They were not three. They were not kings. They were not from the Orient.
Apart from the opening line, the hymn has much to commend it.
Written for a nineteenth century Christmas pageant it uses the three gifts of the Magi to speak of Christ as King, God and Sacrifice.
Unfortunately this opening line teaches Christmas sentimentality. In a cynical age when Christian truth is under attack—we cannot afford to propagate such legends.
The Biblical Data
Matthew is the only gospel that mentions the Magi. The Magi, or astrologers, did not arrive in time to see the baby in the manger. They were not there with the shepherds nor even within the “twelve days” of the Christmas season. Matthew records that they entered “the house” where Mary and “the child” were.
It is only Luke who records the shepherds. They appear to have arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth. After forty days Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. Luke then records that the family moved to Galilee. He makes no mention of the Magi or the flight to Egypt.
As best we can put together the gospel accounts, the Magi arrived after the presentation in the temple. Judging by Herod’s killing of all Bethlehem’s boys under two, Jesus’ parents may have stayed in Bethlehem for some considerable time after his birth. With the coming of the Magi, Joseph was warned to flee to Egypt till Herod’s death. After Herod’s death, Joseph was again warned not to return to Judea (where Bethlehem was) and so withdrew to Nazareth in Galilee.
The Cynical Age
Always at Christmas and Easter, the media casts doubt on Christian claims.
This Christmas they seemed to quote none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury attacking Christianity. He “has picked apart elements of the Christmas story” we were told. For example the three wise men was “nothing but a legend”.
This is the typical media beat up that comes from either anti-Christian bias or journalistic incompetence or both. I am not a member of the Rowan Williams fan club nor given to defend Archbishops, but on this occasion he was seriously misrepresented. It is a classic case study in how badly Christianity is treated by our public media.
It started with a radio interview in Britain. In it, the Archbishop was required to answer the journalist’s doubts about Christmas. The interviewer worked through the nativity scene on a Christmas card asking about the truth of each part. It was not the Archbishop but the journalist who “picked apart the Christmas story.”
What the Archbishop Said
Here is a transcript of the part about the “legend” of the wise men.
Interviewer: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh—with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason?
Archbishop: Well Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from. It says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’—that’s legend; it works quite well as legend.
Interviewer: But would they have been there?
Archbishop: Not with the shepherds, they wouldn’t. So if you’ve got shepherds on one side and three kings on the other, there’s a bit of conflation going on.
How the Archbishop Was Reported.
The heading of a major Sydney newspaper read: “One wise man’s different spin on things”.
It is a very clever heading. Punning on the word “wise man” it indicates approval of him twisting words to make the story more acceptable. The article continues:
The leader of the world’s Anglicans has described the Christmas story of the three wise men as nothing but a “legend” …
Dr Williams said there was little evidence the three wise men had existed. Certainly there was nothing to prove they were kings. The only reference to the wise men from the East was in Matthew’s gospel and the details were very vague, he said.
“Matthew’s gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told. It works quite well as legend,” he said.
Listening to the interview, and reading a transcript shows that not only is the whole context of the interview misreported but also all these statements are wrong or misquoted.
The Archbishop did not describe the Christmas story of the three wise men as “nothing but” a “legend”. He did not say there was little evidence the wise men existed, or that the details were very vague. Worse still key words were left out of his quote. He did not say Matthew’s gospel account was a legend but that the Christmas card’s misrepresentation was a legend and “works quite well as legend”!
The Gullible Age
There was absolutely nothing new, unusual or extraordinary in what the Archbishop said. Over four hundred and fifty years ago John Calvin wrote:
Magi, as is well known, is the title astrologers and wise men receive among the Persians and Chaldeans: we may readily conjecture that these came from Persia. It is better to say that we do not know how many they were, as the Evangelist does not state exactly, than rashly to assert for sure something which is dubious. It is really a childish error that led the Papists to make the figure three, on the grounds that Matthew says they offered gold, incense, and myrrh.
It is sad that our age is so gullible. Cynical about the credibility of the gospel. Gullible about the bigoted incredulity of public media.