What you may not know about the Magi:
-Part one of two posts
“St. John Chrysostom [bishop of Constantinople] asserts that after the resurrection of Christ, St. Thomas the Apostle came to the country of these Magi, and baptized them, and associated them with him in preaching the Gospel.”
“The holy Helena mother of the emperor Constantine…accumulated the bodies of the Three Magi together, who were buried in different places, and Helena brought the bodies towards Constantinople.”
-Vita Beati Eustorgii Confessoris
*Historical note: Constantinople, a prominent city in the ancient Roman Empire, is now known as Instanbul, Turkey.
We, as twenty-first century Americans, are contemporary in our reading and knowledge. We place the highest value on that which is new instead of that which is old (both have their drawbacks to be sure). But the downside is that our memory is short. Yet, there is so much tradition and so many sources which illuminate the Gospel stories, particularly the birth of Christ, with the technology we have today, we would be remiss if we didn’t tap into them. In fact, if you are interested in learning about the richness and depth of the Catholic Faith then consider old Catholic books; published, let’s say, in the nineteenth century or earlier.
From the 1500’s to the 1900’s Catholic authors normally had, at their fingertips, ancient documents and the writings of the Church Fathers. Moreover, they saw the need to integrate them, as much as possible, into their writings. This practice had a way of keeping us in touch with the past. After all, Christianity is not so much a philosophy as it is an historical religion. With a greater consciousness of tradition, Catholics were in a better position to benefit from God’s wisdom from each century.
One such Scripture commentator who lived during the 1500’s was a man by the name of Cornelius Lapide, a Catholic priest and scholar. He provided an extensive commentary on the New Testament, using fifteen hundred years of the Church’s teachings. It is from his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew regarding the story of the Magi which afforded me many of the sources below. Keep in mind that with the lack of information in Scripture regarding the "Three Wise Men,” we have to rely on traditions and a certain amount of speculation.
Mystique of the Magi:
One feature of the Christmas narrative is the Magi; those mysterious men from the East who suddenly appear in Jerusalem looking for the Christ-child. There has been a great deal of mystery surrounding these three Magi or Kings. What is particularly intriguing about them is how they knew about the imminent birth of Christ and how a bright star, giving so little in terms of information, could have directed their journey to the land of Judea at just the right time.
Their journey is reminiscent of Abraham’s journey from the land of Ur (i.e. modern day Iraq. In Abraham’s time this is where the pagans worshipped the stars. In fact, God used the stars to illustrate to Abraham just how many descendants he would have) to the Promised Land some two thousand years prior. He was called by God to go to a land he would “show him.” Leaving everything behind accept is tribe or extended family, he ventured west trusting that the Lord would see him through.
The Magi, taking what the early Christians believed to be about a 13 day journey (the length of time between Christmas day and the Epiphany), not only relied on the Star of Bethlehem, but on divine inspiration. As Pope St. Leo the Great said, “God, who manifested the sign of the star, gave understanding to those who beheld it: for He made it to be understood and inquired after, and, being sought after, He presented Himself to be found.” Indeed, their journey was based on a faith and trust similar to that of the patriarch Abraham.
The consensus of early Christian tradition has it that these Magi were three in number (although the Gospel of Matthew does not record the number). St. Bede, an early Church Father from England (673 A.D. -735 A.D.), assigned them the names of Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar. Each of these men were from different regions and deemed to be kings, astronomers and philosophers. One was from Persia (i.e. modern day Iran, Pakistan, India), the other from Arabia (i.e. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) and the third was from Ethiopia (i.e. Yemen, Ethiopia). People from these regions, especially Arabia and Persia, had a fascination with the stars and luminaries of the night sky. Rabanus, a Church Father and Benedictine Abbot from the 9th century, said that the Magi were often confused with magicians, astrologers or wizards. He said the Magi, who ventured in search for the Messiah, “were men who inquired into the nature of things philosophically, but common speech used ‘Magi’ for wizards. In their own country, however, they were held in other repute, being the philosophers of the Chaldeans [historic Babylon/modern day Iraq] whose lore kings and princes of that nation were taught, by which themselves knew the birth of the Lord.”
But how did these foreigners know about the significance of the star and the circumstances signaling the birth of a Jewish Messiah? Certainly a bright star wasn’t all they had to go on, was it?
Prophecy and the Gentile World:
It just so happened that the people of Persia, Arabia and even Ethiopia had crossed paths with the Hebrew people long before the birth of Christ. There are many reasons to believe that Scripture and Jewish traditions were well known in these places. It was likely a combination of an exceptional star, interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures, interior inspiration and traditions from the time of Moses which all served to guide them to Bethlehem, where Mary and new born Christ were to be found.
Regarding tradition that may have come down to one or more of the Magi, Cornelius Lapide wrote, “The Magi knew that this star was the harbinger of Christ from Balaam.” During the time of Moses, in the book of Numbers (24:17), a gentile prophet by the name of Balaam was ordered by Balak, king of Moab (modern day Jordan, a neighboring country of Israel), to pronounce a curse on the Israelites. However, he could not; the Lord would not permit it. Instead, Balaam uttered a prophecy about the Messiah, who was to rise from the House of Jacob. He said, “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” Admittedly, this was around the year 1400 B.C. (1400 years before Christ), a long time before the star would rise above Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, this prophetic utterance from the Arabian prophet, Balaam, could very well have been enshrined in the Arabian traditions. As St. Jerome said, “They [the Magi] knew that such a star would rise by the prophecy of Balaam, whose successors they were.” And another Church Father said, “These Chaldean [Arabian] Magi inspected the stars, not with malevolence [like King Herod] but with the true desire of knowledge; following, it may be supposed, the traditions of Balaam…”
Without the efficiency of the printed press and easy access to Scribes, the ancients relied very heavily on oral tradition; as did the Hebrew people before Moses penned the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah (or Pentateuch).
There are other reasons why the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament were probably known in Persia, Arabia and Ethiopia. So as to not burden the reader with too many details, I decided bullet point the possible historical and biblical reasons how the word got out about the expected Jewish Messiah.
• Moses had contracted a marriage with a Cushite woman from Ethiopia. Perhaps, this was after his first wife, Zipporah died (This was during their 40 year journey in the Arabian Desert). Hence, there were descendants of Moses who were both Hebrew and Ethiopian. (Numbers12:1)
• About 400 years after the time of Moses, around the year 950 B.C., the Queen of Sheba (Yemen/Ethiopian region) visits King Solomon: She said to the King of Israel, “The report I heard in my country about your deeds and your wisdom is true.".” (I Kings 10:1-13)
• A thousand years after the time of King Solomon, Ethiopian royalty still had retained a respect for Jewish Scriptures and traditions. In fact, just after our Lord’s ascension into heaven an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, was traveling back home from the Jewish Temple. The Ethiopian was reading the book of Isaiah out loud when St. Philip had introduced himself to him in order to explain the passage he was reading. Later, the eunuch was baptized. (Acts 8:26-28) Now, the book of Isaiah is known for its many prophecies regarding the birth, mission and death of the Messiah. Therefore, it is conceivable that just 33 years prior to providential meeting between the royal official from Ethiopia and St. Philip, a King or Magi from Ethiopia was aware that the birth of the Messiah was imminent. The Lord could very well have beckoned such a “wise man” through the luminous star shining in the night sky.
• About 200 years after King Solomon (800-700 B.C.), the Temple he built was destroyed and Jerusalem captured, and the Jews were deported to Babylon by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his army. At the time the Babylonian Empire was the world superpower at the time. The prophet Jeremiah and Ezekiel had witnessed these sad events. (Side note: Babylonia was traditionally said to be the location of the infamous Tower of Babel and in the general region of Arabia Today it is known as Baghdad, Iraq). The Jews settled there and developed their own traditions apart from the Temple rituals in their native land.
• The prophet Daniel was a servant in the royal household of King Nebuchadnezzar. He had predicted the following: “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and for your holy city: Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, Everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a most holy will be anointed.” Another expression of seventy weeks is “seventy weeks of years,” a formula of 70 x 7, equaling 490 years. Whether these numbers were supposed to be taken as symbolic or literal, the Jews of the first century were expecting the arrival of the Messiah in their day; about 500 years after the time of Daniel. Along with the Jews in Babylon, no doubt, their Arab friends had to be acquainted with the Messianic prophecies and the general period which they were expected to occur.
• Reminder: Ancient Persia is where modern day Iran is today.
• Persian religion of Zoroastrianism: Founded in the 6th century BC by Zoroaster. This was about the time period the prophet Daniel was in the neighboring region of Babylonia. Here are some beliefs that were remarkably similar to those of Judaism.
- One universal and transcendent God
- Good thoughts, words and deeds- conquer evil
- Free will
- Savior figure at the end times
- A kind of resurrection of the dead
• After the Babylonian Empire fell, the Persian Empire emerged as the world superpower. But its king, King Cyrus, saw himself as the one who fulfilled a prophecy from the book of Isaiah. “I say of Cyrus: My shepherd, who fulfills my every wish; He shall say of Jerusalem, ‘Let her be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’" (Isaiah: 44: 28 ) As such, he did exactly that. He not only permitted the Jews to return to their native land in order to rebuild a second Jewish Temple, but he helped subsidized it. Like Ethiopia, Persia was familiar with the book of Isaiah and most likely, many other Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
• When the Persian Muslims captured the Holy Land in 614 A.D., they “spared the Church of the Nativity, supposedly out of respect for a mosaic of the Magi shown wearing Persian attire.” (Smithsonian magazine, March 2009)
*Scroll down for part II*