by Esmerelda Weatherwax (January 2010)
One Christmas when I was a child I watched a television programme where a kindly looking man told the story of the Fourth Wise Man. We were living in Stoke Newington at the time and as we left there in 1963 this must have been Christmas 1961 or 1962.
I remembered parts of the story clearly. That the Fourth Wise Man left late carrying three great jewels, a pearl (of great price) a ruby (big as a pigeons egg, or red as a pigeons blood) and another (couldn’t remember). He was late arriving in Bethlehem, and late to the crucifixion, by which time he was jewel-less. I remembered what he did with the first and last jewels but not what he did with the second and how he spent the 30 odd years in-between.
I never came across this story again, (until a few years ago) despite being an enthusiastic reader all my life. I came to the conclusion that it must have been written for television and that as broadcasts of the early 60’s were never kept there was no chance of the BBC or ITV (Rediffusion in our area) being able to trace it.
My own child began to attend Sunday school and I started to lead a toddler club at our church. The story of the Fourth Wise Man kept coming back to me and 40 years on I started to embroider round the bits I could remember. If I couldn’t remember the middle I had the beginning and the end. Where the child’s memory failed the adult’s imagination took over and this is the story I produced.
Once I had internet access I found the original story, which is The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke written in 1896. I must emphasis that this is my personal recreation of another’s work; I acknowledge the source and assure you that I had no intention to plagiarise.
This was originally published in the NER in January 2007; with Epiphany approaching I thought it worth a reprise.
* * *
We know the story of how Jesus Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem because there was no room at the inn during the census. How he was visited by angels and shepherds and three Wise Men. The Bible doesn’t say very much about them.
The gospel according to Matthew describes them as wise men (or astrologers in one modern version) who came from the east following the star and called on King Herod at his palace in Jerusalem.
“Where is the child who is born to be King of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star and we have come to pay him homage”
Herod was told of the prophecy that the child would be born in Bethlehem, which is a few miles outside Jerusalem. He sent the three men on their way and asked them to report what they found there to him. The star stopped over the stable.
“Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and bowed to the ground in homage to him; then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned home another way.”
Tradition says that the men came from Persia; that they were of royal rank, (Kings!) and that their names were Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. I see no reason why this should not be true. Persia is east of Jerusalem and had a tradition of skill in study of the stars. Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior are as good names as any. We see them on Christmas cards, each riding a magnificent camel, accompanied by their pages, across the starlit desert.
Which is how Balzones came to be late. Although he was a very good scholar he was not of such high rank, and did not have so many servants to wait on him and prepare his camel. He didn’t actually have a camel. He rode a donkey which was a reliable animal but slow. He was very absent-minded and would study so hard he would fall asleep where he sat until his old housekeeper woke him up in time for breakfast.
So the day Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior set off on their fine camels Balzones overslept and didn’t get moving until mid morning. He had his two jewels in a neat leather bag in the rucksack on his back and he left his housekeeper in charge of his house and set off alone on the donkey. Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior had gold frankincense and myrrh in beautiful caskets. Gold is a gift fit for a king; frankincense and myrrh smell beautiful and were used in important ceremonies. Balzanes had a perfect pearl, round and white, which shimmered in the light with all colours of the rainbow. He also had a ruby, red as pigeons blood and as big as a pigeons egg.
It was a long journey, across mountains and deserts, but he met merchants and traders all along the way, and of course because he followed the star he could not go wrong. But he didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until three weeks after the others. They had gone home a different way and so he did not met them on the road. The census was over and the crowds had gone. There was plenty of room at the inn. He took a room, settled the donkey and asked after his friends and the baby King.
“Gone” he was told. The Kings and their servants rode off only a few days after they arrived, travelling quietly at night towards the coast. They were taking the scenic route home. The family from Nazareth had visited Jerusalem to have the baby circumcised and presented in the temple and then they too had gone. To Egypt perhaps, or maybe not.
Supper was served and Balzones decided to rest for the night. Screams were heard, and a loud knocking at the door. Two women carrying babies burst in, hysterical with fear and grief. They ran to the innkeeper’s niece who had her son, a toddler of 18 months on her lap.
“Soldiers are here”, they screamed, “they are killing all the boys, any boys under the age of 2. Little Samuel is dead and so is Joanna’s youngest. We must hide”.
At that three armed men forced their way into the room, swords drawn. Balzones stood up. He held out the pearl. “There are no children here,” he said. The soldiers looked at him, then at each other. They took the pearl. “There are no children here” announced the oldest as they left.
The bribe was not strictly necessary. The three young men, Jonathan, Matthan and Lucas were profoundly shocked at their orders to kill every boy child of two years or less. They hadn’t joined up for this. They wanted some flash armour to impress the girls, some excitement and action fighting the enemy. They were too young and weak to have the courage to defy orders openly but the bribe of the pearl gave them the opportunity to do so on the quiet. On their way out of the inn they killed a chicken. With blood on their swords and their set grim faces the sergeant didn’t question where they had been.
Balzones stayed several months in Bethlehem. He was a stranger but he was able to help in the aftermath of the massacre. When he felt he had done all he could he got back on his donkey and made his way home, sad and troubled.
Back in the Jerusalem barracks Jonathan, Matthan and Lucas thought long and hard what to do. There was unrest. Herod was such a bad King, and the Romans so hated that there was always unrest. The news of the massacre of the innocents caused disquiet all over Judaea. In the temple, the prophetess Anna, a formidable widow and her sidekick Simeon kept quiet about meeting the baby Messiah that day. No need to provoke another massacre here, Anna said.
Eventually the three soldiers heard of a merchant and jeweller called Timaeus. He was rich but reputed to be honest and discreet. He bought the pearl from them. The price was enough for them to buy themselves out of the army and set themselves up in business. They stuck together and settled in the new town of Tiberias in Galilee where many soldiers had been given grants of land. The gaudy soldier’s uniform may have impressed the girls, but the farm and vineyard and fine orchard impressed their parents more. They all married and had children and tried to forget the horrors they had been part of.
Old King Herod died and his son, also called Herod became King. He was not a good king either but under him it was safe for Mary, Joseph and Jesus to return from Egypt. They returned to the family carpentry business in Nazareth. Timaeus the jeweller took the pearl out of his strongbox and put it on sale. It became famous for its beauty. A rich merchant thought it was so beautiful he sold all his other jewels and treasures so that he could afford to buy it.
Balzones spent many years studying and praying about what he had seen. He spoke often to the old wise men about the baby king. Balzones wished he had seen the baby himself but was glad he had been able to help in Bethlehem. Balthazar who was an old man to make such a journey died the next year, happy that he had seen the King. The others continued to pray and speak of God and the momentous things that must be to come.
Years passed, maybe 30, and Balzones was approaching old age. Melchior and Caspar were now very old and frail. News came of a young preacher in Israel called Jesus. He came from a town called Nazareth which hardly anyone in Persia had heard of. He was said to be the Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. Balzones knew at once who he was. He set out again, this time he borrowed a camel, to Israel with the remaining jewel.
He rode through the countryside and where ever he went he heard of this man, who preached of Gods love and forgiveness. That he taught using stories of ordinary people and events that even children could understand. He heard how he had defied the priests and Pharisees who ran the temple and was as learned as they were. How he had healed the sick and lame, and had twice fed thousands of people with a meal meant for only one. That he mixed with everybody. With him prostitutes and thieves were the equal of orthodox lawyers. And most of all that he was the Son of God. He had said
“I am the resurrection and I am life. If a man has faith in me, even though he die, he shall come to life; and no one who is alive and has faith shall ever die.”
Balzones inquired throughout Galilee where he could find Jesus Christ. He was told that Christ and his twelve closest followers had gone to spend Passover in Jerusalem itself. In Jerusalem the city was crowded. As well as the usual Passover gatherers, (this year in Jerusalem) followers of Jesus Christ had come to the city. He had ridden in on a donkey, across a carpet of palm leaves to shouts of
Hosanna – Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!
Then, the news came. Jesus had been arrested and tried and sentenced to death. He was to be crucified soon – today – Friday, along with two thieves on the hill outside the city. Balzones was thankful that this time, he was in time. Would his ruby be enough to bribe these soldiers? When he saw the crowd, the might of the Roman army, their iron discipline and sheer numbers he knew it was a hopeless idea. He stood numb with despair.
Then he heard cries. Someone, a small girl, was in great distress. He forgot his own grief and went to see what was happening. Down a side alley a man was dragging two girls out of a shabby looking house. Their father was begging him to stop and pleading, “Please, I will pay you, give me more time, don’t take my daughters” Balzones asked quietly what was going on. His dignified bearing halted the man and a small crowd gathered round to hear the story.
The man was employed by an unscrupulous moneylender. The father had been a potter until the girl’s mother had died and his business had failed. He owed rent, and other bills and the moneylender had lost patience. He was taking the girls to sell into slavery, to cover his costs. No wonder the father was distraught. Balzones offered his ruby to pay the debt. The moneylender himself appeared out of nowhere and began to drool. He thought it should be enough.
Three middle- aged men stepped forward. They had daughters themselves and did not approve of the fate that awaited the girls. Jonathan, Matthan and Lucas looked at Balzones. The three boys were now men, the Persian scholar was an old man, but they remembered that night.
“Enough?” said Matthan, “I should think its enough, how much does he actually owe?”
“And what were you planning to do with the profit then?“ asked Lucas.
“Right” said Jonathan, “You’re all coming with us. Does anyone know if Timaeus and Son are still in business?”
The firm of Timaeus and Son were doing very well. They would not normally do such business with strangers, and in the middle of Passover, but these were not normal times. The ruby was sold, the moneylender sent away, paid off with interest. His minder had enough to stay drunk for several days. The potter was persuaded to accept enough to restart his business and Young Mr Timaeus agreed to hold the girl’s dowries until they were needed. Barzones still had quite a lot of silver left.
Jonathan, Matthan and Lucas told him what had happen to them. They had all continued to be troubled by their guilt at their part in the massacre. Then they had heard Christ preaching around Galilee. Lucas was convinced instantly, Jonathan and Matthan were more sceptical but eventually they realised that they repented of their sins and so could be forgiven. They and their families had come to be followers, but did not know what to do now.
They thought they should make their way to Calvary, to be with the others. Balzones knew he should see Jesus Christ at last but he was sorry he had lost his gifts. By the time he arrived on the hill the sky was darkening. He was in time to hear Jesus tell his friend John to look after his mother and to see him die. His body was taken away and buried in a borrowed tomb. Balzones was still in Jerusalem when news came that the body had vanished. Was the promise of resurrection true?
He travelled back to Galilee to spend some time on Matthan’s farm and meet their families. While there he met several of the immediate disciples, and was able to talk with them. He heard that the resurrection was true. And he heard what Christ had said about faithful servants.
“I tell you this, anything you did for one of my brothers or sisters here, however humble, you did for me.”
When he heard this Balzones felt at peace, and knew that he had used his gifts usefully. He never returned to Persia. He was absorbed into the local community in Galilee. He spent the rest of his life working with the poor using what remained of the silver from the sale of the jewel.
* * *
I did an Internet search for “fourth wise man” That turned up a film of that name made in the 1980s based on a story by Henry van Dyke written in the 19th century. This is available through the Gutenberg Project here There is also another retelling for children by Susan Summers available through Amazon.
I remembered correctly about the pearl and ruby, but got them the wrong way round. The incident with the sapphire before he set off on his journey explains why I could never think of anything that sounded right to do with the other jewel between Christmas and the crucifixion. I do not consciously remember the ending being Matthew 25: 40 but it was an obvious conclusion, as were references to the pearl of great price. I was wrong about two children and a living father but remembered the threat of slavery. The death of Artaban in the earthquake during the crucifixion was a bit of a shock to me. My idea of a more conventionally “happy” ending for Barzones is a reflection of my own sentimental nature. I made the name Barzones up from various name parts out of Persian history. I had intended to call him Bagoas after a character in a Mary Renault novel but on reflection that didn’t seem suitable. Some of the other characters are mentioned in the Gospels, others I made up using real names.
Bible texts taken from the New English Bible.
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