The other night, as I stood in the cold, crisp air to watch the meteor shower of the Geminids falling over a desert mountain, I remembered how, as a child, I loved the story of the three Wise Men from the East following a star until they found where a Semitic child named Yeshua had been born. These wise men, magi, shamans or wizards from the East knelt on the ground before the baby, and gave him gifts fir for a king: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. But who were these men, I wondered, where did they come from and why did they bring those gifts (instead of train sets, baseball gloves and ice skates that I believed any boy might want at Christmas)?
We know little about these wizards, or even if there were just three of them. What we do know comes from the Good News of Matthew, an oral history probably set down in writing between 50 and 70 CE, and from a longer account in Julius Africanus’ History of the World, written between 210 and 250 CE. In this later account, the wizards are clearly identified as being “the wise men of the Persians,” although for these times, this may have meant that they were Kurds. There was at that time a hereditary order of Kurdish dream-readers, star-gazers and magicians who were strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism.
And yet, another theory is that these magicians served the Persians, but were Arabs or Jews who had come from Yemen and Oman, where frankincense grows today, and where myrrh arrives in the ports from Ethiopia and Somalia. They may have come up the major Frankincense through Petra toward Jerusalem, but at that time, there were also spice trails up the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, through present-day Oman to Persia. This route seems more likely, given that these wizards were identified both by Matthew and Julius Africanus as coming directly from the East, or from Persia. Many loads of incense, spices and precious stones such as gold did indeed come from Persia, where the Silk Road and Frankincense Trails converged.
Why these gifts? Frankincense, myrrh and gold were among the most precious substances known at that time, so they were clearly fit for (and affordable only by) kings. But they were also medicinal, magical and symbolic. Where I have been among frankincense harvesters in Oman, this gummy exudate from a desert tree is an incense for spiritually and microbial cleansing the atmosphere of evil, death and germs. But it is also a medicine, a digestive and even a culinary spice. The same is true for the myrrh I have seen in Ethiopia, although historians often think of it only as an aromatic embalming substance to prepare the dead for burial, and ultimately, for the after life.
I don’t need to tell you anything about gold, except to say that during Biblical Times, most gold came from Southern Egypt, in the region of the Nubians. It could have been transported across the Sinai to Palestine, or by dhow—as the myrrh had been transported—across to the Arabian Peninsula. It was a symbol of kings, but more broadly, a sign of material not spiritual wealth. Like frankincense and myrrh, it was not of the Holy Lands themselves; it was globally scarce; and a little could go a long way.
A little could go a long way. Ponder the significance of that phrase. Two thousand years later, people of many colors and creeds remain fascinated by the presentation of perhaps only a few ounces of the gifts to some baby boy. The story—or the barest fragments of one—has indeed come a long way over two millennia. And so have the words of a great desert prophet, a true shaman, a magical healer, a rebel and revolutionary. By Biblical historian John Dominic Crossan’s reckoning, we perhaps retain less than 1000 words or some 100 phrases that can be directly attributed to the rebel Jesus by being found in two or more of the earliest sources. And yet those words have been more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those few words from Yeshua the shaman and rebel fomented a revolution, freed the oppressed, and unshackled the minds of millions. If he had arrived amongst us today, he would no doubt be chastised, imprisoned, waterboarded or tortured for attempting to challenge the status quo.
Whether or not you believe that Three Wise Men from the East followed a star to a baby’s birthing grounds in a manger, I think you can agree that the baby’s words have gone a long way. They have rise like incense on many a cold dark night to purify the world.