Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2
Take a good look at this nativity scene. Study it for a moment. It should look similar to every other nativity you’ve ever seen before. Jesus is lying in a manger filled with hay; the major characters are in or around a stable of some sort; the star would be shining above; the shepherds came from the field, where they had been watching their flocks; and the 3 wise men came bringing gifts. It’s a nice picture, and we think “That seems about right.” But it’s not. One of the things on my list, according to scripture at least, doesn’t belong.
I enjoy the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” It’s well known to most Christians, and gives real insight into the gifts, particularly myrrh. Gold is pretty self explanatory, frankincense is a incense fragrance; but what is myrrh? Myrrh is a natural herb that also has an aroma, but even the hymn describes it as bitter. It was used to anoint the dead. The first day of the week after the crucifixion, you know when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to prepare the body of Jesus, they would have been carrying myrrh among other things. This is foreshadowing, all the way back at Jesus’ s birth, that there was something different about this child. That’s a good teaching from the “We Three Kings” song. The problem is that they may or may not have been from the Orient, most likely were not three, and were definitely not kings. Other than that, it’s fine.
Here’s what the ESV study Bible says about wise men: “In earlier times, wise men referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.” Magi is the Greek word from which we get wise men, and these would have been in Babylon and Persia, Greek speaking regions of the mid-east previously ruled over by Alexander the Great. If they were kings from the Orient the Gospel would have not used magi.
And why could there not be three? Because there are three gifts listed it’s easy to imagine three wise men. But from the history of this day, it would have been more likely that these obviously wealthy men traveled by caravan route, perhaps the Silk Road. It would not have been safe for so small a group (3) to travel these routes, and there is strength in numbers. If three guys traveled all this way carrying valuables and money, they would never have made it. We can’t say for sure, but it’s not highly probably for there to be only three.
I’m going to take for granted that you know some of the events of Matthew 2, such as the angels warning the wise men not to return to Herod. When Herod realizes they are not coming back, he orders all children in the province age 2 and under to be executed. For this reason, and also that they had traveled from “afar,” the wise men would not have been at the manger. That was the night of Jesus’s birth. It was temporary. We know that Jesus was circumcised when he was 8 days old, and was sanctified in the Jerusalem temple. After Jerusalem, his parents returned with him to Nazareth. That’s where the wise men would have visited. Their worship would have been in the home of Joseph and Mary, in Nazareth not Bethlehem, and Jesus would have been a year or two old by this time. Just like the angel choir was not a choir, the wise men do not belong in the nativity scene.
Is it wrong to put the wise men in the nativity? They are a part of the Christmas story after all. I’m not saying to pluck the wise men from your front yard and take them back in the garage. Nor am I suggesting you fire the three kids planning to be the wise men in your pageant tonight. Let’s just realize that some of our Christmas traditions, even the really Christians ones, are from our tradition and not the scriptures. What really matters is that the Light of the World is coming into the world; everything else is details.