Were the Three Magi, kings or wise men?
In Matthew 2:1-12 there is written: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Of the four Evangelists, Matthew is the only one who mentions the episode of the Three Wise Men. He does not state that these were kings or magi. Nor does he mention that they brought with them gold, or incense. These details are not part of the Scriptures. They were inserted into the episode later, down the centuries, gradually and by various pious sources. So why have so many romantic and unreal details been given credence by the authorities of the various Christian denominations?
In an extensive article published in History Today, (1954), Geoffrey Grigson, one of Britain’s foremost literary figures of the 20th century, discusses this episode clinically and at length, comparing text versus legend. He explores how the belief about these figures spread far and wide. Grigson separates the religious scriptures from the myths as he discusses literatary sources, artistic portrayals and legendary hearsay that deal with the subject.
He begins by stating the obvious, that the New Testament does not specify the number of wise men, nor the country that the Wise Men came from. [Before reading any further, check the quote in the first paragraph above]. For that matter, nor does the passage make any mention of a cow and a donkey as normally portrayed in most Nativity scenes.
That the Wise Men brought specific gifts with them such as myrrh and gold – this must have been inspired by a passage from Isaiah where the prophet foretells that: All they [Gentiles] from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and frankincense. (Isaiah: 1-6). Somewhere along the line, myrrh was added to these items to make a total of three gifts – thus three wise men were conceived, each one to present to Jesus a particular gift. By quoting and comparing Isaiah’s and other prophets’ sayings with the life episodes of Jesus, one is corroborating the basic Christian creed, that Jesus is the true Messiah that is referred to in the Old Scriptures.
These wise men – or magi – magoi (Greek plural of magus – a reference to the Zoroastrian priestly caste who studied the stars) – became more real-to-life characters as time went by. As from the sixth century – these were also referred to by various sources as ‘kings’, in order to prove Jesus’s status as being the King who was paid homage by other kings.
The three characters were eventually given names; Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These names, seemingly stemmed from the ‘Armenian Infancy Gospel’ which in turn took its inspiration from the apocryphal gospels of the 2nd century. Melchior (should read Melchon) was supposed to be king of the Persians; Gaspar, a king from the Indian continent, and Balthasar, king of the Arabs. Melchior presented Jesus with gold, Gaspar, incense, and Balthasar, myrrh. These gifts interchange from one account to the other. Bishop Irinaeus of Lyons (died 200/203 AD), interpreted each gift symbolically: gold signified kingship, incense represented divinity, and myrrh death. The three figures now were revered as saints.
In 1158, three undecomposed bodies were unearthed from inside the church of St Eustorgio, situated just outside the fortifications of Milan. This was a time when all over Europe there was widespread credence in all sorts of relics that were brought by fighting men returning from the Crusades, ascribing relics to the to the life of Christ. Thus, these bodies were quickly assumed to belong to the Three Magi. By 1164, these ‘holy relics’ had been snatched by the German Emperor Barbarossa from their church in Milan and taken to Cologne where they were reverently preserved in a reliquary inside the famous cathedral. They are still on display there.
The German theological philosopher, Johnnes of Hildesheim (d. 1375) in his Historia Trium Regum (‘The Story of the Three Kings’), added more colour – literally – to the Three Wise Men, stating among other things that Gaspar was a black man. This statement came to influence many artists who later on depicted this character in the Nativity scene as a Nubian king.
In Malta, inside Valletta’s, St John Co-Cathedral, the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is depicted in a chapel that was reserved exclusively for the German-speaking Knights of the Order of St John. The choice of painting subject may hint to the origin and connection of the German Knights to the Cathedral of Cologne. Lately, at Christmas time, a special artistic crib is set up on display in the same chapel, curiously enough, without the Magi. Perhaps this is so as the Adoration is appropriately depicted in the titular picture above the altar.
The representation of the Three Kings (in Maltese often called as the Slaten Maġi – the Magi-kings) in the cribs often shows them wearing regal robes – a probable Neapolitan influence. The three clay or plastic figures are placed amongst a motley of characters mostly shepherds, that crowd the Nativity scene. In Malta, cribs (M. presepji) do not always include the three Magi. For many these figures are optional in the Nativity scene. As a young lad, I recall, many crib enthusiasts who used to place the figures of the Magi close to the manger, only in the days following Christmas. This in order to allude to the belief that the Magi visited Jesus long after his birth.
Usually, the figures of the Magi were left in the crib until Epiphany, which in the Roman Catholic world falls 12 days after Christmas, that is on January 6. The word Epiphany, means ‘manifestation’ – as the visitation by the Magi is considered to be the first of Jesus’s physical manifestations to the Gentiles.
Considering that Matthew’s gospel recounts that the Magi set upon their journey from their homeland to visit the ‘new born king of the Jews’, this implies that it must have been some months, possibly even a couple of years, for them to reach Bethlehem. Some believe that Jesus might have well reached the age of two by then. But this is all pure conjecture as the chronology of events cannot be based on an unfixed time-line.
Attached to the Epiphany celebration is another Maltese tradition – that of l-istrina. In earlier times, in Malta, gifts were presented on January 1 and not on Christmas day. This this was followed by another donation, specifically to children, on January 6. This time, the gift differed from the previous one, as this consisted of a small monetary handout for the child’s money box – a shilling or half crown (when Malta was still using the Sterling currency). This custom was known as l-istrina tas-sinjuri (the gift of the rich people) probably because only the well to do people would afford to do such a thing. Such a custom now belongs to the past and is almost forgotten.
Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit of Baby Jesus continues:
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel. Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.
December 24, 2020
Cassar Pullicino Joseph, Studies in Maltese Folklore, Malta University Press. 1992.
Grigson Geoffrey, ‘The Three Kings of Cologne’, History Today, Vol 1. December, 1991. History Today Ltd, London.
Isbouts Jean-Pierre, Who where the Three Kings in the Christmas Story, National Geographic, December 24, 2018.
‘Adoration of the Magi’, Wikipedia.
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