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We Three Kings of Orient Are... From Where?

by Brant Pitre December 27, 2018 0 Comments



One of the questions that I frequently get from students as we’re working through the gospels together is: who are the wise men from the East that are mentioned at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew? And what relationship do they have to the tradition of the three kings that we often hear about during Advent and Christmas season? So just a few points about that. First of all in the Gospel of Matthew the wise men are specifically described in chapter two, verse one when it says this:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?"

Now the Greek word there for wise men is magos, we get the English word magician from that word. And it literally means the wise men so that's a very good translation. The question though is who are they and what is it mean that they came from the East, right. Where is the East and who are these men?

So over the history of Christianity three interpretations have been forwarded. This is one of those issues that there are a diversity of opinions about. Some ancient Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, Leo the Great, and Cyril of Jerusalem said that the wise men were from Persia. That was one interpretation. Persia was very well known in antiquity for its wisdom and its learning and its knowledge. A second interpretation is that the wise men from the East are actually Babylonians -- that they’re from Babylon, because Babylon is to the east of the holy land. And people such as Jerome and Augustine and the medieval Glossa Ordinaria, a kind of medieval study Bible in the Catholic tradition, took the position that the wise men were from Babylon. The third interpretive option, and the one that is exactly probably the strongest possibility, is that when Matthew mentions the wise men from the east he's actually talking about men from Arabia, that the east means Arabia. This position is ancient as well. Justin Martyr, Tertullian in the Third Century, Cyprian of Carthage and Epiphanius in the Fourth Century, a number church fathers argue that the wise men from the east were from Arabia.

And here are some reasons to think that that might be the best interpretation. First, whenever Matthew gives you this account of Jesus' infancy he appears to be alluding to an Old Testament prophecy in the Book of Isaiah chapter 60, verse 6. If you go back to Isaiah 60:6 we read these words. It describes the new Jerusalem, the age of salvation and it says:

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Mid'ian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

So if you recall in Matthew's gospel it says that the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And many commentators have suggested that Matthew is deliberately alluding to the Book of Isaiah chapter 60 and this prophecy of the non-Israelite kings bringing gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

Now if that's right it's really important because Sheba, which Matthew describes them as being from, Sheba, was a part of the territory of Mid’ian and Ephah, and it consisted of Arabians who are the descendants of Abraham's wife Keturah in the Book of Genesis. So in other words the link between Isaiah 60 and Matthew chapter 1 points us to Sheba, to the territory of Arabia, and the gifts of gold and frankincense coming from that territory.

A second element here is actually from Psalm 72. Psalm 72 describes King Solomon and it kind of depicts a future king, a kind of messianic Solomon, a new Solomon, and it too describes Gentile kings bowing down to the Israelite King. And these Gentile kings bring him gold from, of all places, Sheba. Listen - in this Psalm it says this about the king, it says:

Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him!

So there we have another connection with Sheba, right, this gold from the east from Arabia being given to him as a gift. But what’s interesting in light of Matthew's gospel is not only is gold from Sheba given to him, but the kings of Sheba are described as bowing down before him just like the wise men bow down before Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. So in Psalm 72:10 it says:

…may the kings of Sheba...bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

Alright, so other scholars have suggested then that what Matthew is doing is alluding not just to Isaiah 60 but to Psalm 72, and to the depiction of gold from Sheba -- Arabia -- being brought to the future king, the new Solomon, the Messiah in other words.

And this is interesting for two reasons. First, if that's correct then Matthew clearly associates the wise men from the east with the territory of Sheba, with Arabia, and the gold that is being brought to Jesus is a kind of fulfillment of that prophecy. But it's also interesting because it's precisely that Psalm -- Psalm 72 -- which leads to the tradition of "We Three Kings," right. Because Matthew never says that the wise men are kings. They’re just called magos, wise men from the east. It's the fusing of Matthew's account with the Old Testament Psalm about these kings bringing gold from Sheba that leads to the tradition that these wise men weren’t just counselors or advisers to kings but they were actually kings themselves, right.

And then the tradition of there being three kings is derived from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s an inference from the text that developed in the course of time in the centuries of later tradition. So this is just kind of an interesting example of how in the Gospel of Matthew, if we look at Matthew carefully, certain elements of the tradition that we’re familiar with, the kingship, the identity of these men as kings, there being three of them, those aren’t actually in the text. But what is in the text is an implication that these wise men from the east have not come from Persia or Babylon as commonly thought, but the most likely explanation is that Matthew is describing wise men coming from the territory of Arabia. Which would fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah being a kind of new Solomon or should I say greater than Solomon. Because of course it is in Matthew's Gospel chapter 11, verse 42 that Jesus says himself that the Queen of Sheba, right, came from the east to hear the wisdom of Solomon but behold something greater than Solomon is here. That's what Jesus is in the Gospel of Matthew. He is not just the king of Israel, he's not just the Messiah, he is the one who is greater than Solomon. And to that effect these wise men from the east come and fulfill the Psalm about Solomon by bringing him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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