Each year during the Christmas
season, millions the world over find themselves
repeating the tradition of celebrating the birth of
Jesus through the giving of gifts.
But where did this
tradition of gift-giving come from? Who were these
Wise Men who set into motion this annual tidal wave
of personal generosity?
What of the world in which
this beloved child was born, and what became of the
gifts the Magi presented tohim more than 2,000 years
We know from the exquisite
Gospel story recorded in Matthew 2 that Jesus was
born during the waning years of Herod the Great, a
cunning Edomite warrior from the desert region south
A descendant of Idumaenan
nomads of the region, Herod ruled through guile and
treachery. Although his mother was of Arab descent,
he was declared "King of the Jews" by Caesar August
40 years prior to the birth of Christ.
During his reign, Herod was
chronically plagued by insecurity due to his ethnic
origin (he was hated by the Jews of Judaea). He
slaughtered several members of his immediate family,
including one of his 10 wives, two sons and a
Upon hearing rumors that a
male child of the Jewish house of David had been
born in the city of Bethlehem, about 5 miles south
of Jerusalem, Herod summoned a number of Magi, or
wise men as they were called in the Scriptures, to
report to him what they knew of this new
If this child were a
legitimate heir to the Jewish throne, it would be a
major threat to his tenuous political control over
this region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Biblical scholars are
divided as to precisely from where the Wise Men
came. Some argue that they were Persians, of a sect
of Zoroastrian astrologers, who inhabited desert
regions of present-day Iran to the East and north of
the Persian Gulf.
Others suggest they may
have been from the Kingdom of Sheba, the region of
present-day Yemen, in that Isaiah 60:6 predictedC
"The multitudes of camels shall cover thee, the
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. All from Sheba
shall come bearing gold and incense and proclaiming
the praise of the Lord."
Similar gifts were
presented to the Hebrew King Solomon when he was
visited by the Queen of Sheba nine centuries before.
Still others argue the Magi
hailed from Babylon, the ancestral home of the Jews
in captivity, where many had stayed on since the
Exile six centuries before.
Babylon existed in the
region of the Tigress and Euphrates River valleys,
the location of modern-day Iraq.
Legends handed down in the
Western tradition over the centuries have assigned
the names and ages of the three Magi - Gaspar,
Melchoir and Balthazar - and artistic
representations show them to be of different races
and ages, demonstrating that Christ came for the
salvation of all mankind.
After being summoned to
speak with Herod and instructed to gather
intelligence about events and return with what they
had learned, these learned men of reason followed
the star of Bethlehem in the eastern sky, which
guided them to a house.
There "they saw the young
child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and
worshipped him: and when they had opened their
treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold,
frankincense, and myrrh," the treasures fit for an
While all of this may ring
familiar with many of us, the Scriptures go on to
record that the Magi were then instructed by God in
a dream to ignore Herod's decree and left the
country without returning to his court.
Similarly, Joseph, the
young child's father, was also alerted in a dream to
gather his family and seek asylum in Egypt for a
time to avoid a looming danger.
It is thought that the
fortune brought to the Christ child by the Magi may
have been used to hire an entourage to escort the
infant and his family into the region of the Sinai
Meanwhile, Herod instructed
his centurions to slaughter all the infant Jewish
boys of Judaea in an effort to kill this
heir-apparent to the Jewish crown.
So, as we gather this year
to exchange our gifts of affection with friends and
loved ones, we should pause and remember these
immortal gifts of the Wise Men brought to an obscure
infant in a faraway village so many years ago.
They were the gifts that
saved an immortal human life that changed the world