A journey into truth

Priest puts new light on old story

“We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar.

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright,

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect Light.”

— From the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings”

As Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, a Catholic priest has written a book that gives new meaning to the holiday.

In his nonfiction work, “Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men,” Father Dwight Longenecker takes a deeper look at the Magi, who they were and where they came from.

He dispels myths while at the same time verifying that Magi as recorded in Chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel are historic and real men.

Longenecker, who serves as parish priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, said traditionally people believe there were three kings who came to honor the baby Jesus because of the words in the “We Three Kings” carol.

However, Matthew’s account does not say how many Magi came or that they were kings.

It says they came from the East but does not specify the Orient.

In his research, Longenecker discovered they were Nabataens from Arabia, Persia. The Nabateans were were wealthy traders, and the Magi are believed to have worked for the Nabatean king in Petra. He said the frankincense and myrrh they brought the Christ child could only be harvested from trees that grew in Southern Arabia and East Africa. Gold also came from that area.

Longenecker’s journey into the truth about the Magi started when he was commissioned by a magazine a few years ago to research where the Wise Men came from.

He said his investigation became like a detective story. He said the more he dug into the history, the more clues he found through his study of history, archeology, astronomy and the Bible.

“It started to fit together like a puzzle,” he said.

In his work, Longenecker had to separate a lot of fact from fiction. He said from the second to the fifth century after the birth of Christ, recorders of the story of the Magi began to elaborate and from that time the myths and legends began to grow.

“I had to peel away all the wrappings,” he said, adding that some of the traditions people hold near and dear are probably not true.

For instance, the Magi are commonly known as Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar and Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar, but there is no historic or biblical basis for the names and nationalities.

Nor is there any evidence, they were royalty although they had royal connections, according to Longenecker.

And while creches and Nativities depict the shepherds and the Magi bowing to Jesus in the same scene, their visits were at least months and maybe a year or two apart.

St. Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament tells of angels appearing to the shepherds the night he is born. Matthew’s account refers to Jesus as being a child.

“Most scholars believe Jesus was about one or two years old,” Longenecker said.

The book also refers to the star that led the Magi to King Herold to inquire as to where the king of the Jews would be born. He said study of the night sky was universal at that time and every king’s court has soothsayers and astronomers. Constellations in the night sky were assigned to different countries, Longenecker said. He said an occurrence in the constellation assigned to the Judeans indicated a royal happening which led the Magi to inquire about a king’s birth.

Longenecker, who has written 16 books on different aspects of religion, said a lot of legends exist that cause people to believe they cannot trust the New Testament.

He said he wrote “Mystery of the Magi” “to help people look again at the New Testament and to take the Christmas story seriously.”

“It’s a story rooted in history,” he said of the visit of the Magi to Jesus’ house in Bethlehem.