4 B.C. – The Adoration of Christ by the Wise Men

The Real Wise Men from the East (the Journey of the Biblical Magi and the Adoration of Christ)

The gospel of Matthew 2:1–12 describes the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem and their adoration of Jesus the Christ. The magi (and the shepherds) of Bethlehem were the first people to adore Mary’s infant son Jesus as the promised Christ of God, the messiah and the future savior of the humankind:

Magi - the 3 Kings-02Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men [Greek: magos or magi] from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” Matthew 2:1-12 KJV

Western medieval traditions have greatly embellished Matthew’s testimony declaring the wise men to have been “three kings”, named Melchior, who was variously described as a Persian (i.e., a Parthian), Zoroastrian King and/or Priest or an Arabian who brought the gift of gold (symbolizing Christ’s royal nature), Caspar, black king from either Africa or India and Balthazar who was described as either a king of Arabia or a scholar from Babylon who brought the gift of myrrh which is a spice used as a burial fragrance to diminish the smell of the corpse (symbolizing that that Christ child would grow up to die for the salvation of all of mankind).

The earliest extant reference to this story is written in Latin and is form an 8th century manuscript from a Frankish Merovingian source.  The names of the “three kings” were supposedly derived from a Greek manuscript, which either never existed or has been lost to history, and which was allegedly composed in the early 500s in Alexandria, Egypt.  The only extant document is a Latin language manuscript which is reported to be a copy of a translation of the putative original document.  The Eighth century Merovingian (Frankish) manuscript is titled Excerpta Latina Barbari, so named because the Latin translator/editor (Joseph Justus Scaliger) described the “original document” as having been “translated into Latin by a “senseless ignoramus” who had no skill at Greek or Latin, who is now referred as Scaliger’s barbarian.

The three kings were then formally canonized (officially declared to be saints) by the western Roman Catholic church, and the apocryphal narrative grew from there and became a western Christian story which was incorporated into the greater narrative of the annual Christmas remembrance and celebration.

The Frankish medieval conjecture (and its subsequent expansive derivations of it) not with standing, it is very unlikely that the “wise men from the east” came from or through the Parthian Empire. In the last year of reign of Herod “the Great,” when Jesus was born (in approximately 4 B.C.), the Roman empire was at odds with (were militant enemies of) the Parthians,  the other regional superpower of that time.

In 64 B.C. Pompey invaded and took Anatolia (modern day Turkey and northern Syria) and established it as a Roman Province. In 53 B.C. the Roman triumvir Crassus attempted to invade and conquer the Parthian empire and he was soundly defeated at the Battle of Carrhae and he lost multiple legionary battle standards (Roman aquilae) to the Parthians (which was an important source of shame to the Romans).

In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar was amassing troops in the East and about to depart Rome to launch a war of retribution and conquest against the Parthians when he was assassinated in the famous “idles of March” conspiracy.  The Parthians were well aware of Caesar’s plan to attempt to invade and conquer their empire.

In 42 B.C. the Parthians supported Caesar’s assassins Brutus & Cassius who had fled to the east to gather their forces. They were defeated at the twin Battles of Philippi, after which the Parthians invaded the Roman Province of Syria and eastern Anatolia, and they restored it to their empire.

In 39 B.C. Mark Anthony’s general Bassus drove the Parthians back out of Eastern Anatolia and Syria and re-established it as a Roman Province. In 36 B.C. Mark Anthony invade the Parthian empire in a new war of retribution and conquest and he too was soundly defeated by the Parthians at the Siege of Phraaspa.

24 BC Nabataea Trade routesTravelers to or from the Parthian Empire would have had to travel via the city of Damascus.  From a Jewish perspective they would have been said to have come from the north, not the east.

It is exceedingly unlikely that the biblical wise men were Parthians (Neo-Persians). The far more probable, and historically likely reality is that the “wise men from the east” were wealthy Semitic Arab traders from the north-western Arabian Nation of Nabataea (who are referred to in the biblical Old Testament as the Edomites).  These are the people of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (mentioned by Moses in the book of Exodus).  The biblical book of Obadiah describes the “wise men from Edom” in verse 8 of that single chapter book.  It would be textually consistent for the “wise men” of Matthew’s gospel to be the descendants of “wise men” described by Obadiah.

The Nabataeans prospered in north-western Arabian Peninsula (modern day Jordan and Saudi Arabia), and in the southern Levant, and the Sinai Peninsula from sometime before the time of Seleucid king Antigonus I (301 B.C.).  The capital of Nabataea was the famed City of Petra with its civic buildings carved out of the mountain side (near modern day Amon, Jordan).  Nabataea was due east of Jerusalem.

These Nabataean traders were well known for mining gold in Nabataea, and for trading in frankincense, and myrrh from Arabia Felix (in south western Arabia around modern day country of Yemen) and fine silks (from China, which arrived via the maritime Silk Trade Routes which had been functioning since the time of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. One of the two southern maritime silk route terminal ports was the Nabataean port of Leuce Come (on the shore of the Red Sea; the other being the Egyptian port of Myos Hormos). The Nabataeans had become prosperous carrying gold, frankincense, myrrh and fine Chinese silks from Petra and Leuce Come to resell them at the Mediterranean port of Gaza (from which they were transshipped throughout the Mediterranean. This Nabataean trade is well documented by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (50 B.C.) & the Greek geographer Strabo.

By AD, 36 when the apostle Paul encountered Jesus the Christ of the road to Damascus, the city of Damascus was controlled by the Nabataeans.  2 Corinthians 11:32-33 states “In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascene with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.”  Here, Paul mentions the Nabataean king Aretas IV Philopatris who reigned from 8 BC to AD 40.

So, . . . the “wise men” of Matthew were most probably the “wise men” of the Book of Obadiah, the Nabataeans (i.e., the Edomites).