Secret Lives of the Wise Men


December 17, 2023

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The scene of three ornately dressed potentates handing out the very first Christmas presents has been depicted in countless ways — in classical paintings, greeting cards and town-square tableaux.

We know their names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. They stand off to one side in a stable, accompanied by animals, shepherds and a few angels hovering around the rafters. “We three kings of Orient are,” they sing in John Henry Hopkins’s immortal Christmas carol, and each describes the significance of the gift he carries.

Article By Paul William Roberts | New York Times


The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c. 565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 19th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

There is only one problem. The Bible never mentions three kings — only “some wise men” from the East — and certainly doesn’t give them names. The strangers bring three gifts, but they are not presented in a stable since, at least according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in a house in Bethlehem. There are only two Nativity scenes in the Bible, in Matthew and in Luke, and it is Luke who gives us the babe in the manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” In no other gospel but Matthew’s do the wise men appear.

Who are these mysterious visitors?

The answer would seem to reach far back into the origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who may have lived in the sixth or seventh century B.C. or as far back as 1,000 B.C., depending on the source. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Persian texts and elsewhere suggests that our concepts of evil, heaven and hell, a last judgment and angels all originated in Zoroastrian teachings.

Matthew’s wise men, or Magi — the only word of Persian origin in the original Greek Bible — were evidently priests of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of Persia. It is not surprising that they would turn up at the birth of Christ. According to various sources, Magi tended to turn up at portentous events in the ancient world. Pliny records a crowd of them standing amid the smoke and ruins after the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus burned to the ground (circa 356 B.C.). These Magi announced that the great temple’s destruction augured the (virgin) birth of Alexander the Great, who of course would go on to conquer the known world, be declared a god and die at the age of 33.

Processions of Magi also appear at celebrations hosted by dubious characters like Nero. It is not always clear whether they come to bless or blame, condone or condemn, and frequently they leave without explaining the purpose of their visit. Just as the prophet Zoroaster came to be viewed in the West as the supreme Magus, master of occult arts, so Magi were both feared and respected — and sometimes despised for charging exorbitant fees for their arcane skills. Some scholars have interpreted the presence of the Magi at the Nativity as showing pagans bowing to the superiority of Christianity. But in Matthew’s Gospel the Magi appear to be noble and respected figures, whose esoteric talents are employed in the service of Truth and God.

True, Matthew restricts the visitors’ occult feats to the necessities of his story. They deliver their gifts, display a little astrological skill when questioned by King Herod and then leave. It is almost as if they make Matthew nervous. But they have to be there, as a kind of payment for a debt. After all, in a text now known as the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, Zoroaster had predicted the miraculous birth of a Messiah to human parents.

It took several hundred years for Matthew’s “wise men” to become the three kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Accounts dating to the second and third centuries — some of them by saints and fathers of the early church — give the number of kings present at the Nativity as high as 14 and as low as two. Their names range from Hormazd to Karsudas and Melkon, and they rule Arabia, Persia, India and in one case simply “the East.”

But by the early sixth century, when what had begun as a persecuted Jewish sect had metamorphosed into the official faith of the Roman Empire, the whole world suddenly reached unanimity on the number and identity of Jesus’ first visitors. Emperor Justinian I, ruling from Byzantium (now Istanbul) — the Goths had long since sacked Rome — had Nativity mosaics installed in the main basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, and Bethlehem.

Justinian’s mosaics reveal just how closely entwined religion and imperial politics had become: depictions of the birth of a divine child were used to establish Roman orthodox dogma over the heretical Arianism of Ravenna’s old rulers (which denied the divinity of Christ). These mosaics not only “revealed” for the first time the names and ages of the three kings but also clearly showed them wearing traditional Persian clothes.

By the early eighth century, the identity of Matthew’s Magi had become so firmly entrenched that Britain’s pre-eminent historian the Venerable Bede was able to state categorically that the visitors were of three different ages and that at least one was white and another was black.

What became of the three Magi?

In the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, there is a calendar of saints that includes this obituary: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the gospel, the three wise men met in Sewa in A.D. 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on January 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on January 6, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on January 11, aged 109.”

Their mortal remains are said to be housed in a jewel-encrusted gold shrine behind the cathedral’s main altar. They’ve been there since 1164, when the shrine was stolen from its Milan basilica by the German monarch Frederick Barbarossa. The bodies that ended up in Milan had apparently been discovered in Sewa, in what is now Turkey, not long before Justinian commissioned his mosaics.

Unfortunately, the authenticity of the Cologne relics is quite dubious. For one thing, the feast of Christmas was not established as a festival by the church until around the year 336. For another, just over a hundred years after Barbarossa removed the shrine from Milan, Marco Polo insists that he was shown the embalmed bodies of the Magi in their tomb at Saveh, a city south of modern Teheran.

Recently, I found enough evidence in Saveh to support the merchant of Venice’s claim and discovered that to this day a strange tale is told there of ancient Persian priest-kings who long ago set off for Israel in search of a special child.

The truth of the Gospels is not necessarily the gospel truth — as Jesus seems to hint, in the oldest fragment of any Gospel to have been found. When asked, in John 18:38, by Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” He gave no answer.

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 25, 1995, Section 1, Page 39 of the National edition with the headline: Secret Lives of the Wise Men.