In Christian tradition the Magi (Greek: μάγοι magoi), Three Wise Men, Three Kings or Kings from the East are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts. The Gospel of Matthew (Mt 2) is the only one of the four Gospels to mention them, stating that they came "from the east to Jerusalem" to worship the Christ, "born King of the Jews".
Because three gifts were recorded, there are traditionally said to have been three Magi, though Matthew does not specify their number.
The KJV translation as wise men may be somewhat politically motivated: the same word is translated as sorcerer to condemn "Elymas the sorcerer" in , and is translated sorcery to describe Simon Magus in . Treating Simon Magus as being as wise as the Magi that visited Jesus could be viewed as heresy — Simon Magus is considered by many early Christians to be a founder of Gnosticism a collection of religous sects condemned as arch-heresy.
In contrast, the Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. These names have a far greater likelihood of being originally Persian, though that does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity. The first name Larvandad is a combination of Lar, which is in southern part of Iran, and vand or vandad which is a common suffix in Middle Persian meaning "related to" or "located in". Vand is also present in the names of such Iranian locations as Damavand, Nahavand, Alvand, and such names and titles as Varjavand and Vandidad. Alternatively, it might be a combination of Larvand meaning "the region of Lar" and Dad meaning "given by". The latter suffix can also be seen in such Iranian names as "Tirdad", "Mehrdad", "Bamdad" or such previously Iranian locations as "Bagdad" ("God Given") presently called Baghdad in Iraq. Thus the name simply means "born in", or "given by", Lar. The second name, Hormisdas, is a variation of the Persian name Hormoz which was Hormazd and Hormazda in Middle Persian. The name referred to the angel of the first day of each month whose name had been given by the supreme God (of Zoroastrianism) who, in Old Persian, was called "Ahuramazda" or "Ormazd". The third name, Gushnasaph, was a common name used in Old and Middle Persian. In Modern Persian, it is Gushnasp or Gushtasp. The name is a combination of Gushn meaning "full of manly qualities" or "full of desire or energy" for something and Asp, Modern Persian Asb, which means horse. Horses were of great importance for the Iranians and many Iranian names, including the presently used Lohrasp, Jamasp, Garshasp, and Gushtasp, contain the suffix. As a result, the second name might mean something like "as energetic and virile as a horse" or "full of desire for having horses". Alternatively, Gushn is also recorded to have meant "many". Thus the name might simply mean "the Owner of Many Horses".
Three leaders of the Chinese Christian Church cite an alternative proposal for the origin of one of the Magi. They state that many Chinese Christians believe at least one of the Magi came from China. They cite anecdotal evidence about Liu Shang, the chief astrologer during the Han dynasty in China at the time that Jesus was born. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese called the "king star" - which was associated with the birth of a new king. The disappearance of Liu Shang from China's imperial court for two years shortly after this star was discovered, they interpret as perhaps traveling the Silk Road to Bethlehem.
They were then warned in dreams that revealed Herod's deadly intentions for the child and decided to return home by a different route, in order to thwart them. This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem, an act called the Massacre of the Innocents, in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne. Jesus and his family had, however, escaped to Egypt beforehand. After these events they passed into obscurity. The story of the nativity in Matthew glorifies Jesus, likens him to Moses, and shows his life as fulfilling prophecy. Some critics consider this nativity story to be an invention of the author of Matthew.
Unlike Luke, the author of Matthew makes no mention of the actual birth of Jesus, focusing instead on what occurred before and after. Matthew introduces the Magi, who have come to worship Jesus, while accidentally informing Herod of Jesus' existence.
The phrase from the east is the only information Matthew provides on where they came from, apart from identifying that they come from their own country rather than Judea. Traditionally the view developed that they were Persian or Parthian, a view held for example by John Chrysostom, and Byzantine art generally depicted them in Persian dress. The main support for this is that the first Magi were from Persia and that land still had the largest number of them. Some believe they were from Babylon, which was the centre of Zurvanism, and hence astrology, at the time. Raymond Brown comments that the author of Matthew probably didn't have a specific location in mind and the phrase from the east is for literary effect and added exoticism.
After the visit the Magi leave the narrative by returning another way so as to avoid Herod, and do not reappear. Gregory the Great waxed lyrical on this theme, commenting that having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptised by St. Thomas on his way to India. Another has their remains found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople, and eventually making their way to Germany and the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.
Church tradition also mentions that the Magi were later baptized by Apostle Thomas and became Bishops, spreading Christianty throughout their lands.
Upon meeting Jesus, the Magi are described as handing over gifts and "falling down" in joyous praise. The use of the term "falling down" more properly means lying prostrate on the ground, which, together with the use of kneeling in Luke's birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practice. Previously both Jewish and Roman tradition had viewed kneeling and prostration as undignified, reserved in Jewish tradition for epiphanies; although for Persians it was a sign of great respect, often showed to the king. But inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church; while prostration is now very rarely practiced in the West (still being relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent), kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.
Three of the gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew — gold, frankincense and myrrh — and have become one of the best known items from Matthew; it is often assumed that these three are the only gifts the Magi are described as giving. Gold is thought to have been given by Melchior, frankincense by Caspar, and myrrh by Balthasar or - it is said - Caspar gave gold, Balthasar gave frankincense and myrhh is thought to have been given by Melchior. (It has been suggested by scholars that the "gifts" were in fact medicinal rather than precious material for tribute.)
This episode can be linked to and to which report gifts being given by kings, and this has played a central role in the perception of the Magi as kings, rather than as astronomer-priests. In a hymn of the late 4th-century hispanic poet Prudentius, the three gifts have already gained their medieval interpretation as prophetic emblems of Jesus' identity, familiar in the carol "We Three Kings" by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857.
Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been advanced, since while gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure. They generally break down into two groups:
John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews' traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God. This is believed to be unlikely by some, if the theory that they were members of a Zoroastrian priesthood is correct. However this possibility remains, since zoroastianism prophesied of a messiah type figure Saoshyant who would be born of a virgin — although Saoshyant's virgin birth was not entirely developed until the 9-12th century in the Denkard compendium of beliefs, and prior to that is only hinted at in the older source text, Zam Yasht 19.92. C. S. Mann has advanced the theory that the items were not actually brought as gifts, but were rather the tools of the Magi, who typically would be astrologer-priests. Mann thus sees the giving of these items to Jesus as showing that the Magi were abandoning their practices by relinquishing the necessary tools of their trade, though Brown disagrees with this theory since the portrayal of the Magi had been wholly positive up to this point, with no hint of condemnation.
The gifts themselves have also been criticized as mostly useless to a poor carpenter and his family, and this is often the target of comic satire in television and other comedy. Clarke states that the deist Thomas Woolston once quipped that if they had brought sugar, soap, and candles they would have acted like wise men. What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas.
In the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos there is a 15th century golden case containing purportedly the Gift of the Magi. It was donated to the monastery in the 15th century by Mara Branković, daughter of the King of Serbia Đurađ Branković, wife to the Ottoman Sultan Murat II and godmother to Mehmet II the Conqueror (of Constantinople). Apparently they were part of the relics of the Holy Palace of Constantinople and it is claimed they were displayed there since the 4th century AD. After the Athens earthquake of September 9 1999 they were temporarily displayed in Athens in order to strengthen faith and raise money for earthquake victims.
When the Magi first enquire about Jesus, Matthew says that they are overheard by "Herod the King", which is accepted as referring to Herod the Great who died in 4 BC. This is seemingly in contradiction with Luke's mention of a census and of Quirinius being governor of Syria, which both apply to some time after AD 6. The Magi claim to wish to pay homage (proskunesai in the Greek) to a King of the Jews. While proskunesai can mean honouring either a king or a God, King of the Jews is a clear and direct challenge to Herod's authority. Herod was renowned for his paranoia, killing several of his own sons who threatened him. As an Edomite, Herod would be especially threatened by a Davidic heir, who would automatically be more in favour with Jewish fundamentalists of the time, who had a particularly xenophobic attitude.
Why all Jerusalem should be troubled by an opponent to Herod is a more important question. Throughout this chapter Matthew shows the leaders of Jerusalem allied with Herod against Jesus, and so these passages have often been quoted in support of Christian anti-Semitism. That all Jerusalem is agitated also seems to conflict with later passages in the same Gospel, where the people are quite oblivious to Jesus' existence. Gundry sees this passage as influenced by the politics of the time it was written, as a foreshadowing of the rejection of Jesus and his church by the leaders of Jerusalem. Brown notes that another option, supported even in ancient times by John Chrysostom, is that Matthew is trying to portray Jesus as a new Moses; in Exodus all Egypt is troubled by Moses, not just the Pharaoh. Levin believes in a third option which sees Matthew as presenting a class war throughout his Gospel, with Jesus on the side of the poor and nomadic, against powerful city dwellers.
Most scholars take the reference to all the chief priests and scribes as referring to the Sanhedrin, however, there is a difficulty in taking this literally as there was only one chief priest at the time, so all the chief priests can only literally refer to a single individual. Taking it less literally, Brown notes that this phrase occurs in other contemporary documents, and refers to the leading priests and former chief priests, not only the current head of the priesthood. A more important difficulty with this passage is its historical implausibility, since records from the period show that Herod and the Sanhedrin were sharply divided, and their relations acrimonious. At the time the priests were largely Sadducees while the scribes were mostly Pharisees, thus both groups being present might be a deliberate attempt to tar both leading Jewish factions as being involved with Herod. Schweizer states that Herod consulting with the Sanhedrin is historically almost inconceivable, and he views their presence in the passage merely as a literary device to have someone able to subsequently quote an Old Testament prophecy.
After having consulted with these religious individuals, Herod is described as secretly meeting with the Magi, and subsequently sending the Magi to Bethlehem to discover where Jesus was so that he could worship him. Many scholars, such as Brown and Schweizer, find it improbable for this passage to be factual; Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem and it is thus odd that Herod would need to use foreign priests that he had only just met for such an important task, trusting them implicitly despite his usual paranoia, even though he could easily give the task to his soldiers or others he trusted more. R. T. France defends the historicity of this story, theorising that soldiers might alarm the villagers, making it difficult to find the infant, though searching a village only five miles away, even with deeply distrusting villagers, is not so difficult a task when you have an entire army at your disposal. France has also proposed that Herod chose the Magi to carry the task out since they were more likely to be gullible, as foreigners, or at least have less qualms than Jewish soldiers would about killing someone supposedly fitting a Jewish prophecy.
The Magi are described as having followed a star to Bethlehem, which thus traditionally became known as the Star of Bethlehem. Since at least Kepler's time there have been many attempts to link it to an astronomical event, with the most commonly cited being a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC, fitting in with Matthew's chronology pointing to Jesus being born before 4 BC, and unlike Luke's which points to AD 6. Although traditionally the Magi, coming from the east (apo anatolón, απο ανατολων), are described as having seen a star in the east (en te anatole, εν τη ανατολη), the Greek word in question is anatole, which many scholars feel more accurately translates as a star rising in the morning, meaning a heliacal rising. The star was just above the horizon but hidden by the brightness of the sun. According to Austrian Professor Konradin Ferrari d'Occhieppo — in many books between 1965 and 2003 —, it was not only a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. The star Jupiter (royal star in Babylon) had met Saturn in the sign of Pisces (land in the west) since 854 years. In the astronomer’s opinion this rare event was certainly important for everyone - and most important in Babylon. Also the astronomer had interpreted the words "stood over" as a term that refer the retrogradation and stationing of the royal star Jupiter and Saturn in 12 November 7 BC. The term "stood over" is taken as detail faithful eyewitness report by the Magi, refers to the star already standing and not moving — an astronomical technical term . The term "very large joy" refers without doubt to the end of the journey: the Magi, described as having followed a star to Bethlehem, finding the place of birth and the king wanted for a long time.
John Chrysostom rejected the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a normal star or similar heavenly body, because such a star could not have specified the exact cave and manger where Jesus was found, being too high in the sky to be that specific. Also, he notes that stars in the sky move from east to west, but that the Magi would have travelled from north to south to arrive in Judea from Persia. Instead, Chrysostom suggested that the star was a more miraculous occurrence, comparable to the pillar of cloud mentioned in Exodus as leading the Israelites out of Egypt. In the Byzantine tradition, influenced by Chrysostom's writing and by palace etiquette, the star was interpreted as a palace official that led the foreign dignitaries to the king, and as such is depicted in Byzantine art.
In Matthew 2:9 it states that the star came and stood over where Jesus was, seemingly stating that the star pointed out the specific house or village that Jesus was in. Quite how it did this is unspecified in the text, and artists have portrayed a wide array of means. Hill comments that the star standing over a fixed location is an undeniably miraculous action which defies all attempts to rationalize the star as a natural nova or conjunction. However, it is perfectly possible for a previously moving star or conjunction to appear to halt its location in the sky — the sun freezes in its annual north-south motion for three days twice a year, at the winter and summer solstice (coincidentally due to precession of the equinoxes, 25 December was the winter solstice at the time).
Astronomer Michael R. Molnar and others have taken the view that Matthew's statements that the star "went before" and "stood over" are terms that refer respectively to the retrogradation and stationing of the royal "wandering star" Jupiter. If Molnar's research is correct, this would require the birth to have taken place on 17 April, 6 BC, and the standing over on 19 December, and the Magi would have had to arrive at some point thereafter.
Notre Dame astrophysicist Grant Mathews agrees with Molnar. After two years of research, including access to NASA's astronomical databases, and consideration of the Biblical record and Zoroastrian astrology, he determined that the April 17, 6 BC occurrence is the most likely, even more so than the popular 2 BC event where Venus and Jupiter eclipsed in the constellation Leo.
At the time the notion of new stars as beacons of major events were common, being reported for such figures as Alexander the Great, Mithridates, Abraham, and Augustus. Pliny even takes time to rebut a theory that every person has a star that rises when they are born and fades when they die, evidence that this was believed by some. According to Brown, to many at the time it would have been unthinkable that a Messiah could have been born without some stellar portents beforehand.
According to John Mosley, the program supervisor for Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, the key question is whether the account refers to "stars" or to "planets", though the distinction is not likely to have been meaningful to astrologers like the Magi at that time. If it was a planet then there are a number of celestial events that would have attracted the interest and fascination of anyone, like the Magi, who followed the stars. Mosley argued:
Mosley's claims have been disputed by several astronomers as contrived, and inaccurate. David Turner, professor of astronomy at St Mary's University, has argued extensively against Mosley's conclusions, and has stated that some of the claims are extremely tenuous. The date of Herod's death is generally accepted to be 5–4 BC, which would be before these astronomical events of 3–2 BC, but may have happened in 1 BC. In other words, Jesus was born, the Magi visited Herod, and went to Jesus, Herod caused Jesus to flee, and only then did the stars begin an astronomical event that had highly symbolic significance; suggesting that if that was indeed an event indicating the Messiah's birth, then the Messiah was an unknown individual born 1–2 years after Jesus.
Some Christians have had difficulty with reference to the star, since elsewhere in the Bible astrology is condemned. Consequently, R. T. France has argued that the passage is not an endorsement of astrology, but rather an illustration of how God takes care in meeting individuals where they are. Other Christians interpret the star as a fulfilment of the "Star Prophecy" in the Book of Numbers, 24:17:
There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
The text describes the Magi explaining to Herod about the purpose of their visit by use of a quote from the prophet:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. ― Micah 5:1-3 (according to the Masoretic text)The quotation given in Matthew differs substantially from both the Septuagint and Masoretic texts of the same passage. The Septuagint and Masoretic refer to Bethlehem as Bethlehem Ephratah, which Matthew alters to Bethlehem, land of Judah, apparently to further emphasise that Jesus was born in Judea not Galilee, where he spent much of his ministry, an area that was viewed by most religious Jews as being unclean and lower than the half-cast people in the intermediate region. An even more important change is the almost total inversion of the meaning — Micah has you are little among the thousands of Judah whereas Matthew's quote of it has you are not least among the princes of Judah.
Matthew also replaces the word ruler with shepherd, apparently to present the argument that a Messiah would be a religious figure rather than a political one. The portion of Micah where this quote is found is clearly discussing a Messiah and states that like King David, the Messiah would originate from Bethlehem. At the time it was not widely accepted that the Messiah would necessarily be born in Bethlehem, just that his ancestors would have been, and thus it was not considered essential for a Messiah to be someone born in that town, although it was considered a reasonable area for one to happen to originate from: certainly far more reasonable than the peripheral area of Galilee where Jesus grew up.
In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.
A Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She took the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; they were later moved to Milan (some sources say by the city's bishop, Eustorgius I), before being sent to their current resting place by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in AD 1164. The Milanese celebrate their part in the tradition by holding a medieval costume parade every 6 January.
A version of the detailed elaboration familiar to us is laid out by the 14th century cleric John of Hildesheim's Historia Trium Regum ("History of the Three Kings"). In accounting for the presence in Cologne of their mummified relics, he begins with the journey of Helena, mother of Constantine I to Jerusalem, where she recovered the True Cross and other relics:
Queen Helen… began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind… after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople… and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia.
Upon this kernel of information Christians embroidered many circumstantial details about the Magi. One of the most important changes was their rising from astrologers to kings. The general view is that this is linked to Old Testament prophesies that have the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 72:10, and Psalm 68:29. Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. Mark Allan Powell rejects this view. He argues that the idea of the Magi as kings arose considerably later in the time after Constantine and the change was made to endorse the role of Christian monarchs. By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition of the three were kings, and this continued until the Protestant Reformation.
Though the Qur'an omits Matthew's episode of the Magi, it was well known in Arabia. The Muslim encyclopaedist al-Tabari, writing in the 9th century, gives the familiar symbolism of the gifts of the Magi. Al-Tabari gave his source for the information to be the later 7th century writer Wahb ibn Munabbih.
This positive interpretation of the Magi is not unopposed. The Jehovah's Witnesses do not see the arrival of the Magi as something to be celebrated, but instead stress the Biblical condemnation of sorcery and astrology in such texts as Deuteronomy 18:10–11, Leviticus 19:26, and Isaiah 47:13–14. They also point to the fact that the star seen by the Magi led them first to a hostile enemy of Jesus, Herod, and only then to the child's location — the argument being that if this was an event from God, it makes no sense for them to be led to a ruler with intentions to kill the child before taking them to Jesus.
The Magi most frequently appear in European art in the Adoration of the Magi; less often The Journey of the Magi has been a popular topos, and other scenes such as the Magi before Herod and the Dream of the Magi also appear in the Middle Ages. In Byzantine art they are depicted as Persians, wearing trousers and phrygian caps. Crown appear from the 10th century. Medieval artists also allegorised the theme to represent the three ages of man. Beginning in the 12th century, and very often by the 15th, the Kings also represent the three parts of the known (pre-Columban) world in Western art, especially in Northern Europe. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor and Caspar may be depicted with distinctive Oriental features. An early Anglo-Saxon picture survives on the Franks Casket, probably a non-Christian king’s hoard-box (early 7th century, whalebone carving); or rather the hoard-box survived Christian attacks on non-Christian art and sculpture because of that picture. In its composition it follows the oriental style, which renders a courtly scene, with the Virgin and Christ facing the spectator, while the Magi devoutly approach from the (left) side. Even amongst non-Christians who had heard of the Christian story of the Magi, the motif was quite popular, since the Magi had endured a long journey and were generous. Instead of an angel, the picture places a swan, interpretable as the hero's fylgja (a protecting spirit, and shapeshifter).
In Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein's painting Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi) (1996), Nazi officers in uniform cluster around an Aryan woman, an icy blonde Madonna. The Christ toddler, who stands on Mary's lap, stares defiantly out of the canvas. Helnwein's baby Jesus resembles Adolf Hitler .
In the film Donovan's Reef, a Christmas play is held in French Polynesia. However, instead of the traditional correspondence of Magi to continents, the version for Polynesian Catholics features the king of Polynesia, the king of America, and the king of China.
Further sentimental narrative detail was added in the novel and movie Ben-Hur, where Balthasar appears as an old man, who goes back to Palestine to see the former child Jesus become an adult.
According to Howard Clarke, in the United States, Christmas cards featuring the Magi outsell those with shepherds.
Life of Jesus: The Nativity