Star of Bethlehem VI: Kings or Magi?

When you think of Christmas, what do you see in your mind’s eye? For many people it is the image of the three kings, crossing the desert on their camels, following an overwhelmingly bright star. For me, the image of Christmas is encapsulated in the words of the carol:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

magi-following-the-starWho though were these Magi? Were they kings? Where did they come from?

Matthew says of the Magi: ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν;  “Behold, there came wise men from the east”, as it is translated in the King James Version of the Bible. Here, the use of the word east (ἀνατολῶν – plural) refers to geography e.g. from a country in the east. The word μάγοι (magoi) is usually translated as “astrologers” or “magicians” these days, indeed, it is the root of the word “magic” but, as Eleni Kalfountzou points out in my previous post, it used to have more meanings (e.g. the priest of a tribe).

We see, not just in Matthew, but in the references to the Magi in the apocryphal gospels, King Herod does not give the Magi the deference owed to visiting royalty: they were made to wait for audience, he gave them orders, they feared death at his hands rather than the safety accorded to royal ambassadors. They were clearly not kings.

In fact, the Magi became kings in the 6th Century AD. Like many things in the early church it was a conscious, political decision. As the church reached a consensus that Jesus was the Son of God, to give a higher status it was decided that as the figure of the Βασιλευς Βασιλεόν, the Basileus Basileon or “King of Kings”, he could not have been visited by anyone other than kings. This may well also have been influenced by an episode that occurred in the year 66 AD. To seal Roman control over Armenia, Nero gave the throne of the country to King Tiridates, but obliged him to travel to Rome to accept it. Tiridates traveled with an entourage of three thousand who, by all accounts passed along their route like a plague of locusts, obliging the countries and provinces that they crossed to feed and support them. Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Dion Cassius all describe the visit in their histories, with Pliny being cutting in his references, accusing Nero of “carrying out all kinds of stupidity”, but making the interesting comment in Historia Naturalis, 30:6, 16-18:

Magus ad eum Tiridates venerat Armeniacum de se triumphum adferens et ideo provinciis gravis… quaereat aliquis, quae sint mentiti veteres Magi”.

The Magus Tiridates came to his court… and, with him, brought other Magi.

Tiridates knew his role well and greeted Nero with the words:

I have come to you, my god, who I have worshipped like the Sun

A clue as to the skills of the Magi of Nero is given by Suetonius (70-130 AD) in his book “Twelve Caesars”. In his life of Nero, Suetonius comments that, tortured by his conscience after causing his mother’s death, Nero:

Quin et facto per Magos sacro evocare Manes et exorare temptavit.

Even got Magi to celebrate rites to call her spirit and to implore her to pardon him.

The Magi of the East originated as a priestly caste within the Zoroastrianism of the Medes or Northern Persia and Armenia (remember that the word μάγοι (magoi) used by Matthew has this alternative meaning in old Greek) whose role was to cast horoscopes, read signs and to interpret the auguries. The Zoroastrians had a Messianic tradition and shared many beliefs such as the virgin birth with the Judeo-Christian tradition. As such it would be unsurprising that they were interested in the birth of the Messiah and would have been familiar with Jewish prophesy of his coming.

Early Christian tradition depicted habitually the Magi as Persians. Look at this image from a 3rd Century sarcophagus from Rome – one of the earliest Nativity scenes that survives – we see the three Magi in Persian dress, offering their gifts below a star.

XV14_-_Roma,_Museo_civiltà_romana_-_Adorazione_dei_Magi_-_sec_III_dC_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto_12-Apr-2008Legend has it that when the Persians invaded Judea in 614 AD they spared the Church of the Nativity from being torched due to the image below of Persian Magi, part of a recently discovered mosaic dating from the time of Constantine, accepting the mosaic as a sacred symbol of their own:

Magi_Church_of_the_Nativity_BethlehemThere is a similar mosaic in the Basilica de Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy), which appears to be one of the first times that the Magi were named, the words “Melchior, Gasper and Baltassar” appearing above them in the mosaic. This though too is evidence of early church adaptation. In the Ravenna mosaic, Melchior is clearly Asian, Gaspar is European and Baltassar (somewhat less obviously), a dark-skinned African. This idea that the Magi represented the three races known to the Roman world, was first proposed by Augustine of Hippo in the 4th or 5th Century and popularised in the 8th Century by the English church historian, the Venerable Bede. Gradually, from this time on, the image of the Magi changed from being Persians to the three kings – one African, one Asian and one European – that are so familiar to us now.

The distance from Armenia to Jerusalem by the old trading routes would have been around 2100 km: not a journey to be undertaken lightly. We like to think of the Roman Empire as being thoroughly connected by its system of roads but, the reality in the East was different. Sasha Trubetskoy provides this wonderful representation of the Roman road network ( around the year 120 AD, more than a century after the Nativity:

Rome_III-01-1East of Jerusalem we see that there was very little and most of the roads that did exist are shown as dotted lines as they were only built later. Transport was habitually by camel train as a 500 kg horse that was heavily laden, or pulling a wagon, would typically need 15 kg of dry forage and 35 kg of water each day. Armies with cavalry units such as the Romans with their turmae, or the terrifying Cataphracts of the Persians, could be used with devastating effect in desert campaigns only thanks to the huge logistical operation behind them that supplied the horses with enough food and water to fight.

Various towns in northern Persia have the legend that they were the home of the Magi. One such town is Saveh: it was visited by Marco Polo on his journey to Cathay and there he was told that it was the home of the Magi. Such though was the length and difficulties of the journey that it has even been suggested recently that the Magi who originally saw the Star in the East and realised that it announced the birth of the Messiah may not even have made the journey themselves: historical experts suggest that it was unlikely. It could be that the Magi of Matthew and James were simply delegated from a trading party that had been briefed to investigate: this would go some way to explaining King Herod’s somewhat dismissive way of treating them. Even a royal ambassador with diplomatic immunity might fear the wrath of a paranoid old king, whose body is disintegrating before his horrified eyes and who sees conspiracies all around him and knows exactly how to deal with usurpers: ordinary traders would be well aware of their vulnerability. While we can say that there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support the slaughter of the innocents, the terrified flight of Mary and Joseph and of the Magi and the fate of Herod’s own sons suggests that such a trivial act as putting a few dozen infants to death would certainly not have worried him in the slightest, in the same way that the Magi could have paid the ultimate sanction: such was the way that King Herod dealt with bad news.


So, the Magi that we know of were Persian, even if some experts prefer to suggest that the Magi of Matthew were Babylonian – a theory that I find less and less plausible the more that I investigate the subject. The earliest images of the Nativity that we know of are of Persian Magi and the tradition lived on in Northern Persia for many centuries that the Magi came from there.

Now we need to investigate what signs in the sky the Magi could have seen that led them to believe that the Messiah had been born: that will be the subject of the next post.

[i] Suetonio, Vita Neronis, 34:4

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