Christmas & Wise Men from the East — China?

By George Veith , January 07, 2019 14:01 PM

The three wise men

Does the Christmas story have a special Chinese connection? January 6th is the day in the western church's calendar known as Epiphany, or Three Kings Day.  According to the Bible story, wise men from the East who were astrologers had seen a new star appear in the sky. They learned that it was the sign of the appearance of a new and important King. They therefore prepared and made the long journey, following the star that ultimately led them to Bethlehem where they found the Christ child whom they worshipped and to whom they gave gifts. 

Because these wise men were not Jews but rather Gentiles, their finding the Christ child is seen as Jesus' first revelation to the Gentiles. January 6th is therefore celebrated as Epiphany. ("Having an epiphany" in the English language has also come to mean having a sudden revelation or realization about something.) Exactly where these magi originated from in the East is unknown. Scripture is not more specific. We do know however that they brought with them three gifts that they gave to the Christ child: Gold, frankincense and myrrh.   

The traditional explanation for why these three gifts were given goes something like this: gold was given for royalty and Jesus was a King; frankincense was a worship perfume used by the priest in the temple and Jesus also had a priestly role; and myrrh was a herb used for embalming a dead body and Jesus would be killed and His body would be buried. 

But what about the origins of these wise men or magi as they are also called? There are some non-Biblical sources that point to their origins possibly being China, given also that the three gifts given were gold (黄金 ), frankincense (乳香 ), and myrrh (没药). Gold has been highly treasured by emporers in China. Frankincense, in Chinese medicine, is one of the natural remedies for treating arthritis and when it is mixed with myrrh, it is a potent antibiotic that kills germs.  What a helpful gift for a child that is born in a dirty stable for animals. Although many cultures use traditional herbal medicine, the Chinese have many thousands of years of experience.  In addition to this, of all the ancient civilizations, the Chinese were the most advanced at astronomy and reading the stars.  I recently visited the Beijing Ancient Observatory (北京古观象台) and saw the many instruments and celestial maps made by those ancient astronomers and astrologers.  

The evidence is not conclusive for a Chinese connection to those first magi.  However, it is interesting to imagine if it were true, the kind of report they would have brought back to China about finding the Christ child. It would have indeed fulfilled the words of  the scriptures in Psalm 72:10 which say, "The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him;..." China could indeed be that distant shore. One can only speculate. 

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