John Gayford journeys in heart and mind with the wise men


The journey of the Magi was long, arduous, and dangerous. Why did they come? Was it a pursuit of intellectual curiosity based upon very unusual astronomic observation; or was it also heavily imbued with prophecy, hope and the promise of faith? First we have to consider if the visit of the Magi (recorded only in St. Matthew’s Gospel) was historical fact, fiction or a mixture? 

Some biblical scholars see the visit of the Magi as a credible truth.  Even when evaluating a construct from Old Testament sources they are of the opinion that this was a real event handed on by family members and others (who were primary witnesses). It was recorded later by Matthew who used Old Testament support as secondary yet prophecy to the real event. Claims are made that the story of the Visit of the Magi is a type of Christian Midrash or homiletic of Biblical texts as used by Jewish rabbis from the beginning of the 3rd century. The aim was to discuss a sacred text in a reverent way deeper than the literal meaning, as in a “spiritual sense”. The purpose was to make the significance clear to a contemporary generation. In doing so new stories were crafted, making the story of the Magi into a type of parable. Matthew accepted the visit of the Magi from primary and secondary sources as creditable truth, and then searched the Old Testament for past similarities like the Balaam story (Numbers 22 and 24). 

The term Magi (Latin Magis as used in the Vulgate Bible) is often translated in contemporary versions as “wise men”, “astrologers” or “sages”. They were Shaman, men in contact with the spiritual world; ancient Medes, a priestly cast who specialised in interpretation of dreams. Philo of Alexandria the Jewish philosopher (BC 20 to AD 50) described scientific and charlatan magi. There is no evidence that they were kings. Tertullian of Carthage (c.155-c. 240) calls them fere reges (“almost kings”) but by 6th century the tradition of calling them kings was established using Psalm 71: 10, and Isaiah (60:3) to imply this. Even though they are not specifically called Gentile they were certainly not Jews. There is no reference in the text that they were three in number even if they brought three gifts. It was Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-c. 253) who introduced this numerical concept. In Syrian tradition there are 12 Magi all with names.

The Magi brought gifts which since the time of Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202) had traditional symbolism; gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for his death. These were luxury items for a king. Later these became: gold for virtue, incense for prayer and myrrh for suffering. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) gives a more earthly interpretation of the value of their gifts in that the gold relieved the Holy Family’s poverty, incense relieved the stench of the stable and myrrh cured the worms caught by living in a stable inhabited by animals.

Modern astronomy looks back to demonstrate appearance of a bright light caused by juxtaposition of three heavenly bodies, guiding the Magi’s visit to the infant Christ. We are reminded that an angel guided the Israelites through desert to the Promised Land. The Magi prostrated themselves in adoration of the infant Messiah. They see Jesus not just as king of the Jews but king of the whole universe. A number of Church Fathers marvelled over the faith of the Magi, who through human eyes see only an ordinary child in Bethlehem but by faith see so much more. They fall down and worship God in human flesh and offer him gifts of gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his humanity. In the Gospel account the Magi are nameless strangers. The names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar were introduced in Excerpta Latina Barbari of the 5th century. In the Middle Ages in legend, they became saints after conversion to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle, and became venerated. Their relics were taken to Milan from Constantinople in the 5th century and in 1162 to Germany and are enshrined in Cologne Cathedral. A strong case can be made for the Magi being Zoroastrians also known as Mazdean, a priestly cast. They had a dualistic religion traced back to 5th century BC originating from what is now Iran. Zoroastrianism has influenced many religions including Judaism of the second temple period. They still exist in certain parts of the world especially in parts of central Asia. They believe in one universal, uncreated deity but have many complicated and various theologies with sacred texts and legends of their own. Water and fire are agents of ritual purity and are associated with their ceremonies. Some have priests of their own with prayer often made in the presence of some form of fire. The Magi were a tribe of the Medes who set up a sect of their own. Many Zoroastrians have a reputation for wisdom and have through history had their own shrines and temples.

The word Epiphany comes from the Greek ‘manifestation’ or ‘day of appearance’ and is a feast older than the Western Church’s feast of the Nativity of our Blessed Lord, both of which replaced pagan feasts. Other manifestations of God were also celebrated in addition to the Incarnation. The Eastern Churches, in their celebration of the Epiphany include  the visit of the Magi (St. Matthew 2), the baptism of Jesus (St Matthew 3), the wedding at Cana (St. John. 2), and the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14). Why the adoration of the Magi became the predominant theme for Western celebration of the Epiphany on the 6th January is not totally clear. The Armenian Church celebrates the feast of the Theophany when the Nativity and all the above are celebrated together. The Magi were ideal subjects for liturgical drama, starting in the 5th century with a tableau in the context of the Mass (possibly at the offertory).  Later it spread to the mystery plays of 11th century England, as in mystery plays of Chester and York, performed by guilds especially the goldsmiths. The texts that survive are in old English with parts for Rex I, Rex II and Rex III. A modern version of these plays is the nativity play performed by school children prior to Christmas. In this The Magi have a part to play. Mothers, grand-mothers et al. have often produced splendid costumes for three boys who rush onto the set, dump their gifts and run. Oh for more dignity, slower drama and acting skills in adoration. In some countries the drama is carried into the streets with the “song of the star” in which children dressed as Magi go from door to door led by a star bearer begging for gifts.

Why did the Magi visit King Herod? The Magi were not citizens of Judea and owed King Herod no allegiance, but paid due respect and sought information in a strange country. The relationship between Herod and the Jewish scholars was not good, in fact rather cold and distant. If Herod received information that Bethlehem was the Magi’s intended destination, being only a short distance from Jerusalem, why did he not give the Magi an escort there, or more likely direct some under his command to follow them?

The inscription of door posts goes back to the escape of the Israelites from Egypt as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Now there is a form of blessing of chalk and suggested prayers that can be used by the family as the door is inscribed. This is seen as a declaration of faith and a welcome to the house.

The Magi captured artists’ imagination early on in church history as seen in the Roman catacombs of the 2nd century where they are depicted travelling in Persian clothes well before they were ‘made into’ kings. By the 3rd century, mosaics appear of Nativity scenes combined with the Magi coming to worship the infant Christ. By the 9th century the tradition had arisen that the Magi represented three different races and ages. They do not become kings until the 10th century. In the 12th century the Virgin Mary became enthroned with the infant Christ, while Magi knelt and bowed as they presented their gifts in adoration. Illuminated manuscripts of the 14th.century show the Magi surrounding both text and chant for the Feast of the Epiphany in Missals and Antiphonals. Nineteenth century artists like James Tissot show the Magi on horses leading their entourage, who follow with camels and baggage. Edward Burne-Jones was fond of the Magi and depicted them in tapestry and painting, now commonly appearing on Christmas cards. The Magi with camels silhouetted across a hilltop, perhaps with the Star of Bethlehem overhead to guide them, has become popular on Christmas cards as an alternative to the nativity scene. Matthew’s sublime story of the adoration of the Magi has through history been better understood by poets and artists than modern Biblical scholars. T.S Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi gives us words that must have come into many minds as they struggle through inclement weather in rural areas to attend Mass on the feast of the Epiphany : “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter”.

St. Matthew appears noticeably impressed by the account he heard of the visitation of the Magi. They were a non-Jewish group of sincere seekers of God’s anointed (the Christ) in that they were prepared to travel dangerously far from their homeland in the East. Their journey of faith was inspired and guided by available information and revelations that may seem strange to us. They came bearing the traditional gifts for a king, and saw divinity in the child in the manger at Bethlehem. Matthew realised the value and inspiration that this would give to his small Jewish-Christian congregation, trying to welcome and absorb Gentiles into their increasingly diverse community. It would seem Matthew saw this as God greeting those of previously strange beliefs and helping their inclusion into the Church, just as the Magi needed help to find the God they sought in Bethlehem. In some ways they were the forerunners of Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian”. In his Gospel, Matthew then leads his readers on, to witness the ministry of Jesus as a proof of his divinity.                                                                                                                     

It is hard to believe that the Magi, having travelled for weeks or months in difficult circumstances, just dropped in for a short chat and to deliver their goods. More likely it seems that they wanted (as much as language would allow) to discuss their feelings and seek further information for their venture and journey of faith.  Matthew was conveying to his followers that this is was their community’s mission. Some of Matthew’s followers had come from a background of Jewish faith that went back generations, changing practice over time. Now he asks them (and perhaps us) to embrace others who had come from a different strange background with the invitation to advance in faith together. The Magi went back to their own land by a different way:  symbolic of them being profoundly changed, and a challenge to us to be changed after our Epiphany experience.