From Ant Greenham, Assistant Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at SEBTS, and author of Muslim Conversions to Christ: An Investigation of Palestinian Converts Living in the Holy Land. See also his research published as an article in St. Francis here: Key factors why Palestinian Muslims became Christians.
My friend Tony Maalouf [author of Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God's Prophetic Plan for Ishmael's Line] argues persuasively that the magi, or wise men, who visited Jesus in Bethlehem, were Arabs. They came from the east (i.e. from present-day Jordan, or thereabouts), not from the north, like Babylonians, Persians and Greeks, who imposed centuries of hegemony over God’s people as they waited for their Messiah.
Whether they were Arab or not, the magi were quite likely influenced by Babylonian wisdom, as their name suggests. But they definitely had the wisdom to discern that a particular star, whatever it was astronomically, signified an extraordinary birth. In fact, the infant they went to see was not only King of the Jews, but one worthy of worship (Matt 2:2). How did they know this? While not excluding the supernatural, I would like to suggest they read and believed that portion of the Jewish Scriptures written in Aramaic, almost certainly a language they read with ease. The portion concerned is Daniel 2:4–7:28.
Reading just this Scripture, they could conclude two things: From the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire, there would be four kingdoms, the last superseded by an everlasting kingdom, set up by God himself (Dan 2:44). The Babylonians, Persians and Greeks had come and gone. They were now in the era of the fourth kingdom, Rome. So it would stand to reason to look for a sign (such as an unusual star) which signified God was about to fulfill his promise. Second, God’s promise was centered in one like a Son of Man, who would be given eternal dominion, and enjoy the adulation of all peoples, nations and languages (Dan 7:13–14). So what else could they do, but respond to the star by going to Jerusalem and inquiring after one who was both human king and divine Lord?
Herod, that impetuous Roman ally, would try to negate God’s kingdom by slaughtering the infants of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). But God’s word is true, and Jesus was spared to live a perfect life, die on the cross for our sins, rise from the dead, and return one day in glory. The magi, it seems, had the wisdom to understand this. Once they reached their goal in Bethlehem, they worshiped the child Jesus (but not his mother, or Joseph), and presented him with gifts of gold (for a king), frankincense (for a priestly mediator), and myrrh (to foreshadow his death, Matt 2:11).
This advent I am living among a delightful group of Arab believers in Jordan. They certainly have the wisdom to place the Jesus born in Bethlehem, who came to save us from our sins, at the center of attention. As we move into Christmas, it is my prayer that everyone reading this would do so too.
Ant Greenham, December 2011