Christian lore and tradition assigns several different titles to the Magi, sages from the East who traveled to BETHLEHEM to pay tribute to the baby JESUS. They are referred to as the Wise Men of the East, the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings, the Three Kings of Cologne, or by the names most commonly associated with them in legend—Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthasar. Their association with Christmas begins in Christian scripture. Of the two GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS recorded in the Bible, the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW is the only one to mention the Magi and their pilgrimage. However, this brief account of their actions neither reveals their identities nor elaborates on the source of their prophetic knowledge. Over time, tangled vines of legend have grown up around the slender trunk of Matthew’s account, creating a rich heritage of story, custom, and celebration around these mysterious witnesses of the first Christmas.
THE MAGI IN MATTHEW’S GOSPEL
In chapter two of the Gospel according to Matthew, Magi from the East, led by a STAR, journey to Jerusalem. They arrive at the court of King HEROD asking for the whereabouts of the newborn king of the Jews. Herod, secretly troubled by news of a potential rival, consults Jewish priests and scribes. He discovers that prophecy dictates that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod relays this information to the Magi, asking them to return with news of the child’s identity. The Magi then continue on their journey, again guided by the star. They find Jesus in Bethlehem, worship him, and offer him costly GIFTS: GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, and MYRRH. A dream warns the Magi not to return to Herod, who is planning to kill the child they identify as the king of the Jews, and they set off for their own country by another route.
THE MAGI IN HISTORY
Although the Gospels give no further information about these prophets from the East, scholars of ancient history can tell us something about the people known in biblical times as magi. The word “magi” comes from the ancient Greek term цауог (magoi, plural of magos) and from the Old Persian word magu. Both terms referred specifically to a class of scholar-priests originally from the ancient land of Media (Medes), now part of Iran. In biblical times, magi could be found throughout Persia and in many other Near Eastern countries.
The magi were famed for their knowledge of astronomy, astrology, dream interpretation, philosophy, and religious ritual, hence the translation often given for the term magi is “wise men.” They often served as councillors to kings and as tutors to princes. Their teachings were studied and recorded by some of the most renowned thinkers of ancient Greece, including Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Herodotus. The magi were also associated with what we today would call magical or occult practices, such as divination. Indeed, the English word “magic” comes to us from the ancient word “magi.” Because of the magi’s strong association with magic, the term magi was sometimes used more loosely and negatively by ancient Greek and biblical writers to refer to anyone who claimed occult knowledge from Eastern lands.
When Media was conquered by Persia in the sixth century B.C., the magi adopted many of the ideas of Persian Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion. They became important proponents and developers of Zoroastrian ideas, spreading their influence beyond Persia. One of these beliefs corresponds well with their role in the Christmas story. Like the ancient Jews, Zoroastrians believed in the coming of a savior, a saoshyant. Zoroaster had been the first saoshyant. The last of the three saoshyants, who would be born to a virgin mother, was to be the greatest. He would have the power to defeat the forces of evil, resurrect the dead, banish old age and decay from the world, and would usher in a new age for humanity.
EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATIONS
This historical background helps to explain the presence of magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. As believers in the coming of a saoshyant, they would be expecting the birth of a savior. Since they were skilled in divination practices, they might be keenly interested in predicting this event. As astrologers, they might expect that the prophet’s birth would correspond with a heavenly event, such as the rising of an unusual star. As astronomers, they would know and watch the night sky and notice immediately any such event. As scholars and religious experts, they might be interested in making the journey to Judea to discover the identity of the child and to worship him. Finally, as experts in the study of dreams, they would understand the dream imagery warning them of Herod’s evil intent. Because of the intellectual and occult prestige of the magi in the ancient world, readers of Matthew’s account would be likely to interpret their recognition of Jesus’birth as confirmation of his identity as the Messiah.
Although we do know something of the activities and beliefs of magi in ancient times, we know literally nothing about the individuals who appear in Matthew’s account. He states that the Magi journeyed to Bethlehem from the East, but he does not mention their names, their nationalities, or their exact number. They could have been from any number of countries, such as Arabia, Persia (or IRAN), Mesopotamia, or even INDIA. The lack of detail given in the scriptures led to speculation about the Magi by religious figures, as well as much embellishment of the story in folk tradition. Early Christian artwork depicts two, three, four, or more Magi. Eastern Christians believed that there were twelve Magi. By the sixth century A.D., the idea that there had been three Magi became firmly established among Western Christians. This belief was probably based on the three gifts mentioned in the scriptures, which became associated in folk tradition with three individuals.
By the end of the second century A.D., Christians began to celebrate a special holiday, called Epiphany, in honor of the Magi’s pilgrimage. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation,” “appearance,” or “showing forth.” The feast of Epiphany thus celebrates the first manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, as witnessed by the Magi. Epiphany predates Christmas by well over a century, illustrating its importance to early Christians.
FOLK BELIEFS AND LEGENDS
By the early Middle Ages, folk and Church tradition had converted the enigmatic wise men of Matthew’s Gospel into three kings. Some scholars attribute this transformation to the influence of prophetic writings in the Old Testament (Psalms 72; Isaiah 60:3-6) linking the future conversion of the gentiles with the homage of foreign kings and gifts of gold and frankincense.
The most widespread Western legend about the Magi assigns them the following identities: Melchior, king of Arabia; Caspar (or Gas-par), king of Tarsus (located in southern Turkey); and Balthasar, king of ETHIOPIA or king of Saba (in modern-day Yemen). Not only did legend assign them names and nationalities, but they were also assigned various characteristics. Melchior is most often described as an elderly, light-complexioned man with white hair and beard who bears the gift of gold. Caspar, a young and beardless man of “ruddy” complexion, offers frankincense. Balthasar, a middle-aged African man, brings the infant Jesus a gift of myrrh. (Sometimes the ages of Balthasar and Caspar are switched).
Once these identities became firmly established in the folk imagination, they, too, began to excite speculation. St. Bede (c. 672-735) suspected that the diverse kings represented the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Others believed that the ethnic and racial diversity of the three kings represented the belief that Jesus’ teachings were to spread to all nations. The gifts of the Magi also acquired symbolic meanings. The gold was said to represent Jesus’kingship, the frankincense his divinity, and the myrrh his early death or his ability to heal.
In addition to providing answers about the names, ages and fates of the Magi, folk tales also speculated about their ancestry and origins. One legend affirms that they were descendants of Balaam, a Meso-potamian seer from the Old Testament, who some also called a magus. Balaam predicted that “a star out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) would foretell the birth of a great Jewish leader. The legend suggests that Balaam kept watch for the appearance of the star, passing the search to his sons, who in turn passed it on to their descendants. Another account, again credited to St. Bede, speculates that the Magi were descended from Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Yet another tale declares that the kings of Persia and Chaldea sent the twelve wisest men of their courts to follow the star.
MAGI TALES FROM THE EAST
In the late thirteenth century, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) returned to Italy from his years of travel in central and east Asia. He brought with him many exciting, foreign tales, including some Eastern stories concerning the Magi. In one, Melchior, the eldest, first entered the shelter where Jesus lay. There he encountered an old man who spoke with the wisdom of many years. The middle-aged king went next, and found Jesus to be a learned man of his own age. When the youngest stepped over the threshold he discovered a young man full of passion and inspiration. After comparing and marveling over their varied experiences, the kings entered the shelter together bearing their gifts and found Jesus to be an infant.
Another tale of Eastern origins suggests that the Magi’s gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus. If he chose the gold, he was a king; if he chose the incense he was a priest; and if he chose myrrh he was a healer. The child took them all, and the Magi concluded that Jesus was all three things at once.
One more story states that the Magi received a small gift in return for their pilgrimage, some say from MARY, others say from the infant Jesus. When the Wise Men opened the box, they found only a stone inside. The stone was meant as a sign that their faith should be as firm as a rock. The Magi did not understand this, however, and, thinking the stone worthless, they tossed it down a well. As they did so, fire streamed down from heaven towards the well (or, some say, ascended from the well towards heaven). The amazed Wise Men transported the fire back to their own countries where it was worshiped. This tale presents us with an interesting link back to Zoro-astrianism. In the Zoroastrian religion, fire represents the divine. In Zoroastrian fire temples, flames are kept burning perpetually and are used in religious ceremonies and worship.
THE FATE OF THE MAGI
Many legends suggest that, after returning to their own lands, the Magi devoted the rest of their lives to good works and to spreading the news of Christ’s birth. One tale declares that they were baptized by ST. THOMAS the Apostle and later became Christian priests and bishops. Another suggests that the Star of Bethlehem appeared to them once more, shortly before their deaths. Some believed that they died in the city of Sewa, now in Iran. Marco Polo, who visited that city during his thirteenth-century travels, declared that the inhabitants showed him the tombs of the three ancient kings, called Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, who in their lifetimes had made a great journey to worship a newborn prophet.
In the tenth century the citizens of Milan, ITALY, turned to the well-known legends concerning the Three Kings to interpret an unusual discovery. The embalmed bodies of three men, one young, one middle-aged, and one old, had been found in the church of St. Eustor-gius. These remains were quickly assumed to be those of the Three Kings. The emperor Frederick Barbarossa had the relics transferred to Cologne, GERMANY, in 1164, where a special shrine was built to house them in the city’s cathedral. In this way, the Magi acquired yet a new name: the Three Kings of Cologne.
But how did the three Middle Eastern kings end up buried in Italy? It was believed that the Empress Helena (St. Helena, c. 248-c. 328) had originally retrieved the bodies from the East during her travels to the Holy Land. Legend had it that she brought the remains to Constantinople, and that later they were moved to the city of Milan. The bodies appeared not to have aged since the Magi’s momentous meeting with Jesus, but it was not difficult for people to believe that, in death, the bodies of the kings had been preserved as they had been during that holy encounter. The long tale of the Magi’s bones took a final turn in 1903, when the Cardinal of Cologne approved the return of some of the relics to Milan.
The story of the Magi’s quest has kindled the imaginations of Christians for centuries. The Magi’s journey was one of the most popular images depicted by early Christians in the Roman catacombs. The Magi often appear as characters in medieval NATIVITY PLAYS. A multitude of artists, including the famous painters Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), have created memorable images of the adoration of the Magi. Gian Carlo Menotti’s twentieth-century opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, revolves around a small boy’s encounter with the Magi. Both the Italian La Befana and the Russian BABOUSHKA were believed to have met the Three Kings on their journey towards Bethlehem. The Magi are the central figures in such familiar Christmas Carols as “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” The initials of each of the three kings, CMB, are still inscribed over the doors of houses during the CHRISTMAS SEASON in Germany, Austria, POLAND, LITHUANIA, and Czechoslovakia in order to protect the house. Roman Catholic priests sometimes bless the homes of their parishioners at Epiphany by writing the initials CMB inside the door with blessed chalk, surrounded by the numbers representing that calendar year. In the year 1999, for example, the priest would write 19 CMB 99. Finally, the Magi are often represented in the NATIVITY SCENES that Christians all over the world assemble during the Christmas season.
For close to two millennia, folk tales and legends have embroidered additional details around Matthew’s spare outline of the Magi’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem. For some, however, Matthew’s original text is rich in spiritual significance. The Magi’s journey may be said to represent the universal search for God. Some Christians see the Magi’s story as a demonstration of an active faith; the Magi act on the inspiration and understanding that they have while others, who presumably also see the star, do nothing. The story’s assertion that the non-Jewish Magi are the first people inspired to worship Jesus is also believed to be significant by many Christian commentators. It symbolizes that seekers of all ethnic and religious backgrounds will be drawn to Jesus, that his message is to be offered to all peoples, and that his teachings will spread throughout the entire world.