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This Week In History

The Adoration of the Magi. January 6.

1024px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.

Gospel of Matthew.
Although the Magi are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.” Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings. Later Christian interpretation stressed the Adorations of the Magi and shepherds as the first recognition by the people of the earth of Christ as the Redeemer.

The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Christian church, they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as: Melchior (also Melichior), a Persian scholar; Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations) and Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), a Babylonian scholar.

According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.

The phrase “from the east” (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon), more literally “from the rising [of the sun]”, is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. The Parthian Empire, centered in Persia, occupied virtually all of the land east of Judea and Syria (except for the deserts of Arabia to the southeast). Though the empire was tolerant of other religions, its dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, with its priestly magos class. Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. The term refers to the Persian 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.

Apart from their names, the three Magi developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, so that between them they represented the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other things. In one tradition, reflected in art by the 14th century (for example in the Arena Chapel by Giotto in 1305) Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold; he is “King of Tarsus, land of merchants” on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, and is first in line to kneel to Christ. Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from his native Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen). Their ages were often given as 60, 40 and 20 respectively, and their geographical origins were rather variable, with Balthazar increasingly coming from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa, and being represented accordingly.

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. All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king, though. Myrrh being commonly used as an ointing 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.

“gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” 

Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.

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