The Magi, these great unknowns – Swiss Catholic Portal

Everything, everything, everything, you will know everything about the mages! Who are these mysterious characters actually? How did the tradition develop around these Magi presented in the Gospel of Matthew and become essential santons in our Christmas cribs?

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If the historicity of the Magi is uncertain, it nevertheless corresponds to the well-attested literary motif, both in Jewish and Roman literature (in Pliny the Elder and Suetonius) according to which soothsayers intervene at the birth of an important child.

Why are the Magi three?

The only biblical story that mentions the Magi is the Gospel of Matthew. He does not mention their number, but their quality: Magi from the East (Mt 2, 1). Tradition has retained the number three probably due to the presence of three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. This number is notably taken up by Origen, in the 3rd century.

However, throughout history, the number of Magi remains fluctuating; in certain oriental traditions, the Magi are eight or twelve in number, and sometimes accompanied by a large troop.

Are the Magi kings?

First of all, what is a mage? The Magi, from the Persian magis, constitute in fact a Mede tribe which provides the priests and the diviners among the Persians. They are reputed to exercise magic, astrology, divination, oneiromancy (interpretation of dreams Ed). Plato teaches us that the Magi teach the newborn royal the worship of the gods and the art of reigning. The oldest mentions of the Magi in the Bible are found in Jeremiah. But this one never qualifies them as kings.

The royal origin of the Magi seems to have been forged by tradition from various passages in the Old Testament: this idea first appears in Tertullian, at the beginning of the third century, who describes them as rule“almost kings” Following him, other Church Fathers attributed the title of king to the Magi: Melchior would have been king of the Persians, Balthazar king of the Arabs, and Gaspard king in India, three symbolic attributions to manifest the recognition and openness to pagan nations of the Christ message.

Are Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar their real names?

The Bible does not attribute more first names to the Magi. These probably appear around the 6th century, and the Christian tradition will durably popularize them. In an apocryphal writing, the Armenian Infancy Gospel, dated to the 6th century, their names are mentioned as Balthazar, Melkon and Gathaspar. Several ancient Syriac works also give their names. In Akkadian, Balthazar or Balat-shar-usur means “Bel protects the king” but can also be translated as “God protects the king”. In Hebrew, Melkon means king of light. Finally, Gaspard can meanwhile be interpreted as “the one who comes to see” or “keeper of the treasure”.

Why do they bring gifts to the Child Jesus?

The gifts brought by the Magi to Bethlehem are above all of great symbolic richness: the gold designates Jesus as “King of the Jews”; the incense identifies the infant as the Son of God; the myrrh refers to the mortality of Jesus. We thus find there the symbolism of the triple nature of Christ: royal with gold, divine with incense, human with myrrh.

In Spain, the memory of this offering lives on since the children receive their gifts from the hands of the “Tres Reyes” on January 6th. In Italy too, children receive gifts on January 6, but it is the witch Befana – derived from the word “Epiphany” – who brings them to them. Legend has it that Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar met an old woman on their way to Bethlehem. She refuses to accompany them but immediately regrets it. Unfortunately, she cannot find them. Since that day, the night of January 5 to 6, she leaves a gift in each house where the good children are in case Jesus is one of them. (

Myrrh, perfume of love and death
Among the gifts of the Magi, we know well gold, which shines, incense, which perfumes, but much less myrrh.
Little known in our time, myrrh was, in the time of Jesus, a luxury item. Myrrh is the resin of a thorny tree that only grows in particularly dry climates. It was thus found at the time especially in Somalia, Ethiopia and southern Arabia.

Myrrh resin harvest in Somalia | © Somali Ministry of Information/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Egyptians used myrrh in fumigations to embalm the dead of high rank. In ancient Judaism also, the deceased were coated with a mixture of aloe and myrrh. Nowadays, myrrh is used in the composition of holy chrism. From baptism to the anointing of the sick, it accompanies Catholic rituals.
Its disinfectant, haemostatic and antispasmodic properties have been confirmed by modern science and it is still used today in medicine. Myrrh was voted medicinal plant of the year 2021!
Gifts of the three magi thus refer to the journey of Jesus: myrrh as a symbol of royalty, but also of his suffering on the cross: the plant has a bitter taste, at the same time as it soothes pain.
Myrrh also refers to the later attractiveness of Jesus’ words and deeds. Indeed, because of its intense smell, myrrh resin served as an intoxicating perfume, even an aphrodisiac. RZ

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stars | wikimedia commons CC-BY-SA-2.0

For Benedict XVI: A mystery of light
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI commented in his homily of the feast: “Epiphany is a mystery of light, symbolically represented by the star that guided the journey of the Three Kings. However, the true source of light, the “Star from above which comes to visit us” (cf. lc 1, 78), it is Christ.
In the mystery of Christmas, the light of Christ shines on the earth, spreading as if by concentric circles. First of all on the Holy Family of Nazareth: the Virgin Mary and Joseph are illuminated by the divine presence of the Child Jesus. The light of the Redeemer then appears to the shepherds of Bethlehem who, warned by the angel, immediately hasten to the grotto and find there the “sign” which had been announced to them: a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (cf. lc 2, 12). The shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, represent this “remnant of Israel”, the poor, the anawim, to whom the Good News is announced. The brilliance of Christ finally reaches the Magi, who constitute the first fruits of the pagan peoples.

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The Magi, these great unknowns – Swiss Catholic Portal

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