There are few aspects of the Christmas story more enchanting than the visit of the magi to Bethlehem. The tale of three mystics from Asia, Africa and Persia, who follow a magical star on a long and perilous journey to present rich gifts to a peasant child has everything the lover of fairy tales could wish for: a quest, exotic foreigners, the mystery, magic and the majesty of antiquity. With a simple message of royalty bowing in humility, the story of the three wise men has it all…except any basis in history.
It’s fake news.
Or is it? What is fascinating about the story of the magi is how the original story in St. Matthew’s gospel has been encrusted with layer upon layer of legend and myth. In the second and third centuries the Christian church in Syria, Persia and Turkey was infected with Gnosticism. Heavily influenced by a heresy called Manicheanism, Gnostic Christians were fascinated by arcane lore, secret wisdom, fanciful myths and occult knowledge. The story of wise magicians from an ancient sect of Persian soothsayers was one of their favorites.
Fantastical versions of the Magi story like The Legend of Aphroditianus or The Revelation of the Magi burbled through third to sixth century gnostic circles and influenced the mainstream re-telling of the story. As the centuries ticked by the tradition grew. There were three wise men. They were kings. They were given names. The came from distant lands. They followed a magical star. They were Negroid, Caucasian and Asian and thus represented all the nations of the world. They were young, middle aged and old—standing for the three ages of mankind.
It is a beautiful and meaningful tale, but most Biblical scholars dismissed the story as a late addition to the gospels. Sensing the mythical elements as portrayed in countless works of art, Bible story books, Christmas cards and nativity plays, they wrote it off as a pious fiction. In doing so the academics created their own fake news about the fake news. They made up a myth about the myth.
In his monumental work The Birth of the Messiah, Bible scholar Raymond Brown admits that for a New Testament expert to suggest that the Magi story was historical was to write the obituary for his academic career. To regard the story of the wise men as fantasy fiction was a test of academic orthodoxy. Consequently, none of the historians or Biblical scholars bothered to ask whether there just might have been wise men, who they might have been, where they may have come from and what their mission would have been.
When it comes to the story of the wise men traveling to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ Child, we have two versions of fake news. The first is the received tale of mystics from the east who went on a long journey on camels following a magical star. The second is the myth of the academics: that the received version is no more than a pious fantasy manufactured by believers to make Jesus more special.
In The Lord of the Rings Galadriel observes, “History became legend and legend became myth.” Being a skeptical sort, I became skeptical of both Magi myths. If they were both fake news, what was the real news? To find out I started with St Matthew’s bare bones version of the story. I peeled away all the accumulated legend and myth, but I also poked the scholars’ assumption that the story was fake news. I wanted to find out if there may have been a historical basis to the magi story after all.
What I discovered was astounding. Modern technology and advances in archeology provided evidence that no one else had pieced together. Digging into the religious, political and economic history of the time spurred me on a quest to discover who the mysterious visitors to Bethlehem may have been. The truth overturned both versions of the fake news. Traditional believers need to abandon the elaborate mythical version that accrued and ossified over the ages, but magi-deniers in the halls of academe also need to abandon their dogma that there is no historical basis to the Magi story.
As the evidence came together and came into focus, a theory emerged that is consistent with Matthew’s account and which fits perfectly with the geography, politics, religion and economics of first century Judea. The Biblical magi were religiously inspired diplomats who undertook a relatively short journey on horseback from the neighboring kingdom of the Nabateans. There is no need for lots of magic, mystery and myth. The true story is far more ordinary and down to earth than we imagined.
It’s as simple and straightforward as the version Matthew told in the first place.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi- The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men.