The Story of the Wise Men

The world was in need of a savior; then a star appeared, an astral phenomenon seen in the east.

            Those who witnessed the rising star on the endless desert horizon were seeking signs of the will of heaven, the becoming—that which is not, yet will be. Each night these sorcerers of the desert, star worshipers known as Chaldeans or magi (μάγος, magŏs), sought in the movement of the stars and planets along the zodiac the signs of the future, information they could employ in their sorcery and charms, their advice to kings, their own achievement of power and wealth. The astral event, unexpected, astonishing, and concerning, impelled the sorcerers to journey in search of its meaning.

Their search led them to the one through whom all of the past as well as the whole of the present and the future are fulfilled.

            The sorcerers lived in lands to the east out of reach of the power of Rome and the eastern extremes of the Roman Empire—Anatolia, distant lands of Mesopotamia and Babylon and beyond to the Iranian plateau where the star-worshiper Zoroaster had once come preaching a belief that the multitude of divinities long held in awe by priests and peoples were but two primal forces of good and evil in constant combat for control over the natural and supernatural. The sorcerers devoted themselves to the good rather than the evil, and used their knowledge of the stars to predict events that served the former in opposition to the latter.

            The sorcerers of Anatolia followed the star that guided them across the deserts, journeying in the wake of other nomadic travelers who centuries before had set out from Mesopotamia toward the land of Canaan. Unlike the first Hebrews led by Abraham, the sorcerers did not drive sheep and goats before them; but they were sufficiently wealthy to bring rich gifts of their lands: minerals and spices and ointments. They were uncertain of their destination, uncertain for whom the gifts were; they traveled with theirs eyes and ears open to any possibility to which the astral phenomenon might bring them. Passersby might wonder, “what folly is this, that sorcerers follow a strange star bringing rich gifts to where and to whom they know not?” The sorcerers had faith in their reading of the heavens, faith that the astral messenger was not bent on folly; something sensed and intuited informed them of the rectitude and certainty of their mission.

            The sorcerers believed that the supernatural could interpose change and movement on the unchanging truths of the natural. The great certainty of the patterns of the heavens had meaning and influence over human events. The number of stars in the sky, the wandering planets, the patterns of the zodiac, held latent power, as did substances of the earth, air, fire, and water. The sorcerers, knowing that the divine and its many manifestations revealed truths to the willing observer, thinker, and listener, hurried them on in the conviction that without doubt the astral phenomena had supernatural origins, and must not be ignored.

            The appearance of a star, a new light in the heavens, might signal any of a number of events. Time immemorial had taught prognosticators that stars were manifestations of the divine, even symbols of particular supernatural powers—to impregnate the barrenness of soil and womb with new life and growth, to stir among men the angst to desire power and conquer foes, to will to rise among others as king. This latter possibility, that an astral phenomenon was a supernatural sign of the birth of a king, quickened their step as they journeyed west.

            It is not told how long was their journey and precisely from where they came; what were their names and nationalities; how many they were and whether or not they held political power among their respective peoples. The story of the sorcerers’s journey to Palestine is anonymous about such details, but clear about their beliefs and purpose and about what they found when they arrived. 

            Ancient authorities on the practice of magic, who lived during the many centuries that the Roman Empire provided a unified structure for learning, believed that the magi, the sorcerers of Anatolia who were experts in astrology, divination, and magic, were opportunists. These Asian sorcerers claimed to be able to anticipate the interposition of the supernatural on the natural, to predict, anticipate, the arrival of divine hints of the future and read them when they arrived. Ancient scientists and philosophers were often incredulous about such claims, though they did not doubt the abilities of the sorcerers to use magic, to predict the future, and to gauge the will of heaven from the stars. Hence when the sorcerers from Anatolia crossed the Jordan River, entering into Palestine, following an astral phenomenon, their counterparts at the court of Herod, king of Judaea, sought to discover the magi’s mission. Herod was like most ancient kings insecure in his power, wondering how long fate had decreed his rule, hungry to find out from any source, information about the future. He had court astrologers, to be sure—the strongest, wealthiest kings attracted the most skilled soothsayers, either Chaldean or trained by Chaldeans. Their positions at court, indeed their very lives, depended upon their skill at prognostication. The sorcerers arriving from the east were rivals, but could hardly be ignored.

            Upon arriving at Jerusalem, the sorcerers went to the court of the king, whose name was Herod. Whether the king that they met with was Herod or his son and successor Herod Archelaus is unclear from the source, the Gospel of Matthew. The king and his advisers, upon learning of the coming of the magi from the east, following the sign of heaven, inquired of the sorcerers what they had seen and what it could mean. The sorcerers revealed enough of their mission to encourage speculation as to what the star could mean, but they were hesitant to put themselves into the hands of the king or his court astrologers. While the sorcerers stayed in Jerusalem an uncertain amount of time, they continued to see the astral phenomenon, and wondered when its true significance would be revealed.

            The sorcerers either had learned beforehand or learned upon their arrival in Jerusalem that Jews were most particularly anxious about one future event, the coming of the anointed one, the Messiah. The Hebrews had for over a thousand years looked for the appearance of the anointed one, who would champion their cause, free them from suffering and political oppression, and lead them to a new age wherein the chosen people of Yahweh would find redemption and peace—and power and glory as well.

            The yearning for a savior is common among individuals and peoples throughout time. Some Hebrew writers, such as Isaiah, portrayed the Messiah as a “Prince of Peace,” a humble and loving healer. The author of the Psalms believed the Messiah was Lord, son of God. Other Hebrew writers expected the Messiah to come in a blaze of glory. According to the author of the Old Testament book of Daniel, who wrote two to three hundred years before the reign of Herod, the Messiah would provide a temporal and secular manifestation of what all people seek, what people of the ancient world in particular sought: wealth, power, glory, revenge, martial success. More recently, perhaps only seventy years earlier, the writer Enoch had conceived of the Messiah as God’s agent to avenge His enemies. Hence did the Jews hunger for the appearance of the anointed one.

            Even if freed for short periods from the whims of rulers and soldiers, the people of Palestine, like most ancient peoples, were constantly pressured by famine, malnourishment, plague, individual illnesses, disability, insecurity, pain, and eventual death. Lives were short and brutish. Few people were educated, and most lived in fear of the unknown. Ignorance was the great ruler of all people, fed by the deception that life could be lived without pain, hunger, violence, and fear. People responded to their conditions by retreating inward to what was left of self, a dark, dismal region of absence of love and the ubiquity of pain and terror. The only release was death.

            Out of the darkness a light shown. Hopeful individuals saw it, reached out to touch it, embrace it. Sin and despair often tried to cover the light, to smother its rays, to hide it though it could not be hidden. Somewhere the light still penetrated the darkness. The magi from Anatolia focused on the light amid the darkness of Herod’s Judaea. As they viewed the suffering and poverty of the people and the lavish wealth and momentary power of the king and court; as they walked among religious leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes, who puffed themselves up thinking that they knew the will and ways of God; as they listened to astrologers and sorcerers who sought to tell the king what he wanted to hear—the magi still could see the light, the astral messenger that nightly appeared, giving them hope. So they waited. They knew that in time, soon, the astral messenger would reveal what they had journeyed so far to see. They waited in expectation of the supernatural.

(This is an excerpt from Metamorphosis: How Jesus of Nazareth Vanquished the Legion of Sin, Wipf and Stock, 2018, which can be purchased from the publisher at https://wipfandstock.com/9781532694714/metamorphosis/ or through Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07N9B75YF/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i7)

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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