So Who Were the Magi—AKA the Three Kings—Who Visited Jesus?

Public Domain/Hugo van der Goes/WikiCommons
Public Domain/Hugo van der Goes/WikiCommons

Believe it or not, Christmas didn’t end until this week. January 6 marks Epiphany, the final night of the "Twelve Days of Christmas," and the traditional date when the Magi visited baby Jesus and his parents. You might be packing up your Nativity scene in a flurry of New Year’s Resolution-inspired organization, but in the religious calendar, the Magi are arriving fashionably late. That they got stuck in holiday traffic has in no way muted our fixation with them: though the Bible tells us almost nothing about them, we have been collectively obsessed with them for two millennia.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the canonical four to mention the Magi, they came to Jerusalem “from the east” and led by a bright star. They arrived in the Royal City and asked Herod and the scribes where the King of the Jews was supposed to be born (astral guides aren’t as precise as satellite navigation). Herod et alia dispatched them to Bethlehem. Once there, the Magi presented the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A dream warns them not to return to Jerusalem, so they take a different route back to wherever they came from.

This is all that Matthew tells us. He does not tell us the names of the Magi (which, according to most Christian tradition, are Balthazar, Kaspar, and Melchior). He does not call them kings but “wise men” or magoi. He doesn’t even tell us that there were three of them. The only reason we assume that there are three is that three different kinds of gifts are specified. But for all we know there were two, four, or, as some eastern forms of Christianity have it, twelve.

Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel, an associate professor of religion at Ferrum College currently writing a book on the history of the Magi, told me that nothing about the story is very specific. We don’t know where the Magi came from, what the meaning of the star is, or what “wise man” means. They might have been philosophers, astrologers, or magicians. In sum, he said, “Matthew tells us a lot less than most readers remember.”

These ambiguities created space for Christians—from antiquity to the present day—to fill in the blanks. One Syriac text known as the Revelation of the Magi, tells the story from the perspective of the Magi themselves. In this piece of ancient fan fiction, the magi are priestly figures who worship the God of Israel and “pray in silence.” They purportedly came from Shir, at the easternmost edge of the world. Comparatively mundane traditions, Vanden Eykel told me, suggest that the Magi came from ancient Persia. This interpretation, he said, came from Greek historical texts, like those written by the Geographer Strabo, that identified the Magi as a “class of people in Persian society.” As a result, Christian artwork of the Wise Men often shows them in Persian attire wearing Parthian trouser suits, cloaks, and floppy hats.

The identification of the Magi as kings was the product of early Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Dr. Brent Landau, author of a recent translation of the Syriac The Revelation of the Magi, told The Daily Beast that “early Christians noticed passages like Psalm 72:10-11, about kings from far-off lands rendering tribute to the King of Israel, and wondered whether this might have been a prophecy about the Magi. Tertullian in the third century describes the Magi as ‘almost kings,’ and almost two hundred years later, Augustine flatly calls them monarchs. From there, the belief became commonplace.” Not so common, however, that the testy Protestant reformer John Calvin would accept it. He called the identification of the Magi as Kings as a “childish error” by the Roman Catholics.

What wasn’t unusual to ancient people living in the Roman empire was the idea that celestial events might prompt someone to undertake a lengthy journey. It was pretty much a given that astronomical occurrences were a means by which God, or the gods, could communicate with people. The eclipse that takes place at the crucifixion, for example, is a clear sign that something of cosmic proportion had just taken place. God doesn’t seem thrilled. Using the stars to navigate is both good navigational practice and a form of divination. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero uses the stars to guide him on his quest, but this just makes him a respectable ship captain.

In some Christian traditions, the Magi have more than just the star to guide them. A twelfth-century stone carving from Autun Cathedral shows the three Magi snuggled in bed under a single embroidered blanket while an angel gently rouses them from their dream. In some earlier traditions, the star that guided the travelers was an angel itself, while in one tradition the star was the infant Jesus himself. More recent interpreters have been less generous in their interpretation. Jehovah’s Witnesses see the star as demonic technology inasmuch as it brought the foreign astrologers to Herod and set off a chain of events that endangered Jesus.

The idea of undertaking such a long journey to initiate diplomatic relations with a new king was not that extraordinary either. According to a story related by Roman writers Pliny, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius, Tiridates, the Zoroastrian King of Armenia, traveled overland to Rome to pay his respects to the Emperor Nero and put an end to tension between Rome and Parthia. The visit was a huge success and was remembered for generations afterward. Some scholars have suggested that the story of the Magi was based on the Tiridates story. Vanden Eykel told me that while he wouldn’t go this far himself, it’s safe to say that “a story of people traveling in order to honor a king wouldn’t have stood out to first-century readers as unusual.”

What is interesting about the Magi story, said Vanden Eykel, is how it becomes a blank slate onto which people can project their own theological interpretation of who Jesus was. Take, for example, the differentiated skin tone of the Magi in modern European and North American Nativity scenes. One of the Magi almost always has darker skin than the others. Part of the impetus for this idea comes from the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy in which the Magi are identified as coming specifically from Persia, Arabia, and India. The underlying motivation here is the idea of Jesus as a universal savior: Vanden Eykel said, “The sense would be that if you want to portray Jesus as a “global” messiah, then you’d want to have a range of skin tones present.” (The problem, of course, is that these Nativity scenes usually and erroneously present everyone else as exceptionally pale).

Using the Magi to convey the universality of the Jesus message does not always involve a focus on melanin. One of the fifth-century mosaics in the Basilica Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, shows the Magi at different junctures of their lives. One is a clean-shaven youth, the next a middle-aged man with a dark brown beard, and the last is older and silver-haired. Vanden Eykel said that images like this “frame the Magi as a kind of ‘representative sampling’ of non-Jews” and intimate that Jesus’s message is for everyone.

While the Bible itself tells us very little about who the Magi were, our interpretation of them tells us a great deal about ourselves. The sophisticated and elaborate interpretations of the meanings of the gifts they deliver; the speculation about the identities, origins, and even deaths of the Magi (their relics are supposed to be in Cologne); and the descriptions of their journey are all evidence of the vibrancy of Christian imagination.

If all of this strikes you as a little fanciful, then spare a thought for the Nativity’s real losers: the shepherds. Though they are among the first witnesses to the incarnation and are even the first to spread the word about Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Luke, history has not been as interested in their identities, backstories, or afterlives. Ironically, for a religion founded by a carpenter, history prefers mysterious rich foreigners to ordinary people. This nameless, numberless group is remembered in artwork and Christmas carols but there’s no cottage industry of ancient biography. All of which goes to show that if you make an entrance and bring gifts, you can show up as late as you want to important events.

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