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It is easy to understand why skeptical New Testament scholars have relegated the magi from Matthew’s gospel to the realm of fantasy. Were they fanciful figures from the imagination of  Matthew, or historical figures who existed at the time of Christ’s birth?…

adoration of the magiEvery good fantasy story needs a magician. Dorothy encounters the Wizard of Oz. Frodo travels with Gandalf, Harry Potter has his Dumbledore, and Arthur his Merlin.

A magus is a wise man, a shaman, or a master of the ancient lore. The word “magician” comes from the Persian “magus,” the name of the venerable sect of occult, astrologically-adept wizards who were Nebuchadnezzar’s necromancers and Cyrus’ stargazers.

Indeed, the magician-mentor is a staple character in every hero’s quest. The wise old man or woman offers guidance and supernatural insight. Like the oracles or Tiresias, he or she is a seer and a soothsayer.

It is easy to understand, therefore, why skeptical New Testament scholars have relegated the magi from Matthew’s gospel to the realm of fantasy. Most ordinary Christians send their Christmas cards and attend church, never knowing that the majority of Bible scholars don’t believe the wise men existed at all. Furthermore, these scholars have taught most of the clergy that the wise men are fiction not fact. For all their lack of historical reality, the three wise men might as well be named Gandalf, Merlin, and Dumbledore rather than Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

The scholars’ conclusions rest on their modernist anti-supernatural bias. For them the story of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem simply has too many supernatural aspects to be historically true.

The rationalist says it all sounds too much like a fairy tale. A magical star that guides the wise men to the birthplace of the infant king? We know stars don’t move like that. It’s too much like Jiminy Cricket singing, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

A wicked king who wants to kill the baby prince in a fit of jealous rage? It sounds like the Queen who wants to kill Snow White with a poison apple. A pretty angel who appears and tells the wise men to go home a different way? I’m thinking kindly fairy godmothers who materialize to help the hero with the wave of a wand.

The modernists’ conclusions have been bolstered by two thousand years of the magi tradition being elaborated like no other gospel story. Influenced by Zoroastrianism and the Kaballah, the Gnostics in the second and third century picked up Matthew’s story of the magi and ran with it. With their fascination for fantasy stories, far-out theories and fantastical theologies, the idea that mystical magicians from the mysterious land of Persia visited the Christ child was too magically marvelous to resist.

For example, the third century Legend of Aphroditianus is an apocryphal gnostic text that  begins with the account of a miracle in the temple of a pagan goddess in Persia at the time of Christ’s birth. According to the myth, the statues in the temple dance and sing and announce that the goddess Hera has been made pregnant by Zeus.

Suddenly a star appears above the statue of the goddess Hera. A voice from heaven is heard, and all the dancing statues fall on their faces. The wise men of the court take this to mean that a King is to be born in Judah. That evening the god Dionysus confirms their interpretation. Then the king sends the Magi to Judea with gifts, the star pointing them along their way. The story tells of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, and how they meet the Jewish leaders and finally Mary and Jesus. They return to Persia bringing a portrait of Jesus and Mary and put it in the temple where the star first appeared.

Another ludicrous apocryphal text is The Revelation of the Magi. This story from the fifth century, pretends to be told by the magi themselves. The wise men are residents of a mythical land called Shir in the Far East. They are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy from his father that one day a star of amazing brightness would appear to announce the birth of God in human form.

The story continues as every year the mystical magi of Shir ascended their Holy Mountain where the Cave of Treasures is located. This cave contains the wisdom of Seth and the treasures of Adam, and it is there that the super bright star—brighter than the sun appears to them as a tiny, radiant human. The star child tells them to go on a long journey to Bethlehem. After long preparations they set off only to find that the star child accompanies them, removing all obstacles and miraculously providing them with food and protection.

Once they get to Bethlehem, Mary accuses them of wanting to steal the child, but they inform her that he is the savior of the world. Finally they go home provided with more miraculous food.

Alas, these ridiculous tales became part of the mixed bag of traditions about the Biblical magi. As the stories developed it became accepted truth that the magi were kings, that they rode camels, that there were three of them, that they came from India, Arabia, and Africa and that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Over the centuries the stories became increasingly elaborate and ornate as the gold and enameled reliquary that supposedly houses their relics in Cologne Cathedral.

Matthew’s simple story of the Magi therefore became encrusted with the most marvelous, but fictitious, traditions. It all makes for a lovely Christmas, but it has been difficult for the experts to see past all the accretions and ask whether there might, after all, be some historical basis in the magi story. To do so is professional suicide.

For a serious New Testament scholar to suggest that there is a historical basis for the magi story is akin to a geologist proposing that God might have created the world on October 23, 4004 BC. As one Biblical professor confessed to me, “If you want a career in New Testament scholarship, the historicity of the magi story is a no-go area.”

Happily, I have no pretensions to a career in New Testament scholarship. Therefore, for my latest book I have plunged into the question of whether there might be a historical foundation for the magi story. The answers I have discovered are fascinating and exciting. New technologies, new textual finds, and fresh archeological discoveries have unlocked some secrets which reveal for the first time the historicity and the true identity of the wise men.

The magi were not fanciful magical figures from the imagination of  Matthew. Instead there is every reason to believe they were historical figures who fit perfectly into the political, religious, and cultural scene in Judea at the time of Christ’s birth.

I am as excited by what I have discovered as Indiana Jones might have been at finding Merlin’s tomb.

Dwight Longenecker’s book, The Mystery of the Magi—the True Identity of the Wise Men will be published by Regnery in Autumn 2017.

Books on the topic of this essay may  be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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12 replies to this post
  1. Can’t wait to read your book on the Magi. If being a “New Testament scholar” requires believing any part of the Gospels is fiction, then I am glad I am not one!

    My hobby is amateur astronomy, and have long been fascinated by the various theories as to what the Star of Bethlehem was. I personally favor the idea that it was a conjunction of the planet Jupiter with the star Regulus in Leo. Looking forward to reading what you think it might have been.

    (I bookmarked this article to remind me to look for your book in the fall when it comes out.)

  2. If you would enjoy a fictional account of the journey, try my novel /From Afar/ published by Tumblar House. I try to portray the magi as men of the first-century Hellenistic world, steeped in the traditions of paganism and Oriental mysticism, but nonetheless called to seek what they do not understand. I tried to research it well, but it’s primarily a novel – and adventure novel at that. I’m looking forward to your book, Fr. Dwight!

  3. Did the Three Wise Men Really Exist?
    YES !
    Saint Gaspar, Saint Melchior and Saint Balthasar
    January 6 is the feast of these three Magi, who brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh

    • Ironic that you identify them by unreliable names that were given long after the events, exactly the kind of mythical development that the author mentioned as leading people to view the magi skeptically.

  4. Help me understand something, you say the majority of Biblical scholars don’t believe this story is historical because of their anti-supernatural bias. Is that correct? They are victims of modernism? Why then do these same scholars believe in things like the incarnation? the virgin birth? the resurrection? Catholic scholars like Raymond Brown, John P. Meir and Joseph Fitzymer lay out many reasons for their views on the nativity stories however I have not seen any anti-supernatural bias in their writings as I do in the more liberal biblical scholarship like those that make up the Jesus seminar.

  5. “If you want a career in New Testament scholarship, the historicity of the magi story is a no-go area.”

    Then — why would anyone in their right mind WANT a career in New Testament scholarship?

    Granted, some like Bart Ehrman are stuck in a job, the basis for which they no longer believe, but if you never believed, why bother?

    It boggles the mind.

  6. “If you want a career in New Testament scholarship, the historicity of the magi story is a no-go area” Sounds like the kind of bias and closed-mindedness that skeptics of evolution receive in the fields of biology. It’s time the laity questioned the so-called “learning” of the so called “experts” in biblical criticism and theology when they are bound in this type attitude. Pride has been the cause of downfalls from the beginning and it appears academic pride has precipitated a falling away from the truth that God has given us.

  7. There are a few interesting things to note about the Epiphany. The first has to do with the Magi. Now the Magi are also known as the “Wise Men”. So what comes to mind is that they are philosophers. They are philosophers in the truest sense in that they are representatives of Reason and that their journey to the Child could be seen as Reason recognizing its own limits and finding completion and perfection in Faith. Or it could be seen as Faith requiring Reason i.e. Jerusalem needs Athens. The journey could also be seen as the pursuit of Wisdom. Now it is written that Jesus is the Logos, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic word “Dabthar” which means Wisdom. This makes sense since Jesus is the “Wisdom of the Father”. So in a sense, Jesus is Sophia. Besides this, the star guiding the Magi could be seen as a type for Mary, the Mother of God. One of the reasons why is because the name Mary, brings to mind the Hebrew/Aramaic word “Maor” which means star. Hence the Marian hymn Ave Maris Stella or Hail Star of the Sea. Another interesting thing to note is that Bethlehem in Hebrew/Aramaic means “House of Bread”. Now since Jesus is the “Bread of Life”, Bethlehem could be a type for the Tabernacle which keeps the Precious Body of our Lord. This brings to mind the Christmas hymn Magnum Mysterium, as well as the hymns Panis Angelicus and Ave Verum Corpus. With these into consideration, we can say that the Magi were prototypes of those consecrated to Mary as well as devotees to the Eucharist. For more information see the Great Commentary by Cornelius a Lapide as well as the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas.

  8. I would love to read the real story of the Magi, especially since the naysayers have been the majority for some time! Thanks.

  9. “A wicked king who wants to kill the baby prince in a fit of jealous rage? It sounds like the Queen who wants to kill Snow White with a poison apple. A pretty angel who appears and tells the wise men to go home a different way? I’m thinking kindly fairy godmothers who materialize to help the hero with the wave of a wand.”

    Skeptics often cite similarities between Biblical stories and myths, seeking to imply that Biblical stories have the same origin (human imagination) as myths. Think about the implications of that skeptical perspective. In order for God to avoid future skepticism on this score, He would have to avoid anything that appeals to the human imagination. He would be constrained from doing anything that is dramatic (from a human perspective) that might impress a point upon human readers, because that would enable the skepticism.

    So, God might want to have Abraham and Sarah give birth in their old age, so that the miraculous nature of the birth would impress upon us His long-term plans and designs for human history. But to avoid future skepticism, He would have to have Isaac born to Abraham and Sarah in their younger years, no miracle, no drama. There are only a few miraculous conceptions in all of scripture, of a few key figures: Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Jesus. The overwhelming majority of key figures had no miraculous conception: Noah, Aaron, Jacob and Esau, the twelve sons of Jacob, Joshua and Caleb and the various leaders in the book of Judges, Kings Saul and David and Solomon, the major and minor prophets, the twelve apostles, Paul, et al. The few miraculous conceptions are intended to portray, dramatically, God’s intervention in covenant history. But the skeptic’s objections would have the effect of placing a limitation on God’s methods. Is that reasonable?

    Likewise, the skeptic believes that religion is invented by men because they seek immortality. The only way to avoid such skepticism would be for God to reveal a religion that has NO BENEFIT whatsoever to human beings. Benefits such as God caring for us, God hearing our prayers, etc., could all serve as a basis for skepticism: we invented our religion because we desire those benefits. So God is constrained rather severely to avoid skepticism. Is that a reasonable constraint?

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