Which king came from Asia?

How much do we really know about the Magi?

Who was oldest?

Go on. Make a guess: Which of the Magi was the oldest? And who came from Africa?

Detail from the Nativity window at Holy Rosary Parish in Kewaunee. (Patricia Kasten | The Compass)

One day a year — and all during Christmas, thanks to various carols — our thoughts turn toward the Magi who arrived in Bethlehem, seeking “the newborn king of the Jews” in order to “do him homage.” We celebrate their arrival on Epiphany.

We all think we know about the Magi, but from the Gospels we really know very little. The Gospel of Matthew (the only place where they appear) does not give them names, count their number, or even say that they were kings. All that came later.

Matthew does tell us that the Magi — a word that comes from the ancient Persian language, meaning a person of the “learned and priestly class” — came “from the east.” Since ancient Persia (now modern Iran) lay to the north and east of Judea, and we use an ancient Persian word to name them, we can see how the tradition developed that the Magi were Persians.

Persian art

This is supported by early artwork. In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — first built by Constantine in 333 A.D. and rebuilt by Justinian I in 529 A.D. — there is an Altar to the Magi. Legend has it that, when the area was invaded by Persians of the Sassanid Empire in 614 A.D., they recognized the attire of the Magi depicted in that church. They then avoided destroying the church because they believed it was connected to their own Persian ancestors.

Before long, the Magi were often portrayed in art, such as on the walls of the third or fourth century St. Priscilla’s catacombs in Rome, the fifth century triumphal arch of the Basilica of St. Mary Major and the fifth century Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. At both Ravenna and St. Mary Major, the Magi are also shown wearing Persian clothing.

How did the Magi come to be called “kings?” That developed over time, too. In other readings used for Epiphany (Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60), we hear of kings walking by God’s shining radiance and kings of Tarshish and the Isles, Arabia and Seba bringing tribute. This, along with the gifts Matthew said the Magi brought — expensive and regal gifts like gold and incense — helped establish their royal identity.

It was an early church writer, Tertullian living in what is now Tunis in Africa, in the later second century, who first wrote that people in “the East generally regarded the Magi as kings … Its riches Christ then received, when he received the tokens thereof in the gold and spices.”

How many Magi?

Those gifts of the Magi also helped set their number at three. Over the centuries, various traditions have set the number of Magi at as many as 12. For example, the “Catholic Encyclopedia” citations of art sources shows anywhere from two Magi (from a painting in the fourth century cemetery of SS. Peter and Marcellinus in Rome) to eight, depicted on an ancient vase.

Besides the number of gifts, the map of the world at the time helped solidify the Magi’s number at three. At first, they remained Middle Eastern in background, with India, Persia and Arabia being their native lands. Later, after the fourth century, when the Christian faith had become the accepted around the Roman Empire, the horizon expanded to allow the Magi to represent all the known world at that time: Europe, Africa and Asia.

And what about their names?

Differences in ages, nationalities

In the sixth century mosaic in Sant ‘Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, we can see subtle differences that might represent either age or nationality. This mosaic also conveniently names the Magi with their gifts — though the names may have been a later addition. Here, Gaspar (sp.) is depicted as the oldest, with a white beard and carrying gold. Beardless Melchior, with dark hair and features that are not necessarily European, bears an incense boat. Balthazar (sp.) with a black beard carries myrrh.

An eighth century manuscript, called the “Excerpta Latina Barbari,” names the Magi as “Bithisarea, Melchior or Melichyor, and Gathaspa or Gaspas.” Eventually, the names settled to what we now recognize: Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior.

Also dating to the eighth century is a work attributed to St. Bede the Venerable (d. 735). This “Excerpta et Collectanea” names Melchior as the oldest of the Magi, and said he brought the gift of gold. Bede called Balthasar “black-skinned and heavily bearded” and bearing myrrh, while fair-complected Caspar was so young as to have no beard.

To this day, there is great variety in the ages and nationalities of the Magi. Most often, Melchior is the eldest and European, while Balthasar is middle-aged (as he appears at Ravenna) and African. However, these two switch looks with each other often enough. Only Caspar seems to be consistently depicted as the youngest, except for that Ravenna reference.

The Magi and us

So what do you think? Who brought what gift? Who was older? Were the Magi kings?

While it’s interesting to guess, in the end, who they were doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they came.

For the Magi represent us — as well as anyone else who searches for God’s promise. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “In the Magi … the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The Magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that … ‘the full number of the nations’ now takes its ‘place in the family of the patriarchs’” (n. 528).

In the Magi’s story, we can see all people – whatever their ages or nationalities — coming home to take their place in the family of Bethlehem.


Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; newadvent.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia: www.attalus.org; the website for The Chapel of the Magi, at the Palazzo Midici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy; www.paradoxplace.com; “Journeys with the Magi”; and the Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.com