This past Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord. We have long associated this feast with the visit of the Magi. In the early church, however, this feast was associated with not one, but three events: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. It wasn’t until 1955 that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of the Baptism as a separate liturgical commemoration, which this year we celebrated on Monday.
Although we frequently sing, “We Three Kings” when we celebrate Mass on the Epiphany, there is no evidence that those who visited our Lord in Bethlehem were kings, or even that there were three of them.
The evangelist Matthew, who alone provides the narrative of the Magi’s visit, simply tells us that “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” and they “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “…the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense…”
So who are “magi”, anyway? A reading of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus suggests that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes that provided priests throughout the Arabian Peninsula for several hundred years. Although some suggest that the Magi were sorcerers or magicians, the religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were what led them to find our Lord.
What is significant about Matthew’s narrative is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the good news that Christ’s appearance was not only for salvation of the Jews, but for the whole world. The Magi represent all of us. This event is what Pope St. Leo the Great referred to as “the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles.”
Getting back to the Magi, where did they actually come from? Isaiah’s prophecy referred to 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. Ephah was a city of Midian further south in the Arabian Peninsula, and the ancient Kingdom of Sheba was centered in what is present-day Yemen, also to the east and at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
So if the Scriptures are any indication, Isaiah suggests that the Wise Men, “coming from afar” probably came from what is now Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. If so, they undoubtedly traveled on camels, since Midian especially was known for its abundance of camels.
The gifts offered also provide a clue as to the origin of the Magi. Yemen is the present-day location of the ancient civilization of Sheba. The kingdom’s fabulous wealth was based on gold mines in Ethiopia, which lies just to its west, across the Red Sea. 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, in those days, equivalent in value to gold, and were the “cash crops” in this part of the world.
The Old Testament Book of Kings chronicles the visit of the queen of Sheba who came to bear gifts to the Jewish king Solomon. During Jesus’ time, the Kings of Sheba were Jewish. Given their faith, they certainly would have an interest in a newborn King of the Jews that had been prophesied. Traveling to Bethlehem (or to Jerusalem) to pay him homage – or more likely sending their emissaries to do so – would not be surprising.
Even the New Testament hints of this, when in Matthew 12:42 Jesus refers to the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, and then – referring to himself – says, “there is something greater than Solomon here.”
The distance from Sheba, or today’s Yemen, to Jerusaem is about 1400 miles. To travel that distance by camel would take anywhere from three to twelve months, depending on the weather, availability of water, and the disposition of the camels, who are useful as a beast of burden, but are renowned for their ornery disposition. Besides the travel time, there were probably many weeks of preparation after the star’s appearance. Rather than arriving a few days after His birth, it is far more likely that the Magi arrived about the time of His first birthday. This timing also seems to make sense in light of two events recorded by Matthew:
- In Chapter 2, verses 10-11 we are told that the Magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.”
Note that they did not find Him in the stable, but in a house with His mother. By this time, the Holy Family had apparently taken up residence in the area.
- Then there is the matter of Herod’s decree. As Matthew relates in 2:16: “When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.”
Herod did not order the killing of all newborn infant boys in Bethlehem, but all of those two years and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity, since the Magi provided Herod with the approximate time of Our Lord’s birth, which coincided with the appearance of the star.
So whether Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar actually made the trip from Sheba to the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area (they are only about 6 miles apart), or whether other individuals came from a different country, we are not certain. What we are sure of is that our Lord and Savior was miraculously born to a Virgin over 20 centuries ago, and we continue to celebrate his birth today.