“Who were the wise men that visited Baby Jesus? Where did they originate? What does their visit mean?”
* * *
The traditional story bursts with details: three kings, with names hard to pronounce, begin from different countries to follow a moving star. They ride on their camels until the star guides them to Bethlehem, where they find the newborn Jesus lying in a wood manger surrounded by shepherds. There they present him with expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
That scenario shares but one detail with the biblical account, and that is the gifts. Matthew does not count the Magi (or Wise Men), or tell their social standing, names, nationalities or mode of transportation. The star does not move in the biblical account, except perhaps the few miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9). The Magi do not find Jesus in a stable or in a wood manger, but in a house (Matt. 2:10). Jesus is not a newborn, but perhaps up to two years old (Matt. 2:16). There are no shepherds anywhere in sight.
From where came these mysterious visitors? “From the East,” reports Matthew, which encompasses considerable territory (Matt. 2:1). In the second-century, Clement of Alexandria thought the Wise Men came from Persia. Some have suggested that they were Zoroastrian priests. Other early interpreters favored Babylon — the land of Judah’s captivity. The Hebrew prophets Ezekiel and Daniel lived in Babylon, and a large community of Jews remained there after the Exile. Justin Martyr and Clement of Rome, second-century fathers, thought the Magi came from Arabia. Where they came from is not as important as what they mean — in light of ancient prophecies from the Jewish Bible itself.