The Adoration of the Magi by Matthias Stom, about 1630. Wikipedia

The three (or four) men of mystery

  • December 21, 2019

As mysterious to the three wise men as the light that appeared in the western heavens, so too is the mystery surrounding these magi who followed that star to Bethlehem and bore gifts for the newborn Jesus.

The story of the Christ child’s birth is so well known, yet the back story of the magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh remains threadbare to the faithful who have followed Christ for the past 2,000 years. Every school child has seen images of these three wise men, accompanied by their camels, making their way to the manger. We know they are good men: as we are told on the Bibleinfo website, “The wise men who came seeking the Christ child were not idolaters; they were upright men of integrity.” 

The story of the magi is one that has always fascinated Catholic Register columnist and Scripture scholar Fr. Scott Lewis.

“The significance is that Jesus is recognized and welcomed by those outside the established religion of Israel, just as today Jesus is often honoured by non-Christians,” said Lewis. “It keys in to the theme of universality in the Gospels, and reflects Isaiah 60:6,” which prophesied that “all those from Sheba will come; They will bring gold and frankincense, And will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.”

Most legends surrounding the wise men come from beyond the Bible. Often called kings in common folklore and Christmas carols, the Bible never refers to the men as such, nor does it specify how many there were. Lewis notes that they are mentioned only in Matthew, and never does he say there were three. There are suggestions that the number three arises from the three gifts that were bestowed upon Jesus, though Lewis notes that one of the catacombs in Rome depicts four. 

They are known as the magi, from the Greek word magos (from which the word magic comes from as well), a title given to priests in a sect of Persian religions, most often thought to be Zoroastrianism. Today, according to the website, we would call them astrologers. They are believed to have come from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers — in what could have been modern-day Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen — where astronomy was cultivated by the Chaldeans. 

Their names are not given in the Bible either, but over the years retellings of the story have attached names to the magi of Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (also called Caspar or Jaspar) from India and Balthazar from Arabia.

Most Nativity scenes depict the wise men in the manger upon Jesus’ birth. But traditional celebrations pinpoint their visitation to 12 days after Christmas, which we celebrate as the Epiphany, though many scholars believe Christ may have been beyond His first year by the time the magi arrived. It makes sense. A bright star emerged on the day of His birth and it would have taken some time for the wise men to discern what this meant and decide to make the journey.

It strikes Lewis as to “how vigilant they were, scanning the heavens and the holy books for the slightest sign of God’s activity.”

“They went where the light guided them, out of their comfort zone and to a distant land, along with many dangers on the way,” said Lewis. “They saw the big picture, and that is what is lacking in our own time. God is much bigger than we can imagine, and God works constantly in new and surprising ways.”

Lewis relates one lasting legacy of the magi. It came in the seventh century as the Persians invaded and sacked Judea, laying waste to Jerusalem. But as they were set to do the same to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, they discovered mosaics depicting the magi and saw “they were clearly in Persian dress and with Persian hats,” said Lewis. It influenced their next actions.

“The marauding army left the church in peace,” he said.

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