The Three Wise Men
from the Catholic Encyclopedia
(Plural of Latin magus;
The "wise men from the East" who
came to adore Jesus in Bethlehem
Rationalists regard the Gospel account as fiction;
Catholics insist that it is a narrative of
fact, supporting their interpretation with the
evidence of all manuscripts and versions, and patristic citations. All this evidence
rationalists pronounce irrelevant; they class the story of the Magi with the so-called
"legends of the childhood of Jesus", later
apocryphal additions to the Gospels. Admitting only internal evidence, they say, this evidence does
not stand the test of criticism.
John and Mark are silent. This is because they
begin their Gospels with the public life of Jesus
. That John knew the story of the Magi may be gathered from the fact that
Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., III, ix, 2) is witness to it; for Irenaeus gives us the Johannine
Luke is silent. Naturally, as the fact is told
well enough by the other synoptics. Luke tells the Annunciation
, details of the Nativity, the
Circumcision, and the Presentation
of Christ in the Temple, facts of the childhood of
Jesus which the silence of the other
three Evangelists does not render legendary.
Luke contradicts Matthew and returns the Child Jesus to Nazareth immediately after the Presentation
(Luke 2:39). This return to Nazareth may have been either before the
Magi came to Bethlehem or after the exile in Egypt. No contradiction is involved.
The subject will be treated in this article under the two
Who the Magi were;
The Time and Circumstances of their Visit.
Who the Magi Were
We may form a conjecture by non-Biblical evidence of a probable meaning to the word
magoi. Herodotus (I, ci) is our authority for supposing that
the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They provided priests for Persia,
and, regardless of dynastic vicissitudes, ever kept up their dominating religious influence. To the head of this caste,
Nergal Sharezar, Jeremiah gives the title Rab-Mag
, "Chief Magus" (Jeremiah
39:3, 39:13, in Hebrew original Septuagint and Vulgate translations are erroneous here). After
the downfall of Assyrian and Babylonian power, the religion of the Magi held sway in
Persia. Cyrus completely conquered the sacred caste; his son Cambyses
severely repressed it. The Magians revolted and set up Gaumata, their chief, as King of
Persia under the name of Smerdis. He was, however, murdered (521 B.C.
), and Darius became king. This downfall of the Magi was celebrated by a national
Persian holiday called magophonia (Her., III, lxiii, lxxiii,
lxxix). Still the religious influence of this priestly caste continued throughout the rule of the Achaemenian
dynasty in Persia(Ctesias, "Persica", X-XV); and is not unlikely that at the time of
the birth of Christ it was still flourishing under the
Parthian dominion. Strabo (XI, ix, 3) says that the Magian priests formed
one of the two
councils of the Parthian Empire.
The word magoi often has the meaning of "
magician", in both Old and New Testaments
(see Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8; also the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27; 4:4; 5:7, 11, 15).
St Justin (Tryph., lxxviii), Origen (Cels., I, lx), Saint Augustine (Serm. xx, De epiphania)
and Saint Jerome (In Isa., xix, 1) find the same meaning in the second chapter
of Matthew, though this is not the common interpretation.
No Father of the Church
holds the Magi to have been kings. Tertullian ("Adv.
Marcion.", III, xiii) says that they were well nigh kings ( fere reges),
and so agrees with what we have concluded from non-Biblical evidence. The Church
, indeed, in her liturgy,
applies to the Magi the words: "The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer
presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him
" (Psalm71:10). But this use of the text in reference to them no more proves that they were
kings than it traces their journey from Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba. As sometimes
happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has in time come to be looked upon by some as an authentic interpretation thereof. Neither
were they magicians: the good meaning of magoi, though
found nowhere else in the Bible, is demanded by the context of the second chapter
of St Matthew. These Magians can have been none other
than members of the priestly caste already referred to. The religion of the Magi was fundamentally
that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were occasions of their
finding Christ. (See THEOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF THE AVESTA.)
The Gospel narrative omits to mention the number
of the Magi, and there is no
certain tradition in this matter. Some Fathers speak of three
Magi; they are very likely influenced by the number
of gifts . In the Orient,
tradition favors twelve. Early
Christian art is no consistent witness:
a painting in the cemetery of Sts Peter and Marcellinus shows two;
one in the Lateran Museum, three;
one in the cemetery of Domitilla, four;
a vase in the Kircher Museum, eight
(Marucchi, "Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne", Paris, 1899, I 197).
The names of the Magi are as uncertain as is their number
. Among the Latins, from the seventh century
, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and
Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St Gaspar, on the
first , St Melchior, on the
sixth , and St Balthasar, on the
eleventh of January (Acta SS., I, 8, 323, 664).
The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc.; the
Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma, etc. (Cf. Acta Sanctorum,
May 1, 1780 ). Passing over the purely legendary notion that they
represented the three families which are descended from
Noah, it appears they all came from "the east"
(Matthew 2:1, 2, 9). East of Palestine, only ancient Media,
Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a Magian priesthood at the time
of the birth of Christ . From some such part of the
Parthian Empire the Magi came. They probably crossed the Syrian Desert, lying between
the Euphrates and Syria, reached either Haleb (Aleppo)
or Tudmor (Palmyra), and journeyed on to Damascus and southward, by what is now the
great Mecca route ( darb elhaj, "
the pilgrim's way"), keeping the Sea of
Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho. We have no
tradition of the precise land meant by "the east".
It is Babylon, according to St Maximus (Homil. xviii in Epiphan.); and Theodotus of
Ancyra (Homil. de Nativitate, I, x); Persia, according to Clement of Alexandria
(Strom., I xv) and St Cyril of Alexandria (In Is., xlix, 12); Aribia, according to
St Justin (Cont. Tryphon., lxxvii), Tertullian (Adv. Jud., ix), and St Epiphanius
(Expos. fidei, viii).
Time and Circumstances of Their Visit
The visit of the Magi took place after the
Presentation of the Child in the Temple (Luke 2:38). No sooner
were the Magi departed than the angel
bade Joseph take the
Child and Its
Mother into Egypt
(Matthew 2:13). Once Herod was wroth at the
failure of the Magi to return, it was out of all question that the Presentation
should take place. Now a new difficulty
occurs: after the Presentation,
the Holy Family returned into Galilee
(Luke 2:39). Some think that this return was not immediate. Luke omits the
incidents of the Magi, flight into Egypt, massacre of the Innocents
, and return from Egypt, and takes up the story with the return of the
Holy Family into Galilee. We prefer to interpret Luke's words
as indicating a return to Galilee immediately after the
Presentation . The stay at Nazareth was very brief. Thereafter the
Holy Family probably returned to abide in Bethlehem.
Then the Magi came. It was "in the days of king Herod"
(Matthew 2:1), i.e. before the year 4 B.C.
(A.U.C. 750), the probable date of Herod's
death at Jericho. For we know that Archelaus,
Herod's son, succeeded as ethnarch
to a part of his father's realm, and was deposed either in
his ninth (Josephus, Bel. Jud., II, vii, 3) or
tenth (Josephus, Antiq., XVII, xviii, 2) year of office
during the consulship of Lepidus and Arruntius (Dion Cassis, lv, 27), i.e.,
A.D. 6. Moreover, the Magi came while King
Herod was in Jerusalem (vv. 3, 7), not in Jericho,
i.e., either the beginning of 4 B.C. or the end of
5 B.C. Lastly, it was probably a
year, or a little more than a year
, after the birth of Christ
. Herod had found out from the
Magi the time of the star's appearance. Taking this for the time of the Child's
slew the male children of
two years old and under in Bethlehem and its
borders (v. 16). Some of the Fathers conclude from this ruthless slaughter
that the Magi reached Jerusalem two years
after the Nativity (St Epiphanius, "Haer.", LI, 9; Juvencus, "Hist.
Evang.", I, 259). Their conclusion has some degree of probability; yet the slaying
of children two years old may possibly
have been due to some other reason for instance, a fear on Herod's
part that the Magi had deceived him
in the matter of the star's appearance or that the Magi had been deceived as to the conjunction
of that appearance with the birth of the Child. Art and
archaeology favor our view. Only one early monument represents the Child
in the crib while the Magi adore
; in others Jesus rests upon
Mary's knees and is at times fairly well grown
(see Cornely, "Introd. Special. in N.T.", p.203).
From Persia, whence the Magi are supposed to have come to Jerusalem,
was a journey of between 1000 and
1200 miles. Such a distance may have taken any time between
three and twelve months
by camel. Besides the time of travel, there were probably many weeks
of preparation. The Magi could scarcely have reached Jerusalem
till a year or more had elapsed from the time of the
appearance of the star. St Augustine (De Consensu Evang., II, v, 17) thought the date of the
Epiphany, the sixth of January
, proved that the Magi reached Bethlehem thirteen
days after the Nativity , i.e.,
after the twenty-fifth of December . His argument
from liturgical dates was incorrect. Neither liturgical date is certainly the
historical date. (For an explanation of the chronological difficulties, see Chronology, Biblical, Date of the Nativity of
Jesus Christ.) In the fourth century the
Churches of the Orient celebrated the
sixth of January as the feast of
Christ's Birth , the Adoration
by the Magi, and Christ's Baptism
, whereas, in the Occident, the Birth of Christ
was celebrated on the twenty-fifth of December
. This latter date of the Nativity was
introduced into the Church of
Antioch during St Chrysostom's time (P.G., XLIX, 351), and still later into the
Churches of Jerusalem and Alexandria.
That the Magi thought a star led them on, is clear from the words (
eidomen gar autou ton astera ) which Matthew uses in 2:2.
Was it really a star? Rationalists and rationalistic Protestants, in their efforts to escape the
supernatural , have elaborated a number of
The word aster may mean a comet; the star
of the Magi was a comet. But we have no record of any such comet.
The star may have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (
7 B.C. ), or of Jupiter and Venus (
6 B.C. ).
The Magi may have seen a stella nova , a star
which suddenly increases in magnitude and brilliancy and then fades away.
These theories all fail to explain how " the star which they had seen in
the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was " (Matthew 2:9).
The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree
each day. No fixed star could have so moved before the Magi as to lead them to Bethlehem;
neither fixed star nor comet could have disappeared, and reappeared, and stood still. Only a miraculous
phenomenon could have been the Star of
Bethlehem . It was like
the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the
camp by night during Israel's Exodus (Exodus 13:21), or to the "brightness
of God" which shone round about the shepherds (Luke 2:9), or
to "the light from heaven" which shone around about the
stricken Saul (Acts 9:3).
The philosophy of the Magi, erroneous
though it was, led them to the journey by which they were to find Christ
. Magian astrology postulated a heavenly counterpart
to complement man's earthly self and
make up the complete human
personality . His
"double" (the fravashi
of the Parsi) developed together with every good
death united the
two . The sudden appearance of a new and brilliant star suggested to
the Magi the birth of an important person. They came to adore Him
i.e., to acknowledge the Divinity of
this newborn King (vv. 2, 8, 11). Some of the Fathers
(St Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.", III, ix, 2; Progem, "in Num.", homil. xiii, 7) think
the Magi saw in "his star" a fulfillment
of the prophesy of Balaam: "A star shall rise out of Jacob and a scepter shall
spring up from Israel" (Numbers 24:17). But from the parallelism of the prophesy,
the "Star" of Balaam is a great
prince, not a heavenly body; it is not likely that, in virtue of this Messianic
prophesy, the Magi would look forward to a very special star of the firmament as a sign of the
Messiah. It is likely, however, that the Magi were
familiar with the great Messianic prophesies. Many Jews
did not return from exile with Nehemiah. When Christ was
born, there was undoubtedly a Hebrew population in Babylon, and probably one in Persia. At any
rate, the Hebrew tradition survived in Persia. Moreover, Virgil, Horace,
Tacitus (Hist., V, xiii), and Suetonius (Vespas., iv) bear witness that, at the time of the birth of
Christ, there was throughout the Roman Empire a
general unrest and expectation of a Golden Age and a great deliverer. We may readily admit that the
Magi were led by such hebraistic and gentile influences to look forward to a
Messiah Who should soon come. But there must have been some special
Divine revelation whereby they knew that "
his star" meant the birth of a King
, that this new-born King was very
God, and that they should be led by "his
star" to the place of the God-King's
birth (St Leo, Serm. xxxiv, "In Epiphan." IV, 3).
The advent of the Magi caused a great stir in Jerusalem; everybody, even
King Herod , heard their quest (v. 3).
Herod and his
priests should have been gladdened at the news; they
were saddened. It is a striking fact
that the priests showed the Magi the way, but would not go that way themselves. The Magi now followed
the star some six miles southward to Bethlehem,
"and entering into the house [ eis
ten oikian ], they found the child"
(v. 11). There is no reason to suppose, with some of the Fathers (St. Aug., Serm. cc, "In Epiphan.", I, 2), that
the Child was still in the stable.
The Magi adored (
prosekynesan ) the Child as
God , and offered Him
gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The giving of
gifts was in keeping with Oriental custom. The purpose of the gold is clear; the
Child was poor . We
do not know the purpose of the other gifts. The Magi probably meant no symbolism. The Fathers have
found manifold and multiform symbolic meanings in the three gifts;
it is not clear that any of these meanings are inspired (cf.
Knabenbauer, "in Matth.", 1892).
We are certain that the Magi were told in sleep not to return to
Herod and that "they went back another way into their
country" (v. 12). This other way may have been a way to the Jordan such as to
avoid Jerusalem and Jericho; or a roundabout way south through Beersheba, then east
to the great highway (now the Mecca route) in the land of Moab and beyond the Dead Sea.
It is said that after their return home, the Magi were
baptized by St Thomas and wrought much for the spread of the
Faith in Christ. The story is traceable to an Arian
writer of not earlier than the sixth century , whose work is
printed, as "Opus imperfectum in Matthæum" among the writings of
St Chrysostom (P.G., LVI, 644). This author
admits that he is drawing upon the apocryphal Book of Seth, and writes much about the Magi
that is clearly legendary. The cathedral of Cologne contains what are claimed to be the remains of the
Magi; these, it is said, were discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by
St Helena, transferred to Milan in the fifth century
and to Cologne in 1163
(Acta SS., I, 323).