Who are the wise men from the east mentioned in the beginning of the gospel of Matthew? What relationship do they have to the tradition of three kings that we hear about?
Wise men are specifically mentioned in Mt 2:1-2a. The Greek word used here is Magoi- we get magician from this. Question is who are they? Why does he say that they came from the east? Over the history of Christianity, three interpretations have been put forward. Some fathers of the Church like Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Leo the Great and Cyril of Jerusalem are of the opinion that the wise men were from Persia. Persia was very well known in the antiquity for its knowledge, wisdom and learning. The second interpretation is that the wise men are from Babylon because Babylon is to the east of the holy land. Jerome and Augustine took this position. Third interpretive option and the strongest possibility is that Matthew talks about Arabia. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage represent this view.
Why is it the best possibility? Matthew appears to allude to an Old Testament prophecy- Isaiah 60:6. It describes the new Jerusalem. The wise men brought exactly the same gifts. Many commentators suggest that Matthew is deliberately alluding to Isaiah because Sheba is a part of the territory of Midian and Efrat and it consisted of Arabians who were the descendants of Abraham’s wife Ketura in the book of Genesis. So, the Link between Mathew and Isaiah points us to Arabia.
A second element here is Psalm 72 which describes King Solomon. It depicts a new king, a messianic king. It speaks of gentile kings bowing down to the Israelite king. And these kings bring Gold from Sheba. (72:15). What is interesting is not only that Sheba is mentioned but also that the kings bow down just like the wise men in Matthew (72:10-11). So, what Matthew here depicts is that gold from Sheba, Arabia is brought to the new Solomon, the Messiah. If this interpretation is true, then Matthew associates these wise men from the east with the territory of Sheba and the gold that is brought to Jesus as a kind of fulfilment of that prophecy. Psalm 72 leads to the assumption that these wise men are kings. But Matthew never tells that. So, it is the fusing of Matthew’s account with OT Psalm that leads to this tradition that these wise men were kings. The tradition of 3 kings is derived from the three gifts.
Therefore, we infer that these wise men are not from Persia or Babylon, but most likely from Arabia which would fulfil the prophecy of the Psalm that the Messiah would be a kind of new Solomon or greater than Solomon. Mt12. 42.
The second thing to notice is the term wise men, magoi. It was used to refer to great philosophers, astronomers, astrologers who were often members of royal courts and acted as advisors to the king and who were known for their wisdom and knowledge as well as their ability to read the signs of heavens, to read the signs in the stars. They come from the east. They see a star and they recognise it as a portent of the birth of a new king. Pope Benedict speaks about an expectation among Jews in the first century. He continues that such an expectation was also among gentiles. Pagan writers like Suetonius and Tacitus point out that a ruler would come out of Judea who would be a king out of Judea. Now, what do the wise men do? They go to Herod and narrates everything. He was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. He asks scribes about the kin. They quote Mica 5:2- a king from the city of Bethlehem. 1Sam 16 tells us that Bethlehem was the city of David. Another important prophecy is Numbers 24:15-17 oracle of Balaam who was a pagan prophet. It is the famous prophecy of the star. It was so famous that a 2 nd century Jewish man proclaimed himself as Messiah and revolted against Romans and was named Bar Kochba (son of Star). So, this might have been known also among the gentiles. So, when the star rises it is a sign of the sceptre. So, the wise men come to Jerusalem. What was the star? A comet or a planet? We do not know. Many of the church fathers thought of it as a supernatural phenomenon, like an angel. In the bible, angels are depicted as stars. Following a star may not lead you to the goal. So, they interpreted this star as an angel who showed them the way. Star in the heavens was a sign. The magi read the book of creation in the star which gives them some idea about the newborn king. But there is the book of scripture which the scribes consulted and tells them that the king would be born in Bethlehem. We need to look at the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Scripture. CB