Who were the magi?

One question many people ask is, “Who were the magi who went to Bethlehem to offer homage and gifts to the Christ child?”, an event we celebrate on the feast of Epiphany. I answered the question in a column in the Catholic Weekly last year and thought you might be interested in it.

Who were the magi?

My daughter and son attended World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne and came back saying they had visited the tomb of the three wise men in the Cathedral there. Frankly, this sounded far-fetched. What do we know about the three kings, or magi, that came to adore Our Lord?

As you mention, these men are known commonly by three quite different names:  magi, wise men, and kings.

What do we know about them? First of all, that they existed and that they did go from the East to adore the Christ child. St Matthew records the event: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him’” (Mt 2:1-2).

These men were obviously not of the Jewish people and yet they were mysteriously moved to travel from a distant land somewhere in the East to worship the newly born king of the Jews.

The Greek version of St Matthew’s Gospel calls them magoi, which we usually render in English as magi, or wise men. The word is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to magicians (cf. Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8), but it more likely refers to a caste of priests among the ancient people known as the Medes. They were credited with having profound religious knowledge, including astrology, whence the name “wise men”.

It seems that after some Magi attached to the court proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia. Thus the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire but they also enjoyed secular powers.

We see this in the prophet Jeremiah’s account of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Jeremiah calls Nergal-sharezer, one of the “princes” who served the king, the “Rabmag”, or chief of the Magi (cf. Jer 39:3; 13). This was a predominantly civil or military role.

Later, when the Jews were taken to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar made the prophet Daniel the Rab-mag, or “chief of the Magi” (cf. Dan 5:11; 4: 9).

Even though their power ebbed and flowed in the following centuries, at the time of Christ there was a Magi priesthood in Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylon. So it is likely that the Magi who came to worship Christ were from one of these nations. The Fathers of the Church tell us that they came variously from Babylon, Persia and Aribia.

Although the Magi are sometimes referred to as the three kings, there is no historical evidence that they were kings. None of the Fathers of the Church calls them kings, although Tertullian does refer to them in Latin as fere reges, which translates as “almost kings” (cf Adv. Marcion, III, 13).

The fact that the Mass for the feast of Epiphany uses Psalm 72:10, which says, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!”, does not mean that the Church is calling the wise men kings. The psalm, which is clearly messianic, simply expresses very appropriately what the Magi were doing.

How many Magi went to worship Our Lord? St Matthew does not give us the number but it has become traditional in the West to say there were three, undoubtedly based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the East, tradition favours twelve.

Neither does St Matthew give us their names. Nonetheless, in the West from the seventh century on they have been commonly called Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

There is a tradition that after their return home the Magi were baptised by St Thomas and did much to spread the faith, dying as martyrs. The Martyrology, or list of the saints, includes their names in the month of January: St Gaspar on January 1, St Melchior on January 6 and St Balthasar on January 11.

The cathedral of Cologne contains what are claimed to be the remains of the Magi. According to the tradition the remains were discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by St Helena, taken to Milan in the fifth century and finally laid to rest in Cologne in 1163.