Epiphany myths

It is the Feast of the Epiphany as I write this. The 12 days of Christmas are over, and I didn’t see a single French hen, turtledove, or partridge, and though I may have idly spotted a pear tree, it’s hard to tell in this tundra time because pear trees are deciduous. In Hispanic culture, they call this day El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, the Day of the Three Magi Kings, and it’s a big deal. Kids get another round of presents, and baked into the rosca de reyes Epiphany cake is a little toy king or baby Jesus figurine. Whoever bites into the figurine gets crowned “king” or “queen” of the fiesta.

All of which brings up the question of figuring out what actually happened during the Magi’s visit and what is mythological. Our Christmas culture and traditions are loaded with legendary, nonhistorical features, and it should come as no surprise that Epiphany is too. The only way to know what actually happened is to read the Bible—the account is found in Matthew 2:1-12.

Were they kings or were they wise men? The Greek New Testament calls them magoi. They weren’t actually kings. They were warrior princes of the Parthian Empire, which included the heartland of the old Persian Empire of Daniel’s, Esther’s, and Nehemiah’s time. Though they were well educated, including in the Babylonian science of astronomy, they weren’t primarily scholars. Traditionally, the magoi were also priests of an ancient religion of the Medes and Persians. Perhaps through the influence of believing Jews in the East like Daniel, this particular group of magoi came to faith in Israel’s God. They took a fearful risk in traveling into the Roman Empire, the Parthians’ mortal enemy.

Did the visit actually happen on January 6? There is a 1-in-365 chance that the date of their visit was on January 6. That date got picked because 12 days seems like a reasonable time for the lengthy journey from Parthia to Bethlehem. December 25 had previously been chosen for Jesus’ birthday celebration, true date unknown, probably to replace the pagan winter solstice festival.

There were three of them, right? One hundred million crèche scenes can’t be wrong. The Bible uses the plural and says nothing about the number. All we can say for sure is that there were two or more. There could have been 40. The number three comes from the fact that they were bearing three kinds of gifts. But that doesn’t determine the number of Magi.

Are their names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar? Pious legend only. Not in the Bible. I expect we’ll meet them in heaven and can be formally introduced.

Now you’re going to tell me they didn’t ride camels? They might have. But it’s just as likely that these Parthian knights wore armor and rode horses.

My manger scene has them worshiping with the shepherds. Is that an anachronism? Yes. The shepherds were on their way to spread the word as the Magi were preparing to leave Parthia. There is no way the shepherds and Magi were on the scene at the same time.

So the Magi didn’t worship Jesus at the manger? Nope. Matthew 2:11 has the blessed news that Mary and Joseph by then had been upgraded from the stable and found lodging in a house.

Was the Epiphany star an actual star like all the rest in the heavens? Will a study of astronomical history someday come up with a naturalistic explanation? I doubt it. Occasionally you will read of some scientist who is offering up a naturalistic explanation of certain conjunctions of planets and heavenly bodies. But—just as the angelic “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to the shepherds on Christmas Eve was for them only. The Epiphany star was not visible to the evil King Herod’s court scholars. Only the Magi could see the bright light. I doubt that it was one of the heavenly bodies because it was moving! It actually led the Magi, and furthermore it stopped over the very house where the Child was. No celestial fireball could do that. To me the most satisfying explanation is that the Epiphany star is a miraculous bright light in the sky that led these brave Magi on a journey of hundreds of miles and picked out the house in Bethlehem where they met their Savior.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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