Where did the three kings come from and how far did they travel? This is a question that has stumped theologians and biblical scholars and for over two thousand years. With Advent nearly upon us, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities as we await the celebration of Christmas. Nearly everyone has seen crèches at the holidays with three wise men standing together in long robes and turbans bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. There are usually camels standing nearby as they gaze upon the Christ child in wonder and present him with their gifts. Most have heard the familiar Christmas carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are,’ and understand that they traveled afar, coming from the east to Bethlehem. Does this make sense?
When we think of the Orient, some people immediately bring China to mind. It’s possible that the three kings (or three wise men) came all the way from China. Yet, commentaries and scholars have narrowed the likely possibilities down to three places: Kandahar, Persia or Babylon. While these countries may not be thought of as the Orient, they are to the east of Bethlehem and the kings would have been guided by a star in the western sky. Babylon, one of the likely countries of origin, is 5448 miles from Bethlehem; Persia, another likely possibility, is approximately 1000 miles and Kandahar, the least likely of the three, is 1781 miles from the stable where baby Jesus was born.
If the three kings came from Babylon, they would have journeyed a very long way. Walking seven to eight hours each day at a sustained pace of three miles an hour, it would have taken them about 272 days, or nine months, to make the journey. While this is not a fast pace, it is one that could not be maintained for such a long time by most people. Nothing is said of food, water and other provisions brought with them to make the journey. How their robes and turbans were kept clear and regal remains a mystery. Did the three kings arrive when Jesus was actually about nine months old? We shall never know.
Windows to the Universe reminds us that: Each day a few stars are visible in the east that were not visible the night before. If you were to measure how much the sky shifted from one day to the next you would discover that it shifts approximately one degree per day. This should not be surprising because, if you think about it there are 365 days per year and 360 degrees in a circle. Anyway, the sky doesn’t shift, it is another case of apparent motion. The shift of the sky is really the motion of the earth around the sun. Astronomers investigating what the Star of Bethehem might actually have been, put forward the idea that it was an unusually bright fireball meteor seen streaking toward the horizon. But as any sky watcher knows from experience, such an object can be seen to flash across the sky in a mere matter of seconds, hardly long enough to lead the Magi halfway across the Orient to the little town of Bethlehem.
Is the story of the wise men accurate? Knowing what we do of distance, human stamina and astronomy, could it possibly have happened as recounted in the gospels? While we may doubt the veracity, we must accept the mystery and wonder at the birth of the Christ child that is Christmas. In the classic movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ one line comes to mind when doubting Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas: It was just my silly common sense. Don’t let your silly common sense get in the way of one of the most wonderful stories ever told. You might also like to read:
- Broad Brook Bible Study Examiner, Grace Dooley
- Daily Bible Guide
- Growing in Christ
- Bible Study Tools Online
- The Jesus Walk Bible Study Series