jesus came to redeem the whole world—male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile—no distinction of gender, social class, nationality, or race. As Christians we believe the entire world labors under the burden of sin. That bondage must be broken if we are to be redeemed in God’s sight. When we picture the wise men kneeling with the shepherds at the manger (even though we know it didn’t happen that way) we see the whole world represented. More importantly, we know we must be found kneeling there too.