Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
’Tis now the day after Christmas, when the Three Wise Men would have set out to find Jesus. Although Nativity scenes typically show the Three Wise Men alongside the shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew indicates that the men arrived some time later. After all, they had to follow the star and travel for some time before they could reach Bethlehem. Christian tradition fixes their arrival on the Epiphany, thirteen days after Christmas, giving the three men just shy of two weeks to travel, a very tight schedule for the ancient world.
Most of what Christians now believe about the Three Kings do not come from the Bible. In Spanish-speaking countries, the kings are called Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. Others of the Western Christian tradition deem Melchior as being from Persia, Gaspar (or Caspar or Jasper) from India, and Balthazar from Babylon. Traditions relating to the three treat them as largely symbolic, representing three different parts of the world and also three ages of man. But most significantly, they represent the nations who would come to embrace Christ — hence the name “Epiphany,” a revelation of Jesus as “a light to the Gentiles” described in Isaiah 49:6.
But the sole biblical account of the visit, Matthew chapter 2, says none of this. There aren’t necessarily three of them, they’re not said to be kings, they’re not said to be wise, and they’re only described as being from “the east.”
The specific word that the author of Matthew used to refer to them is “magi,” singular “magus,” or “magoi” (μάγοι) in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Hence classical European paintings portraying the visit are usually called “Adoration of the Magi.” The English-speaking tradition of referring to them as “Three Wise Men” comes from the King James Version of the Bible, in which “magi” is translated as “wise men.”
But “magi” is also not a Greek word. It is Persian. And it very specifically meant members of the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, the fire-worshipping religion of ancient Persia that still survives in pockets of Iran. Zoroastrian priests had a reputation as possessing occult knowledge, especially in astrology, so that it made sense that they would notice the Star of Bethlehem and recognize its significance. The KJV translators rendered “magi” as “wise men” presumably on this basis. “Magi” is therefore also the source of the English word “magic.”
The author of Matthew would have known exactly who the magi were, as would his contemporaries. Take a look at your local Nativity scene. Those three guys to the side? They are Iranians.
Moreover, Iran may have had an independent tradition of essentially the same story. Marco Polo recorded that, in a village in Iran which he called “Cala Ataperistan, which is to say, ‘The Castle of the Fire Worshippers,’” the people told him a tale:
[I]n old times three kings of that country went away to worship a prophet that was born, and they carried with them three manner of offerings, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh; in order to ascertain whether that prophet were God, or an earthly King, or a Physician. For, said they, if he take the Gold, then he is an earthly King; if he take the incense then he is God; if he takes Myrrh he is a Physician.
When they reached the child prophet, he appeared to each of them as being his own age, one young, one middle-aged, and one old (a neat reversal of the Christian version), before revealing himself as 13 days old (the exact time lapse between Christmas and Epiphany).
[W]hen they presented their offerings, the child had accepted all three, and when they saw this they had said within themselves that he was the True God, and the True King, and the True Physician.
Could the Iranian tradition have been referring to Jesus? It seems unlikely. The historian William Dalrymple pointed out that the Persian tale instead explained the origin of Zoroastrianism, which predated Christianity by centuries. The child had given the three kings a mere stone in return for the gifts they brought him. The kings threw the stone down a well. “Then, straightaway a fire from heaven descended into that well.”
And when the kings beheld this marvel they were sore amazed and it greatly repented them that they had cast away the stone; for well they then perceived that it had a great and Holy meaning. So they took of that fire, and carried it into their own country, and placed it in a rich and beautiful church. And there the people keep it constantly burning, and worship it as a God and all the sacrifices they offer are kindled with that fire.
Perhaps the Iranian version of the story of the Three Kings predated the Christian tradition. Perhaps the author of Matthew knew of the Iranian tale and borrowed it to embellish his hagiography of Christ. After all, no other Gospel tells the same story.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."