One of the more memorable images in the Bible is that of the journey made by the wise men to Bethlehem. When portrayed in school Christmas plays, this scene usually signals the play’s finale. Young males who were cast as the wise men would walk majestically toward the manger as the choir sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and if the school production was performed in the inner city, the little girl playing the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, might have held an African American baby doll in a blanket wrapped well enough to hide the doll’s long hair because male baby dolls were not produced.
Like most religious plays at public schools, the nativity scene has become a victim of “separation of church and state” in many school districts.
The “three kings,” or “wise men” and the star of Bethlehem they followed are still celebrated in Christmas carols, on greeting cards, and in front-yard light displays, but have been virtually excluded from much of public life.
From a just few lines in the book of Matthew, the story and veneration of the three wise men grew over the centuries.
Matthew calls the three travelers “wise men,” or magi and says they came from the east, having seen a star. After resuming their search and having been questioned by King Herod, “the star which they had seen in the east went before them till it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
Having located the infant Jesus and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the wise men departed, returning home by another route in order to avoid King Herod, who had intentions of killing the child, Jesus.
Beyond that, there is little else known about the Magi. In Matthew, we aren’t told their names, how many there were, or even if they were all men. Some theologians claim they were not even kings.
The Bible says the magi followed the star to Judea in search of the King of the Jews; today the wise men are familiar to us as three kings who crossed the desert by camel bearing gifts for the Son of God. Down through the centuries the magi have changed according to the preconceptions of the day.
There is a strong possibility we don’t know what they looked like. Religious renderings have depicted the wise men in different ways, depending on what was happening culturally at the time. They have been rendered as having three different pigmentations, as coming from different parts of the globe and as being of various ages–young, middle-aged and old.
Professor Stanley Jones, Ph.D., of the department of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach, believes one of the earliest known paintings of the magi is located in the Roman catacombs. It was painted around the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
He describes the fresco depicting the three men as one being White, one darker and yellowish and one being Black. Thus, he believes this painting validates the legend of the magi as coming from different parts of the globe had already taken root during the time of Jesus.
The catacombs magi are not dressed like kings. Instead, they wear a distinctive type of trouser separate from their tops, tighter at the ankle than at the upper leg. This type of dress was associated with the great horsemen of Persia. So, the magi may well have ridden horses as opposed to camels from one of the great Persian cities. The magi are holding objects and walking towards a robed woman seated holding a child.
James E. Bradley, professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, calls the magi a biblical enigma. Their names are not mentioned in the Bible, but were added at a later date by ancient storytellers.
The wise men were said to represent the three major races. Melchior was an old White man with a long white beard, bearing the gift of gold for Christ’s royalty; Caspar was young and of darker hue, carrying frankincense for Christ’s divinity; and Balthazar was a Black man, offering myrrh for Christ’s suffering and death.
The catacomb painting of the dark magi may have been the first Christian characters of African descent painted as a subject of art.
Balthazar is often forgotten by the average African American until the Christmas season when holiday decoration manufacturers produce a limited amount of magi depicting a Black King Balthazar.
A modern-day, black-faced King Balthazar recently stirred up controversy in Spain during the Christmas holiday called “Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos” that celebrates the “three wise men” or “three kings” bringing gifts to Jesus. In Christian tradition, this is known as Epiphany.
The day is re-enacted by Spanish males dressed as the magi bringing gifts to the children during the night on January 6. In many parts of Spain, there are also parades in which the men dressed as the Three Wise Men riding on horses and camels pass out treats to children and collect letters with their wishes (Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos) similar to children in the U.S. writing a letter to Santa. Shockingly, the Black king (Balthazar) is represented by a White man in blackface.
As for the star the wise men followed, New Testament scholar Deldre Good, Ph.D., at the Theological Seminary New York believes the star of Bethlehem is symbolic as well as literal. “This is a true story in the sense that it conveys values,” she said. “It is not a story that is very viable. What is true about the story of the magi is that it represents in Christian tradition the proper attitude of outsiders towards Jesus even before he was able to say a word. You could say the magi are the first individuals to pay attention to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.”
Good says questions she often asks herself are: “was it a comet, an exploding star or a sign from God?”
Good believes the philosopher Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of Jesus and the description he gave of the magi is very significant. He was alive and writing during the time of Christ and recorded very interesting observations about the magi as scientists.
Among the Persians there are the orders of the magi who silently research the facts of nature to gain knowledge and truth, and the magi studied the heavens for things to come. She said stars were used to predict the birth of kings.
Michael Molner, Ph.D., an astronomer, said through modern technology scientists can reconstruct the night sky to the very year Christ was born. However, the exact date of Christ’s birth is questionable. “No one has been able to pinpoint when that date really was,” he said. “It was never reliably recorded at the time, and our dating system is based on his birth. The exact birthdate is necessary to reconstruct the sky.
However, the person who worked out the date of Christ’s birth was well known for making several mistakes, Molner said.
“When Christ was born, Herod was king of Judea. Roman writer Flavius Josephus chronicles Herod’s death as being in the year 4 B.C. If this is correct, Jesus was born that year or between 4 or 8 B.C. So astron-omers must turn the celestial clock to 4 B.C. or earlier.”
The magi must have seen something very unusual that night, and one of the most unusual things in the solar system would have been a comet.
Physicist Brian Cox describes a comet as basically a big dirty snowball with a long gaseous tail that can be many thousands or millions of miles long.
In the Middle Ages many artists portrayed the star of Bethlehem as a blazing comet in the night’s sky above the manger.
“An ancient Chinese book, ‘The Hansui,’ suggests that the star of Bethlehem may have been a comet,” according to Richard Stevenson, an astronomer and ancient Chinese scholar in a documentary on the Science Channel. “Ancient Chinese astronomers kept some of the earliest known celestial records,” said Stevenson, one of the leading expert on records that originated around 200 B.C.
“From the date of origin there exists 30 systematic records that describe different events that may have been the star of Bethlehem. There are references to two planets meeting very closely in the sky, or the moon passing very close to a planet or a star, and there are many descriptions of comets.
“China is on a similar latitude as the ancient Holy Land, so it believed that astronomers there would have seen the same night sky as the magi. In 5 B.C., The Hansui records what the Chinese refer to as Broom star, now widely believed to be a reference to a comet,” Stevenson said. “Chapter 26 contains a very brief record of a comet seen in the spring of 5 B.C., around the time that Jesus was born, which simply states a Broom star appeared in the province of Chinu for more than 70 days.
“The magi would have seen a comet as a sign of doom, disease, death and disaster,” he said. “Astrono-mers labeled them the four D’s since their presence was hard to predict. However, the portrayal of a star as a comet was done by a famous Italian Renaissance artist Giotto commissioned in 1301. That year the most famous comet, Halley’s Comet, visited earth. It was visible for months and Giotto painted it as star.”
Early astronomical records show how important planets were for the magi, according to Christopher Walker, Ph.D., an authority on the culture of the Ancient Middle East, who has decoded an ancient collection of clay tablets relating to the stars.
“One of the tablets tracked the movement of Venus over 3,500 years ago. During that time, people were making astronomical observations in order to make astrological predictions. Astronomy is the scientific study of the cosmos. Astrology uses the same data to make unscientific forecasts. Today they are two different sciences. However going back 2,000 years they were one and the same. The tablets follow the planets through the same constellation of stars that make up today’s astrological signs of the zodiac like Aries the Ram and Pisces the Fish. The Magi would have used their astronomical studies to make astrological prophecies.
“The Bible indicates that the star went before them to the south to Bethlehem,” added Walker.
Astronomer David Hughes, who has been studying the star of Bethlehem for 30 years, indicates that it was possible the magi were following the planet Jupiter.
Hughes has searched for a celestial event during the time before King Herod died in 4 B.C. For a star to guide the magi from Persia to Jerusalem “you are talking about an ordinary planet doing something extraordinary, and it happens every 800 to 900 years,” he said. Hughes discovered that three years before Herod’s death in 7 B.C. there was a series of meetings between Jupiter and Saturn. They came together three times in seven months. It’s called a triple conjunction.