They Came From The East: The Three Magi of Christmas

The three Magi, also known as the three wise men, are among the most well-known individuals in Christian theology. They are often depicted or referenced in art, literature, and film, especially around Christmas time. Yet, as prominent of figures as the 3 wise men have become, these magi from the east remain enigmatic at best. Their appearance in the Bible is relatively brief. And the Bible does not go into detail about who the wise men were. By looking at the traditions surrounding the wise men, the story in the Bible, and more recent research about them, it is possible to conjured up a description of these mysterious figures who were said to arrive at the birth of Jesus called the Magi.

Tradition has shaped the image of the Magi as much, if not more, than the actual verses describing them in the Bible. For instance, there is no definite number of Magi mentioned in the Book of Matthew (which is the only book where they are mentioned). It is just tradition that dictates that there were three, who were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

It is likely that everyone assumed there were three Magi because of the three gifts mentioned and the assumption that each gift was carried by one Magi. However, historically it would be more probable that there were a number of Magi who ventured to see Jesus accompanied by an entourage of hundreds, if not thousands, of staff and guards.

The wise men are also usually described as kings in popular culture. Once again, there is no Biblical verse that says the wise men were kings. The basic historical research disagrees with the idea the Magi were kings. Traditionally, the Magi also have been shown as being at the birth of Jesus. This is another tradition that has no backing and has been shown to be historically inaccurate. These details that have become widely accepted provide a very uncertain view on the wise men. Because of this, it is better to go to the source of the story of the Magi, the Bible.

As the source of the story of the Magi, the Bible unfortunately only mentions them in the beginning of the Book of Matthew and, even then, fails to provide many details concerning who exactly these men were. What the Bible does tell us, however, is that they came from the east and were rich and influential enough to catch the attention of King Herod, the ruler of Judea. Herod has traditionally been described as having a nasty temperament and willing to do anything to secure his throne. The fact that Herod sought out the Magi and granted them an audience indicates that they were not simple travelers. Also, the gifts that they carried were an obvious indicator of their wealth, power and the ability to protect that wealth on a long journey from the East.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are the gifts specifically mentioned in the Bible. They were wildly expensive as they were considered traditional gifts to give to a king and reserved for the rich. The Bible also insinuates that the Magi were educated men, most likely astrologers, when it says that they read signs in the stars which told them of the birth of the Messiah. Altogether, the Bible still leaves many unanswered questions concerning the wise men. Fortunately, studying history provides us further insight into the details of these men.

Looking at the information provided in the Bible in relation to the time period is the best way to get a clear picture of these mysterious men. The wise men were described as Magi from the east. This appears to indicate that they came from Persia, which was located in present day Iran. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, as well as other historians from the time, the Magi of Persia were a high ranking class in Persian society. They were teachers, astrologers, and priests of the dominant religion in Persia, Zoroastrianism, which was a dualist religion. This information about the Magi in general seems to line up with the description of the specific Magi in Matthew’s gospel who followed the star to Jesus.

Since no other information is readily available in the Bible, it is difficult to find other information on these specific Magi. However, the remains of these Magi are supposedly in a reliquary in Cologne, Germany. They were originally kept in Constantinople, but were taken to Milan by Eustorgius I, the bishop of Milan. From there they were taken to Cologne by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa in 1164 where they have remained to this day, housed in the Cologne Cathedral.

The idea of the three wise men arriving to honor the baby Jesus has grown to be much more important than understanding who these men were and the story behind them. Many Christians feel the arrival of the Magi, or kings, fulfilled a prophecy in the book of Isaiah 60:1-7 which speaks of kings coming to “the brightness of your rising” (60:3) with gifts of “gold and frankincense” (60:6). Who these men actually were will likely remain a mystery that will continue to be debated by historians, but through continued examination of the sources of their story, an even better image of these biblical figures will be emerge.

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The traditions and legends that have sprung up around the three wise men for the East has become more important to most than historical accuracy. And, as they say, if the legend makes for a better story, go with the legend. Lift a glass and raise a toast this Christmas to mysterious Magi who became legendary and part of a world wide celebration, whoever they were. For whoever they were, they certainly knew something very important was beginning beneath that star they followed. If you would still like to know more, check out Who Were Those Three Wise Men.

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