Professor E.M. Blaiklock (1903-1983) was the Professor of Classics at Auckland University in New Zealand for over twenty-one years. He was internationally known as a writer on classical and biblical subjects, and his numerous publications include books on Greek and Latin literature, the historical geography of the Mediterranean, biblical commentaries and translations, and guides to the background of the Bible and archeology. As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem as recorded in Matthew 2, his commentary is illuminating.
The common folk found Christ, but so did a few men of intellect, the ‘wise men’ of another culture, those strange visitants who studied the stars, and followed all the way to Bethlehem some message they had read in the bright constellations. Tales have gathered around them, for the ‘three kings’ do, in fact, illustrate properly how, over the lapse of centuries, a myth can grow. Matthew tells briefly all we really know. They came, surely, from the Yemen, the land of their gifts, ‘gold, and frankincense and myrrh.’ They enter the story and leave with mystery behind them. It was easy enough, from Bethlehem, to connect with the caravan routes which ran through Petra, and so to avoid returning to Jerusalem, where the mad king lay in his last evil. They are symbolic of a worldwide longing which can be sensed in page on page of ancient literature, a desire for ‘a savior.’ Misdirected this yearning led to worship of Rome’s emperor, the cult of ‘the Beast,’ as the last book of the Bible puts it, and the long clash with the Church.
History had prepared the path for the Magi. We do not know how many, over a full thousand years, may have shared their expectation. Solomon had established relations with the Southeast a thousand years before. His ships went to Ophir, near modern Aden, and his caravans trod the desert routes through colored Petra. Shabwa, ancient Sabota, was probably the Sheba, whose queen came to see the glory of Solomon and returned to fill Arabia and Ethiopia across the strait with legends of her beauty. And Yemen watched the stars. Her wise men knew their courses. They worshiped Astarte, who hung in the sky as the Evening Star, bright as a lamp in the velvet darkness, and often visible in broad day. Is it not more than possible that with Judah’s cargoes, Judah’s Messianic hope went down the desert ways, and that expectant hearts read the promise aright even in Yemen? Did not the eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia come, years later, with his roll of the prophet Isaiah? And when the time was full, did the glowing star shine with a new message and draw the Wise Men to Palestine?
It is a restless, yearning world again, plagued by its own hates, passions, pride. A scientific age, so rich in the achievements of its reason, finds it difficult to believe what its eyes cannot see and its computers measure.
Who are the Wise Men now, when all is told?
Not men of science; not the great and strong;
Not those who wear a kingly diadem;
Not those whose eager hands pile high the gold;
But those amid the tumult and the throng
Who follow still the Star of Bethlehem.