Contemporary Christ-followers point to the magi, or wise men, when they consider the gifts brought to the infant Jesus, probably some months after the infant Messiah's birth. In the Gospel narratives, they appear to be the only gift-givers associated with the Nativity.
It may well be that the most significant and lasting gifts brought to Jesus after his birth came from the shepherds who arrived at the stable breathless and empty-handed.
Tradition has it that the magi numbered three, possibly because of the three gifts they carried cross-country and presented to the Christ child: gold, frankincense and myrrh, ordinary items nevertheless fit for a king. These visitors from the East informed King Herod of the birth and of their intent to worship the "king of the Jews."
When they eventually found Jesus, they presented their gifts and — according to the Gospel of Matthew, the only Gospel that mentions them — bowed down in worship. Having been warned in a dream not to go back through Jerusalem and report to Herod, they took another route home.
Matthew tells us no more about these magi, although tradition gives each a specific name and speculates about their expertise, credentials and ethnic origins.
The shepherds, no doubt excited by the heavenly revelation of an angel choir, were tending sheep within walking distance (more likely running distance) of Bethlehem and didn't even debate setting out to find the Christ child. They hurried to the scene, verified what the angels announced and then returned to their lives as shepherds.
Like the magi, this is the last we hear of these shepherds. There apparently is no extended tradition or speculation about their given names. We assume they were Palestinians of Jewish descent. Luke doesn't specifically say that they even bowed down and worshipped the infant Jesus.
Luke does give testimony of the shepherds' behavior once they left the scene of the Christmas birth. Luke says briefly: "When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them" (2:17-18, New International Version).
While the testimony of the magi and the shepherds has been preserved in Holy Scripture up to the present, what is suggested is that the shepherds may never have gotten over their experience with the angels and with the newborn Messiah. They kept telling others, who were, in turn, amazed at what they heard.
With such experiences, contemporary culture might have promoted them to something more prestigious than sheep-keepers. Luke simply indicates they retained their identities as shepherds, albeit shepherds with amazing and life-changing news. Though they arrived at the stable empty-handed, these men of lowly vocation gave to others information about the eternal gift they had seen in the manger. They may not have known it but they were evangelists.
We can't say for sure about the wise men, but I wonder if they might simply have filed their report of the miraculous birth then moved on to their next astrological finding or scholarly endeavor. Perhaps they returned to an eastern religion with which they were more familiar.
We aren't told all the answers in the biblical account nor are they ultimately important. The primary character, of course, was the infant Savior, not the supporting cast of assembled observers.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.