12 Myths of Christmas: 3 Wise Guys
Ask anybody who has heard the Christmas story how many wise men came to see Jesus and they will answer “three.” Ask them why they think this and most likely they will just say that it has always been told that way.
Myth #3: Three Wise Men Visited Jesus at his Birth
The bible never gives a number for how many Magi came to visit Jesus. Magi is the plural word so the number could be anywhere from 2 on up. The reason the number three has been attached to the story is because of the three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Early Christian art has depicted anywhere from 2 to 8 magi.
I’m going to take this myth one step further because it isn’t really that big a deal that popular consensus says that there were three when it was never mentioned. It’s a fun little Christmas trivial question to ask around the dinner table.
First, you must get the image out of your head of the three wise men at the stable chillin’ with the baby Jesus and some camels. We don’t know how many wise men their were and according to the story, they arrived when Jesus was a bit older, probably no older than two based on Herod’s orders to kill. They visited a house, not the manger. And if you try to merge Matthew and Luke’s nativity story, which I think really doesn’t work but it has been done, than Jesus would have to be over 40 days old because that is when he was presented in Jerusalem. And since one gospel has the family running away to Egypt, they couldn’t have done that if they had to still present Jesus to the temple. But trying to combine the two nativity narratives is just messy and the work of Christians desperately trying to make sense of two clearly made up myths that didn’t care about each other. The fact that Matthew and Luke have Jesus being born at two conflicting periods clearly shows that neither one cared about the other.
But if these wise men are just an invention of Matthew (they do not appear in any other Gospel), why would he create them? Who are they supposed to be and why are the presenting gifts to a child who has no use for them. Why not bring a bib, a rattle or a stuffed animal?
The gospel tells us they are magi, a special caste of magicians from Persia. When you hear magicians, do not think they are the Saturday birthday party kind or the Criss Angel/David Blane kind. Not even the kind that abuse white tigers until the tigers try to eat you. These guys were astrologers/astronomers. Back then there wasn’t much of a distinction between astrology and astronomy. The were considered wise because they were the priest of this ancient sky science. They could even be called sorcerers.
We know they came from the east. This doesn’t mean China or the Far East. During the time of the writing, the “east” meant east of the Tigris & Euphrates River. This would be Ancient Persia–think modern day Iran and Iraq (that’s a part of the myth I’m sure many modern Christians don’t want to know). They were not kings but we are led to believe that they are distinguished. We don’t have their names but the Church thought it would be fun to give them names and back stories; Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. Sometimes the names are spelled different. These three names just further adds to the “Three” Wise Men myth. Why the Church felt the need to add more myth to the myth is beyond me but you see them doing that often throughout history.
The gifts were not picked at random. During that time period, the author of Matthew would have been aware of what was commonly presented to kings; gold, for its value, frankincense as perfume, and myrrh for anointing. But beyond that the gifts have symbolism. Gold represents kingship on Earth, frankincense was a incense representative of a deity and myrrh, usually used as an embalming ointment, represented the death of a mortal. So these three gifts show that Jesus, is a divine king in a mortal body.
It comes down to this. If you want people to believe that your god is the god of the Jewish people, you need to have a convincing story. And during that time, wise men presenting important gifts to a newly born child is a sign that your guy is the real deal. Throughout ancient stories, you see the same themes. You can choose to ignore this fact and pretend that your god has this truly original tale but you would be wrong. On top of that, why do only two of the four canonical gospels even talk about Jesus’ birth? And out of those two, only one says that Magi came to visit.
In Hollywood, if a someone writes a movie, depending on the genre, a producer will say it needs certain things to be a hit. If you have an action movie, you better have a lot of explosions, gun fights and chase scenes. If you have a romance, you better have some famous, pretty faces kissing. If you don’t have these things it is a good bet your screenplay will end up in the rejection pile.
In the time of the gospels, if you were writing a narrative proclaiming a savior was born, you better have the time, location and the right characters in your story. Both Luke and Matthew knew that in order to fulfill prophecy that Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem. So there you go, you have your location. Matthew wants his story to be a bit more convincing so he adds the Magi to arrive with gifts. This way when people read it, the author of Matthew can say, “Oh, see, they came and gave him some cool shit so obviously he is the chosen one.” The author of Matthew was not an eyewitness. The gospel was most likely written forty years after Jesus’ death, at best twenty years. This guy has no authority on the nativity story. Even if he heard it from someone via oral tradition, that’s not enough to believe this myth. Anyone not infected by the god virus can use reason to deduct that the Magi are an invention of Matthew’s brain.
You might have noticed that I did not say anything about the “star” they followed. That will be discussed in a future myth.