Written by: Catholic Encyclopedia Posted on: 06/12/2005
(Plural of Latin magus; Greek magoi).
The "wise men from the East" who came to adore Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2).
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 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.
The subject will be treated in this article under the two divisions:
I. Who the Magi were;
II. The Time and Circumstances of their Visit.
I. WHO THE MAGI WERE
A. Non-Biblical Evidence
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" (Jeremias 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.
B. Biblical Evidence
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.
C. Patristic Evidence
No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. Tertullian ("Adv. Marcion.", III, xiii) says that they were wellnigh 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" (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. 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 favours 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, I, 1780). Passing over the purely legendary notion that they represented the three families which are decended from Noah, it appears they all came from "the east" (Matt., ii, 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).
II. 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, massacare 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 birth, he 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 archeaology favour 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 apperance 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 thriteen days ofter 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 Chirst 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 hypotheses:
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 man until 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 fulfilment of the prophesy of Balaam: "A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre 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 Messias. It is likely, however, that the Magi were familiar with the great Messianic prophesies. Many Jews did not return from exile with Nehemias. 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 Messias 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).
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