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Who were the Three Wise Men? A priest’s quest for the truth

“If I am correct that the Magi story is rooted in history,” says Fr. Dwight Longenecker about his book Mystery of the Magi, “then this is one more piece of evidence that joins the growing body of evidence supporting the historical reliability of the gospels.”

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of "Mystery of the Magi" (Images: dwightlongenecker.com)

Fr. Dwight Longenecker (dwightlongenecker.com) has written books on conversion, spirituality, apologetics, and theology, but his most recent book might be the most surprising and controversial of his many works. Titled Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (Regnery, 2017), the book uses archeological evidence, modern technology, ancient texts, and a startling new discovery by a Spanish archeo-astronomer to argue that the Magi were diplomats from Petra, the capital of the Nabatean kingdom of Arabia.

Catholic World Report spoke recently with to Fr. Longenecker about his new book, his research, and his conclusions.

CWR: Why did you set out on this “quest to identify the three wise men?”

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Several New Testament scholars told me it is practically a point of orthodoxy amongst students of the New Testament that the Magi story is a pious fiction. One well known Catholic scholar admitted, “If you want a career in New Testament scholarship don’t even hint at the idea that you might think the story of the wise men is historical.”

Since I don’t have a career in New Testament scholarship to worry about I thought it would be interesting to see if the Magi story might have some historical substance.

CWR: And does it?

Fr. Longenecker: What I discovered was beyond my wildest hopes. Once I began to do the research it was amazing how all the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together. I should say that the fantastic legends and myths that have grown up around the Magi story cannot be substantiated historically, but Matthew’s short and simple account fits what we know of the geography, economics, politics, and culture of the time perfectly.

CWR: Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to suppose that, after two thousand years, you (and nobody else) have finally discovered the identity of the three wise men?

Fr. Longenecker: That’s the astounding thing. As I was doing my research I kept thinking, “Surely someone else has already written this book.” But they hadn’t, and they had not written the book for some very interesting reasons.

First, my theory is that the Magi were from the mysterious Nabatean kingdom. The Nabateans did not leave a written history so there has been very little historical work done on them until recently. They disappeared into the mists of time, and only recently have we come to know more about them.

Second, the traditional Christians simply accepted the elaborate traditions that has accumulated around the Magi story and didn’t feel obliged to question them. One of these assumptions was that the Magi came from Persia or India. No one looked into it. They just assumed since Matthew said they were “from the East” that they were from Persia.

Third, the assumption amongst the New Testament scholars that the whole story was a pious fable kept them from looking any further into the historical possibilities. “Why,” they might ask, “would anyone look for the historical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?”

I took both the believers with blinders and the skeptical scholars to task. I was willing to dismantle the much loved traditions if they did not appear in Matthew’s gospel, but I was also willing to take Matthew’s account seriously and gather data through my research to show who the Magi could have been.

CWR: So there is something in your book to displease everyone!

Fr. Longenecker: Yes. The traditionalists may be disappointed to find that Matthew never suggests that there were only three wise men, nor that they were kings. He doesn’t say they went on a long journey on camels across the desert nor does he say they were led by a miraculous star. All of this was read into the story later for good reasons I explain in the book.

Meanwhile, the scholars who dismiss the historicity of the Magi story will also have to look again. I really believe I have presented a plausible and even probable explanation of not only their origins but their motives.

But in saying that, there is also something to please everyone. Those who believe the gospels are rooted in historical events will be vindicated and those who dismiss the elaborate legends and myths about the Magi will be pleased to see them dismantled.

CWR: What are the new technologies and discoveries that have helped you make these discoveries?

Fr. Longenecker: In the 1930s the archeologist Nelson Glueck discovered a stone zodiac in the Nabatean temple of Khirbet et Tannur dating from the first century. This indicates that the Nabateans followed an astral religion and were adept at astrology. The new science of archeoastronomy has shown that the Nabatean cities and temples were built in alignment with the constellations and star cycles. This also shows that the Nabateans were stargazers. Textual discoveries involving the Dead Sea Scrolls, increasingly detailed Old Testament and historical scholarship also helped to fill in the blanks.

CWR: So who were the Magi?

Fr. Longenecker: The Magi went on a mysterious journey of discovery. Maybe you should too! Seriously, I believe they were Nabatean diplomats who travelled to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews who they thought would be a grandson or great grandson of Herod the Great. They were also spiritual seekers who were looking for the Messiah.

CWR: Why does it matter?

Fr. Longenecker: It matters because history matters and history matters because truth matters. The Christian gospel is widely perceived by the public as being a tissue of legends, myths and magical stories. This book matters because it ground this one story—which is most widely perceived as a fairy tale—in the politics, economics, geography, religion and culture of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ’s birth.

Therefore this is more than just a pleasant Christmas book. If I am correct that the Magi story is rooted in history then this is one more piece of evidence that joins the growing body of evidence supporting the historical reliability of the gospels. In other words, if we can trust Matthew’s telling of the Magi story, we can have much more confidence in the rest of the gospel account.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting. I’ve been doing some research on this topic myself, actually more on the “Star” the Magi followed and whether this could be vindicated by science. I found that it could and will be writing about this in the next few weeks. It’s important because, as Fr. Longenecker says “history matters and history matters because truth matters.”

  2. Rev. Longnecker’s claim that he is somehow, as if for the fist time, giving “historical substance” to the “legends, myths, and magical stories” of the Magi is exaggerated. It is noteworthy that his “research” apparently fails to address any of the massive research on the subject and concentrates on “a stone zodiac in the Nabatean temple of Khirbet et Tannur dating from the first century.”

    The entry “Magi” in the Catholic Encyclopedia published a century ago in 1917 states as follows:

    Who the magi were

    Non-Biblical evidence

    We may form a conjecture by non-Biblical evidence of a probable meaning to the word magoi. Herodotus (I, ci) is our authority for supposing that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They provided priests for Persia, and, regardless of dynastic vicissitudes, ever kept up their dominating religious influence. To the head of this caste, Nergal Sharezar, Jeremias gives the title Rab-Mag, “Chief Magus” (Jeremiah 39:3, 39:13, in Hebrew original — Septuagint and Vulgate translations are erroneous here). After the downfall of Assyrian and Babylonian power, the religion of the Magi held sway in Persia. Cyrus completely conquered the sacred caste; his son Cambyses severely repressed it. The Magians revolted and set up Gaumata, their chief, as King of Persia under the name of Smerdis. He was, however, murdered (521 B.C.), and Darius became king. This downfall of the Magi was celebrated by a national Persian holiday called magophonia (Her., III, lxiii, lxxiii, lxxix). Still the religious influence of this priestly caste continued throughout the rule of the Achaemenian dynasty in Persia (Ctesias, “Persica”, X-XV); and is not unlikely that at the time of the birth of Christ it was still flourishing under the Parthian dominion. Strabo (XI, ix, 3) says that the Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.

    Biblical evidence

    The word magoi often has the meaning of “magician”, in both Old and New Testaments (see Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8; also the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15). St. Justin (Tryph., lxxviii), Origen (Cels., I, lx), St. Augustine (Serm. xx, De epiphania) and St. Jerome (In Isa., xix, 1) find the same meaning in the second chapter of Matthew, though this is not the common interpretation.

    Patristic evidence

    No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. Tertullian (“Adv. Marcion.”, III, xiii) says that they were wellnigh kings (fere reges), and so agrees with what we have concluded from non-Biblical evidence. The Church, indeed, in her liturgy, applies to the Magi the words: “The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him” (Psalm 72:10). But this use of the text in reference to them no more proves that they were kings than it traces their journey from Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba. As sometimes happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has in time come to be looked upon by some as an authentic interpretation thereof. Neither were they magicians: the good meaning of magoi, though found nowhere else in the Bible, is demanded by the context of the second chapter of St. Matthew. These Magians can have been none other than members of the priestly caste already referred to. The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were occasions of their finding Christ. (See THEOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF THE AVESTA.)
    The Gospel narrative omits to mention the number of the Magi, and there is no certain tradition in this matter. Some Fathers speak of three Magi; they are very likely influenced by the number of gifts. In the Orient, tradition favours twelve. Early Christian art is no consistent witness:

    a painting in the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus shows two;
    one in the Lateran Museum, three;
    one in the cemetery of Domitilla, four;
    a vase in the Kircher Museum, eight (Marucchi, “Eléments d’archéologie chrétienne”, Paris, 1899, I 197).
    The names of the Magi are as uncertain as is their number. Among the Latins, from the seventh century, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St. Gaspar, on the first, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, on the eleventh of January (Acta SS., I, 8, 323, 664). The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc.; the Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma, etc. (Cf. Acta Sanctorum, May, I, 1780). Passing over the purely legendary notion that they represented the three families which are descended from Noah, it appears they all came from “the east” (Matthew 2:1, 2, 9). East of Palestine, only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a Magian priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ. From some such part of the Parthian Empire the Magi came. They probably crossed the Syrian Desert, lying between the Euphrates and Syria, reached either Haleb (Aleppo) or Tudmor (Palmyra), and journeyed on to Damascus and southward, by what is now the great Mecca route (darb elhaj, “the pilgrim’s way”), keeping the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho. We have no tradition of the precise land meant by “the east”. It is Babylon, according to St. Maximus (Homil. xviii in Epiphan.); and Theodotus of Ancyra (Homil. de Nativitate, I, x); Persia, according to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.15) and St. Cyril of Alexandria (In Is., xlix, 12); Aribia, according to St. Justin (Cont. Tryphon., lxxvii), Tertullian (Adv. Jud., ix), and St. Epiphanius (Expos. fidei, viii).
    Time and circumstances of their visit

  3. In an ancient church in Ravenna, 12 wise men appear on the artistically painted walls.
    Should the THREE kings be traced to the popular hymn? I am not aware of scholars who stated “three.”
    Many have held a historical basis for Matthew Chapter Two.
    Thanks to Father L. for his efforts.

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