The story is an addition and expansion of the account of the Biblical Magi, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. It tells about a “fourth” wise man (assuming the tradition that the Magi numbered three to be true), a priest of the Magi named Artaban, one of the Medes from Persia. Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews. Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”. However, he stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men (from the Bible). Since he missed the caravan, and he can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. He then commences his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt. He saves the life of a child at the price of another of his treasures. He then travels to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus for many years and performing acts of charity along the way. After thirty-three years, Artaban is still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light. Artaban arrives in Jerusalem in time for the crucifixion of Jesus. He spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. He is then struck in the temple by a falling roof tile, and is about to die, having failed in his quest, and yet he knew that all was well, because he had done the best he could. A voice tells him “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me,” and he dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy. His treasures were accepted, and the Other Wise Man found his King.
“I do not know where this little story came from–out of the air, perhaps.One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East.And yet I have never felt as if it were my own.It was a gift, and it seemed to me as if I knew the Giver.”
–Henry Van Dyke
The Story of the other wise man
“The Other Wise Man” by Henry van Dyke is a powerful story for the Epiphany. It was first published in 1895. Today I present an abridged version.
In the days when Augustus Caesar was master of many kings and Herod reigned in Jerusalem, there lived among the mountains of Persia a certain man named Artaban, one of the Magi. Artaban, like his friends Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar, had observed the star and consulted the ancient prophecies regarding the coming child king. He sold all his belongings to purchase gifts for the child-King; a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. Then he set out on a ten-day journey, to meet his friends, so together they might search for the King.
Time was short. If Artaban arrived too late, his friends would leave without him. Yet, he made good time and on the tenth day his goal was within his grasp. Only three more hours of hard riding and he would make his rendezvous with his friends. But suddenly, he saw something before him and he reined his horse to a stop. Artaban dismounted. The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His humble dress and the outline of his haggard face showed that he was probably a Hebrew. The chill of death was in his lean hand. Artaban turned away with a thought of pity. But as he turned, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man’s lips. The bony fingers gripped the hem of the Magian’s robe and held him fast.
Artaban’s heart leapt to his throat, not with fear, but with a speechless resentment at the importunity of this blind delay. If he lingered but for an hour his companions would think he had given up the journey. But if he went on now, the man would surely die…
Artaban turned back to the sick man. He stayed there and ministered to the man, for Magians are physician as well.
At last the man’s strength returned; he sat up and looked about him. “Who art thou?” he said, “and why hast thou sought me here to bring back my life?”
“I am Artaban the Magian, and I am going to Jerusalem in search of one who is to be born king of the Jews.”
The Jew raised his trembling hand solemnly to heaven. “I have nothing to give thee in return – only this: that I can tell thee where the Messiah must be sought. For our prophets said that he should be born not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem of Judah. May the Lord bring thee in safety to that place, because thou hast had pity upon the sick.”
Artaban pushed on, but alas, he arrived too late. His friends had left without him, leaving him only a note beneath a brick, saying he should purchase provisions and follow them across the desert. And so he did. He sold his sapphire to purchase the caravan of camels to carry him across the sea of sand that lay before him. After many days, he arrived in the little village of Bethlehem.
The streets of the village seemed to be deserted. From the open door of a cottage he heard the sound of a woman’s voice singing softly. He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to rest. She told him of the strangers from the Far East who had appeared in the village three days ago, and how they said that a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her newborn child. “But the travelers disappeared again,” she continued, “as suddenly as they had come. The man of Nazareth took the child and his mother, and fled away that same night secretly to Egypt.”
The young mother laid the baby in its cradle, and rose to minister to the wants of the strange guest that fate had brought into her house. But suddenly there came a noise of a wild confusion in the streets of the village and a desperate cry: “The soldiers! The soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children!” The young mother’s face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her bosom. Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house. The soldiers came hurrying down the street with bloody hands and dripping swords. At the sight of the stranger in his imposing dress they hesitated with surprise. The captain of the band approached the threshold to thrust him aside. But Artaban did not stir. He said in a low voice, “I am all alone in this place, and I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will leave me in peace.”
He showed the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a drop of blood. The captain was amazed at the splendor of the gem. The pupils of his eyes expanded with desire. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby. “March on!” he cried to his men.
Artaban reentered the cottage. He turned his face to the east and prayed, “God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone.”
But the voice of the woman, weeping for joy in the shadow behind him, said very gently, “Because thou hast saved the life of my little one, may the Lord always bless thee.”
And so Artaban pushed on. Down into Egypt he traveled in search of the King. Still his search was to no avail as the King was nowhere to be found. While in Egypt he took counsel with a Hebrew rabbi. The venerable man read aloud from the sacred scrolls the pathetic words which foretold the sufferings of the promised Messiah. “And remember, my son,” he said, “the King who thou seekest is not to be found among the rich and powerful. Those who seek him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.”
Three and thirty years Artaban searched for the King. Worn and weary and ready to die he had come for the last time to Jerusalem. It was the season of the Passover and the city was thronged with strangers. There had been a confusion of tongues in the narrow streets for many days. But on this day a singular agitation was visible in the multitude. The clatter of sandals flowed unceasingly along the street that led to the Damascus gate.
Artaban inquired of a group of people nearby the cause of the tumult. “We are going,” they answered, “to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly.”
Artaban’s heart beat unsteadily with the excitement of old age. He said to himself, “It may be that I shall at last find the King, and in the hands of his enemies no less, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies.” So the old man followed the multitude toward the Damascus gate of the city.
Just then, a troop of soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl. Suddenly she broke from the hands of her tormentors, and threw herself at Artaban’s feet. “Have pity on me,” she cried, “and save me. My father is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave.”
Artaban trembled. It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in the palm-grove of Persia and in the cottage at Bethlehem. Twice the gift which he had consecrated to the worship of God had been drawn to the service of humanity. He took the pearl from his bosom and laid it in the hand of the slave-girl. “This is thy ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.”
While he spoke, the darkness of the sky deepened, and tremors ran through the earth. The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loose and crashed into the street. The soldiers fled in terror, but Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall of the Praetorium. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his gray head resting on the girl’s shoulder, and blood trickling from the wound.
Then the old man’s lips began to move and the girl heard him say, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee hungry and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked and clothed thee? Three and thirty years have I looked for thee, but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”
He ceased and there came a sound akin to a sweet voice. The maid heard it, very faint and far away. And it seemed as though she understood the words, “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou has done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.