Of the four Gospels found in the New Testament, that called “of Matthew” is the only one to tell the story of the visit of the Magi. Magi — Magoi in Greek — referred to a class of Persian priests who came to have a reputation in the Greek-speaking world for astrology, magic (sorcery), and the interpretation of dreams.
We find magi mentioned in the Greek Septuagint book of Daniel at 1:20, 2:2, 2:10 2:27, 4:4, 5:7, 5:11, and 5:15. For example, 1:20 reads:
καὶ ἐν παντὶ ρήματι σοφίας καὶ ἐπιστήμης, ὧν ἐζήτησε παρ’ αὐτῶν ὁ βασιλεύς, εὗρεν αὐτοὺς δεκαπλασίονας παρὰ πάντας τοὺς ἐπαοιδοὺς καὶ τοὺς μάγους τοὺς ὄντας ἐν πάσῃ τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ.
“And in every matter of wisdom and knowledge wherein the king questioned them, he found them ten times wiser than all the enchanters and sorcerers that were in all his kingdom.”
The plural of the word is μάγοι (magoi) and the singular μάγος ( (magos). The verb derived from it means to do magic (sorcery), as we find in Acts 8:9-11:
Ἀνὴρ δέ τις ὀνόματι Σίμων προϋπῆρχεν ἐν τῇ πόλει μαγεύων καὶ ἐξιστάνων τὸ ἔθνος τῆς Σαμαρείας, λέγων εἶναί τινα ἑαυτὸν μέγαν, ᾧ προσεῖχον πάντες ἀπὸ μικροῦ ἕως μεγάλου λέγοντες· Οὗτός ἐστιν ἡ Δύναμις τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ καλουμένη Μεγάλη. προσεῖχον δὲ αὐτῷ διὰ τὸ ἱκανῷ χρόνῳ ταῖς μαγείαις ἐξεστακέναι αὐτούς.
“But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.”
In Acts 13:6-8 we find this:
διελθόντες δὲ ]ὅλην τὴν νῆσον ἄχρι Πάφου εὗρον ἄνδρα τινὰ μάγον ψευδοπροφήτην Ἰουδαῖον ᾧ ὄνομα Βαριησοῦ, ὃς ἦν σὺν τῷ ἀνθυπάτῳ Σεργίῳ Παύλῳ, ἀνδρὶ συνετῷ. οὗτος προσκαλεσάμενος Βαρναβᾶν καὶ Σαῦλον ἐπεζήτησεν ἀκοῦσαι τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ· ἀνθίστατο δὲ αὐτοῖς Ἐλύμας ὁ μάγος, οὕτως γὰρ μεθερμηνεύεται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, ζητῶν διαστρέψαι τὸν ἀνθύπατον ἀπὸ τῆς πίστεως.
“And when they had gone through the isle to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer [magon], a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer [magos] (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.”
In the West, they are commonly known as Magi, the term used in the Latin Vulgate Bible, where we find in Matthew 2:1:
Cum ergo natus esset Jesus in Bethlehem Juda in diebus Herodis regis, ecce magi ab oriente venerunt Jerosolymam,
“When therefore Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Juda in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.”
It was common for Christians to disapprove of magic and sorcery, which is why Justin (Martyr) says of the Magi in his Dialogue of Trypho the Jew (78):
“For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds [i.e.sorcery] through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive; and this the Scripture has showed us to reside in Damascus.”
So that is how Justin justified the visit of Magi — commonly known as sorcerers — to the infant Jesus; he depicts them as revolting against magic.
The King James translation of the Bible solved the tricky sorcery issue by simply translating magoi as “wise men” when describing the visitors to Jesus, but used its ordinary meaning of “sorcerer” in translating the occurances in Acts.
Though we commonly think of the Magi as being three in number, that was not specified in the New Testament, and their number varied in early tradition. Gradually, however, their number became fixed at three, most likely because of the three royal gifts they brought to Jesus — gold, frankincense and myrrh.
No explanation is given in the New Testament for why magi might choose to follow a star and come to the birth of a new king (whose birth was indicated by the star), but in the Syriac (“Arabic”) Infancy Gospel we find the reason given as a prophecy by the Persian sage Zoroaster/Zarathustra/Zeraduscht:
“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judaea, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zeraduscht had predicted; and there were with them gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored Him, and presented to Him their gifts.”
The Magi first appear in Christian art in the Catacombs, and early on they take their classic form as three men wearing Phrygian caps (to indicate their Persian origin) and capes. Here they are in a plaster cast taken from the Catacomb of Priscilla, late 2nd-early 3rd century c.e.:
The three, holding gifts, approach the seated mother and child, while overhead the Star of Bethlehem is seen. This is the common form of their image — with slight variations — through the fourth and into the sixth century.
Here is a sixth-century Italo-byzantine mosaic image from the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, Italy:
They are recognizably the same three, with their phrygian caps, gifts, and the star above them. But something interesting has been added, as we see in the Latin inscription above them:
S[anC[tu]S BALTHASSAR S[anC[tu]S MELCHIOR S[anC[tu]S GASPAR
“Saint Balthassar — Saint Melchior — Saint Gaspar”
They have been given names. It is not certain precisely where these names originated, but they are found in variant form in a Latin translation of a Greek chronicle from Alexandria, Egypt, which dates from the last quarter of the 400s to the beginning of the 500s. It is called Excerpta Latina Barbari — “Barbaric Latin Excerpts.” The relevant portion reads:
In his diebus sub Augusto kalendas Ianuarias magi obtulerunt ei munera et adoraverunt eum: magi autem vocabantur Bithisarea Melchior Gathaspa
“At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshiped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.”
By the time of Giotto’s depiction of the visit of the Magi in the Arena Chapel, we find they have lost their Phrygian caps, and are now given crowns — as well as an even more notable distinction in age: one is young (Balthazar), one middle-aged and bearded (Melchior), and the third even older and grey (Gaspar/Casper).
This reflects the notion that the Magi were kings, which likely arose as interpretation of biblical excerpts, primarily these:
“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.“
And Isaiah 60:3:
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The next interesting stage in their development was the transformation of the youngest — Balthazar — into a dark-skinned king — a representation particularly popular in Northern Europe. We find in the Excerpta et Collectanea — attributed (probably in error) to the Venerable Bede — a description of Balthazar/Balthasar. It reads, oddly and interestingly enough, like instructions from an icon painter’s manual:
Tertius fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthasar nomine….
“The third is dark, full beard, named Balthasar….”
In spite of the “full beard” description, Balthazar/Balthasar was often painted without a beard, as in this example by Hieronymus Bosch:
In an earlier posting we looked at an Italian-influenced Nativity icon that adopted the notion of a dark-skinned Balthazar:
Nonetheless, the dark-skinned Balthazar is not common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, though examples — usually late, like this Russian icon in the style popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century — are found:
It is common, however, for Russian examples to contain the “three ages” (young, middle-aged, old) representation of the Magi, as in this Russian icon:
Here is a closer look:
One also finds in some Russian icons the depiction of the Magi as kings with crowns:
Here is a detailed Russian Nativity icon:
In it we see the Magi, in their peculiar caps, following the star to Bethlehem…
Adoring the child Jesus….
And leaving at upper right:
Now perhaps you noticed — as one reader did — that in icons the Magi generally are depicted as riding horses. The account of the Magi in Matthew tells us nothing about the means of transportation.
The Painter’s Manual of Dionysios of Fourna describes the visit of the Magi like this:
“A house and the All-holy One (Panagia) sitting on a chair, holding as infant the blessing Christ. And the three Magi before her, offering their gifts in golden coffers (kivotia). One of them is an old man with long beard, bare-headed, kneeling looking at the Christ; and with the one hand he offers his gift and with the other holds his crown. The second king has a light beard, the third none at all. They look at one another and gesture toward the Christ. Behind the All-holy One, Joseph stands in wonder. Outside the cave, a youth holds the three horses by their bridles. Again one sees in the distance on a mountain, the three Magi on their horses and returning to their country, and an angel in front shows the way.”
As we have seen, the Giotto image — Western iconography — shows them with camels. In the very ornate and elaborate Adorazione dei Magi (“Adoration of the Magi”) of Gentile da Fabriano, we find them given a large retinue, with their main transportation being three horses in the foreground; but this detail also shows a camel on which two monkeys are riding, at upper left:
Given that the account of the Magi in Matthew tells us nothing about their means of transportation, we find variations in art. In the Medieval West, they generally ride horses, and camels are rare. With the 1400s they have begun to be shown with a large retinue.
Some depictions assume they were kings riding camels because of an excerpt from Isaiah that Christians applied to the birth of Jesus. Isaiah 60:1-6 reads:
“Arise, shine; for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon you, and his glory shall be seen upon you.
And the Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to you: your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be nursed at your side.
Then you shall see, and flow together, and your heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted to you, the forces of the Gentiles shall come to you.
The multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.”
Of course in more recent times, we have become quite accustomed to thinking of the Magi traveling on camels, so it is often a surprise to find them on horses in older images.
Many books could be written on the Magi and the evolution of their legends and iconography, but that should suffice for now.