Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Three Wise Men
In the Gospel of Matthew
In Christianity, the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Magi (from the Greek text) or the Three Kings were the "wise men from the east" (KJV), who are mentioned solely in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). They arrived in Judea saying, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" When word reached Herod "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." Herod called the mages to an audience and inquired after the star they had followed from the east.
- "And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found [him], bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also." (Matthew 2:8)
"The star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was" and there they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense (incense in the NIV), and myrrh. The Magi, are warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod with their report; instead, "they departed into their own country another way." (Their failure to report back led directly to the massacre of the Holy Innocents.)
Neither their names nor their gender nor their number are given: the Greek text of Matthew refers to them merely as μαγοι απο ανατολων, "Magi from the East". μαγοι should probably be interpreted as Persian-style (Zoroastrian) seers, philosophers, astrologers, and maybe even strictly as members of the sect of Magi (see the many references throughout Pliny, for example). In the King James Version, the same Greek word magos that is translated as "wise men" in the Gospel of Matthew is translated as "sorcerer" in the account of "Elymas the sorcerer" in Acts 13. 
Upon this kernel of information Christians embroidered many circumstantial details, beginning in the Eastern church with three names for the kings, which after being variously given, settled in the West as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (illustration, upper right) Other cultures have different names. The star that was moving across the heavens, referred to as the Star of Bethlehem, is often depicted as a comet with a tail. In Matthew's account the star was not alone in identifying Bethlehem: an interpretation of the Book of Isaiah presented before Herod also identified Bethlehem as the natal place for a coming king.
A Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgramage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She took the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; they were later moved to Milan, before being sent to their current resting place by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164.
A version of the detailed elaboration familiar to us is laid out by the 14th-century cleric John of Hildesheim 's Historia Trium Regum ("History of the Three Kings"). In accounting for the presence in Cologne of their mummified relics, he begins with the journey of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great to Jerusalem, where she recovered the True Cross and other relics:
- "Queen Helen...began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind...after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Casper, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople...and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia."
The Three Wise Men most frequently appear in European art in the Adoration of the Magi; less often The Journey of the Magi has been a popular topos. More generally they appear in popular Nativity scenes and other Christmas decorations that have their origins in the Neapolitan variety of the Italian presepio or Nativity crèche; they are featured in Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and in several Christmas carols, of which the best-known English one is "We Three Kings".
Artists have also allegorized the theme to represent the three ages of man. Since the Age of Discoveries, the Kings also represent three parts of the world. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor and Caspar may be depicted with distinctive Oriental features.
In the film Donovan's Reef, a Christmas play is held in French Polynesia. Instead of the traditional correspondence of continents and Magi, the version for Polynesian Catholics features the "king of Polynesia", the "king of America" and the "king of China".
Further sentimental narrative detail was added in the novel and movie Ben-Hur, where Balthasar appears as an old man, who goes back to Palestine to see the former child Jesus become an adult.
Traditional names for the Three Magi
The Gospel does not in fact number the Magi, but from the three gifts given, popular culture usually has three Magi appearing at the scene. These are the Three Wise Men of Christmas carols and crèches. Their names, since the seventh century in Western Europe are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. In Ethiopian Christianity, they are Hor, Basanater, and Karsudan. None of these names is obviously Persian or carries any ascertainable meaning.
Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph. These names are likely of Persian origin; this does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity. The first name Larvandad is a combination of Lar, which is a region near Tehran, and vand or vandad which is a common suffix in Middle Persian meaning "related to" or "located in". Vand is also present in the names of such Iranian locations as Damavand, Nahavand, Alvand, and such names and titles as Varjavand and Vandidad. Alternatively, it might be a combination of Larvand meaning the region of Lar and Dad meaning "given by". The latter suffix can also be seen in such Iranian nams as "Tirdad ", "Mehrdad", "Bamdad" or such previously Iranian locations as "Bagdad" ("God Given") presently called Baghdad in Iraq. Thus, the name simply means born in or given by Lar.
The second name, Hormisdas is a variation of the Persian name Hormoz which was Hormazd and Hormazda in Middle Persian. The name referred to the angel of the first day of each month whose name had been given by the supreme God who, in old Persian, was called "Ahuramazda" or "Ormazd".
The third name Gushnasaph was a common name used in Old and Middle Persian. In Modern Persian, it is Gushnasp or Gushtasp. The name is a combination of Gushn meaning "full of manly qualities" or "full of desire or energy" for something and Asp, Modern Persian Asb, which means horse. As all scholars of Iranian studies know, horses were of great importance for the Iranians and many Iranian names including the presently used Lohrasp, Jamasp, Garshasp, and Gushtasp contain the suffix. As a result, the second name might mean something like "as energetic and virile as a horse" or 'full of desire for having horses. Alternatively, Gushn is also recorded to have meant "many". Thus, the name might simply mean "the Owner of Many Horses".
In Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking and Catalan-speaking world, the three kings (Sp. "los Reyes Magos", also "Los Tres Reyes Magos", Cat. "els Reis Mags d'Orient") receive wish letters from children and magically bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. The Wise Men come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children; like the Northern European Santa Claus with his reindeer, they visit everyone in one night. In some areas, children prepare a drink for each of the kings. In Catalonia, it is also traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels, because this is the only night of the year when they eat.
Spanish- and Catalan-speaking cities organize cavalcades in the evening, in which the kings and their servants parade and throw caramels to the children (and parents) in attendance.
Currently this tradition, like that of the Christmas crib and the Christmas tree, coexists in many regions with Papa Noel (Father Christmas), in Basque areas with Olentzero, and in Catalonia with the Tió de Nadal.
Catalonia holds many other specific traditions about the three kings, some very local, some more widespread. In most of Catalonia, Page Gregory prepares the way for the kings and lets them know who has been good or bad, but in Cornellà de Llobregat , Mag Maginet prepares their way. In Terrassa this is the role of the page Xiu-Xiu , but with Hassim Jezzabel separately serving Caspar. The cavalcade of the three kings in Alcoi (a city located not in Catalonia but in Alicante, in the autonomous community of Valencia) claims to be the oldest in the world; the participants who portray the kings and pages walk through the crowd, giving presents to the children directly.
In Catalonia, Melchior (Cat. "Melcior"), light-skinned as usual, dressed in the style of a king of the late Middle Ages (the Gothic Era), is the youngest king, but has a white beard and hair, because Jesus punished him for unnecessariily showing off his strength and youth. He brings the children baubles. Caspar (Cat. "Gaspar"), also light-skinned and similarly dressed, has brown hair. He brings them toys. Balthasar (Cat. "Baltasar") is dark-skinned and dressed as an Arab or Moor. It is his job to leave a lump of coal for children who have been bad.
FootnotesIn 2004 the Anglican Communion declared the magi could possibly have been women, and revised all sacred texts with the gender neutral term magi.
- Mark Rose, "The Three Kings & the Star": the Cologne reliquary and the BBC popular documentary
- John of Hildesheim, "History of the three Kings" modernized in English by H. S. Morris
- The Journey of the Magi
- List of names for the Biblical nameless
- History of astrology
- Sinter Klaas
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