History of the Magi: The Wise Men

HISTORY OF THE WISE MEN

You’re familiar with the song that begins “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways. We don’t know how many there were, but we know they weren’t kings. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East.

How could they have seen the star “in the East” and arrived in Jerusalem unless they began somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him”. One easy explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him”.

A number of traditions places their number at three, with the presumption of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve.

The term Magi is usually translated wise men, astrologers, or magicians (the word “magic” comes from magi). “The East”, has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but usually no further east.

What we know about their origin suggests to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were known to be an old and powerful priestly caste among both the Medes and Persians. These priest-sages who were extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in a variety of disciplines, including medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced augury, necromancy, and magic. The Persian magi at least were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed impostors. The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originated among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names.

Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman Catacombs of Pricilla, which I have visited, dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of early church fathers interpret them as Persians.

The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine‘s mother St. Helena upon the traditional site in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and indeed it is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognized the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Persian headdress. This account makes sense by virtue of the fact that the Magi were traditionally represented in early Christian art as Zoroastrian priests

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

3 comments… add one
  • In the bible it is recounted, at least to my understanding, the magi reported that they had seen the star in the east and according to their scriptures that was a sign that the true King of the Jews had arrived. So I was wondering are there any documents from Persia, or other historical documents outside of the references in the bible that could substantiate the concept that their ancient scrolls led them to this conclusion.

    I ask this as one version of the story that I heard years ago is that they wondered about the strange star in the east and headed that direction. While on their travels the story of the Messiah repeated and they decided to investigate. This of course leads to the question, “Why did they bring the gifts?” A simple explanation would be that they were very rich, and once convinced that the story was true purchased the items. Speculation on my part.

    This leads to the question pertaining to the writings referred to where King Herod’s priest referred to the documents that they had and verified the story of the real king. Since there was no bible at the time I would interpret any reference to these scriptures as ones that would be found in both religious and secular documentation of the day.

    Any ideas where I could look?

    Thanks in advance.

    Ray

    Reply
    • Raymond, you’ve obviously given this some thought. To your first question I am not aware of any Persian documents still in existence. To your second question, if they came to pay homage to a king, they would have brought gifts. To your third question, they would have consulted the prophesy of Micah 5:2, what we would call the Old Testament.

      You did not ask the more difficult question: in Matthew 2:11 why would they fall down and worship the baby? Even the Romans did not (yet) worship their living Caesars.

      Reply
  • God bles ur ministry.

    Reply

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