Wise Men. Not too smart though.

I am going to write today about the geopolitical savvy of the Wise Men.[1] They were academics who studied the stars and when they saw one that portended a new king of the Jews, they knew immediately where to go. That’s in Matthew’s account. [2] That’s where the subject of this essay comes from. The title comes from The Matrix, where the Oracle knows all about how much Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) likes Neo (Keanu Reeves). [3] The scene goes like this:  Actually, all the stuff I care about happens in the first minute of this clip.

The Oracle says to Neo, “You’re cuter than I thought. I can see why she likes you…” Neo has no idea what she is talking about. “Who?” he says. And the Oracle continues as if she had not paused for his question “…not too bright though.”

It’s the flavor of that answer that I want you to hear in the title. They are wise, of course, but not that smart.


No one actually knows where the Wise Men were from. There was a lot of astrology being studied in Persia, so that wouldn’t be a bad guess. It’s a long way from Teheran, just to pick a city in Persia (present day Iran) to Jerusalem (just to pick a city in Israel.) [4] Herod, the king of the Jews, lived in the capital city of the Roman province of Judea, and the Wise Men, being well informed, knew that already.

That brings us to all the pictures and all the songs about the Wise Men “following the star.” OK, you tell me. Why, exactly, do you need a star to guide you to Jerusalem. We live here. Herod lives there. Let’s go and tell him the news.

And Matthew doesn’t say the Wise Men followed “a star” as an orienting device.wise men 1 They said “We saw his star as it rose…” To get what that means, you have to give up the regular rotation of heavenly bodies. They were not saying, “We saw Venus come up again and we were so excited.” They are sawing, “A new star—a never before seen star—appeared in the heavens.” And they are saying. “We know from where and when it appeared, just what it means. It means there is a new king, an heir apparent.”  Here is the traditional “following the star through the desert” picture.  What a waste.

So this appearance was a one-time event. We saw it. We understood it. We set up our caravan and headed out for Jerusalem. I call them wise because they saw the star and knew what it meant and also because they knew that the King of Judea would be in Jerusalem.

Not too smart though

Now we come to their arriving at the scene expecting Herod to be ecstatic that he is going to be replaced. Let’s imagine a modern corporate setting in which the boss brings in a young person and introduces him or her to the current occupant of the office as “your replacement.” How would we imagine the current occupant might respond?

And Herod had sons all lined up to take the kingship. [5] So these academics from the East might have done a little homework on their way to Jerusalem. Herod is a violent despot inclined to kill family members. What shall we tell him?

W. H. Auden has captured this very nicely in his poem, For the Time Being. Auden gives Herod a little speech in which he refers to the coming of the Wise Men:

Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”

One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumor is not stamped out now in a few years it is capable of diseasing .the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

The star and the dream

Joseph's House.pngNot to knock the Wise Men too much. The star did reappear to them in Jerusalem and it guided them the remaining five miles to Bethlehem. Not only that, the star “stopped” and it “stood over” the house where Joseph and Mary and their little toddler, Jesus, were living. [6] It’s difficult for us moderns to understand just what itmeans for a star to stand “over” a house. My son, Doug, has another idea. He thinks the Wise Men just went to the house with the Christmas lights on.  Right there on your left, on Main Street.


The Wise Men, in any case did follow the star as they should have and they did stop at the right house as they should have. Not only that, but they heeded the warning the received in a dream that they should not return to Herod as he has asked. We know why Herod wanted them to return to him; he wanted them to rat out the little boy that the star represented. On the other hand, there is no telling what a violent and despotic king like Herod might have done to the Wise Men. So on grounds of prudence as well as obedience to the warning in the dream, they avoided Jerusalem and went home by an alternative route.

So I’ve always like the Wise Men. I like it that they were academics. I like it that they were observant and smart. I don’t hold it against them because they were not also street smart. My wife’s favorite academic is observant and scholarly but, occasionally, not too smart.

1] I’ll keep the capital letters in Wise Men so that you will always know I am talking about the academics who saw the star and headed off to Jerusalem, which was the capital of Judea.
[2] I study Matthew’s story in the odd-numbered years.
[3] You don’t actually have to be an oracle to know that.
[4] About 1300 miles along Route 1. Of course, we don’t know what route the Wise Men (and the whole traveling group that went with them to serve their travel needs and to guard all that gold, frankincense, and myrrh) really took.
[5] It didn’t work. Caesar demoted them all to the position of Tetrarch and gave them only a part of their father’s kingdom each.
[6] So Jesus was born at their house in Bethlehem at the same time the Wise Men saw the star. I think that’s the way the astrology worked. The physical appearance of the heavenly body was a manifestation of the physical appearance of the person who was represented by the star. So, astrologically speaking, Jesus and the star were “born” at the same time and the Wise Men saw the star “at its rising,” i.e. just as it came onto the scene.  So he would have been as old as all that travel plus all the time the Wise Men spent in Jerusalem.  Probably two or three.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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