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Magi (1)

The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.  565, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 19th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

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The biblical Magi[lower-alpha 1] (/ˈm/ or /ˈmæ/;[1] singular: magus), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, also the Three Magi were distinguished foreigners in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition. They are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four canonical gospels to mention the Magi. Matthew reports that they came "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews".[2] The gospel never mentions the number of Magi. Still, most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the statement that they brought three gifts.[3] In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve.[4] Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Isaiah 60:1–6, which refers to "kings [coming] to the brightness of your dawn" bearing "gold and frankincense".[5] Further identification of the magi with kings may be due to Psalm 72:11, "May all kings fall down before him".[6][7]

Biblical account[]

Traditional nativity scenes depict three "Wise Men" visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, but this should be understood as an artistic convention allowing the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience.[8] The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ's birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed "wise men" (Ancient Greek μάγοι|mágoi) visits him in a house (Ancient Greek οἰκίαν|oikian),[9] not a stable, with only "his mother" mentioned as present. The New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:112 describes the visit of the Magi in this manner:

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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." 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.

Biblical Magi stained glass window, ca

Biblical Magi stained glass window, c. 1896, at Church of the Good Shepherd (Rosemont, Pennsylvania), showing the three magi with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus

The text specifies no interval between the birth and the visit, and artistic depictions and the closeness of the traditional dates of December 25 and January 6 encourage the popular assumption that the visit took place the same winter as the birth, but later traditions varied, with the visit taken as occurring up to two winters later. This maximum interval explained Herod's command at Matthew 2:1618 that the Massacre of the Innocents included boys up to two years old. More recent commentators, not tied to the traditional feast days, may suggest a variety of intervals.[10]

The wise men are mentioned twice shortly thereafter in verse 16, in reference to their avoidance of Herod after seeing Jesus, and what Herod had learned from their earlier meeting. The star which they followed has traditionally become known as the Star of Bethlehem.

Description[]

The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος (magos),[11] as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (in the plural: μάγοι magoi). Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born (see Yasna 33.7: "ýâ sruyê parê magâunô" = "so I can be heard beyond Magi"). The term refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.[12] As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. The King James Version translates the term as wise men; the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48 KJV). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing "Elymas the sorcerer" in Acts 13:6–11 KJV, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13 KJV. Several translations refer to the men outright as astrologers at Matthew Chapter 2, including New English Bible (1961); Phillips New Testament in Modern English (J.B.Phillips, 1972); Twentieth Century New Testament (1904 revised edition); Amplified Bible (1958-New Testament); An American Translation (1935, Goodspeed); and The Living Bible (K. Taylor, 1962-New Testament).

Although the Magi are commonly referred to as "kings", there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm Psalm 68:29 KJV, and Psalm 72:10 KJV, which reads, "Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him."[13][14][15] Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings.[16] Later Christian interpretation stressed the adoration of the Magi and shepherds as the first recognition by the people of the earth of Christ as the Redeemer, but the reformer John Calvin was vehemently opposed to referring to the Magi as kings. He wrote: "But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings... Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance."[17][18]

Names[]

The three Magi (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior)

The three Magi (named Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior), from Herrad of Landsberg's Hortus deliciarum (12th century)

The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them.[19] In the Western Christian church, they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as:

  • Melchior (/ˈmɛlkiˌɔːr/;[20] also Melichior),[21] a Persian scholar;
  • Caspar (/ˈkæspər/ or /ˈkæspɑːr/;[22] also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa,[21][23] and other variations);
  • Balthazar (/ˈbælθəˌzɑːr/ or /bælˈθæzər/;[24] also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea),[21] a Babylonian scholar.

The online version of Encyclopædia Britannica states: "According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India."[25] These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500, and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari.[21] Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.[26][27]

Caspar by Jan van Bijlert

Caspar by Jan van Bijlert. Oil on panel. Circa 1640–1650

One candidate for the origin of the name Caspar appears in the Acts of Thomas as Gondophares (21 – c. AD 47), i.e., Gudapharasa (from which "Caspar" might derive as corruption of "Gaspar"). This Gondophares declared independence from the Arsacids to become the first Indo-Parthian king, and he was allegedly visited by Thomas the Apostle. According to Ernst Herzfeld, his name is perpetuated in the name of the Afghan city Kandahar, which he is said to have founded under the name Gundopharron.[28]

In contrast, many Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.[29]

In the Eastern churches, Ethiopian Christianity, for instance, has Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenian Catholics have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.[30][31] Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.[32]

Country of origin and journey[]

The phrase "from the east" (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν apo anatolon), more literally "from the rising [of the sun]", is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. The Parthian Empire, centered in Persia, stretched from eastern Syria to the fringes of India. Though the empire was tolerant of other religions, its dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, with its priestly magos class.[33]

Although Matthew's account does not explicitly cite the motivation for their journey (other than seeing the star in the east, which they took to be the star of the King of the Jews), the Syriac Infancy Gospel provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the third chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht (Zoroaster).[34]

According to tradition among the Saint Thomas Syrian Christians of Kerala, the scholar from India was part of the Chalissery Karthakal, a feudal Nair family from Piravom, Kerala, India. After returning to India, the scholar made a temple with the idol of Mary and infant Jesus and named the idol as "Bala Karthyayani" and kept it besides other Hindu deities. Later in the 5th century when the Saint Thomas Syrian Christian community was firmly established the temple was reconstructed as the Piravom Syrian Church.[35]

There is an Armenian tradition identifying the "Magi of Bethlehem" as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Caspar of India.[36] Historian John of Hildesheim relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (in present-day Punjab, Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem.[37]

Brooklyn Museum - The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage) - James Tissot - overall

James Tissot: The Magi Journeying (c. 1890), Brooklyn Museum, New York City

Sebastian Brock, a historian of Christianity, has said: "It was no doubt among converts from Zoroastrianism that ... certain legends were developed around the Magi of the Gospels".[38][39] And Anders Hultgård concluded that the Gospel story of the Magi was influenced by an Iranian legend concerning magi and a star, which was connected with Persian beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler and with myths describing the manifestation of a divine figure in fire and light.[40]

A model for the homage of the Magi might have been provided, it has been suggested, by the journey to Rome of King Tiridates I of Armenia, with his magi, to pay homage to the Emperor Nero, which took place in AD 66, a few years before the date assigned to the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.[41][42]

There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian relatives, the Keraites, were descended from the biblical Magi.[43] This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Keraite ruler Toghrul, married Tolui, the youngest son of Genghis, and became the mother of Möngke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes.[44] Sempad the Constable, elder brother of King Hetoum I of Cilician Armenia, visited the Mongol court in Karakorum in 1247–1250 and in 1254. He wrote a letter to Henry I King of Cyprus and Queen Stephanie (Sempad's sister) from Samarkand in 1243, in which he said: "Tanchat [Tangut, or Western Xia], which is the land from whence came the Three Kings to Bethlehem to worship the Lord Jesus which was born. And know that the power of Christ has been, and is, so great, that the people of that land are Christians; and the whole land of Chata [Khitai, or Kara-Khitai] believes those Three Kings. I have myself been in their churches and have seen pictures of Jesus Christ and the Three Kings, one offering gold, the second frankincense, and the third myrrh. And it is through those Three Kings that they believe in Christ, and that the Chan and his people have now become Christians.[45] The legendary Christian ruler of Central Asia Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Magi.[46]

Gestures of respect[]

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Adoration of the Magi - Google Art Project

Adorazione dei Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1655 (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)

The Magi are described as "falling down", "kneeling" or "bowing" in the worship of Jesus.[47] This gesture, together with Luke's birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. While prostration is now rarely practised in the West it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.

Traditional identities and symbolism[]

Apart from their names, the three Magi developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, so that between them they represented the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other things. In one tradition, reflected in art by the 14th century (for example in the Arena Chapel by Giotto in 1305) Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold; he is "King of Tarsus, land of merchants" on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, and is first in line to kneel to Christ. Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen). Their ages were often given as 60, 40 and 20 respectively, and their geographical origins were rather variable, with Balthazar increasingly coming from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa, and being represented accordingly.[48] Balthazar's blackness has been the subject of considerable recent scholarly attention; in art, it is found mostly in northern Europe, beginning from the 12th century, and becoming very common in the north by the 15th.[49] The subject of which king is which and who brought which gift is not without some variation depending on the tradition. The gift of gold is sometimes associated with Melchior as well and in some traditions, Melchior is the old man of the three Magi.

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  1. . Holman Bible Publishers (2003).
  2. Matthew 2:1-2
  3. Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin, 2006, p. 22
  4. Metzger, 24 [80]
  5. Isaiah 60:1-6
  6. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>"Magi". Encyclopædia Britannica. Online Edition.
  7. . Oxford English Dictionary (April 1910).
  8. Schiller, 114
  9. Matthew 2. Bible Gateway.
  10. Schiller, I, 96; The New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 1999 ISBN 0-19-512639-4 p. 109
  11. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, April 2010, s.v. magus
  12. Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period (Brill, 1989, 2nd ed.), vol. 1, pp. 10–11 online; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: their religious beliefs and practices (Routledge, 2001, 2nd ed.), p. 48 online; Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 293; Stephen Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284–641: The Transformation of the Ancient World (Wiley–Blackwell, 2007), p. 387 online.
  13. Psalm 72:11 KJV (King James Version)
  14. "Magi". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  15. s.v. magi. Oxford English Dictionary (Third ed.). April 1910.
  16. Drum, Walter. "Magi." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 24 Dec. 2016.
  17. Ashby, Chad. "Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It's Complicated." Christianity Today, December 16, 2016.
  18. Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King. Quote from Commentary on Matthew 2:1–6
  19. See Metzger, 23–29 for a lengthy account
  20. Melchior. Collins Dictionary (n.d.).
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Excerpta Latina Barbari, page 51B: "At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.".
  22. Caspar or Gaspar. Collins Dictionary (n.d.).
  23. Hugo Kehrer (1908), Vol. I, p. 70 Online version Kehrer's commentary: "Die Form Jaspar stammt aus Frankreich. Sie findet sich im niederrheinisch-kölnischen Dialekt und im Englischen. Note: O. Baist page 455; J.P.Migne; Dictionnaire des apocryphes, Paris 1856, vol I, p. 1023. ... So in La Vie de St. Gilles; Li Roumans de Berte: Melcior, Jaspar, Baltazar; Rymbybel des Jakob von Märlant: Balthasar, Melchyor, Jaspas; ein altenglisches Gedicht des dreizehnten oder vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (13th century!!) Note: C.Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden, Paderborn 1875, p. 95; ... La Vie des trois Roys Jaspar Melchior et Balthasar, Paris 1498"-->]
  24. Balthazar. Collins Dictionary (n.d.).
  25. Magi (en).
  26. Hugo Kehrer (1908), Die Heiligen Drei Könige in Literatur und Kunst (reprinted in 1976). Vol. I, p. 66. Online version. Quote from the Latin chronicle: primus fuisse dicitur Melchior, senex et canus, barba prolixa et capillis, tunica hyacinthina, sagoque mileno, et calceamentis hyacinthino et albo mixto opere, pro mitrario variae compositionis indutus: aurum obtulit regi Domino. ("the first [magus], named Melchior, was an old white-haired man, with a full beard and hair, [...]: the king gave gold to our Lord.") Secundum, nomine Caspar, juvenis imberbis, rubicundus, mylenica tunica, sago rubeo, calceamentis hyacinthinis vestitus: thure quasi Deo oblatione digna, Deum honorabat. ("The second, with name Caspar, a beardless boy, [... gave incense].") Tertius, fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthasar nomine, habens tunicam rubeam, albo vario, calceamentis inimicis amicus: per myrrham filium hominis moriturum professus est. ("The third one, dark-haired, with a full beard, named Balthasar, [... gave myrhh].") Omnia autem vestimenta eorum Syriaca sunt. ("The clothes of all [three] were Syrian-style.")
  27. Collectanea et Flores in Patrologia Latina. XCIV, page 541(D) Online version
  28. Ernst Herzfeld, Archaeological History of Iran, London, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1935, p. 63.
  29. Witold Witakowski, "The Magi in Syriac Tradition", in George A. Kiraz (ed.), Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone: Studies in Honor of Sebastian P. Brock, Piscataway (NJ), Gorgias Press, 2008, pp. 809–844.
  30. Acta Sanctorum, May, I, 1780.
  31. Concerning The Magi And Their Names.
  32. Hattaway, Paul; Brother Yun; Yongze, Peter Xu; and Wang, Enoch. Back to Jerusalem. (Authentic Publishing, 2003). retrieved May 2007
  33. Axworthy, Michael (2008). pp. 31–43. Basic Books.
  34. Hone, William (1890 (4th edit); 1820 (1st edition)). "The Apocryphal Books of the New Testament". Archive.org. Gebbie & Co., Publishers, Philadelphia. See: Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  35. Explained: What is Epiphany festival, and who are the 3 kings celebrated on this day? (en) (2020-01-09).
  36. . Getty (2001).
  37. Historia Trium Regum (History of the Three Kings) by John of Hildesheim (1364–1375)
  38. pp. 1–19. Blackwell (1982).
  39. Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le Leggende orientali sui Magi evangelici, Citta del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1952.
  40. pp. 215–25. Uppsala, Almqvist & Wiksell International (1998).
  41. A. Dietrich, "Die Weisen aus dem Morgenlande", Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, Bd. III, 1902, p. 1 14; cited in J. Duchesne-Guillemin, "Die Drei Weisen aus dem Morgenlande und die Anbetung der Zeit", Antaios, Vol. VII, 1965, pp. 234–252, 245; cited in Mary Boyce and Frantz Genet, A History of Zoroastrianism, Leiden, Brill, 1991, p. 453, n. 449.
  42. Archaeological History of Iran pp. 65–6. Oxford University Press (1935).
  43. In regno Tarsae sunt tres provinciae, quarum dominatores se reges faciunt appellari. Homines illius patriae nominant Iogour. Semper idola coluerunt, et adhuc colunt omnes, praeter decem cognationes illorum regum, qui per demonstrationum stellae venerunt adorare nativitatem in Bethlehem Judae. Et adhuc multi magni et nobiles inveniunt inter Tartaros de cognatione illa, qui tenent firmiter fidem Christi. (In the kingdom of Tarsis there are three provinces, whose rulers have called themselves kings. the men of that country are called Uighours. They always worshipped idols, and they all still worship them except for the ten families of those Kings who from the appearance of the Star came to adore the Nativity in Bethlehem of Judah. And there are still many of the great and noble of those families found among the Tartars who hold firmly to the faith of Christ): Wesley Roberton Long (ed.), La flor de las ystorias de Orient by Hethum prince of Khorghos, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1934, pp. 53, 111, 115; cited in Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le Leggende orientali sui Magi evangelici, Citta del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1952, p. 161. Hayton, Haithoni Armeni ordinis Praemonstratenis de Tartaris liber, Simon Grynaeus Johannes Huttichius, Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitarum, Basel, 1532, caput ii, De Regno Tarsae, p. 420 “The people of these countrees be named Iobgontans [Uighurs], and at all tymes they haue been idolaters, and so they contynue to this present day, save the nacion or kynred of those thre kynges which came to worshyp Our Lorde Ihesu Chryst at his natiuyte by demonstracyon of the sterre. And the linage of the same thre kynges be yet vnto this day great lordes about the lande of Tartary, which ferme and stedfastly beleue in the fayth of Christ”: Hetoum, A Lytell Cronycle: Richard Pynson's Translation (c. 1520) of La Fleur des Histoires de la Terre d'Orient, edited by Glenn Burger, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988, Of the realme of Tharsey, p. 8, lines 29–38.
  44. Friedrich Zarncke, "Der Priester Johannes", Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Classe der Koeniglichen Sachsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Leipzig, Band VII, Heft 8, 1879, S.826–1028; Band I, Heft 8, 1883, S. 1–186), re-published in one volume by G. Olms, Hildesheim, 1980.
  45. Letter of Sempad the Constable to the King and Queen of Cyprus, 1243, in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, Oxford, Hakluyt society, 1866, Vol.I, pp. cxxvii, 262–3."
  46. Fertur enim iste de antiqua progenie illorum, quorum in Evangelio mentio fit, esse Magorum, eisdemque, quibus et isti, gentibus imperans, tanta gloria et habundancia frui, ut non nisi sceptro smaragdino uti dicatur (It is reported that he is the descendant of those Magi of old who are mentioned in the Gospel, and to rule over the same nations as they did, enjoying such glory and prosperity that he uses no sceptre but one of emerald). Otto von Freising, Historia de Duabus Civitatibus, 1146, in Friedrich Zarncke, Der Priester Johannes, Leipzig, Hirzel, 1879 (repr. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim and New York, 1980, p. 848; Adolf Hofmeister, Ottonis Episcopi Frisingensis Chronica; sive, Historia de Duabus Civitatibus, Hannover. 1912, p. 366.
  47. Matthew 2; – Passage Lookup – King James Version. BibleGateway.com.
  48. Penny, 401
  49. Schiller, I, 113


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