Matthew leaves out more information about the wise men than he provides (2:1-12).
Over the millennia, Christian imagination has filled in the blanks. We call them kings, say there are three, give them names, and depict them as representing different races or ethnic groups. We picture them following a star during a long and arduous trip. Yet Matthew simply tells us that in the East they saw a star representing the birth of a Davidic king and it reappeared on the last leg of the trip, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The result is a rich tradition added to the Christmas story.
Ancient peoples studied the night skies, just as astronomers do today. They also believed there was a correlation between what occurs in the heavenly realm and what happens in human lives. We still believe there is a connection between heaven and earth. But we no longer associate heaven with the stars and planets.
The Greek word for wise men is magoi. They are variously associated with wisdom, healing, magic, astrology and service in an advisory capacity to rulers. In the first century, such men were active in many places, not only in the East (which is perhaps today's Iraq or Iran). In the book of Acts, magoi show up in Samaria and in the figure of a Jew on the island of Cyprus.
Matthew doesn't explain where "East" is. Straight east from Jerusalem is desert. Northeast lies Mesopotamia. Southeast is the Arabian Peninsula. The gifts the wise men bring traditionally come from Arabia. But the gifts are also symbolic, as is expressed in verses 2 to 4 of John Henry Hopkins' hymn, "We Three Kings" — gold crowns a king, frankincense is associated with worship, and myrrh is used to anoint the dead.
The real issue isn't where the wise men came from but why Matthew tells us the story of their coming. His intent is to show that God did not just suddenly pull the "Jesus event" out of a hat. There is a plan that not only leads up to it but is a key to understanding it.
In the sixth century B.C., the prophet Isaiah, whom Matthew often quotes or alludes to, foresees two things. One is the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple, with the children of Israel returning from all directions. The second is that the "nations," that is, the Gentiles, will also come to the light of Israel.
Matthew leaves open the question of whether the wise men are Jews or Gentiles. They are commonly understood to be Gentiles, but they could have been Jews. A large Jewish population had been living in the East for hundreds of years. If the wise men are Jews, they represent the return of the Jews from the diaspora, and they lay their wealth before the Christ. But the great homecoming is not to Jerusalem and the temple, but to Bethlehem and to Jesus. In John's Gospel, Jesus is the temple.
If the wise men are Gentiles, then God's light has reached other nations too. The gospel becomes universal. Their religious yearnings, their wisdom, and their knowledge of the heavens ultimately worship the Christ.
Whether Jew or Gentile, they undertook a long spiritual journey. Nature joined the procession by serving as a guide. The wise men had the faith and courage to follow it.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers