Saturday, December 12, 2015

Were the Wise men from the east Nabateans?

image Stellar House Publishing
It is a bit like a detective story challenge - who were the Wise men from the East?  Gospel of Matthew gives their identity vaguely but the story contains a few interesting clues that may reflect their background.

Magi from the east
Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
Matthew 2:1
The Gospel uses in this context a unique Greek word that does not appear elsewhere in the Scriptures μάγοι, magoi, and adds ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν apo anatolon. Both Greek expressions have found their way to many languages and developed meanings such as magic, magician, Anatolia and so on. The word magoi is borrowed to Greek language from ancient Persian and was used there for respected men in the know of stars, sciences, healing powers - wise men indeed..

Popularly the Wise men in Matthew 2 are taught to refer to persons from the regions of modern day Iran or Iraq. They are naturally linked to Astrology as they saw and understood the significance of the star of the birth of the Great King in the west. They are depicted in art riding camels. Although Matthew makes no such mention the ship of the desert was the only animal that could cross the over 1000 km trip from Irak or even more from Iran.

The visit to Herod's palace in Jerusalem
The Wise men are important enough for King Herod the Great (74/73 BC – 4 BC) to invite them to his palace that was located near the area where the Old City Jaffa Gate stands today. (The gate is so called because from there began the main road from Jerusalem to the harbor city Jaffa on the eastern shore of Mediterranean.)

The gifts
Interestingly, while telling about how the Wise men worshiped the child Matthew describes in great detail the gifts they brought to him.
καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν εἶδον τὸ παιδίον μετὰ Μαρίας τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ πεσόντες προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἀνοίξαντες τοὺς θησαυροὺς αὐτῶν προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δῶρα, χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew 2:11
Because there are three different kinds of gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, Church traditions have it that there were three Wise men. As each gift is of great value they must have been kings. So we get traditions about the Three Kings
  • Melchior - Persian scholar
  • Caspar - Indian scholar
  • Balthazar - Babylonian scholar

The problem is that Gospels do not mention the Nabatean Kingdom and it is otherwise also known mainly to history buffs. It has a short history from 169 BC to 106 AD when Emperor Trajan conquered it and called the region Arabia Petrea. Its area covered the mostly desert regions from borders of Euphrates to the Red Sea. The capital was the amazing rock city Petra, Old Testament Sela.

King Aretas whose etnarch apostle Paul had to escape from Damascus is Aretas IV Philopatres (9 BC -  40 AD). His daughter princess Phasaelis was married to the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas.

We know about Nabatean rulers and their history from Josephus Antiquities and Wars. Their Arabic language and aspects of their material culture, religious imagery and other things are known from archaeological excavations mostly conducted in Jordan, especially Petra itself, and in northern Negev in Israel.

Nabateans are famous for been able to cultivate the desert, their well-maintained spring system along long routes, their inventing the camel saddle and the trade routes supported by strings of towns. (The Hebrew University has special units trying to solve the secrets of Nabatean desert agriculture).

With the help of the camels and the water well network they built, the Nabateans were able to drive their caravans across the deadly salt deserts in southern Jordan so aptly filmed in Arabian Lawrence (1962).

These advances gave them the Spice Route for bringing incense from Yemen to Petra and from there across Arava valley to Makhtes Ramon via a number of towns. From there the main route continued to Gaza harbor, where Roman ships were waiting for the precious cargo to take it to the capital and to many cities.

In fact, imports from Hadramaut such as  frankincense, myrrh and perhaps also an incense zahav (translated as gold) made the Nabateans wealthy. They were the Arabian oil sheikhs of the classical era.

Were the Wise men from the East Nabateans?
This blog provides you, the Detective, with some clues in the Gospel of Matthew and some information in nutshell about the Nabatean people.

If the question interests you, learning more about this amazing people would be one blessing Gospel of Matthew story can bring to your life!

This goes especially to Arab Christians who may, in fact, belong to the first non-Jewish people to worship the baby born in the little town of Bethlehem. A mighty heritage that should not be ignored!


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