“We three kings of Orient are.” So begins a favorite carol of the Advent season about the “Wise Men” who visit the newborn Jesus. And so begins a tale that takes inaccuracy and historical revisionism to a whole new level. Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote the carol a century and a half ago, should have known better.
First, we don’t know exactly how many kings there were. There could have been as few as two and up to almost any number. Tradition says that there were three (though some traditions mention 12), and over time they were even given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But these are apocryphal stories.
Second, they were not “kings” from the Orient. They were Wise Men, or put more accurately, Magi. The Magi were astronomers – primitive by today’s standards – who were on the cutting edge of scientific and philosophical knowledge in their day. So it may be best to view these Magi as the uncanny combination of scientists, philosophers, and theologians – but not kings. And such men called Persia home (modern day Iran), not the Far East.
Third, these men did not find the Christ child while “following yonder star.” They saw the star “in the East” or “at the rising of the sun,” but then proceeded west to Palestine. The star did not reappear until they were already in Bethlehem.
And finally, the Magi, technically, do not belong in the Nativity scene at all. They were latecomers to the Christmas party, maybe as late as Jesus’ second birthday. The quaking shepherds, singing angels, and lowing cattle had returned to life as normal long ago. On and on I could go ripping the veracity of this Christmas Carol apart, but that is not my intent.
“We Three Kings” remains one of my favorite Holiday hymns to bellow out this time of year. My critique of it is to simply point out that apart from the accumulations of questionable tradition, we know little about these mysterious men from the East. And these traditions prevent us from embracing what we can learn from them – for the journey of the Magi is a fascinating exercise in unexpected faith.