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The Myth of the Three Wise Men

By the Rev. Howard Bess
January 5, 2010

Editor’s Note: Since ancient religious myths have taken on extraordinary importance in modern geopolitical conflicts, we have published a number of articles in recent months addressing some of the old fictions that enflame today’s violence as well as other religious myths that are more benign.

In the weeks of the Christmas season, several articles by retired Baptist minister Howard Bess have examined the historical context for the Jesus myths, including the following one that explores the identity of “the three wise men”:

Since January 6 marks Epiphany, the first day of an extended season in the Christian Church calendar that takes traditional Christian believers all the way to the Lenten season. It is the season that celebrates the Christian gospel as light to a dark world.   

The meaning of the word is “a light shining over.” Epiphany takes us to the star, which in Christian tradition, traveled through the sky and fixed itself over the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born of a virgin mother. It is the star that led wise men from the East to the infant Jesus … to worship the new born child and to bring him gifts appropriate for a king.

Any attempt to read the story of the wise men as history brings complete frustration. Following a star to an address in Bethlehem is a bit outside of human experience. The story of the wise men is found only in the Matthew gospel. …

In other columns, I have described the political and social realities that existed at the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE. …

The Caesars had declared themselves Gods. They demanded that their subjects call them Lord.

Jews were conquered subjects of the Roman Empire, but by deepest conviction they refused calling anyone Lord other than their own God. The Jews lived under an uneasy truce with their Roman masters. Jews behaved and cooperated with their rulers, and as a concession Rome allowed them to have their Jerusalem Temple.

However, Jews did not make good subjects of Rome. The Emperor Titus grew weary of dealing with the Jews and destroyed their temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Rome also saw Christians as a subset of Judaism, so persecution of Christians intensified. Rome was asserting its power.

The birth narrative that is found in the Matthew gospel is a defiant Christian response to Rome’s claim to universal power. Christians called Jesus their Lord, their ruler from his birth. After all, according to genealogies contained in the gospels, he stood in the line of the great King David.

The introduction of the wise men from the East was a further statement of the power of Jesus as the messiah of the whole world.
Today, Christians somehow never ask about the background of these shadowy figures who appear suddenly in the Jesus story and disappear just as quickly. Christian tradition assigns them the title of kings, but the Matthew writer never hints at them being of royalty. 

The writer of the Matthew birth narrative probably understood them as Zoroastrian priests who were practitioners of astrology.

Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of the Near East beyond Palestine. This ancient faith had its roots in a wise man named Zarathustra who emerged in ancient Persia (modern Iran). Most scholars predate him to Abraham.

Zarathustra’s ideas were radical when compared to the typical polytheism of his era. He was believed to have had a special birth, served only one god, and taught that there was a life after death. His teachings took root and became dominant.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of the area until the arrival of Mohammed and Islam at least 2,000 years later (in the Seventh Century of the Christian era).

At the time of the Matthew writer, the followers of Zarathustra practiced astrology and their priests were thought to be experts in reading the stars. …

Zoroastrians have never been eager to convert others to their faith. They have no history of being warriors and their God is not a warrior God.  In contrast to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Zoroastrians have been assimilators.

Their contribution to the world was the wisdom of the stars. According the Matthew gospel, it was a star that led them to Jesus.
The importance of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem cannot be overestimated as a backdrop of the Matthew gospel. Jerusalem ceased to be the center of world Judaism.

For followers of Jesus, it was the time when they drew a line in the sand, declaring Jesus was Lord!  The Matthew writer wrote to encourage the Jesus followers. He also wrote a polemic that was understood by their Roman oppressors. 

The wise men story was a part of their statement to the Roman rulers. Christians were saying that the one they called Lord was the ultimate king on earth, and that their Christ was more important than the temple.

Even the wise men of the East found their way to the birth place of Jesus and paid him homage, the gospel said.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is               

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