Three Wise Astrologer Magician Kings

Posted: December 8, 2012 in Bible Related, History Related
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The three wise men… I mean, the three kings… or… uh, those astronomer guys from the desert. It can be confusing with all the names going around for these three gentlemen. As with other Christmas traditions, the three WAMK (wise astrologer magician kings) seem to be different to everyone, their purpose in the Book of Matthew interpreted in a large number of ways. But why so much variety in the tradition? Why does everyone seem to have a different say on whom the WAMKs were and why they came to see Jesus? In my research I found the answer to be quite simple actually: There is hardly anything written on the WAMKs. And thus to fill in the gaps, everyone has since imagined and speculated a wide variety of descriptions of the WAMKs. But is there any way to know for sure just who exactly WAMKs where?

Well first off, I’ll stop calling them WAMKs because it sounds stupid and I’m annoying myself. The proper name for these men is “magi,” since that is what Matthew (the only one who wrote about them in the Bible) called them. Magi means they practiced astrology and other magic arts.[1] This is backed up by their recognition of the Christmas star, testifying that they studied the night skies frequently, which we would expect of astrologers. Furthermore, the fact that they acknowledged that the star represented the new “King of the Jews,” indicates they were not Jewish, but knew of Old Testament prophecy.

For those that don’t know the story: The magi spotted a star in the sky, and in knowing Jewish prophecy, concluded it was a sign of the coming Messiah. They journeyed to Jerusalem following the Christmas star. When they reached Jerusalem, they asked King Herod for directions. He was unaware of the star and prophecy and therefore couldn’t direct them, but he did want to know where this new born King of the Jews was so that he could kill Him. Herod asked the magi to find the child and report back to him so that he could worship the child as well. The magi then traveled to Bethlehem, found Jesus and His family, and worshipped the child, giving Him three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Before they left, they had a dream telling them not to report the child’s location to King Herod as he so wished. So they left and never reported the child’s location to King Herod, thus giving Joseph, Mary and Jesus enough time to flee. It really is as simple as that. The lack of detail makes it difficult to really pinpoint any characteristics about them. But based on what is written in Matthew we can make some distinctions between the real story, and the Christmas traditions you see in front yards.

Separating the Facts from Tradition

First, were there three wise men? The Bible doesn’t say so. The tradition of there being three wise men came from there being three gifts given.[2] We have no idea how many there were. But we do know that the number was designated as three by the second century,[3] and has carried on into contemporary nativity scenes ever since. But not everyone followed this tradition, as there were some exceptions. A painting within the catacomb of Domitilla shows four magi, one catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus depicts two, and unearthed Syrian documents name twelve![4] These are all traditions however with nothing that can substantiate them as fact. So though we cannot say for sure exactly how many magi traveled to see Jesus, we do know that because they are written of in plural form there were, at the very least, two magi. But there may have been more.

Additionally there is no basis for calling them “kings” either, as is commonly done.[5] This tradition began in the 5th century, around the same time that they were given names; Balthassar, Melchoir, and Gaspar (sometimes Caspar).[6] An Armenian infancy gospel from the early 6th century describes them as; Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; Baldassar, King of Arabia.[7] As time went on Balthassar would appear in paintings as a middle aged man with brown hair and a beard, Melchoir would appear as a clean shaven youth, and Gaspar, an aging bald headed man. But again, neither their names nor physical descriptions ever appear in the Bible, and due to the 400 to 500 year gap from when the event actually occurred to when these traditions first appear, it would be difficult to think they are actually historical accurate characteristics.

Another difficult question to answer is where the magi where from. Seeing as they came from the east, their homeland was possibly Persia or Arabia.[8] Others speculate they came more specifically from Babylonia.[9] More recently, a translated text called the Revelation of the Magi sources them from the eastern land of Shir, which is believed to be in China![10],[11] But more will be discussed on that later. The theory that the magi came from Babylonia comes from the fact that the Babylonian empire had once conquered Israel and brought a number of Israelites back to Babylon, including Daniel, who was trained in the Babylonian schools. Considering the prophecies of Daniel included the coming of the messiah, and the magi set out to find the messiah when they saw the Christmas star around the time the Messiah was to be born, it is logical to infer that the magi were aware of Daniel’s prophecy and thus from Babylonia. Another theory, that the magi were from Persia is supported by the fact that another prophecy, that of Balaam, speaks of the coming messiah too (Numbers 24:17). Since Balaam was from Pethor, on the border of Persia, it is believed the magi were likely from Persia where Balaam’s prophecy would have known to them.[12] Since the Balaam prophecy from Numbers actually references a “star” as a sign of the birth and Daniel’s doesn’t, the magi being from Persia is often considered the stronger theory.

Another common occurrence among nativity scenes is to see a black magi, and sometimes even an asian magi among the three. This tradition can be traced back to 8th century Anglo-Saxon theologian and historian Venerable Bedewere who was influenced by a passage from Psalm 72:10-11 which says, “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” (NIV). By the 8th century, tradition had made the magi noble kings, and so it became reasonable to Venerable that the kings of Psalm 72 were the magi that visited Jesus. From there it was interpreted that the kings represented the three major continents at the time; Africa, Asia and Europe, which would comprise “all nations.”[13] This is why there is ethnic variety in many paintings of the magi from this time and thereafter, a tradition that remains popular even today. But again, this is a tradition appearing 700 years after the actual events, so it cannot be accepted as historically accurate. 

Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” depicts a European, Asian and African magi.

Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi”
depicts a European, Asian and African magi.

Yet, some theories still remain. The very first depiction of the magi in art is a fresco painting within the catacomb of Priscilla from the mid 3rd century, one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Rome.[14] The painting shows three shadowy figures in tunics approaching Mary, sitting with child. Each figure has a different color. Whether the colors represent the different gifts or different nationalities is unknown, but some use the different colors to support the tradition that the men came from three different lands and were given different colors to represent the different lands. If this were true, it would place the tradition to 200 years after the events occurred. But again, we don’t know for sure why they were given different colors, it could represent the different gifts given. One must additionally ask how, in the first century, could three men from three different continents or countries have coordinated a simultaneous visit to see Jesus hundreds if not thousands of miles away?  Not to mention the fact that Matthew says they came from the east, and Europe is north west and Africa south west. Therefore, it is more likely to conclude, based off Matthew and reasonable logic, the magi came from the same location, in the east, possibly Babylonia or Persia.

Depiction of the Magi in the catacomb of Priscilla

Depiction of the Magi in the catacomb of Priscilla

Another good question to ask is what was so special about the three gifts given? There are different theories, but the most obvious one is simply that of value. All three items were very expensive, most certainly not a gift you’d give to a child unless the child was extremely important and worthy of such items. Second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons expanded on this notion believing that the gold was given because Jesus was King of the Eternal Kingdom; myrrh given because it was used to anoint the dead (symbolizing Jesus’ conquering of death some thirty plus years later); and frankincense given because it was used for burned offerings to God (symbolizing Jesus being a God).[15] Many theologians dig even deeper into the meaning of the three gifts, but the point is, the magi were acknowledging Jesus’ authority and role on the this earth and were there to worship.

Other Common Misconceptions

Many nativity scenes show the three magi with Jesus as a newborn. As if they just happened to travel hundreds of miles to arrive in Bethlehem a few minutes after He was born. Impressive! But it’s not so. The magi did not show up in Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth, but instead months, or a year or so, later. This is supported by the fact that King Herod ordered his soldiers to kill all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two (Matthew 2:16). Why would Herod order the killing of all male children under the age of two if Jesus was a new born? The only explanation is that Jesus wasn’t a new born, but a toddler. This can be further supported by the fact that the magi visited Jesus in a house, even though Jesus was born in a stable____. Lastly, the Bible doesn’t say the magi reached Bethlehem the night Jesus was born, only that they reached Him.

Another misconception was that the star was seen 24/7 the entire trip. But the magi did not have the star to guide them the entire time. This is supported by the fact that they had to ask King Herod where the new Messiah was when they reached Jerusalem (Matthew 2:2). It would be an unnecessary question if the star was still guiding them. Additionally, they rejoiced when they saw the star appearing over Bethlehem (Matthew 2:10). Clearly the star was not shining the entire time, but reappeared to guide them to Bethlehem, hence the rejoicing.

Other Traditions Regarding the Magi

There is actually a traditional holiday called the Feast of Epiphany celebrated on January 6th (12 days after December 25th) which celebrates the magi’s arrival.[16] Some Christian cultures exchange gifts on this day, not December 25th.

There is also a tradition of death and resurrection symbolism pertaining to the magi. Interestingly enough, most early depictions of the magi in art appear in catacombs and over tombs. At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The magi were there for Jesus’ birth, not death, so why so popular in tombs? Tradition holds that since the magi worshipped Jesus they were aware of His role, hence the particular gifts they gave (going back to Irenaeus’ theory behind the gifts) symbolizing His impending death and subsequent resurrection. Since the magi were considered the first to recognize this in Jesus they became a prominent symbol of Jesus’ conquering of the dead and thus, became a prominent symbol over tombs to symbolize the eternal life for those that call on Jesus.[17]

Another tradition of the magi is what happened to them after they left Judea. Though the Bible doesn’t say, Justin Martyr, an early church father from the second century, proposed that since the magi were astrologers and trained in the arts of magic they were probably sorcerers that practiced idolatry. Therefore, their journey to see Jesus and worship him was a sign of their repentance and rebirth, rejecting their past idolatry. This has been depicted multiple times in ancient artwork in which three young men (referencing the relationship to Daniel) in eastern attire are shown rejecting an idol they are supposed to be worshipping, one of which is usually looking up to a star.[18] This is of course speculation and tradition, but it may have been the case in actual history.

Other details of what happened to the magi after Bethlehem are detailed in 14th century cleric John of Hildesheim’s “Historia Treum Regum” (History of the Three Kings). He writes that some time after the nativity event they all died at the same time and same place, called the Hill of the Vaws.[19] The details are a blend of historical fact and early Christian tradition, but nothing is supported by the Biblical account. For example, he writes of Helena, Constantine’s mother, who traveled to the Holy Land and collected various relics like the true cross and the bones of the magi! She then took the bones and placed them in a chest, leaving them in Constantinople at a church called Saint Sophia. After which, the bones were moved to Milan and then to the Cologne cathedral where they supposedly remain to this day.[20]

What actually makes this story so interesting is that there really are bones there. But are they the bones of the wise men? The bones are wrapped in authentic 2nd to 3rd century fabrics. But this only proves they are bones wrapped in ancient cloth. Interestingly enough, the skulls are those of a young man, a middle aged man, and old man.[21] This was determined by the degree of suture formation in the skulls. Which is interesting because the tradition of one being young, the second middle aged, and the third old, came about some time after the bones were collected. Yet, this is only significant if we assume there were three wise men; young, middle aged, and old. If this assumption is incorrect then the bones worthless. Furthermore, without sample DNA of the wise men to compare the bones to, there really is no way to know for sure if the bones are legitimate. The bones are therefore no more than circumstantial evidence at best.

Supposed remains of the magi in Cologne

Supposed remains of the magi in Cologne

 

Revelation of the Magi

Revelation of the Magi is the supposed personal narrative of the magi who visited Jesus. The text depicts them as mystical sages in the eastern land of Shir guarding the sacred prophecy of Christ.[22] There are many parallels with the Bible, but there is also many details that do not mesh the Bible. Case in point, the Christmas star is not a star at all, but a luminous human-looking being that descends from heaven to guide them.[23]  More so, it has even been interpreted that the text redefines Christian doctrine all together. According to scholar Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and one of the first to translate the text to English, “At first glance, the text seems to display a much more tolerant attitude toward non-Christian religions than what is found in other early Christian writings… statements by Christ, the Magi, and even God himself reinforce this conception of Christ’s boundless revelation throughout the world. In sum, the Revelation of the Magi contends that Christ is actually the hidden source of all or most of humanity’s religious systems. Therefore, according to this text, non-Christian religions do not actually exist, since Christ pervades them all.”[24] This is not surprising considering Landau is an Episcopalian, and therefore comfortable with more liberal interpretations of scripture.

Outside of not meshing with other Christian scripture, the details alone are problematic. The text states that the human-looking “star” burned brighter than the sun, writing that compared to the star, the sun looks as the moon normally does in sunlight. This is difficult to imagine unless the star was beyond the sun at a further distance, but the star is supposedly in very close proximity to the magi, actually speaking with them on different occasions. This same star did not appear to anyone else either, which I suppose would explain why no other astrologers and early astronomers around the world documented a star brighter than the sun. Additionally, mountains and hills were supposedly flattened before the Magi as they traveled west ward, which one would presume must have been un-flattened as there would be some remains of a flat route all the way from Shir to Judea remaining to this day. Lastly, the magi were supposed to be messengers for Christ back in the land they originated from. Yet there is no evidence of Christian sects sprouting up in the far east in the first few centuries after Christ, which we would expect if these three men were supposed to preach Christ to the East. Unless of course, they failed in this endeavor…

So the text does not match the doctrines of the New Testament and the details cannot be substantiated. But the real death blow to the accuracy of this text in its dating and authorship. Revelation of the Magi was first referenced in texts from the Middle Ages.[25] Putting it hundreds of years after the event in question actually occurred. As far as authorship, there is no scholar that believes it was written by the magi that visited Christ. Even Landau admits that the text was certainly not written by the one of the magi since it includes knowledge of events that occurred long after Christ’s death.[26] He instead believes it was written by an early sect of Christian mystics. So considering it was written hundreds of years after Christ (at least 700 years[27]) and is not an actual account from the magi, but is written as if it is, it would be logical to conclude the Revalation of the Magi is not an accurate text of the authentic historical details behind the magi. So far, all prominent scholars that have reviewed the text agree.

Conclusion

As you can see, theories and speculation as to who the magi were and where they were from can begin to run wild. And though we cannot conclude with certainty how many there were and exactly where they were from, we can conclude the following: They believed in God’s word, they wanted to know and meet this Messiah, recognizing His worth, they humbled themselves to worship this young child, and they obeyed God rather than man. So regardless of the finer details, the lesson the magi teach us is simple: Jesus is worthy of our worship.


[1] Lang, J.S., (2010) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 249.

[2] Lang, J.S., (2010) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 249.

[3] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 4.

[4] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 5.

[5] Lang, J.S., (2010) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 249.

[6] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 4.

[7] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 5.

[8] Lang, J.S., (2010) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 249.

[9] Gardner, J., (Ed.) (1981) Reader’s Digest Atlas of the Bible (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.) pp. 172.

[10] Landau, B., (December 2010) “Who Were the Three Wise Men of Christmas,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com

[11] The land of Shir being in China is due to two descriptions of it; 1) it is referenced as being in the extreme east at the GreatOcean, 2) it is referenced as the land where silk comes from, and silk was an enormous export of China.

[12] “What does the Bible say about the Wise Men?” http://www.gotquestions.org

[13] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp 9.

[14] MacGregor, N., (2000) Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ, (New Haven, CT: YaleUniversity Press).

[15] Irenaeus, Adversus omnes Haerses 3.9;as referenced inMurphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 59.

[16] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 5.

[17] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp. 12.

[18] Murphy, S. (Ed.) (2009) The First Christmas, (WashingtonDC: Biblical Archaeology Society) pp 6-7.

[19] Rose, M., (December 2004) “The Three Kings & the Star,” http://www.archaeology.org

[20] Rose, M., (December 2004) “The Three Kings & the Star,” http://www.archaeology.org

[21] Rose, M., (December 2004) “The Three Kings & the Star,” http://www.archaeology.org

[22] Landau, B., (December 2010) “Who Were the Three Wise Men of Christmas,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com

[23] Landau, B., (December 2010) “Who Were the Three Wise Men of Christmas,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com

[24] Landau, B., (December 2010) “Who Were the Three Wise Men of Christmas,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com

[25] Healy, M., (December 2010) “Were the Three Wise Men from China?” http://www.usatoday.com

[26] Healy, M., (December 2010) “Were the Three Wise Men from China?” http://www.usatoday.com

[27] Bible Archaeology Staff, (November 2011) “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks ‘Who Were the Magi?’” http://www.biblearchaeology.com

Comments
  1. David says:

    Israel was first conquered by Babylon and then Persia. Now we know that Daniel was placed in charge or in a very high ranking position in both of these empires. Daniel’s influence is what stirred these men to come seek out the king of the Jews. Remember, Daniel was unswayed by the customs and culture of these empires. But rather he taught the astrologers and magicians of that day the very things that God taught him which was the time in which the jewish messiah would come. They didn’t follow a star from Persia but rather there was an alignment of stars which denoted a time or a calendar date of the birth of this messiah. A star to follow didn’t appear until after the magi’s discourse with Herod, as they sought out the where a bouts of this king.

    • matthew2262 says:

      Thank you for your comment dcnwarren. That is a very valid point to make about the star only guiding them after they arrived in Jerusalem. That seems to be the most straightforward reading of Matthew 2. I wrote more about the star in the post immediately after this one; https://matthew2262.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/when-was-jesus-born/.

      I’d love to hear your comments regarding my coverage of the star. I am always looking to further solidify my understanding of these Biblical events. Thank you again for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s