In the New Testament of the Bible, Matthew related the coming of the wise men to Bethlehem. Matthew 2:1 reads “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.”
Nowhere in this report of the coming of the wise men are they named or counted. And their origins are left unknown. The only clue to the number of wise men lies in their gifts. There were three: gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew reported that they went to Jerusalem and gained an audience with King Herod. They asked him the whereabouts of the King of the Jews because they had seen his star. The purpose of their journey was to honor the new King.
Now Herod did not take this well. As far as he was concerned, he was the king of the Jews and any competition was definitely not welcome. But he was a sly man. He told the wise men that he would find out where the child was. Calling his advisors to him, he demanded to know where this king was. They pinpointed Bethlehem because the prophecies had predicted that a ruler would come forth from Bethlehem to lead the people of Israel.
Herod then questioned about the length of time since the Star had appeared. He told them to go to Bethlehem and find this child. Then he asked them to report back to him so that he could go and honor the new king as well.
These apparently politically naive magi went on to Bethlehem and determined that the Star was directly over a house. Inside they found the baby Jesus and his mother, Mary. They presented their gifts. Then they all had dreams in which they were warned not to return to Herod so they headed for home without returning to Jerusalem.
Herod was upset when the magi did not return. Since the magi had not identified the Christ Child for him, Herod ordered that all male children in the area between newborn and age 2 years be slaughtered. But Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been warned. They had already fled to Egypt by then.
Who were these mysterious men, the magi, the wise men?
The Bible does not say anything more about the three magi after they came to honor the Christ child and left for home. But in the Old Testament there are prophecies recorded that seem to mention them. Here Isaiah appears to be foretelling the coming of kings to the birth of Christ.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,Isaiah 60:1-6
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
“Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
This passage seems to indicate that the wise men (or kings?) bearing the gold and incense (frankincense) would come from a land where there were tribes named Midian and Ephah. And these tribes existed in the northwestern part of what is now Saudi Arabia. At that time it was a kingdom called Nabatea.
Or the kingdom may have been in Jordan, near Petra.
The king of Nabatea at that time, Aretas IV, was in communication with Herod and could have dispatched the magi on their quest as a diplomatic mission to Herod. The Star, however, was apparently far more important to the wise men than the mere politics of kingdoms.
Some scholars think that Psalms 68:29 is another prophecy of the magi.
“Because of Thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto Thee.”Psalms 68:29
If so, it is not very clear.
Psalms 72:10 seems to be much more relevant.
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the islesPsalms 72:10
bring tribute to Him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.”
Sheba has long been thought to be the kingdom of Saba, whose geographical location varies from Ethiopia to southern Saudi Arabia, which existed between 1200 B.C. and 275 A.D. The tale of the journey of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem to meet Solomon is well known.
Seba was probably in Ethiopia or Egypt. The ancient city of Meroe on the bank of the Nile may be Seba.
Some scholars have identified Tarshish as Seville in Spain, although others favor Sardinia or Sicily. In addition, there is an ancient town in Lebanon named Tarshish. The jury is out on this one although most agree the land was on the Mediterranean Sea somewhere.
But who were they, these three, or twelve as some traditions say, men who crossed the deserts to find the child-king? The word magi is the Latin plural for magus, or mage. It is derived from the Greek magos which refers to a priestly caste in Persia. The religion worshiped Zoroaster. Because of the association of the word with the wise men, many think they were Persian scholar/priests, experts in astrology.
In the Apocrypha, those Biblical writings which are not accepted as Scripture, there are multiple stories of the birth of Christ. They are generally thought to have been written between 200 and 400 A.D. One such Syriac manuscript, buried for centuries in the Vatican’s Library, called the Revelation of the Magi, was recently translated to English. Author Brent Landau turned the document into a book. The story is told from the point of view of the the wise men. In this story, there are twelve, not three, wise men and they come from a land called Shir which is thought to be China.
Landau thinks that, because the details of rituals and traditions in the Syriac scroll are so fully described, the authors of the text might have been a sect, trying to re-enact the journey of the magi.
Christian tradition implies that the magi were present at the birth of Jesus. But research seems to indicate that actually they came to Him after a long and arduous journey. He may have been close to two years old when they arrived. This is why Herod ordered all boy babies up to two years old killed.
What were the names of the magi?
Names for the magi first appear in an eighth century journal, called the Excerpta Latina Barbari. The text is copied from a Greek scroll written about 500 A.D., which no longer exists. The names were Bithisaria, Melichior, and Gathaspa, names which have changed over the centuries to Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Their countries of origin were listed as either Arabia or Ethiopia, Persia, and India respectively. But this text did not appear until the 700s and gives no origin for the names it lists.
Many documents record that the wise men returned, either to their homelands singly or together to India. There they were reported to have become Christians and ministered to the people. They built a church and when they died, they were laid to rest in the church.
We will never know for certain who the magi were, whether they were priestly astrologers from Persia or diplomats from Nabatea or from countries much farther away. There is some evidence that a Tamil king, named Perumal, from what is now Sri Lanka, is also a candidate for membership among the magi. German historian John of Hildesheim (1310-1375) reports a tradition in the city of Taxila (now Punjab, Pakistan) that one of the magi passed through the town on his way to the Adoration.
The bones of the magi
Despite the lack of documentation, the people of that time accepted many tales as factual. St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine of Rome, traveled to India two hundred years after they died and brought back the bodies of the magi. She had them placed in the Church of St. Sofia in Constantinople.
The Byzantine Emperor, Mauricius, had the bodies moved to the city of Milan in Italy in the last decade of the sixth century. The bones stayed in Milan until the twelth century when a rebellion took place. The German kings had traditionally also been the kings of Italy, the two kingdoms combined being the Holy Roman Empire. The Lombard League, led by Milan, defeated Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s attempts to regain the Italian crown. But Frederick had enlisted the help of the archbishop of Cologne, who had recaptured Milan. In payment, Frederick sent the sacred bones of the magi to Cologne where a cathedral was built to house them.
In Cologne lie the bones of several men, reputedly the magi who knelt in adoration before the Christ child. Their true identities are lost in the mists of history and legend. But the story lives on.