The three kings are classic figures in every Nativity set — one king on a camel, one kneeling at the manger and one standing ready to offer his gifts. But who were the Wise Men, and what do we know about them?
We’re not exactly sure who they were. The evidence from the Gospels is found in the first 12 verses of St. Matthew’s account. All we can glean from that passage is that they are called Magi, or “magicians,” that they came from the East to Jerusalem, and that they had seen a star announcing the birth of the King of the Jews. The Gospel doesn’t say there were three Wise Men. That idea comes from the three gifts they brought.
To track down who the Wise Men were, we must first look East. The obvious choice is the Parthian Empire. During the time of Jesus, the Parthian Empire was the name of what was formerly the Persian Empire. It was centered on present day Iran and Iraq. In the Parthian Empire there was a caste of astrologer priests based in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Most scholars think the Magi were Zoroastrian priest-astrologers from Persia.
However, none of this is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Neither is there a mention that the Wise Men were kings — nor are there camels in Matthew’s account. So, where did the idea come from that the Wise Men were camel-riding kings? The idea of three kings and the presence of camels is linked with two Old Testament prophecies. Psalm 72:10-11 reads:
“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute,
the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him,
all nations serve him.”
Isaiah 60 is also read in the liturgy on the feast of the Epiphany, and, like Psalm 72, Isaiah highlights the double meaning of the visit of the Wise Men: that the light of Christ has come into the world and is for all people — not only the Jews. The prophecy reads:
“Arise! Shine, for your light has come,
the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you
. . . Nations shall walk by your light,
kings by the radiance of your dawning
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you —
Your sons from afar
. . . Then you shall see and be radiant
. . . For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you.
Caravans of camels shall cover you,
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
All from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense
and heralding the praises of the Lord” (vv. 1-6).
Now we can see where the idea of kings and camels comes from. Matthew says the kings came from the East, and Persia seems the obvious choice, but the passage from Isaiah predicts that the kings come from Ephah, Midian and Sheba. Where are Ephah, Midian and Sheba?
Midian is the Old Testament name for what was, in Jesus’ time, the Kingdom of the Nabateans. It lies directly east and south of Jerusalem — in present-day Jordan — and Ephah was a city of Midian further south in the Arabian peninsula. The ancient Kingdom of Sheba was centered in what is present-day Yemen, also to the east and south.
If we are looking to the Scriptures for evidence, the prophecy from Isaiah suggests that the Wise Men came from what is now Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. If so, they probably did come on camels, since Midian especially was known for its abundance of camels.
Can we use an Old Testament prophecy to determine where the Wise Men came from? Those who believe in the accuracy of biblical prophecy will not have a problem doing so. However, there are other indicators to suggest the Arabian peninsula rather than Persia. The three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are overlooked as clues to solve the riddle.
Gifts of the Magi
Where did the gold come from? As mentioned, Yemen is the present-day location of the ancient civilization of Sheba. The kingdom’s fabulous wealth was based on gold mines in Ethiopia. Archaeologists have recently discovered what they believe to be the mines of the queen of Sheba.
The story of the queen of Sheba (see 1 Kgs 10), who came in procession with great royal gifts of wealth establishes a prophetic precedent. Just as the queen of Sheba came to bear gifts to the Jewish king Solomon, so it could be that the king of Sheba during Jesus’ time came, like his illustrious ancestor, to bear rich gifts to the king of the Jews.
Furthermore, the kings of Yemen during the time of Jesus were Jewish. They would have had a keen interest in the goings-on in Herod’s court and the arrival of a new king of the Jews. Finally, Jesus himself mentions this link in Matthew 12:42 when he refers to the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon and, referring to himself, says, “there is something greater than Solomon here.”
There are more intriguing clues based on three gifts. The Arabian peninsula — especially the area of Midian and Sheba — is the only place in the world where the specific plants grow from which are harvested the resin to make both incense and myrrh. These two rich gifts — used for their aroma and for medicinal purposes — were the cash crops of this part of the world.
The origin of the three gifts would indicate that the Wise Men came from the Arabian peninsula. And the gifts were not simply rich gifts offered to Christ, but were symbolic gifts from the kingdoms of their origin.
The gifts had diplomatic significance and suggest that the Magi were indeed either kings or ambassadors from the court of Nabatea and Sheba. Even more intriguing, there was constant traffic along the “incense route,” which came north from the southern tip of Arabia up to what is now Jordan and across Judea to Gaza. If the Magi were from southern Arabia and the Kingdom of Nabatea (present-day Jordan), their trade route ran right past Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Were They Priests?
But were they astrologer priests? While we know there was a sect of astrologer-magicians in Persia, it is also true that Persian wise men were dispersed across the Parthian Empire, which stretched down into the Arabian peninsula and beyond. It is also true that the Persian Zoroastrians were not the only astrologers and wise men. The knowledge and wisdom of ancient astrology and prophecy were practiced across the ancient world.
We do not know for certain who the Wise Men mentioned in the Nativity story were, and theories and explanations will continue. But if we put all the evidence together, it seems that the Wise Men were probably Zoroastrian influenced astrologers in the court of the Kingdoms of Nabatea and Sheba who brought rich gifts of diplomatic significance to the newborn King of the Jews.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, SC. Contact him at dwightlongenecker.com.