Most people (if they believe the wise men were historical at all) will say, “They were members of a caste of magicians from Persia…”
But St Matthew doesn’t say that.
When Matthew tells the story of the Magi coming to Bethlehem he simply says, “there came wise men from the East”
Why so mysterious? There are some good reasons why Matthew may not have been more specific, however when we know more about the details of the context, Matthew told us exactly where they came from.
First, let’s dispose of the wrong conclusion. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Christians were dispersed along with the Jews. The home base for Christians moved North to Antioch in Syria, then into Asia Minor (Turkey) and West to Greece and Italy. Subsequently, when Christians in those areas read that the wise men came “from the East” they thought of the area that is now Iraq and Iran.
Their conclusion was fortified by Matthew’s use of the word “magoi” or “magi” for indeed there was an ancient caste of soothsayers and sages called “magi” who originated and were still in existence in a reduced way in that area. A group of them, for example, accompanied King Tiridates of Armenia to pay homage to the emperor Nero in 66 AD.
This conclusion was understandable, but like the solution in most mystery stories, the obvious first answer is rarely the right one.
When we go back to Matthew’s gospel and consider the historical-cultural context, a different solution arises. Matthew was writing in Judea to the Jewish Christians sometime before 60 AD…before the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the church. If you are in Judea “the East” is not Persia-Iraq-Iran. It is Arabia. Furthermore, for the Jews of the time “the East” was shorthand for Arabia. They all understood that “the East” was Arabia just as we would understand that “the South” means the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama etc.
Indeed, when one studies the Old Testament “the people of the East” are always the nomadic tribes of Arabia. The people from Persia-Babylon-Iraq-Iran area area called “the people of the North” because to get there from Judea one had to travel North, then East.
Matthew’s phrase “from the East” would therefore have been perfectly understood by his audience of first century Jewish Christians living in Judea.
This is backed up by the earliest reference we have in the church fathers to the Magi. Justin Martyr says repeatedly that they came from Arabia, and guess what? Justin Martyr was writing from Samaria-Judea just one generation after the apostles themselves. Therefore, of all the church fathers he was closest to the place, the time and the people who would have known where the magi originated.
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