By Jeff Westover
In today's world, many think of them only as the Wisemen. They are also known as the Three Kings who were eyewitnesses to the Nativity and bringers of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Infant Jesus. Their story is well known and widely celebrated. Though documented in just a few scant verses of Biblical text - and recorded in just one of the Gospels that tells the story of the Nativity - nations nevertheless celebrate their exploits and revel in the symbolism their story conveys.
Those elements, in their simplicity, add to the charm of the Christmas story. But in reality, the story of the Magi is more complex. When fully exposed, one feels the story would make a great movie. It is one filled with mystery, adventure, magic and the murderous designs of an evil king.
Who really were these wise men? Where did they come from? What made them follow the star to Bethlehem? Why are they called the Magi? And what is their significance in the story of Christmas? These compelling questions lead to a fascinating perspective on the very meaning of Christmas itself.
~ The Story ~
The story is cryptically told by Matthew in the New Testament. Introduced only as "wise men from the East" they came to Jerusalem to inquire of the newborn "King of the Jews".
Imagine the stir they must have caused.
No doubt these were men of a different culture. Their description as "wise men" means they were highly regarded, they must have had a striking physical appearance and the very way they portrayed themselves left a lasting impression. To some of the more learned in Jerusalem's society their very appearance must have been shocking because the scriptures had long foretold the arrival of foreign kings and gentiles bearing gifts of gold and frankincense for the promised Messiah. Though legend tells us there were three, we have no actual count of the number of individuals known as the Magi who came inquiring to Jerusalem.
But however many there were, they got the attention of King Herod too.
"Herod" was actually a family name of a line of kings who ruled Judea before, during and after the lifetime of Jesus Christ. At the time of Jesus' birth, Herod the Great was king. And he was an evil, tyrannical dictator.
In fact, just as the names Stalin and Hitler today are synonymous with evil rule, Herod the Great was infamous for his crimes against his Jewish subjects. Herod himself was not Jewish, of course. His heritage and family were Idumeans, far from Judea in distance and very different in culture.
Herod the Great was a self-absorbed king and he was forever suspicious of political opposition. He once executed a wife and several sons of people he suspected were plotting against him. He heavily taxed his people to support his lavish lifestyle. And before he died, he directed that a number of well-known Jewish individuals be slain on the day of his death to ensure that people would actually mourn on that day.
The arrival of high-profile visitors who came to worship a king other than Herod must have been most disturbing to Herod. He hastily called his priests and experts in Jewish scripture to determine what this all meant. They told him that ancient prophecy predicted the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and that the Child was destined to be a ruler over Israel.
With evil designs in his heart, King Herod called the Magi before him. He told them that the Messiah was born in the city of Bethlehem. He instructed them to go there to find the Child. "Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."
Following the star once again, the Magi traveled to Bethlehem, located the lowly stable that housed Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. There they worshipped the Child and gave unto him their treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Upon falling asleep after these events, they were told in a dream to avoid going back to Jerusalem because of the evil designs of the King.
Herod, of course, eventually found out the Magi had given him the slip. In a rage, he ordered all male children under the age of two in Israel to be put to death. Joseph, being likewise instructed in a dream, was told to flee to Egypt and await the day of Herod's death.
~ The Magi Explained ~
The Magi, though evil in the eyes of Herod, made a lasting impression upon humanity with their Christmas quest. Though predicted in ancient scripture, the modern world is left to wonder who the Magi really were and why their pilgrimage had to take place.
The word "magi" comes from ancient Greek and Persian terminology referring to scholars and priests. In biblical times, these learned, respected holy men were commonly found in countries of what we call today the Middle East.
They were students of astronomy, astrology, interpretation of dreams and philosophy. Officially, many magi served in advisory capacities to kings and rulers. They were prolific writers and many their teachings survived to be an influence upon later Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The magi were practiced magicians and experts in divination. The English word "magic" is derived from the ancient word "magi".
Some believe the Magi had their beginnings in an ancient religion known as Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians believed in the coming of a savior known as a saoshyant. In fact, they believed there were three saoshyants, Zoroaster being but the first. The third, or greatest of them all, would be born to a virgin mother and his exploits would include total defeat of the forces of evil, resurrection of the dead, termination of old age and renewal of the earth.
All of these known historical factors fit nicely with elements of the Christmas story as told by Matthew. As believers in a saoshyant they could accept the idea of a savior. As astronomers, they would have knowledge of the night sky and be able to determine significant celestial events. As astrologers they might have been practiced in reading the skies for a sign through the rising of an unusual star. And as interpreters of dreams, the understood fully the warning of the danger and evil designs of Herod the Great.
~ The Magi Legend Expanded ~
While we know something of their religion and can surmise their motives, we don't know a thing about the people of the Magi individually. Nevertheless, through the telling of their story in art, music and literature mythical details of the Magi have developed over the years.
The fact that many call them Three Kings comes from the assumption that three was the number of the gifts given at the Nativity - gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Legend, unsupported by the Bible, has given the Magi names, ages and nationalities - all conveniently and neatly packaged with deep symbolism. There is Melchoir, king of Arabia, an elderly fair-skinned man with a white beard who gave the gift of gold. There is Gaspar, king of Tarsus, a young man bearing frankincense. And there is Balthasar, king of Ethiopia, a middle aged black man who brought the gift of myrrh.
The gift of gold is meant to symbolize Jesus' status as royalty. The frankincense represents his divinity and the myrrh his ability to heal.
The separation of their ages is explained in a popular story. Melchoir, the elderly Wise Man, went first into the stable where Jesus was. There he found an old man who had great wisdom. Balthasar went next into the stable. There he encountered a man his own age, full of patience. And when Gaspar entered alone he encountered a young man full of energy, passion and inspiration. After comparing notes of their separate encounters the three wise men entered together and found the baby Jesus and gave him the gifts.
Another ancient tale suggests that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were brought to test the Baby Jesus. If he chose the gold, it meant he was a king. If he took the frankincense it meant he was a priest. If he took the myrrh it meant he was a healer. The Child took them all and the Magi then knew they had found a savior.
In yet another famous fable, the Magi received a gift from either the Baby Jesus or Mary. When they opened the box they found but a small stone inside. The stone was meant to be a symbol of faith (as firm as a rock) but not understanding this and thinking the stone worthless, they tossed the stone down a well. As they did, fire streamed down from Heaven inside the well. The Wise Men took the fire back to their own countries and there people worshipped it. This tale, its source unknown, is a curious tie back to Zoroastrianism, whose believers think that fire represents the divine.
Several stories and rumors abound about their eventual fate. Some say the Magi returned to their lands and became proselytizers for Jesus. One story suggests they were baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle and became Christian priests and Bishops. Another story says the Star of Bethlehem appeared to them once again shortly before each died. And Marco Polo, visiting an ancient city in present-day Iran, was taken to a tomb said to contain the remains of Melchoir, Gaspar and Balthasar who traveled far after a star to worship a newborn prophet.
In Italy, the remains of three embalmed bodies - one an old man, another a middle aged man and another a young man - were discovered in a church in St. Eustorgius. By their very nature many assumed these were the remains of the Three Kings. The emperor Barbarossa had them transferred to Cologne Germany in 1164 where a shrine was built to them in the city's cathedral. They gained fame there as the Three Kings of Cologne.
What would explain the remains of three Middle Eastern kings in Italy? It was believed to be the handiwork of Empress Helena who supposedly transferred the bodies during her travels to the Holy Land. She brought the bodies to Constantinople and later moved them to Milan. Reportedly the bodies had not aged since their encounter with the Christ Child. This was easy for people to believe because the bodies of Kings were frequently made to look different in preserving them after death. In 1903, the bodies of the Magi were returned to Milan by the Cardinal of Cologne.
Regardless of their fate, the Magi have been central to the story of Christmas almost from the beginning. In the Roman catacombs early Christians first told their tale in drawings and etchings. World famous artists throughout the ages have depicted them in their work (da Vinci, Botticelli and Valazquez).
In many lands their story changes slightly or expands more. The Legends of Baboushka and La Befana are built around the Magi. And days of Epiphany are widely and diversely celebrated with the Magi as a central focal point. In Spain, they celebrate Dia do los Tres Reyes - or Three Kings Day. In France, it is Le Jour de Rois or Feast of the Kings. In most corners of the world Christmas celebrations vary but most of them include either a reference or a reverential celebration of the Magi.
But what makes their story compelling is that they came in recognition of who Christ was - and they worshipped him even though they themselves were not Jewish. To have come so far in search of a savior and then finding him in the shadows of a people of another faith speaks volumes about the power the drove them on their quest.