Skip to comments.Straight Answers: Who Were the Magi?
Posted on 01/02/2011 1:56:17 PM PST by Salvation
Who were the Magi? A reader in Springfield
The Gospel of Matthew mentions the Magi who came from the East to worship the newborn Christ child (cf. Matthew 2:1-12). Exactly who the magi were though remains somewhat of a mystery.
Oftentimes, the English translations of the Bible use the word astrologers for magi. In Greek, the original language of the Gospel' the word magos (magoi, plural) has four meanings: (1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation' astrology, fortune-telling, divination, and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before mentioned practices. From these possible definitions and the description provided in the gospel, the magi were probably Persian priest-astrologers who could interpret the stars, particularly the significance of the star that proclaimed the birth of the Messiah. (Even the ancient historian Herodotus (d. 5 century BC) would attest to the astrological prowess of the priestly class of Persia.)
More importantly, the visit of the magi fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament: Balaam prophesied about the coming Messiah marked by a star: "I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel..." Psalm 72 speaks of how the Gentiles will come to worship the Messiah: "The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him" (72:10-11). Isaiah also prophesied the gifts: "Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6).
St. Matthew recorded that the Magi brought three gifts, each also having a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; frankincense the gift for a priest; and myrrh -- a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die. St. Irenaeus (d. 202) in his Adversus haereses offered the following interpretation for the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh respectively King, God, and Suffering Redeemer as well as virtue, prayer, and suffering.
Traditionally, we think of the three magi as the three kings. We usually have the three kings in our nativity sets' We even sing, "We three kings of orient are...." Here the three gifts, Psalm 72, and the rising star in the East converge to render the Magi as three kings travelling from the East.
Actually, the earliest tradition is inconsistent as to the number of the Magi. The Eastern tradition favored 12. In the West, several of the early Church fathers eluding Ongen, St. Leo the Great, and St. Maximus of Turin accepted three. Early Christian painting in Rome found at the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus depicts two magi and at the cemetery of St. Domitilla, four.
Since the seventh century in the Western Church, the magi have been identified as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. A work called the Excerpta et Collectanea attributed to St. Bede (d. 735) wrote, "The magi were the ones who gave gifts to tile Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair "d a long beard... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Gaspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned. . . honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar. .. by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die." An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne read, "Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in AD 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on January 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on January 6th, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on January 11th, aged 109." The Roman Martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi's respective feast days.
Emperor Zeno brought the relics of the magi from Persia to Constantinople in 490. Relics (whether the same or others) appeared in Milan much later and were kept at the Basilica of St. Eustorgius. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who plundered Italy, took the lics to Cologne in 1162, where they remain secure to this day in a beautiful reliquary housed in the Cathedral.
Even though some mystery remains to the identity of the magi, the Church respects their act of worship: The Council of Trent, when underscoring the reverence that must be given to e Holy Eucharist, decreed, "The faithful of Christ venerate this most holy sacrament with the worship of latria which is due to the true God.... For in this sacrament we believe that the same God is present whom the eternal Father brought into the world, saying of Him, 'Let all God's angels worship Him.' It is the same God whom the Magi fell down and worshipped, and finally, the same God whom the apostles adored in Galilee as Scripture says" (Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 5).
As we celebrate Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, we too must be mindful of our duty to adore our Lord through prayer, worship, and self-sacrificing good work. St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 389) preached, "Let us remain on in adoration, and to Him, who' in order to save us, humbled Himself to such a degree of poverty as to receive our body, let us offer not only incense, gold and myrrh..., but also spiritual gifts, more sublime than those which can be seen with the eyes" (Oratorio, 19).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria
And if their were twelve Magi, what did they bring?
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Sounds good to me! LOL!
Marco Polo claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:
"In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining." (Marco Polo, Book One)
We've just finished listening to the 12 Days of Christmas by Bob and Doug McKenzie, so I don't think I oughta contribute...
A must read for 2011...The Dear and Glorious Physician, a novel about St. Luke (author Taylor Caldwell). St. Luke has a rare encounter with the Maji as a young boy, before he is even aware of who Jesus is.
LOL! My brain won’t do that right now.
We don’t know how many there really were but there were three gifts. That does not mean there were only three magi.
They probably were Jews from the dispersion still living in Persia who had worked their ways into the Persian courts, but still read the Prophetic scriptures each Sabbath.
Is that fiction or for real? Wow!
If you like reading about medical things, pick up the book by Jeffrey Long
Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences by Jeffrey Long, MD.
Who is the book about St. Luke by?
If it tells about the First book of Luke it would be worth the read!
The author, Taylor Caldwell wrote this book back in the 1950’s and yet the relevance to the world today is astounding. Hard to say whether fiction vs. real...she states in her forward that it is quite authentic to the best of her research. Go to the reviews on Amazon for more information.
I will check into the book by Dr. Long...thank you for the recommendation.
The author was Taylor Caldwell...please check out the reviews on Amazon for more info. I truly marvelous read...:)
Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
There’s no reason to assume that one wiseman = one gift.
It was likely a collective gift from a group of ancient Persian astronomers who knew scripture and realized that the sky was pointing toward prophesied events. It would have been a brutal trip from the east, not likely something for a group of only three scholars. There is safety in numbers, and it was likely a much larger entourage.
The richness of the gift most likely later financed a long trip by the poor carpenter, wife, and son when they fled to Egypt.
There are those who theorize that the Magi may have been Jews from the Babylonian school, who were descended from those Israelites who remained in the East when captives returned to rebuild Jerusalem after their 70-year exile.
You forgot to mention that there were zero magi at the birth as depicted in so many manger scenes. They did not show up until 2-3 years laters.
One of my favorite books! Taylor Caldwell teaches so much history in her books. Have you ever read “Great Lion of God”?
Glad you enjoyed it. My former Math coach at school found it clever and wanted to figure it out. She’s Orthodox Jewish, btw. The only guy on my blog that answered it said that he couldn’t figure it out, so he just Googled it (which gave everything except the random order I used).