At Epiphany you may hear a homily about the symbolism of the gifts the Magi presented to the Christ Child: gold for his royal status, frankincense for his divine status and myrrh which foreshadows his sacrificial death.

You may also hear about how the coming of the Magi fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah or how the three kings represent the light of Christ coming to all the Gentile nations of the world.

These theological points are, of course, later reflections on the story in Matthew’s Gospel. They are part of the tradition and are not unworthy, but the theological and symbolic points are not part of Gospel story.

Unfortunately, the story of the Magi, more than any other story from the New Testament, attracted not only significant symbolic accretions, but was embellished by gnostic writers and embroidered by theologians down the centuries. The popular narrative of three royal wizards from India, Persia and Africa named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar who went on a camel-laden trek following a miraculous star is actually far from the simple story in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

In my book The Mystery of the Magi: the Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, I strip away the legend and myth that encrusted the story and explore the geography, politics, economics, religion and culture of the time and place of Jesus’s birth. While many of the beloved traditions crumbled under examination, it was astounding how perfectly Matthew’s account fits with the details I uncover. Those details also illuminate the traditional meanings of Epiphany, but in fresh and unexpected ways.

The three gifts symbolise royalty, divinity and death because a later preacher saw the symbolism and wove it into his reflection. While this symbolism was inspiring to the faithful, it also clouded one’s ability to see the true significance of the gifts. In fact, gold, frankincense and myrrh indicate the origin of the Magi. These three commodities were the cash crops of the Nabatean civilisation.

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