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.
So how could they have seen the star “in the East” and arrived in Jerusalem unless they they had begun their journey somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? 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 — from the plural of the Greek word magos — 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 than Persia.
What we know about their origin suggests either 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 the dark arts of 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 outside of Rome, 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
Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time