This Church season of Epiphany primarily celebrates the coming of the wise men to see the young Jesus. Now think of the popular conceptions of the “wise men”. I imagine the picture that comes to mind is much like the one above: a quaint manger, farm animals, some shepherds, and the three wise men, presenting their gifts to the newborn Jesus.
I’m not sure how many of us know how wrong this is.
The wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, their paths did not cross at all with the shepherds (that we know of), and, contrary to some of the most well-engrained church and musical traditions, their number is not given–“three” is just a guess. This guess is probably based on the fact that three gifts were offered (though the 6th-century Armenian Infancy Gospel, the source of the Western tradition of the wise men’s names and ethnicities, lists far more than just three gifts). The Eastern Church tradition even says it was twelve.
And yet, for over a thousand years, on into the present day, these traditions concerning the Wise Men have persisted. We know the sources of these traditions, we know when they became popularized, and we know how they’ve been used in Christian preaching and church life through the centuries. Every Advent season, even the most cursory drive in the suburbs will offer nativity scenes peppered with three wise men adoring the manger-laden Christ.
This reminded me of Jannes and Jambres.