In the Christian calendar they are remembered on January 6th each year, which according to Eastern and Western traditions is the 12th Day of Christmas (remember the Old Carol?). The first day of Christmas begins on Christmas Day – not as the stores would have you believe (marketing ploy) some twelve days leading into Christmas.
The twelve days of Christmas end with the Feast of Epiphany also called “The Adoration of the Magi” or “The Manifestation of God.” Celebrated on January 6, it is known as the day of the Three Kings (or wise men/magi): Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. According to an old legend based on a Bible story, these three kings saw, on the night when Christ was born, a bright star, followed it to Bethlehem and found there the Christ child and presented it with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But is there more to the Bible story (Mt 2:1-12) which we all came to know of as children?
In today’s edition of Bible History Daily (available free online) there is a reference to an eighth-century C.E. Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library. In this ancient manuscript it tells us a more detailed account / story. Bible Scholar Brent Landau writes:
This ancient manuscript tells us more about —- “Who were the magi?” (and) also provides details about how many they were, where they came from and their mysterious encounter with the star that led them to Bethlehem. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are not just three magi, as often depicted in early Christian art (actually, Matthew does not tell us how many there were), nor are they Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians, as other early traditions held. Rather from Brent Landau’s translation it is clear the magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group—numbering as few as 12 and as many as several score—of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form.”
When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east.
So one must ask is this an accurate report? Did this actually happen?
It’s a fascinating story, but does it actually bring us any closer to understanding who the actual magi of the Christmas story might have been? Unfortunately, the answer is no, says Landau, although it may provide insight into the beliefs of an otherwise unknown Christian sect of the second century that identified with the mysterious magi.
“Sadly, I don’t think this is actually written by the historical wise men,” said Landau in an interview with National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm. “In terms of who wrote it, we have no idea. [But] the description of the magi and [their religious practices] is so remarkably detailed and I’ve often wondered whether it’s reflecting some actual community out there that practiced and kind of envisioned themselves in the role of the magi.”
Whatever the truth about this manuscript and the people who wrote it, one thing is for certain, it does nothing to detract from the account in Matthews Gospel, and that is important. History records the fact that Herod was indeed (my words) a murderous swine! Unfortunately there is no secular account of the murdering of innocent children (males) at the time of Jesus’ birth. This “event” is an intrinsic part of the Jesus Nativity narrative.
What we do find though are many accounts of the murderous acts Herod committed (this is a great article well worth reading in its entirety) upon any and all who he considered a threat to his power.
Herod the Great became extremely paranoid during the last four years of his life (8-4 BC). On one occasion, in 7 BC, he had 300 military leaders executed (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365). On another, he had a number of Pharisees executed in the same year after it was revealed that they predicted to Pheroras’ wife [Pheroras was Herod’s youngest brother and tetrarch of Perea] “that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendents, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have” (Antiquities 17:42-45; LCL 8:393). With prophecies like these circulating within his kingdom, is it any wonder Herod wanted to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new “king of the Jews” had been born (Matt. 2:1-2)?! (For a full discussion of these historical events, see France 1979 and Maier 1998).
Macrobius (ca. AD 400), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]” (2.4.11; cited in Brown 1993:226). Macrobius may have gotten some of his historical facts garbled, but he could have given us a chronological key as well. If he was referring to the death of Antipater in 4 BC, the slaughter of the Innocents would have been one of the last, if not the last, brutal killings of Herod before he died. What is also interesting is the word-play in the quote attributed to Augustus- “pig” and “son” are similar sounding words in Greek. Herod would not kill a pig because he kept kosher, at least among the Jews; yet he had no qualms killing his own sons!
Herod had no qualms about killing his own sons whom he considered a threat to his ‘kingdom’, so I find it not too difficult to ascribe to him the murder of the innocent children, as recorded in Matthew 2:13-23. Of course the visit of the Magi is integral to this as well. They were advised (Mt 2:12) not to return to Herod with information that he was seeking – so they left and went home via a different route.
Whatever the truth, and we may never know in this life, of the visitation of the Magi….. Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and our future became secure. Stories, myths and fables aside – the truth is Jesus took on human form that day and thirty something years later went to the CROSS carrying our sins……….. Our lives will never be the same. Thank You Lord.
Wisemen still seek Him – by Lynn Cooper