Magi . Also called Magi from the East, their origins go back to the Bible . Thus, in chapter two, verse 1-12, of the Gospel of Saint Matthew , the path that three magicians made (named so because at that time the ‘wise men’ were known as ‘wise men’ or astronomers) who followed one star until reaching Bethlehem. There they visited and offered three gifts to the newborn Jesus : gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although the scriptures do not explain where the three kings came from, everything indicates that they came from Babylon or Persia, where the magicians had a great influence.
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- 1 Who were the Three Kings
- 1 Non-biblical evidence
- 2 Biblical Evidence
- 3 Patristic Evidence
- 3.1 Number
- 3.2 Names
- 2 Time and circumstances of your visit
- 3 Origin of the narration
- 4 Source
Who were the Three Kings
Unbiblical evidence from a probable meaning of the word magoi.
Herodotus is the authority to suppose that the Magi were of the sacred caste of the Medes . They provided priests for Persia and, leaving dynastic vicissitudes aside, they always maintained religious influence over their domains . To the head of this caste, Nergal Sharezan, Jeremías gives the title of Rab-Mag, «Magus-Chief.
After the fall of power from Assyria and Babylon , the religion of the Magi lost influence in Persia. Cyrus totally subdued the holy caste; her son Cambyses severely repressed her. The Magi revolted and named Gaumata, their leader, as King of Persia by the name of Smerdis. However, he was assassinated (521 BC), and Darius was made king. This fall of the Magi was celebrated in Persia with a national holiday called magophonia. However, the religious influence of this priestly caste continued in Persia through the government of the Achaemenid dynasty (Persia », X-XV); and it is not implausible to think that in times of the birth of Christwas quite flourishing under childbirth rule. Estrabon says that the wizard priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.
The word magoi often has the meaning of “magician” [magician], both in the Old and New Testaments . Saint Justin, Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome found the same meaning in the second chapter of Matthew, although this is not the common interpretation.
No Father of the Church maintained that the Magi had to be kings. Tertullian says that they were of royal stock (fere reges), and therefore coincides with non-Biblical evidence. On the other hand, the Church in her liturgy applies to the Magi the words:
«The kings of Tarsis and the islands will offer presents; the kings of Arabia and Sheba will bring him their gifts: and all the kings of the earth will worship him »
Psalm 71, 10
This use of the text in reference to them does not further prove that they were kings who traveled from Tarsis, Arabia and Sheba. As frequently happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has come to be considered over time an authentic interpretation outside of it. They were not magicians: the correct meaning of magoi, although not found in the Bible , is required by the context in the second chapter of Saint Matthew. These Magi may have been none other than members of the above-mentioned priestly caste. The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and prohibited sorcery ; his astrology and ability to interpret dreams was the occasion of his encounter with Christ.
The evangelical narrative does not mention the number of Magi, and there is no certain tradition on this matter. Several Fathers speak of three Magi; they are actually influenced by the number of gifts. In the East, tradition speaks of twelve gifts. In early Christianity art is not a consistent testimony as they vary in relation to it, for example:
- a painting in the cemetery of San Pedro and San Marcelino shows two magicians;
- another in the Laterano Museum, presents three;
- another in the Domitila cemetery, four;
- a vase at the Kircher Museum, eight. (Marucchi, “Eléments d’archéologie chrétienne”, Paris , 1899 ).
The names of the Magi are as uncertain as their number. Among Latinos, since the 7th century , there are slight variations in the names, Gaspar, Melchor and Baltasar ; the Martyrology mentions San Gaspar on January 1st, San Melchor on the 6th and San Baltasar on the 11th. The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc .; the Armenians Kagba, Badadilma, etc. Leaving aside the purely legendary notion that they represent the three families who descended from Noah , they appear to be from the East.
To the east of Palestine only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylon have a Magi priesthood at the time of Christ’s birth. The Magi came from somewhere in the Parthian Empire. They probably crossed the Syrian desert, between the Euphrates and Syria , reaching Haleb (Aleppo) or Tudmor (Palmyra), traveling the route to Damascus and to the south , in what is now the great route to Mecca (darb elhaj, “The way of the pilgrims”), continuing along the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to the west until crossing the ford near Jericho. There is no precise tradition of the so-called “eastern” land. According to Saint Maximus it is Babylon; also Theodotus of Ancyra; according to Saint Clement of Alexandria and Saint Cyril of Alexandria it is Persia; according to Saint Justin, Tertullian and Saint Epiphanius is Arabia.
Time and circumstances of your visit
The visit of the Magi took place after the Presentation of the Child in the Temple (Luke 2:38). The Magi had departed shortly before the angel told Joseph to take the Child and his Mother and go to Egypt (Matthew 2:13). Before Herod had unsuccessfully tried to get the Magi to return, leaving it beyond doubt that the presentation would have already taken place. A new difficulty arises: after the presentation, the Sagrada FamiliaHe returned to Galilee (Luke 2:39). This return is not thought to have been immediate. Lucas omits the incidents of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Innocents and the return from Egypt, and retakes history with the return of the Holy Family to Galilee. Catholicism interprets Luke’s words as indicating a return to Galilee immediately after the presentation. The stay in Nazareth was very brief. Some time later the Holy Family probably returned to stay in Bethlehem. Then the Magi came. It was “in the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2: 1), before 4 a. C, probable date of Herod’s death in Jericho. However, Arquelao, son of Herod, succeeded his father as an ethnarch in a part of the kingdom, and was deposed, during the consulate of Lepido and Arruntio year 6 d. C. On the other hand, the Magi come while King Herod was in Jerusalem, 4 or 5 a. C. Lastly, that was after the birth of Christ.
Herod asked the Magi the time when the star appeared. Considering this as the time of the Child’s birth, he killed boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Some Fathers conclude from this cruel slaughter that the Magi arrived in Jerusalem two years after Christmas. Its conclusion has probability; although the killing of the two-year-olds may have been for some other reason – for example, Herod’s fear that the Magi had deceived him as far as the appearance of the star was concerned or that the Magi had been mistaken in the union of the appearance of the star with the birth of the Child. Art and archeologythey favor this point of view. Only a primitive monument represents the Child in the manger while the magicians worship; in others Jesus remains on the knees of Mary and quite grown.
From Persia, where the Magi came from, to Jerusalem there was a journey of between 1000 and 1200 miles. In such a distance they had to spend between three and twelve months on a camel. In addition to the travel time, they probably spent several weeks of preparation. The Magi may have arrived in Jerusalem a year or more after the star appeared. Saint Augustine believes that the date of the Epiphany , January 6 , proves that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem thirteen days after the Nativity, after December 25 . His argument regarding the liturgical dates was incorrect. No liturgical date is certainly a historical date. In the fourth centurythe Eastern Churches celebrated January 6 as the feast of the Birth of Christ, the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ, while in the West the Birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25. That late date of the Nativity was introduced into the Church of Antioch in the times of Saint John Chrysostom, and still later in the Churches of Jerusalem and Alexandria.
That the Magi thought that the star was directing them is evident from the words (eidomen gar autou ton astera) used by Matthew in 2, 2. Was he really a star? The rationalists and Protestant rationalists developed some hypotheses:
- The word aster can mean a comet ; the star of the Magi was a comet.
- The star could have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (7 BC), or Jupiter and Venus (6 BC).
- The Magi may have seen a stella nova, a star that suddenly increases in size and brightness and then decreases again.
These theories ignore the explanation that “the star they had seen in the east was before them until it came to stand on the place where the Child was” (Matthew 2,9). The position of a fixed star in the sky varies at least one degree each day. A non-fixed star could move in front of the Magi until it led them to Bethlehem; No fixed stars or comets could have disappeared and appeared or stop. The Star of Bethlehem could only have been a miraculous phenomenon, such as the pillar of fire that remained in the camp during the Exodus from Israel (Exodus 13:21), or the “blaze of God ” that shone around the shepherds ( Luke 2, 9), or “the light from heaven” that struck down Saul (Acts 9, 3).
The philosophy of the Magi, although erroneous, led them on their journey until they found Christ. The astrology of the Magi postulated a heavenly counterpart as a complement to the terrestrial man and completely conditioned the human personality. Their “double” [the fravashi of the Parsees) developed together with each good man, united the two until death . The sudden appearance of a bright new star suggested to the Magi the birth of an important person. They came to worship him, to know the divinity of this newborn King. Some Fathers thought that the Magi saw in “their star” a fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy:
“A star will shine on Jacob and a scepter will spring from Israel”
(Numbers 24, 17)
But in the parallelism of prophecy , Balaam’s “Star” is a great prince, not a heavenly body; It is unlikely that by virtue of this prophetic message the Magi followed a special star in the sky as a sign of the Messiah . Furthermore, it is likely that the Magi were familiar with the great messianic prophecies. Many Jews did not return from exile with Nehemiah. When Christ was born, there was undoubtedly a Hebrew population in Babylon, and probably also in Persia. For some reason, the Hebrew tradition survived in Persia. On the other hand, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus and Suetonius testify that, at the time of the birth of Christ, there was throughout the Roman Empirea widespread unease and expectation of a Golden Age and a great liberator. The Magi were guided by such Hebraic and Gentile influences to await the Messiah who would soon come. But it must have been some special divine revelation the reason why they knew that “their star” meant the birth of a king, that this newborn king was true God and that they had to follow “his star” to the place of the birth of God- King.
The coming of the Magi caused a great commotion in Jerusalem; everyone, including King Herod, heard his question. Herod and his priests should have been happy with the news, but they were sad. The Magi followed the star about 6 miles south of Bethlehem, “and entering the house [eis ten oikian], they found the boy.” The Magi worshiped (prosekynesan) the Child God, and offered him gold , frankincense, and myrrh . Giving gifts was in accordance with an oriental custom. The intention of the gold is clear: the Child was poor. The Magi probably do not claim symbolic meaning. The Fathers have found numerous and varied symbolic meanings in the three gifts.
The Magi heard in dreams that they did not return to Herod and “returned to their country by another way.” That path could have been a path through the Jordan, in such a way that it eluded Jerusalem and Jericho; or a detour south through Berseba , east of the main road (now the Mecca route) in the Moab territory and beyond the Dead Sea . It is said that after their return to their homeland the Magi were baptized by Saint Thomas and worked hard for the spread of faith in Christ.
Origin of the narration
The story is told by an Arian writer not before the 6th century , whose work is printed as “Opus imperfectum in Mattheum” among the writings of Saint John Chrysostom. This author admits that he has described it from the apocryphal Book of Seth , and writes about the Magi something that is clearly legendary. The Cologne Cathedral contains what purport to be the remains of the Magi; These, it is said, were discovered in Persia, taken to Constantinople by Saint Helena , transferred to Milan in the 5th century, and to Cologne in 1163.