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Why Did the Magi Care?

An nativity scene will have a baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, usually an angel, and three older guys with camels. These three represent the Three Wise Men or Kings, also called the Magi. But how do we know there were three? Look at it another way: how many shepherds were there? The Bible (in Luke) does not tell, so the question is never raised. All the Gospel story tells is that shepherds were there.

All that is known about the Magi is that they came from the east. Like the shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew does not tell the number of Magi. In the Fourth Century the number of Magi as three developed to reflect the number of gifts offered: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The reasoning is obvious: in ancient times, as in our own, leaders and prominent individuals exchanged gifts when visiting. Three gifts, three Magi.

So, the numbering of the Magi is uncovered, but what about their names? Again, the Bible tells no tale. The earliest known reference to the names of the three is from the Sixth Century: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Additionally, in the Middle Ages, when visits to relics and bodies of saints were common, a church in Constantinople claimed to have the bodies of the Three Magi. These bodies were brought to Germany by Frederick Barbarossa in 1162 and today are at the Cathedral in Cologne.

What began as a reference to Magi, developed into Wise Men or Kings, then Three Wise Men, names were given, and now their bodies are available to visit. Yet remember this: everything beyond knowing that Magi visited Jesus was added to the Biblical story.

Yet, maybe the Bible provides a clue to a different mystery concerning the Magi. First consider this, why would anyone living east of Israel care about the new king of the Jews? Enough even to travel a great distance through the desert? A trip requiring money and men for protection against desert bandits? Probably only people with a connection to this new Savior King. But does the Bible mention a people in the east who had this connection? A passage in Genesis might provide this clue.

Contrary to popular Christian belief, Abraham had more than two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Genesis 25:1-11 mentions Abrahamís second marriage to Keturah and the six sons she bore him, plus sons he had through concubines.

When Abraham died, he left everything to Isaac (vs. 5). Yet verse six perhaps tells of the future Magi: "But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east."

So, while Abraham was alive (around 1950 BC) he sent some of his offspring to the east. Could these offspring remember their forefather Abraham for almost 2000 years? And, after thousands of years, could they have been interested in what happened to their distant relatives, the Jews? And, almost two millennia after they were sent away, could a small group came back to rejoice in the promise of the Jews which God gave to Abraham? A promise that they, in some small way, felt a part of? And that, therefore, it is not chance that the Magi came from the east, since that is where they were sent so many years before?

©2003 Mark Nickens

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