In honor of Epiphany (January 6), which marks the traditional date of the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem, I thought I would post an unusual interview I was able to obtain with one Mr. Gaspar, despite his having been dead for nearly 2,000 years.
Due to his dead condition, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of all his responses, but perhaps they will be of interest to some of our readers, or at least a few pastors who might want to file away a sermon idea for next year’s Epiphany service. [Art by Zaki Baboun, of Palestine]
Cartledge: Mr. Gaspar, we are very grateful for your willingness to talk with us.
Gaspar: Please, drop the “Mister.” And I’m glad to do it. The whole point of being a wise man is to share your wisdom with others.
Cartledge: We know something about your role from Matthew 2:1-23 in our Scriptures. Beyond that, what we know of the “wise men” who visited Jesus is largely speculation. Would you tell us how you got involved with the famous expedition to Bethlehem?
Gaspar: Yes. I was the youngest of the Magi who traveled from ancient Parthia to pay homage to the Christ child. I had not expected the privilege of joining our aged leader Melchior and my dark friend Balthazar, but there were surprisingly few volunteers. Some thought it was a fool’s errand for us to go traipsing off for thousands of miles in search of somebody else’s king.
Cartledge: Can you tell us more about the Magi?
Gaspar: Of course. Sometimes you Westerners call us “wise men,” and you are correct. We are in fact wise. At other times you call us “kings.” In that, you are wrong, though we do serve in the royal court and I suppose our appearance was like that of kings when our caravan swept through the rustic village of Bethlehem. We were the king’s representatives.
There are other “magi” in your scriptures who are nothing but charlatans and sleight-of-hand magicians. They give our profession a bad name, for our true business is wisdom. We are scientists, historians, philosophers, and priests. For hundreds of years our order has recorded the history of humankind. We have studied copies of holy writings from every land. We have searched the stars every night without fail, and have sought to draw connections between events on the earth and the heavenly signs that speak of their advent.
Cartledge: It is my understanding that you did not normally worship the God of Israel. Can you tell us why you decided to visit the Christ child?
Gaspar: Yes, it is true that I am a Gentile. All my life I have addressed the deity as Ahura Mazda. But God’s handwriting in the stars drew my life and yours together. It all began in the 31st year of King Phraates IV, of Parthia. Once our land was called Persia. Now you know it as Iran. We Magi had gathered one evening, taking up our assigned posts on the rooftop observatory.
It had been a very eventful year. Three times in six months the moving stars Jupiter and Saturn had passed each other high in the constellation Pisces, not far from the Ram. You must understand that for us the constellation Pisces points to the last days. The moving star Jupiter speaks to us about rulers of the world, and we think of Saturn as the star of Palestine. All of this heavenly activity led us to believe that something very significant was about to happen. Melchior thought that a king to rule in the last days was about to be born in Palestine.
So, we were watching even more closely for one last sign, for four is the number of completion for us, the number of the elements of the earth. Four months after the last conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn we were gathered at the watch when someone began to shout. Not only had Jupiter and Saturn converged again, but ruddy Mars had also drawn near, so that all appeared as one bright star. Melchior was convinced that God was telling us something, though we still were not sure what it was.
And then–and then–as we debated the meaning of this triple conjunction, there came a shout from the other side of the observatory and we turned about to find the western quarter bathed in light from a star that came from nowhere and lit up the skies with its brilliance. None of us had ever seen anything like it.
Cartledge: Was this the star of Bethlehem?
Gaspar: Patience! I’m getting to that. Melchior quickly sent an apprentice to bring up all the holy writings we had collected. These included the Hebrew scriptures, for Jews have lived among us since Cyrus the Persian established his great empire. Melchior had always paid special attention to the Hebrew prophets, and he also had a keen interest in the book you call Numbers, because it contained the prophecy of a Gentile wise man named Balaam. Balaam had connections with our own ancestors–some even think that Balaam and our founder Zarathusthra were one and the same.
But I digress . . . what matters is that Balaam once came in contact with the Hebrews and he uttered a prophecy about them. What he said was this: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel . . . one out of Jacob will rule” (Num. 24:17aβ, 19a). Well, there it was. The star must point to a new king.
Melchior also knew the words of the latter Isaiah who lived in Babylon. He once said “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you . . . nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . they shall bring gold and frankin¬cense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa. 60:1, 3, 6b).
And so it was that we found ourselves preparing a small delegation for the long journey to Palestine. We wanted to greet this new king of the Jews in behalf of our own king. To be truthful, we also wanted to confirm that our speculations were correct, to convince the skeptical that we were not just worthless stargazers.
Cartledge: Can you describe the journey for us?
Gaspar: Of course, if you will only stop interrupting. We had to travel some fifteen hundred of your miles, so our camels were loaded lightly, and extra pack animals were brought along. Soldiers in shining headgear escorted our distinguished party through the Zagros mountains and down to the bridge over the river Euphrates, but there at the border they left us with no protection but our own wisdom.
We rode for days, for weeks, for months. We rode in blazing sun and blinding dust. We rode until all of us wished we had never smelled a camel or sat in a high wooden saddle, but finally we arrived on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews. Melchior wanted to go there because we didn’t know where the infant king was born, and Jerusalem was the most likely place. Even if he was not there, then surely we could discern his whereabouts.
Cartledge: And this is where you met King Herod?
Gaspar: You are correct, though I don’t like to remember it. We were shocked to discover that no one knew anything about a new king being born, but everyone was extremely curious. We asked a simple question: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Soon, the entire city was in an uproar, and a band of soldiers was escorting us to the palace.
We were not aware that King Herod had become so paranoid and suspicious in his old age. As you may know, Herod was so afraid of being deposed that he had his own wife and several of his children executed for fear that they could not wait for him to die. He was markedly distressed to hear us inquiring about a new king, a
nd we feared for our lives. Diplomatic immunity means nothing to a crazy man.
But, Herod feigned politeness. He was old and covered with sores. There was a bad smell about him that even perfume could not hide. We had a bad feeling about him, too. We knew he had called in the chief priests and forced them to tell him where the Christ was to be born. One of them remembered something from the prophet Micah, and he was so nervous that he misquoted the text, but the essentials were there: “And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6, cf. Mic. 5:2).
Cartledge: So Herod already knew the child was born in Bethlehem?
Gaspar: Yes, but he was ignorant concerning the child’s age. He called us close and spoke in a hoarse whisper, wanting to know the exact time of the baby’s birth. We didn’t trust the old king by now, and pretended not to know anything specific. He sent us away with a wicked smile and these instructions: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage” (2:8). We could tell that homage was not his intention.
Cartledge: But it was your intention?
Gaspar: Absolutely. We had only the best of motives. Oh, we were so relieved to escape from that putrid palace and get back into the clear night air–I was even happy to mount my camel again! Bethlehem was a small hamlet just about six miles due south of Jerusalem, on the main road, so we decided not to wait until morning.
As we guided our beasts out of the great city and into the desolate country¬side, the most amazing thing happened–the star of his birth suddenly appeared again! Words cannot express the joy we felt, but the strange thing is that no one else seemed to notice. Perhaps your Lord prepared the star for our eyes only. Perhaps only our eyes were practiced enough to notice the presence of one new star in all of the heavens.
In any event, we rode toward the star, and it led us to Bethlehem, straight to a small mud brick house with the coals of a cooking fire glowing in the tiny courtyard. The doorway was covered with a heavy cloth, so we knocked on the lintel. The man who pushed the curtain back was surprisingly young, but we could see in his eyes that God had made him wise beyond his years. He had already seen many surprises.
Cartledge: This must have been Joseph.
Gaspar: Of course. Joseph let us in, and there we saw a baby in a well-built cradle, playing under the watchful eye of his mother. He appeared to be at least a year old by now. We were astonished at the simplicity of the home, but the mother Mary told us that the child had actually been born in a stable, and first laid in a manger!
This did not look like a king’s home, or a king’s parents, but we trusted the star. Not wanting to draw Herod’s attention, we quickly presented our gifts. We brought gold as a symbol of royalty. We brought frankincense as a sign of immortality. And, we brought myrrh. I don’t know why. Myrrh is a fragrant burial spice and a symbol of suffering, but something had laid it on our hearts to offer it. Little did we know how appropriate it was, or just how much suffering this child would bear.
They told us his name was Jeshua, “Yahweh is salvation.” We were more convinced than ever that this child would be no ordinary king. As we prepared to leave quickly, and by a route that did not go through Jerusalem, we advised this young family to do the same, for we were certain that Herod’s spies were close behind. Later we learned that Joseph and Mary took the child to Egypt until Herod finally died. We also heard that the wicked old king murdered every boy child in Bethlehem under two years old! The Christ child was not the only one who suffered.
Cartledge: Gaspar, do you have any parting words for our readers?
Gaspar: Yes, thank you. I would ask you to consider these questions:
1. You claim to worship Christ. How much effort do you put into seeking him?
2. If you believe that Christ is Lord, what gifts are appropriate for you to bring?
3. Since meeting the Christ child, my life has not been the same. What difference does he make in your life?
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.