The Many Myths Of the Magi
Saturday, December 8, 2007
They came. They saw. They gifted.
That's about all we know of the foreign visitors who traveled to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus.
The scene ingrained in the public imagination -- a stately procession of three kings in turbans, crowns, elaborate capes and fancy slippers, with an entourage of servants and camels trailing behind -- is a common image in books and films, but it isn't from Scripture.
In fact, there's no evidence in the Gospels that the Magi were kings, or even that there were three, much less that they sidled up to a manger on dromedaries exactly 12 days after Jesus's birth.
"Legends pop up when people begin to look closely at historical events," said Christopher Bellitto, assistant professor of history at New Jersey's Kean University. "They want to fill in the blanks."
Only the Gospel of Matthew mentions "wise men from the East" who follow a star to Bethlehem. In the original Greek, they were called magoi (in Latin, magi), from the same root that gives us the word magic. It's been posited that they were astrologers or members of a Persian priestly caste.
But what matters more than their number and status, say historians and Biblical scholars, is the fact that they were not Jews.
"For Matthew, the magic star leading the wise men to the place of Jesus's birth is his way of saying what happened in Jesus is for the Gentile world as well," said Marcus Borg, professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and co-author of "The First Christmas."
After being warned in a dream to avoid the murderous King Herod, the Magi returned home "by another road." Metaphorically, that suggests they were transformed by their experience. While Matthew doesn't say they converted to Christianity, legend holds that they were baptized by St. Thomas and died in Armenia in 55 A.D.
The first artistic depictions of the Magi are found in second-century Roman catacombs, but it wasn't until the early third century, when Christian writer Tertullian referred to them as "almost kings," that they began to cultivate a royal air.
Their kingly designation also echoes biblical passages in Isaiah and the Psalms, keeping with the common belief that Jesus's birth was predicted in the Old Testament. Prophecies foretold gifts of gold and frankincense, two of the three gifts the Magi brought. The third, myrrh, was a burial spice, which some believe foreshadowed Jesus's death and resurrection.
Around the same time as Tertullian, Origen -- a theologian in Alexandria, Egypt -- set their number at three, likely because they carried three gifts, said Teresa Berger, a professor at Yale Divinity School.
Later, the wise men were portrayed as representatives of the three races of man as descended from Noah's sons -- Semitic, Indo-European and African.
Fast-forward to the sixth century, when a Latin document recorded their names as Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior and Balthazar, although the source is unknown. By the time their relics arrived at Cologne Cathedral in 1164, the Magi were venerated as saints, and festivals sprang up to honor them.
Today, Roman Catholics and some Protestants commemorate the Magi's visit with the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. Orthodox Christians celebrate both Jesus's birth and the adoration of the Magi together, either on Dec. 25 or Jan. 7, depending on which calendar they follow.
The Magi might get short shrift in the United States compared with other countries, but they play an integral part in the Christmas story, cropping up in songs and often stealing the show in pageants.
William Studwell, a retired professor at Northern Illinois University and an expert on Christmas carols, chose "We Three Kings of Orient Are" as one of two "Carols of the Year" for 2007 to mark the song's 150th anniversary. He recalls his own Magi days fondly.
"It's one of the only things I remember about third grade," he said, "being one of the kings."