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Unpacking the gifts to the Christ-child

05 January 2018

Margaret Barker explores the legends and traditions of the Magi

Legends of the Magi: Twelve “Masters” under the planets, in a Middle High German Losbuch, Middle Rhine/Hessen c.1340

Legends of the Magi: Twelve “Masters” under the planets, in a Middle High German Losbuch, Middle Rhine/Hessen c.1340

MATTHEW wrote his Gospel for a community of Hebrew Christians, and only Matthew tells the story of the Magi. His community knew what he meant when he said that the visitors were “Magi from the east”; but we do not.

His Roman contemporaries thought that magi were magicians and astrologers from Persia, and in the Acts of the Apostles Luke mentions two magi who are both evil characters: Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8.9), and Elymas, in Paphos, Cyprus (Acts 13.6). Matthew may have used the word differently because — unlike Luke — he shows no hostility to the Magi. The visitors came from the east, and were looking for the king of the Jews; so it is likely that they were Hebrews.

In the five centuries before Jesus was born, history had scattered the Hebrews far and wide. It is probable that the Magi came from one of those communities east of Jerusalem. Matthew does not say how far they had travelled; the long journey is based on Herod’s killing all the boys under the age of two.

funkystock/Age fotostockCrowned: the kings in 12th-14th-century mosaics from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice  


JUSTIN MARTYR, born in Palestine about 90 CE, said that the Magi came from Arabia — but not Arabia as we know it today. The capital of Arabia was Petra, east of Jerusalem, now in southern Jordan.

It was assumed that there were three wise men because of the three gifts, even though Matthew does not say this. Some early paintings show two, or even four, Magi. One text says that there were 12.

By 200 CE, and for several centuries afterwards, people thought that they were Persian philosophers. Clement of Alexandria is our earliest evidence for the Magi’s being Persian, and the earliest picture — in the catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome — shows them as three Persian philosophers, wearing pointed caps.

In mid-fifth-century Rome, they were still Persian philosophers, depicted thus in Santa Maria Maggiore and on the doors of Santa Sabina. In the mid-sixth century, Justinian’s mosaics in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna, still show the Magi with pointed caps.

Prisma Archivo/ALAMYCrowned: the kings in 12th-14th-century mosaics from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice


THEN they became kings all over the Christian world, fulfilling the biblical prophecies (Psalm 72.10-11; Isaiah 60.3). They were kings in Syria, in Armenia, and in Ethiopia — all with different sets of names. The earliest English image of them as kings is in the Aethelwold Benedictional, about 975 CE.

When Marco Polo was travelling in Persia in the late 13th century, he was shown tombs of the three kings in the city of Saveh, although people in Europe had been told for centuries that the kings’ bones were in Constantinople, then in Milan, and, finally, in Cologne. Their gilded triple sarcophagus there is the largest reliquary in the Western Church, and their three crowns appear on Cologne’s coat of arms.


DeAgostini/SuperStockSacred Spring: the Bladelin altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464)THERE is another story about the Magi: they were a group of 12 wise men, descendants of kings, who lived at the foot of a holy mountain in the east, “the Mountain of Victory”. They were the hereditary guardians of ancient writings handed down from Adam.

Their books told them that a star would appear in a beam of light from the glory of God. Adam had seen this star over the Tree of Life, but lost sight of it when he left Eden. After the harvest each year, the Magi washed in their “Spring of Purification”, and then went up the mountain to their sacred cave to see if the “star of blessing” had appeared. When they saw the star, it enclosed a vision of a young boy, and so they set out to Judaea. One version of the story says that they saw the Child and his Mother in the star.

This story is known from a Syriac text of about 200 CE, and a shorter version appears in an incomplete fifth-century Latin commentary on Matthew. The story was widely known in medieval Europe, and there are paintings of the Magi bathing in their sacred spring, seeing the Child in the star, and then travelling in a great procession to Jerusalem.

These other stories preserve clues about the Magi who came to find Jesus. The Hebrew Christians of Matthew’s community told their stories in Hebrew, and Matthew wrote a gospel in Hebrew (although that is now lost). The words “from the east” would also have meant “from ancient times”, because the Hebrew can mean both.

The story of the 12 magi is the best clue to the identity of Matthew’s Magi. They were exiled royal high priests “from ancient times” who continued with the purification rituals in the spring in their cave-sanctuary, and preserved teachings about a star prophecy.


THERE is also The Ascension of Isaiah, an older text preserved and expanded by the early Christians. It tells how Isaiah and a group of prophets including Micah, Joel, and Habakkuk fled from persecution in Jerusalem, and eventually settled on an unnamed mountain in the east. There, Isaiah received visions of the coming of Jesus. This sounds very like the group of 12 magi and their community.

Even the biblical account shows that Isaiah was persecuted in Jerusalem. He sealed up his teachings (Isaiah 8.16), and a later disciple added that people no longer understood them (Isaiah 29.11-12). Habakkuk — one of Isaiah’s circle — prophesied that the Lord would come from the area to which Isaiah and his disciples had fled. These verses are repeated several times throughout the Orthodox services for Christmas Eve (Habakkuk 3.2-3), which is a liturgical memory of a faithful group in the east who preserved the older beliefs about the birth of the Messiah.

The mysterious 12 magi had ancient books from Adam; in tradition, Adam was the original high priest. His temple was Eden, and, when he lost his temple, he could no longer see the star over the tree of life.


OTHER stories about Adam leaving Eden were known to the early Christians. He took with him gold, frankincense, and myrrh to remind him of the temple he had lost. Some say that they were given to him by the archangels: Michael brought gold, which was the symbol of heavenly wisdom; all the vessels and furnishings within the temple were made of gold, and gold was woven through the high priest’s ephod to show that he was endowed with heavenly wisdom.

Gabriel brought frankincense, which only a high priest could burn as an offering; and Raphael brought myrrh, which was the anointing oil — the sacrament that bound the human king to the heavenly Lord and made him Immanuel, “God with us”. When Adam died, the three gifts from Eden were placed in the cave where he was buried, and it was called “the Cave of Treasures”.

Pope Leo (390-461) knew about the myrrh oil and incarnation. He wrote:He that acknowledges Christ the king of the universe brings gold from the treasure of his heart; he that believes the Only-begotten of God to have united man’s true nature to himself offers myrrh; and he that confesses Him in no wise inferior to the Father’s majesty, worshipped him in a manner with incense” (Extract from Epiphany Sermon VI).

PRISMA ARCHIVO/AlamyTraditional: 16th-century icon of the nativity in the National Museum of Medieval Art, Korce, Albania


THE Magi came looking for the newborn “King of the Jews”. King Herod had had this inscribed on his coins, and to claim this title was treason. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15.2), and the title on his cross was, according to John, “Jesus the Guardian/Keeper [Nazoraios] the King of the Jews” (John 19.19).

The Magi were the preservers of the older faith, which believed that the Davidic king was divine: the Lord with his people. When the Magi came to Bethlehem, “they worshipped the King of the Jews.”


AFTER the royal house was destroyed by the Babylonians, Jeremiah prophesied that another Davidic king would come and save Judah and Israel (Jeremiah 23.5-6). He would be called “the Dawn” (e.g. Zechariah 6.12), sometimes translated “the Branch”, because the Hebrew word can mean both. Zechariah sang of the Dawn from on high who would save his people from their enemies and bring light to those in darkness (Luke 1.71, 78-9).

Herod and Pontius Pilate both feared the coming of “the King of the Jews”. The star in the dawn sky — his “star in the east” — was the sign of his birth. The Morning Star was an ancient title for the Davidic kings. In Revelation, the heavenly Jesus was “the root and offspring of David, the bright Morning Star” (22.16), which is why the Magi saw a child in the star and followed the sign to the new Davidic king.


THE Jews were well known as astronomers. Greek writers in the four centuries before Christ mentioned this, and there were astronomy texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Synagogue floors were often mosaics of the zodiac, and recognising heavenly portents was the business of a wise man. The sacred calendar foretold 70 weeks of years until the Messiah would appear (Daniel 9.24-27), and, when Jesus was born, the 70 weeks of years were nearing their end. In 32 BCE, Herod killed the priests who were studying the calendar and yet could not believe that he, Herod, was the promised Messiah.

The prophet Isaiah was probably an astronomer in the first temple. His prophecy of the Virgin and her Son (Isaiah 7.14) coincided with Venus, the Morning Star that represented the crown prince, passing through the constellation of Virgo when it was in the house of the sun. This occurred in the autumn of 731 BCE, and is depicted in the vision of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.1-5), who appears when the Messiah establishes his kingdom.

robertharding/SuperStockIf the cap fits: the three “kings” in a sixth-century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The Magi did not know Micah’s prophecy of where the Messiah would be born, even though they knew that the star was a sign of a King of the Jews. This does not mean that they were Gentiles. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament as we know it was not defined until about 100 years after the birth of Jesus; so the Magi could have been Hebrews with different holy texts. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls has Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem very differently: “Out of you one shall not come forth to be the ruler of Israel.”


FROM the very beginning, the nativity has been depicted as a conflation of the New Testament accounts and stories from elsewhere, especially the little-known story of the 12 magi, the descendants of ancient kings.

The traditional nativity icon shows the ox and the ass (which is the opening oracle of Isaiah, but is not mentioned in the New Testament); Jesus is born in a cave at the top of a mountain; the three (not 12) Magi climb the mountain; the star is in a beam of light from God; and the baby Jesus is washed at the foot of the mountain — presumably in the Magi’s sacred spring.


Dr Margaret Barker is a co-founder of the Temple Studies Group and a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study. Email: templestudiesgroup@hotmail.co.uk

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