There are quite a few myths about the Bible out there, such as that Eve ate an apple, or that the Magi came to Christ at the time of his birth. In this post, I thought, for Christmas, I’d just blog a little about the Christmas Magi. Incidentally, this is the day that the Eastern Orthodox generally celebrate the visit of the Magi (December 25th), and even though in the West we celebrate the Birth of Christ on this day and the visit of the Magi on January 6th, it still seems appropriate to blog about the Magi on this day, as they are part of every western nativity scene which illustrate something of the faith of the western Church in this season. Merry Christmas, and happy feast of the Adoration of the Magi, to all you Eastern Orthodox readers.
A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.
Generation after generation will give joyful praise in you; the name of the chosen city will endure for ever.
The Three Gifts
First, it is commonly thought that there were three Magi, but scripture does not affirm anywhere that there were three Magi. All Scripture does say is that there were Magi (plural) and that they brought three gifts. Moreover, only one Gospel (Matthew) tells us anything about them, and there are no references to them anywhere else in the New Testament. These gifts are Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
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).
Although the symbolism of these gifts may be obscure, I once heard that the three gifts symbolize Kingship (Gold), Priesthood (Frankincense), and Death (Myrrh), and this interpretation has become very popular. Myrrh symbolizes death because it was the very thing customarily used to embalm dead bodies, thus pointing ahead to Jesus’ vocation to die on a tree. In any case, the Gospel author, Matthew, does not let us in on what symbolism he might have perceived, if indeed he intended to recount anything other than history. Perhaps he as well wondered about the significance of such gifts, but could not himself discern a satisfactory account of all three gifts, and so wrote them into his narrative without writing in some interpretation of his own. Moreover, Isaiah had prophesied the Gold and the Frankincense:
The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
~Why did the Magi bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
Scott Hahn, in his Biblical commentary, writes the following about Matthew 2:12:
The episode evokes Is[aiah] 60:3, 6, where Gentile nations bring gifts of gold and frankincense to the God of Israel (cf. Tob 13:11; Ps 72:10-15). Myrrh: an anointing oil used to consecrate Levitical priests and the wilderness Tabernacle (Ex 30:23-33). It was also a burial ointment (Jn 19:39-40). Allegorically (St. Irenaeus, AH 3,9,2): the gifts of the Magi signify the mystery of Christ incarnate. Gold, a symbol of royalty, represents the kingship of Jesus. Frankincense, used in the worship of God, points to his divinity. Myrrh, a burial ointment, signifies the humanity of Christ, especially in his Passion and death. Morally (St. Gragory the Great, Hom. in Evan. 10): the treasures signify the gifts we present to Christ in our daily lives. the God is Christ’s wisdom, which shines in us, frankincense is the prayer and adoration we give him (cf. Rev. 8:3-4), and myrrh is our daily self-sacrifices (10:39; cf. Romans 12:1).
Thus, the gifts admit of a plethora of interpretations, and it is perhaps best to approach them with an open hermeneutic for both the allegorical and tropological senses. Finally, it would be worth speculating on what the anagogical/eschatological readings could be. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Catena Aurea, records from the Glossa Ordinaria, where it quotes Anselm as saying:
The three men who offer, signify the nations who come from the three quarters of the earth. They open their treasures, i.e. manifest the faith of their hearts by confession. Rightly in the house, teaching that we should not vaingloriously display the treasure of a good conscience. They bring three gifts, i.e. the faith in the Holy Trinity. Or opening the stores of Scripture, they offer its threefold sense, historical, moral, and allegorical; or Logic, Physic, and Ethics, making them all serve the faith.
~Catena Aurea, Volume 1
We have already said that the Scripture does not mention the number of Magi present, but traditionally (as was seen in Anselm’s quote) it has been imagined that there were three. It may be worth asking, therefore, whether there is any good evidence outside the Bible to think that there were three Magi. The most obvious piece of evidence for the affirmation that there were three Magi is that there were three gifts, and it would seem un-befitting if there were Magi present who had not brought any gifts, since it would seem then that they were not offering obeisance to the Lord. This on its own is far from definitive though, and so we should ask what other evidence exists.
Though the Eastern tradition seems to favor the Magi as being twelve in number, the earliest traditions to which we have any access, along with the majority tradition (though not a consistent tradition) of the west, has been to recognize three Magi.
As early as the 3rd century, they were considered to be kings, probably interpreted as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 72:11 (“May all kings fall down before him”). In about the 8th century the names of three Magi—Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa—appear in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper). According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.
~Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Magi
The evidence from early Iconography is not conclusive. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
- 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).
Still, Iconography may favor there being three Magi’s (see, for example, the Catacombs in Rome), but only weakly and inconclusively. Interestingly, there may be the evidence of the relics to consider.
Their supposed relics were transferred from Constantinople, possibly in the late 5th century, to Milan and thence to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.
~Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Magi
If the relics are to be trusted, there are three Magi, or at least we only have the relics of three who are supposed to be the Magi. This isn’t strong evidence, however, and it remains, even for faithful Catholics, inconclusive (since the legitimacy of this or that relic does not require religious assent, at least to the best of my knowledge).
There is the evidence of the Liturgy to consider.
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 Sabfa shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him” (Psalm 71:10). 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.
Thus, the evidence from Liturgy is also inconclusive.
Kings, Priests, or Magicians?
Were the Magi kings, or were they not? First, the word Magi as used in the Gospel refers generally in the Bible to Magicians:
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, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15). St. Justin (Tryph., lxxviii), Origen (Cels., I, lx), St. Augustine (Serm. xx, De epiphania) and St. Jerome (In Isa., xix, 1) find the same meaning in the second chapter of Matthew, though this is not the common interpretation.
In fact, because of the presence of the word in the book of Daniel some speculated that Daniel influenced some Babylonian ‘Magi’, and that these were the ones who knew how to read the signs in order to look for the Messiah. That would certainly make them something other than kings. The most plausible answer, given the context in which Matthew’s Gospel places the Magi, is that they were Zoroastrian priests.
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, Jeremias 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.
Thus, God “has not left himself without a witness” (Acts 14:17), and “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35).
What does this tell us about the legitimacy of astrology? I am inclined to answer: “nothing at all.” Although these Magi clearly read the stars in order to discover when and where this ‘king of the Jews’ would be born, I think we can safely conjecture that God so intruded into natural religion that he intended to leave clues of himself even in the ‘language’ which the Magi understood according to their way of reading the stars. Even if their way of reading the stars wasn’t particularly insightful in other respects, God left them signs even in their natural religion leading to his revelation of himself within the boundaries of Israel.
Concerning the star, since ‘star’ was a term designating ‘light in the sky’, we may well imagine that the star which led the Magi (perhaps moving through the sky) was an angelic appearance. However, there are some who have suggested that the star which appeared in the sky was an actual star whose light only reached the earth around the time of the birth of Christ, thus making it literally true that the star appeared in the sky – it then led the Magi to Christ only according to it’s situation in the sky given the method by which the Magi ‘read’ the stars. For further discussions, see episodes of the ‘Unbelievable?’ podcast in previous years, around the time of Christmas.
Some points against this episode being historical can be adduced and dealt with.
These three gifts were sometimes associated with a pre-Christian cult of Apollo, suggesting perhaps that it was due to hellenistic influence that Matthew’s Gospel records that it was these three gifts in particular that Jesus received.
“In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.”
~Why did the Magi bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
However, against this we can note that Christian origins have no connection to the cult of Apollo, as it’s faith was rooted in the soil of Israel. Moreover, perhaps King Seleucus II Callinicus, like the Magi who came to Christ, brought those three gifts because they were typical and ideal offerings for that time. As the Archaeological Bible puts it:
The Magi’s gifts (gold, incense and myrrh) were the most valuable , transportable and marketable items of the day.
The Catholic Encyclopedia enumerates some other problems, and makes a start at dealing with them:
- 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 tradition.
- 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 Nazereth 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.
This last point is the one upon which I will end. Many Christians are aware that the Magi may not have been three in number, though three is one of the best guesses we have. Yet, there is a more serious mistake which even informed Christians often make: that is to think that the Magi appeared on the day of Jesus’ birth. People sometimes imagine that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are in contradiction here, where clearly no contradiction is demonstrated. However, notice that Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the Magi show up only ‘after’ Jesus was born, but it doesn’t tell us how long after. Notice that in Luke’s account Jesus was born in a manger (it was actually a cave, as archaeology and tradition both tell us, which were typically used as mangers), and yet in Matthew’s account the Magi come to the house of Jesus. It is possible, therefore, that the Magi reached Bethlehem and found Jesus days after his birth, and thus days after the shepherds spoken of in Luke’s account. By this point they were already in a house. However, it could also be that the Magi went from Bethlehem to Nazareth in order to find the child, as the star was directing them. Herod would then have killed the children in and around Bethlehem, even though Christ was no longer there (having only been born there because of the census). These other children whom Herod slaughtered, although Christians often exaggerate the number by imagining it to have been in the thousands rather than maybe the hundreds, are also remembered by the Catholic Church as the first Christian Martyrs. We remember and celebrate them on December 28th.