If you visit England and know where to look, you can find the ruins of an ancient settlement on top of a hill in Somerset. It’s called the Cadbury Hill Fort, but for centuries the locals have referred to it as “Camelot.” It is one of the more likely locations to have been the center of King Arthur’s kingdom.
Many historians believe there was a real King Arthur, and some don’t, but all admit that the shards of evidence that support the Arthur legend are scarce and contradictory. Furthermore, the facts about King Arthur and Merlin very quickly grew into legend, and the legend developed into myth.
The myth continues to be mined as source content for films, television series, musicals, novels, cartoons and comic books. While the experts believe there was a historical Arthur and Merlin, nobody confuses the historical figures with Tennyson’s hero, the characters in T.H. White’s novel, the Broadway musical or Disney’s Sword in the Stone.
A similarly complicated relationship exists between the Wise Men of Matthew’s Gospel and the Christmas story as we celebrate it.
Our accepted tradition each year is that the Wise Men were three kings named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar and that they left their homes in Persia, India and Africa to follow a miraculous star, riding camels in an exotic caravan across the distant desert to worship the Christ Child in Bethlehem — at the Epiphany.
The problem is, many of these beloved elements of the Magi story are not found in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew doesn’t say there were three Wise Men. He does not indicate that they were kings. He doesn’t mention camels, a long journey or even that the star miraculously led them step-by-step on their trek. These elements of the story (and many more) developed over time as the story of the Magi continued to fascinate, inspire and enthrall the early Christians.
Matthew’s simple account began to be elaborated as early as the end of the first century in the apocryphal gospel The Protoevangelium of James. This extra-biblical writing tells the story of the Blessed Virgin’s early life and gives an account of the nativity of Jesus that follows Luke and Matthew’s Gospels. However, some extra details have crept in, which we recognize from our Christmas traditions.
Adding to Luke, Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem, there is no mention of an inn as such, and the stable where Jesus is born is a cave. Adding to Matthew, the Wise Men say the star was so bright on its appearing that all the other stars dimmed in its light.
A bit later, Ignatius of Antioch (d.108), in his epistle to the Ephesians, adds more enthusiasm about the star, writing:
“A star shone in the night brighter than all other stars. Its light was indescribable, and its strangeness produced wonder. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and the moon, made a choir around that star, which outshone them all.”
The exaggeration and glorification of the Magi story had already begun.
By the third century, the Church Fathers Tertullian and Origen mused on the Old Testament prophecies that kings would come to worship the Messiah, bearing gold and frankincense, and concluded that there must have been three wise men and that they were royal figures. In Ignatius, Tertullian and Origen, we see the effect of theology and preaching on Matthew’s story, but the elaborations were to go into the stratosphere with the gnostic writings from about the same time period and beyond.
The Legend of Aphroditianus is a fanciful tale that originated in Syria, where there was a strong Persian influence. According to the gnostic myth, the statues in a pagan temple dance and sing and announce that the goddess Hera has been made pregnant by Zeus. Suddenly, a star appears above the statue of the goddess Hera.
A voice from heaven is heard, and all the dancing statues fall on their faces. The wise men of the court take this to mean that a King is to be born in Judah. The story tells of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, following the magical star, and how they meet the Jewish leaders and finally Mary and Jesus.
In the sixth century, the Syriac Infancy Gospel adds Zoroastrian links to the story of the Wise Men. And the eighth-century Chronicle of Zuqnin says there were 12 magi, all of whom saw a different human image in the star.
Another bizarre apocryphal text is The Revelation of the Magi. This story pretends to be told by the Magi themselves.
In this gnostic fabrication, the wise men are residents of a mythical land called Shir in the Far East. They are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy from his father that one day a star of amazing brightness would appear to announce the birth of God in human form.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the story of the Magi continued to evolve and grow into an increasingly elaborate myth with attendant theological insights. By the sixth century, the Magi had names, and eventually a story about the discovery of their relics sprang up. By the late Middle Ages, the Three Kings represented the three racial groups and the three ages of man — one king being young, another middle-aged and the third elderly.
These elaborations congealed into the version of the Magi story most of us believe even today. The problem is that almost all of the elements in the story we take for granted are not actually in the Gospel. This has led us not only to a deep inconsistency in our worship, but the adding of the magical and mythical elements to the story is what led most biblical scholars to reject it as a pious fantasy.
Had they bothered to look more deeply, they would have found in Matthew’s Gospel a simple account of a visit that fits perfectly with what can be learned of the geography, politics, economics and culture of the time and place of Jesus’ birth.
Discovering the historical foundation for the Magi story is vitally important because this story, more than any other in the New Testament, was elaborated into legend and myth. As such, it has influenced many to conclude that the whole Gospel account is a late invented fairy tale.
When we learn about the historical basis for the Magi story, however, that take on the New Testament is turned upside down, for if Matthew’s simple story of the Magi is historical, then we can also trust that he was recording history in the rest of his telling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men.
Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.