Who, what and how many were the Magi?

Margaret Heath writes

Last Meeting for Worship we heard a school nativity joke. One of the children acting the Magi is sick and there’s a late substitute. When the moment comes the first of the Magi says “I bring gold”, the second “Myrrh”. The third blurts out: “Frank sent me!”.

I passed this one on to Lore Chumbley, priest in charge at Christ Church, where they had an Epiphany talk and tea later that same day. It was based on work by Hebrew scholar Margaret Barker, and illustrated with excellent slides.

These reflected the attitudes to the wise men led by the star mentioned in St Matthew’s gospel. The earliest representation of the Magi is from the third century in the catacomb of St Priscilla in Rome. It shows the Magi as three Persian philosophers, distinguished by their floppy red hats.

In the 5th century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, the Magi are represented by an old philosopher with a white beard, a a mature man with a brown beard and a beardless youth – the three ages of man, often still seen in today’s Christmas cards. The magi (still in philosophers’ hats) were named for the first time – ‘Balthassar . Melchior and Caspar’ in a 6th century mosaic in Ravenna. Soon after that the hats became crowns (kings shall bow down before him; a better fit to Old Testament prophecies).

The earliest known illustration of the Magi is located in the 3rd Century Catacombes of Priscilla in Rome.

Lore Chumbley adds about the talk:

By the early middle ages one of the kings was typically represented as an African as a reminder that they represent the three sons of Noah who by tradition were the fathers of the races of the earth- Shem the ancestor of the Arabs, Ham of the Africans and Japeth of the Europeans.

Marco Polo heard a story on his travels in the late 13th century. In the city of Saveh in Persia, where there was the royal observatory and a school of astronomers, he was shown the tombs of the three kings, ‘Beltasar, Gaspar and Melchior’. He was told that long ago they went to worship a new-born prophet and took him gifts, to discover who he was: ‘If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer,’ he was told.

But Margaret’s own work suggests that the Magi might have been Jewish astronomers. She suggests the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was a priest in the Jewish temple and an astronomer and that the roof in Solomon’s time would have been used as an observatory to scan the skies for portents. Hundreds of years later Jewish astronomers were looking for the coming of a Messiah who according to their calendars was due to arrive 70 weeks of years after the book af Daniel was written – that is, around the year of Jesus’ birth.

An ancient text The Revelation of the Magi tells of not three but 12 Magi who would meet each year to wash in a sacred spring and watch the sky for a sign. The number 12 suggests these were Jewish priests (one for each of the tribes of Israel).

Finally – around the year 6 BC a sign appeared in the sky, a star containing a vision of a baby – and so they set our fro Bethlehem. The story was well enough known in the 15th century to have been portrayed in a painting by Rogier van der Weyden’s workshop, ‘Magi in their Sacred Spring. So there may have been not three but 12 of them; they may have worn floppy hats not crowns; they may have been Persian Philosophers, kings or Jewish priest-astronomers.

So we have various interpretations as to the meaning of the gifts, various astronomical explanations of the star, different numbers of Magi. The early pictures show horses (without stirrups as these came in later, from Gengis Khan I think) but my Christmas cards have camels. Would you ride a camel in a crown? There is a certain artistic liberty I think.

Whatever the truth, the myth illustrates the point Jesus came to the world, not just to the Jews.

The talk was offered with warm hospitality and a scrumptious tea. Many thanks to Christ Church.

Margaret Barker will be visiting Bath again Feb 29th to lead a workshop on ‘Mary Magdalen and the Easter event in the Gospel of John’.

You can take a virtul tour of the Catacombe of Priscilla here, and there’s an accessible webinar about it here by the Khan Academy.

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