We Three Kings?
Within the story of the Star of Bethlehem, the identity of the persons who saw the Star that led them to Bethlehem is one of the key questions. We know almost nothing about them, we are sure that they were not kings. We have little idea of where they came from. Just who were the Magi? And what was their interest in the baby Jesus?
Neither Matthew’s Gospel, nor the Protoevangelium of James describes the Magi. We are not told who they were, where they came from (apart from a vague mention that the came from the east). We do not even know how many of them there were.
The fact that they are generally shown, in the western tradition, to have been three, is due to their three gifts for the baby Jesus. In fact, there is no other evidence that there were three of them. In the eastern tradition, there were twelve Magi. In ancient murals and paintings in churches there were sometimes two, sometimes four, occasionally more Magi. Similarly, the names of the Magi (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar) date from centuries later. The first use of their names was in the 8th century, but they did not become common usage until the 10th.
For the early church the number three was highly symbolic and thus an unreliable guide to the reality of the situation. Not only were there three gifts (which were, in themselves, highly symbolic) the Magi also represented the three races of man: the black-skinned peoples of Africa (in Spain, at least, the personification of Balthasar, but usually represented as Melchior); the Asiatic peoples (Balthasar); and Europeans (Gaspar).
In other words, there were strong religious and symbolic reasons for the church to state that there were three and just three Magi and to suppress the suggestion that there may have been four or more.
We actually have no proof that the Magi all came from the same place, although it makes sense for them to have travelled together as they (apparently) arrived together at Herod’s palace. It is usually tacitly believed that the Magi came from Babylon, although Arabia and Persia have been suggested as alternatives.
Who were the Magi?
Herod does not treat them as kings, neither does Matthew, nor James mention that they were kings. The tradition that the Magi were kings dates from the 6th century and is another piece of evidence of the early church’s political expediency. They taught that Jesus was the king of kings and it became necessary to show that he had been treated as royalty to reinforce this point. The Magi were thus converted into kings because a royal child should be visited by royalty to demonstrate his importance. So, just like in defining the number of Magi, there was a strong element of expedience in the decision to make them kings.
Most experts are convinced that the Magi were priests and/or astrologers. In fact, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible offers “Wise Men” as the word to describe of the Magi, with the translation “Astrologers” given as an alternative. Certainly, the Magi were watchers of the sky and astrologers (the difference between astrology and astronomy was not to be defined for many centuries) and would have understood the meaning of the Star in terms of their knowledge of astrology.
Where did they come from: Arabian or Babylonian Magi?
Some early texts state that “wise men came from Arabia to visit him”, describing the visit of the Magi. Arabia would have been the region to the south of Palestine, encompassing more or less what is now Saudi Arabia. If this were so, the traditional image of the Magi crossing the desert on camels would be hopelessly wrong, as they would almost certainly have travelled by ship around the Red Sea coast, only riding the last part of the journey along the so-called King’s Highway from the coast to Jerusalem.
Most people however, believe that Babylon was a more probable point of origin. There are two main reasons for this:
· Babylon had a large Jewish community due to the slaves and prisoners taken back to Babylon after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
· Babylon had a tradition of astronomy and astrology and had the most advanced science in the region.
In other words, the Babylonians had the means to study the Star and a reason for linking it to the Jews. No similar motive can be applied to the Arabians.
Were the Magi Persians?
However, there are some intriguing pointers that suggest that the Magi came from much further afield. Some of the earliest images of the Magi in churches, which date back to the 6th Century, show them in Persian dress. Images of the Magi in Persian tunic and trousers are found in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Persian Magi appear in a mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna in Italy (see below). These images saved the Basilica of the Nativity from the torch when the Persians invaded in 614AD as they treated the images as holy icons of theirs.
An image of Magi behind the train of Empress Theodora in a mosaic in the church of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy).
The belief in the early church certainly during the first few centuries AD was that the Magi were Persian. There is even an Apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, which states that the Magi were Persian. Similarly, when Marco Polo travelled through Persia, the inhabitants of the village of Saveh told him that the Magi had set out from there (it is also true that other villages in the region have a similar tradition).
What is most convincing though is the fact that there was also a Persian sect of priests among the Medes who were called “Magi”. These were Zoroastrian priests who preached the Zoroastrian religion: one that shares many elements with the Judeo-Christian tradition, including the virgin birth and the coming of a Messiah. Zoroastrianism stills survives in northern Iran and, at the time of the Nativity, the Medean Magi were found in Northern Persia, in the region bordering the Caspian Sea.
We know of a clear link between the Persians and the Jews. In 539 BC the Persians conquered Babylon and would also have taken slaves and prisoners with them. Amongst them would have been Jews who knew of the prophesy of the Messiah who would have noticed the parallels with the Zoroastrian prophesies. If Babylon is a plausible candidate as the point of origin for the Magi because of its Jewish community, Persia must be too.
However, there is also a far more direct link that is part of the historical record, but often overlooked. Twice in biblical times Magi visited the west to pay homage. The historian Josephus records that Magi visited King Herod in 10BC. Similarly, various historians, including Pliny writing in his “Natural History”, speak of the parade of Magi through the streets of Rome when they visited Emperor Nero in 68AD.
It thus seems a matter of historical record that Magi were well known in the west, as was their priestly role.
The Magi were thus almost certainly Persian in origin. They would have been Zoroastrian priests from northern Persia, close to the shores of the Caspian Sea, who were searching for the Messiah, as prophesied in their own writings. This means that their journey would have been practically twice as long as if they had come from Babylon and far harder, as they would have added the crossing of a major mountain range to the hardships of crossing two large rivers and two deserts.
Unfortunately though, there is no evidence at all for Persian astronomy, nor really for Persian science – unlike the Babylonians, if the Persians were astronomers, they have left no surviving observations and no evidence of what kind of event in the sky would have interested them.