A Different Perspective on the Wise Men

Mormon Heretic Mormon 21 Comments

The Wise Men are a big part of the Christmas story.  Oddly, they come in and disappear.  The Bible seems to indicate that they were not Jews, and they came from the east.  I came across a DVD called Mystery of the Three Kings by Questar Entertainment.  I thought it brings up some really interesting points, and after learning a bit more about these Wise Men, I thought it brought up some interesting facts:  these Wise Men probably came from Iran, and probably were members of a religious sect called Zoroastrianism, which is still in existence today.

The Book of Matthew refers not to kings, but “wise men”.  This term Magi comes from Greek: μάγοι, magoi, which is the Mages.  Biblical writers preferred the term “wise men” over the term “sorcerors”, which has a more negative connotation.  Note Magi is the source to the word “magician.”  The ancient historian Herodotus referred to Magi, as a mysterious religious community in Northern Iran (known as Persia).  Ancient artwork shows the wise men as ancient Persian priests, and many scholars believe the Magi came from Babylon.  Because they were highly regarded priests, they may have been mistaken for kings.

The religion they practiced was called Zoroastrianism, and they looked to the stars for guidance.  It is the largest minority religion in Iran.  According to my friend from Iran, the country is approximately 90% Muslim.  Of the non-Islamic religions, Zoroastrianism is definitely the largest in Iran among the few Jews, Hindus, and Christians who do live there.  (When I told her that the wise men may have come from Iran, she was quite surprised to hear this.)

Zoroaster was founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, a religion that has been around longer than Christianity, and is about as old as Judaism.  It is a monotheistic religion.  Prophecy and miracles were a big emphasis.  Fire, representing light is a big part of their religious ceremonies.  They also believed in a Messiah, just as the Jews.  Persians also spoke Aramaic, just as the Jews did.

There is an ancient writing called the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.  In this gospel, Zoroaster predicts the birth of Jesus, and the Magi’s journey to Jerusalem.  The sign of Zoroaster is predicted by a star.  The Magi were great astrologers.  Modern astrology is descended from the Magi.  In Babylon, stars were magical things.  The signs of the Zodiac are the same today as they were in Babylon.

So, the question arises as to what star might have appeared around 6 BC.  A clay tablet from Babylon (the Almanac of Sippa) in the British Museum tells of a great astronomical event.  Jupiter and Saturn aligned in 7 BC.  Astronomer Michael Molnar tells us that these planets were known to play the central role in kingship, or emporership.  Jupiter tells of the coming of a new king.  Saturn tells of the old ruler.  When these 2 planets aligned closely in the sky, it meant the change of one ruler to another.  Traditionally, the constellation of Pisces was the sign of Israel.  These 3 objects aligned 3 times in the year 7 BC.  This happens every 820 years, so it is a very unusual event.  Jupiter also was eclipsed by the moon, and occurred in the East, which would be April 17, 6 BC.  Molnar believes this is the date of the birth of Christ.  It is an extremely unusual event, and would have been greatly noticed by the Magi.

Matthew and Luke seem to have some differing accounts of Jesus birth.  In Luke, the wise men visit a manger.  In Matthew, they visit a house.   One tradition has it that the Wise Men visited 12 days after Jesus birth, but it could also be that Jesus may have been as old as 2, since Herod ordered all male boys killed under the age of 2.  Whatever the time frame, the Bible says that these Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Jesus escaped into Egypt.  (If you’re interested in more on this video, I have 2 other posts on my blog–<a href-“http://www.mormonheretic.org/2008/12/13/christmas-story-part-1/”>part 1<a> and <a href=”http://www.mormonheretic.org/2008/12/25/the-3-kings-part-2/”>part 2</a>.)

Does it bother you that the Wise Men may have been astrologers?  How would we feel if a member of another religions such as Islam, Judiasm, Buddhism, or even a Presbyterian said that Pres Monson was a prophet, but they decided to keep in their same religion?  Would we include such a reference if an astrologer like Jeanne Dixon made a proclamation of a Mormon prophet?

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Comments 21

  1. I think it is a bit of a stretch to differentiate between astrology and astronomy 2000 years ago, the Jeanne Dixon/Hubble distinction didn’t come until will after Copernicus. The obvious reason for the inclusion of the Zoroasterian Magi in the story of Christ is the same reason the early Christian story tellers included all the “Prince of Peace” Old Testament prophesies — convince the other local religions to change teams.

  2. I think the story points to the fact that there is a great underlying “Truth”. All religions, including ours, have facets of it, although we claim to “have it all”. There are things we claim to have that no one else does (ie. priesthood, etc.). There are things that, frankly, other religions are much better at than us. God “spreads” truth throughout the world and we only “hear” the aspect we wish to hear. In the Christ story, I think the Magi were the only people “listening” for the signs in the heavens. This continues today. With the recent discussions on blacks and the priesthood, I don’t think that God felt that blacks were any less valiant in the preexistance than anyone else, despite BRM and other’s comments. It just took a while for enough prejudices in our church leaders to go away that they were actually willing to listen for the answer.

  3. I’ve figured that the wise men were either Zoarastrians or maybe somewhere over in India. But that is a very far distance.

    Does it bother you that the Wise Men may have been astrologers?

    Not at all.

    How would we feel if a member of another religions such as Islam, Judiasm, Buddhism, or even a Presbyterian said that Pres Monson was a prophet, but they decided to keep in their same religion?

    Wouldn’t bother me at all.

    Would we include such a reference if an astrologer like Jeanne Dixon made a proclamation of a Mormon prophet?

    Don’t mistake comparing these wise men to what we call astrologers today. Though we do not know a single thing about who these men really were, the indication is that they were of a higher caste, at least than the writers of the Gospels. We really have no idea why Matthew made such a significant fuss about including the wise men in his account, except of course that it leads to the next part of the story of Jesus, which is Herod’s decision to kill all male babies under 2. Herod’s decision was made because the wise men did not return to him. There could possibly have been other wise men from other cultures come to see the God of this earth, but because their visit did not matter to the story, Matthew did not include it. Matthew’s account (and well all four accounts) are highly sparse. There is so much missing, which has led to people speculating wild things, that Jesus even went over to India!

  4. let’s not forget that a common translation of magi is sorceror. the documentary makes a big point that the biblical translators chose the term ‘wise men’ because it avoids a negative connotation. I doubt we would feel comfortable talking about the 3 sorcerors who visited Jesus.

    the documentary also says that these men were respectable, and may have been mistaken for kings. their visit with herod seems to support this view. in other words, they weren’t the halloween charicature of a witch or sorceror.

    I remember in seminary hearing a lesson that only the righteous saw the star. the implication was that the wise men were chosen and righteous and that we needed to be similarly in tune with God. however, my seminary teacher didn’t mention these were non-jews (probable zoroastrian priests, which I think he probably didn’t know), and I don’t think he was intending to imply that they would have been righteous enough to receive such an important revelation. after all, do we expect zoroastrian priests to really receive this kind of revelation and not become a christian?

  5. Hmm, I always figured the Magi were Zoroastrians. And that doesn’t bother me at all. Zoroastrianism had always held a blessed place in the eyes of God, as the Persian captors of the Hebrews were Zoroastrians, and allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Zoroastrianism contributed quite a bit of important knowledge to the early Church, and have many truths that were lost in the past (including three glories in Heaven, relating to the Sun, Moon, and stars).

    I like that religion and what we know of Zoroaster, which is why I’ve written about them in past essays.

  6. A slight correction to the OP: The Wise Men don’t appear in the gospel of Luke at all. (Cf. “In Luke, the wise men visit a manger. In Matthew, they visit a house.”)

    I’ve attended a seasonal “Star of Bethlehem” planetarium show at a local college, where the professor suggests, as you did, that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests from Persia, and mentions the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, as well as several other astronomical possibilities for the Star.

  7. thomas,

    the documentary probably conflates the shepherds and wise men together. if my memory is correct, the shepherds visit Jesus in the manger in Luke.

    rigel, the documentary says that the idea of a dark skinned wise man came from the renaissance period from the idea that the wise men represented the world, and renaissance artists wanted to portray all races and backgrounds for all people among the wise men. there are some really interesting legends about these wise men, and marco polo documented visiting the tomb of these wise men in iran. my friend from iran was familiar with this tomb. (perhaps i’ll write a follow up post on these legends.)

  8. Not having seen the DVD mentioned, or really read any other scholarship on the subject, I posit an additional dimension to the story.
    Could they have been “court magicians” / royal advisors to Persian/Babylonian kings? Daniel (and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?) was a Jew in exile who served royalty in Babylon much earlier. Such a tradition (“wise Jew as part of the advisor-pool”) may (again, I don’t know) have continued long enough for it to be a stereotype by 6BC. Could the Magi have come from the smaller groups of Jews who did not return after exile?

    I don’t how the dates and migration patterns work out off the top of my head. It seems more likely that a pre-Deuteronomist Jewish expatriate group would have the stronger, older Messianic focus and care more about the Messiah than a Zoroastrian. No disrespect to Zoroastrians, of course.

    I’m fine with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus is the Christ, so I’m fine with them being Zoroastrian astrologers. I just think there are additional hypotheses that could be studied out.

  9. OK…I really love this post and I thought why not add my two cents. As a graduate of a traditional (read non-LDS) Christian college and a theology major I can tell you that students of “Christian” theology are taught that the significance of the Magi being non-Jewish is that Christ would also serve as savior for the gentile (non-Jewish) world – on the traditional church calendar/festal cycle the arrival of the Magi is celebrated as the day of Epiphany (in Latin cultures it is called 3 kings day). Epiphany is the day after the “twelth” day of Christmas and in the West is on Jan. 6th. It is a celebration of the Christ being revealed to the gentile nations whom the Magi symbolically represent – Prophetically this event which was spoken in part by Simeon in Luke 2:21-32 (verse 32 “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”) is indicative of Israels general understanding that the Messiah would bring the gentiles into the fold – Isaiah is rife with this sentiment and is the basis for understanding the global impact God intended His Messiah to have.

    So with that understanding of the scene the real issue of import becomes not that the Magi were of some other faith and had no intention of converting but rather that they were not of the house of Israel at all and in fact came to worship and “receive” Him would bring salvation to the world as His name implied ( Jesus gr: for Yehoshua Heb: for Jehovah Saves!)

  10. N,

    The origin of the Wise Men is mysterious. While your explanation that they could have been Jews in exile is a possible explanation, consensus seems to indicate these men were gentiles, and from what I can tell, Zoroastrianism seems the most likely explanation.

    The DVD says there were many contacts between Jews and Zoroastrians, and it does appear that Zoroastians assimilated some Jewish ideas into their religion, especially the coming Messiah. (They have also assimilated beliefs of other religions, like Hinduism.)

    Your comment about “every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus is the Christ” seems to be a bit problematic. On the one hand, the Zoroastrians acknowledge the coming Messiah, so Christians will embrace this. However, Messiah has different definitions. Was Jesus a political Messiah, or a spiritual one? Many of Jesus’ followers believed Jesus was a Davidic figure who would free Israel from Roman rule. Under this definition, these followers embraced Jesus as more of a political Messiah, and it was only after his death that Christians believed Jesus’ true purpose was spiritual. There is no evidence that these Persian priests “confess[ed] that Jesus is the Christ”; ie accepted Christ as Savior of the world. The astrology of Saturn and Jupiter seemed to indicate a changing of the guard of Israeli leadership, and they probably believed in more of a political Messiah.

    The scholars in the DVD mention that Herod was a troubled by the visit of the Wise Men. Michael Molnar notes that Persia and Rome were engaged in skirmishes between the borders of Rome and Persia. Certainly Herod would be troubled not only by the presence of Rome’s enemy (the Persians), but the prophecy that a Messiah would replace him as political leader Israel may have spurred him to extinguish all male children under 2. Herod was notorious for extinguishing all threats to his throne, even drowning his own son. He executed many he considered threats. There does not seem to be any evidence that all these children were killed, though scholars say it wouldn’t have been out of character for Herod to issue such a harsh edict.

  11. mormoninvestigator,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have another post planned on 3 Kings Day, that I found fascinating. To me, it’s a more spiritual version of the 12 days of Christmas. As I mentioned above, I don’t think there is any evidence these Magi believed Jesus was a spiritual Messiah (though I have another post planned about the significance of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)

  12. Ah, I was just going to ask about the gold/frnk/myrrh symbolism.

    I will wait for the next post.

    I do want to ask if anyone else heard the far-out speculation I heard in Sunday School once that the 3 wise men were Nephi and Lehi (the sons of Helaman) and Samuel the Lamanite? Nephi and Samuel mysteriously disappeared from the land after they had preached. Nephi left all the records with his son Nephi. Nephi was esteemed as a great prophet who had much authority and power given him from God. Lehi was not a whit behind Nephi in righteousness. Helaman 16:14 says that “angels did appear unto men, WISE MEN, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy.” Samuel received divine protection from the arrows. Lehi and Nephi were encircled by fire to show that they could not be slain.

    I think this was the gist of the Gospel Doctrine instructor’s adventures in unbridled speculation. I’m I the only one to hear of this?

  13. “Have you seen the T-shirt out this season? It has a picture of kings on camels labeled ‘3 Wise Men.’ Underneath it says, ‘Get serious!’ ”

    Is there a point to that T-shirt beyond being dismissive and racist?

  14. Rigel #14, I have also heard that speculation. There was an essay (I don’t recall the author) that circulated among the missionaries in my mission about 6 years ago in the southern U.S.

  15. I’m I the only one to hear of this? — not any more 😉

    dismissive and racist — most people think that wise men would have ridden in BMWs, not on camels and that Jesus wore a rolex on his television show …

  16. I hope you realise that you are only hitting the tip of the iceberg. Look into the Zoroastrian practice of eternal marriage and there religious garments, you will be amazed.

  17. The author of this article either failed in his research or perhaps did not want to put in print that the largest minority religion in Iran is the Baha’i Faith. Zoroastrianism is still there with Shi’a Islam being the offical religion of the country.

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