Christmas pageants have been taking place in similar fashion for the past 50 or so years. Children dress up as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Wise Men. In fact, the three Wise Men “from the East” are part of most Christmas pageants and readings of the Christmas story. But are the Magi fictional characters based on legends, or did they really exist?
Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, asserts that they really did exist. But he goes several steps further and identifies them as historical figures. Of course, modern biblical scholars tend to dismiss the story of the Three Wise Men as legend. Since Matthew’s gospel offers sparse details, imaginative Christians began embellishing the story early on, giving us the “three kings guided by a magical star who join the adoring shepherds in every Christmas crèche.”
Because of the legends, many scholars don’t take the story of the Wise Men seriously. In fascinating detective work, Fr. Longenecker contends that the Three Wise Men were actual historical figures and that the visit to the Child Jesus really happened. Using evidence from scriptural studies, history, archeology and astronomy, he also discovers where they came from, the reasons for their visit and what may have happened to them after their visit.
The evidence shows that the mysterious Magi from the East were in all likelihood “astrologers and counselors from the court of the Nabatean king at Petra, where the Hebrew messianic prophecies were well known.” And that “the ‘star’ that inspired their journey was a particular planetary alignment ― confirmed by computer models ― that in the astrological lore of the time portended the birth of a Jewish king.”
Like any good detective and using a variety of resources and documents as well as Scripture passages, Fr. Longenecker distinguishes historical facts from legends and gives us the most detailed description of who these men were. The author recognizes that not everyone will be as enthusiastic as he is about the true identities of the Magi, but those are interested in history and historical figures will find this a fascinating read.
The magi may not have been the oriental kings in turbans, but they were real, and by showing that the wise men were historical figures, Mystery of the Magi demands a new level of respect for the historical claims of the gospel.
Why does it matter whether there were Wise Men? Why does it even matter where they came from? Because, Longenecker says, “the story of history matters.” It matters because “history matters and history matters because truth matters.” It matters because the events of “the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the most history-shattering events of all time. If the gospel is historical then it is true, and if it is true, then we must confront the reality of Jesus Christ. And if we encounter Jesus Christ as a historical figure, then we must also deal with the question of who he is and what he accomplished.”
If we dismiss the story of the Wise Men as legends, then we must also dismiss the other Gospel stories. The tale of the Wise Men is not fiction. The author contends these men were historical figures, taking part in historical events.
At the end of the book, the author takes the reader through a summary of his findings (not unlike the summation done at trials) and he uses Matthew’s Gospel and other scriptural readings and intersperses the historical facts as we know them (rather than the legends).
This isn’t a light read, but it is a fascinating and detailed account of the Wise Men who brought gifts to the newborn King. I highly recommend to all scriptural scholars and anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery. I was given a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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Copyright 2017 Ellen Gable Hrkach