Where did the three ‘Wise Men’ that presented gifts to baby Jesus come from? And after, to where did they return? We can’t of course be sure of an answer, or even of their definite identities. The Biblical account in Matthew 2:1 says that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East at its rising, and have come to worship Him.'”
One translation says that these wise men were astrologers, traditions of the church hold that they may have been kings of some kind. Perhaps the only agreement is that they came from somewhere in the East, as Matthew writes, and that they saw a star of some kind that drew them to Bethlehem. But where in the East? As I have written before in this blog, there were lively merchant links in this period between what we now call the Middle East and farther East to India and China. (See my post From Egypt to India in the 2nd Century A.D. It would not have been a surprising thing to have visitors from the East come to Bethlehem.)
There is some consensus among Bible scholars that these three visitors came specifically from Persia in the East, rather than India or China. We don’t know for sure that they were astrologers, that is a possible implication from the fact that they had seen a celestial phenomenon of some kind, recorded as a “star”. Whether astrologers or not, we can surmise that they were learned or ‘wise’ men. Leading up to the first century A.D. and for centuries after, Persia was one of the most educated empires in world history. Already by 4 B.C., a possible year for the birth of Jesus, there were growing intellectual developments in the Persian Empire that would culminate in part with the founding of Gundeshapur University.
One of the most remarkable centers of learning in the world at that time, Gundeshapur (also known as Jondishapur) was located in eastern Persia. Founded in 271 A.D. by the Sassanid Persian Empire ruler Shapur I, it was a complex blend of a Zoroastrian national university (the state religion of the Empire) and an educational center of the Persian Church of the East. Many of the teachers were Christians, so Biblical and theological studies were taught as well as Greek philosophy. When Roman Emperor Justinian closed the School of Athens finally in the sixth century, some of the Greek philosophers there were attracted to Gundeshapur.
There were also Indian components in the studies of astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine. Gundeshapur became a key meeting place of Eastern and Western traditions of learning, while being at the interface of an encounter of the faiths of Zorastraianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Hinduism, and from the seventh century, Islam.
Could it be possible that the three wise men journeyed from somewhere like Gundeshapur in the Persian Empire? Though it would be still almost three centuries after the birth of Jesus until the university complex was officially founded, there was already a concentration of intellectuals at places like Gundeshapur and throughout the Empire. Gundeshapur was only one of several centers of learning in Asia before the year 1000, as I have written in earlier posts. (See for example Did St. Thomas visit the University of Taxila in the First Century? and Nisibis in the 5th Century: First Christian University in History )
It is also fascinating to wonder what became of these three after their life changing experience in Bethlehem. If you believe like I do that they most likely came from Persia, and returned there, it becomes then even more important what happened in Persia in the coming centuries. Did they have a role in spreading the news of this baby who was heralded by Angels and announced by a star? We must remember that in the next five centuries of the Church’s growth, it was Persia and to the East that would see the greatest expansion numerically and geographically. Not the West as commonly thought.
The Persian Empire would also see the most martyrs from the Christian faith in the next four centuries, not the Roman Empire. In fact there were far more. Many Zoroastrians would come to follow Jesus also in the next few centuries, and though Christianity never came to power as the state religion as happened in 312 in the Roman Empire through Constantine, there was significant growth of the Church. Christianity was indeed an Eastern faith, and up to the seventh century when Islam swept into Persia, could have been called a Persian faith.
But there is something else very interesting to this story. And that is the role of the city of Edessa, a center of the Church later in the first century that became the launching pad for the growth to the East. Edessa, now the modern city of Urfa in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border, was already connected by road to Jerusalem by the time of Jesus’ birth. It was a place that travelers from the East were already going through both ways on their journeys to and from the farther reaches of Asia. Did the wise men travel through Edessa? Perhaps more importantly to our story, did they go back through Edessa on their way home to Persia?
Why is that even important? The painting (a wooden icon) that accompanies this post is of the King of Edessa, Abgar V, who was one of a line of Abgars who ruled there. (painting from Christoph Baumer’s excellent book, The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, pg. 17) It would be the Kingdom of Edessa that would become the first area in the later first century to proclaim an allegiance to Christianity. A tradition of the Church that Eusebius would write about in his fourth century history concerned one of these King Abgars, perhaps V. The tradition goes that the King was mortally ill, and he had heard of Jesus then alive and doing works of healing. He writes a letter to Jesus asking him to come to Edessa and pray for his healing, and even live there. Tradition says that Jesus wrote back, and declined to come but commended him for his faith. The King was healed anyway, and the message of Jesus would find many open doors in the Kingdom of Edessa.
Whether this tradition is true or not, we do know that Edessa became the key place for the expansion of the Church to the East already by the first century A.D. How had they heard of Jesus and His Gospel? Is it possible that the first time they heard of him was when the three wise men came there on their way home? Did these three tell all who would hear of this amazing birth and Child? We do not know for sure. But we must always remember how important the East is to this story, and indeed to the story of Christianity as a whole.