The Magi (/ˈmædʒaɪ/  or /ˈmeɪdʒaɪ/; Greek: μάγοι, magoi), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings were, in Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi, they were the first religious figures to worship Jesus. It states that “they” came “from the east” to worship the Christ, “born King of the Jews.” Although the account does not mention the number of people “they” or “the Magi” refers to, the three gifts has led to the widespread assumption that there were three men. In the East, the Magi traditionally number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”.
While traditional nativity scenes depict three “kings” visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, the Biblical account simply presents an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” visiting much later after his birth, with Jesus described not as a baby but a child, and residing in a house, not a stable, with only “his mother” present.
The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magos, as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew. Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born, (see Yasna 33.7: “ýâ sruyê parê magâunô” = “so I can be heard beyond Magi”). The term refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. The King James Version translates the term as wise men, the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing “Elymas the sorcerer” in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13. Several translations refer to the men outright as astrologers at Matthew Chapter 2, including New English Bible (1961); Phillips New Testament in Modern English (J.B.Phillips, 1972); Twentieth Century New Testament (1904 revised edition); Amplified Bible (1958-New Testament); An American Translation (1935, Goodspeed); and The Living Bible (K. Taylor, 1962-New Testament).
The phrase from the east (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν), more literally from the rising [of the sun], is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. Traditionally the view developed that they were Babylonians, Persians, or Jews from Yemen as the kings of Yemen then were Jews, a view held for example by John Chrysostom. There is an Armenian tradition[specify] identifying the “Magi of Bethlehem” as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. Bible historian Chuck Missler has also written about this tradition. Historian John of Hildesheim[specify] relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem.
On finding him, they gave baby Jesus three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned in a dream that Judean king Herod intended to kill the child, they decided to return home by a different route. This prompted Herod to resort to killing all the young children in Bethlehem, an act called the Massacre of the Innocents, in an attempt to eliminate a rival heir to his throne. Jesus and his family had, however, escaped to Egypt beforehand. Afterward these events passed into obscurity. The story of the nativity in Matthew glorifies Jesus, likens him to Moses, and shows his life as fulfilling prophecy.
Sebastian Brock, a historian of Christianity, has said: “It was no doubt among converts from Zoroastrianism that… certain legends were developed around the Magi of the Gospels”. And Anders Hutgård concluded that the Gospel story of the Magi was influenced by an Iranian legend concerning magi and a star, which was connected with Persian beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler and with myths describing the manifestation of a divine figure in fire and light.
A model for the homage of the Magi might have been provided, it has been suggested, by the journey to Rome of King Tiridates I of Armenia, with his magi, to pay homage to the Emperor Nero, which took place in 66 AD, a few years before the date assigned to the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.
There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian Kerait relatives were descended from the Biblical Magi. This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Kerait ruler Toghrul, married Tolui the youngest son of Genghis and became the mother of Möngke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king, Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes. Sempad the Constable, elder brother of King Hetoum I of Cilician Armenia, visited the Mongol court in Karakorum in 1247-1250 and in 1254. He wrote a letter to Henry I King of Cyprus and Queen Stephanie (Sempad’s sister) from Samarkand in 1243, in which he said: “Tanchat [Tangut, or Western Xia], which is the land from whence came the Three Kings to Bethlem to worship the Lord Jesus which was born. And know that the power of Christ has been, and is, so great, that the people of that land are Christians; and the whole land of Chata [Khitai, or Kara-Khitai] believes those Three Kings. I have myself been in their churches and have seen pictures of Jesus Christ and the Three Kings, one offering gold, the second frankincense, and the third myrrh. And it is through those Three Kings that they believe in Christ, and that the Chan and his people have now become Christians”. The legendary Christian ruler of Central Asia, Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Magi.
“Long before the time of Christ, India had trade relations with Palestine; much of the commerce between the Orient and the Mediterranean civilizations (including Egypt, Greece, and Rome) passed through Jerusalem”, so it is very likely that Wise Men could have been “great sages of India”, as Paramahansa Yogananda wrote in his “The Second Coming of Christ – The Resurrection of the Christ Within You” (2004, pp56–59).
The Magi are described as “falling down”, “kneeling” or “bowing” in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with Luke’s birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church. While prostration is now rarely practised in the West, bar kneeling in front of statues in Catholic worship, it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.
Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure.
The theories generally break down into two groups:
- All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
- The three gifts had a spiritual meaning : gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
- This dates back to Origen in Contra Celsum: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”
- These interpretations are alluded to in the verses of the popular carol “We Three Kings” in which the magi describe their gifts. The last verse includes a summary of the interpretation: “Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and sacrifice.”
- Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.
Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The “holy oil” traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as “receiving the myrrh”. The picture of the Magi on the 7th century Franks Casket shows the third visitor – he who brings myrrh – with a valknut over his back, a pagan symbol referring to Death.
The Syrian King Seleucus II Callinicus is recorded to have offered gold, frankincense and myrrh (among other items) to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BC, and this may have been the precedent for the mention of these three gifts in Gospel of Matthew (2:11). It was these three gifts, it is thought, which were the chief cause for the number of the Magi becoming fixed eventually at three.
This episode can be linked to Isaiah 60 and to Psalm 72 which report gifts being given by kings, and this has played a central role in the perception of the Magi as kings, rather than as astronomer-priests. In a hymn of the late 4th-century hispanic poet Prudentius, the three gifts have already gained their medieval interpretation as prophetic emblems of Jesus’ identity, familiar in the carol “We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857.