Epiphany, the Magi and Me: The Big Aha!

James Tissot's 'Journey of the Magi.' (ca 1886-1894) via  Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum, Wikidata, used w/o permission
(From James Tissot, via Wikidata, used w/o permission.)
(James Tissot’s “Journey of the Magi.” (1890s))

“We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star….”
(“We Three Kings,” John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1857))

As a child, “We Three Kings” was among my favorite Christmas songs. It still is.

The song’s gold, frankincense and myrrh are “Biblical,” in the sense that they’re mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. So is the star.

As for the “Three Kings of Orient:” well, there were more than one of them, and Matthew says they were from the east. But he also called them magi.

John Henry Hopkins Jr. probably inferred their royal status from Isaiah and Psalms.

Their names — Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar — aren’t in Matthew’s Gospel, either.1

Language, Names and Records

Radomir Vrbovsky's photo of Babylon's Ishtar gate, eighth gate of Babylon’s inner city: reconstruction using original bricks in the Pergamonmuseum, Berlin, Deutschland. (June 22, 2014) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.The earliest origin of “Gaspard” I’ve heard of is in a first century B.C. Septuagint, where it’s a Chaldean word: “Gizbar.” Seems that a gizbar is a treasurer. Or was.

The Chaldean language has been around for well upwards of two and a half millennia, and changed considerably along the way.

I gather that it’s related to Aramaic, sort of like English is related to German, and was a trade language in what we call the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Scholars figured that German, English and other Indo-European languages were also related. Maybe Indo-Semitic, too, but that’s been looking less likely lately.

We’ve known about language and languages since long before folks developed cuneiform and hanzi. But didn’t realize that families of languages exist until a few centuries back.

In 1585, Filippo Sassetti told a friend that he’d noticed similarities between Italian and Sanskrit.

In the 19th century, folks like Leopardi, Nietzsche and Schlegel noticed connections between languages like German, Iranian and other languages.

Philology as a blend of history and linguistics, with textual and literary criticism in the mix, was politicized in the 20th century and I’m drifting off-topic.

Back to names and the magi.

Melchior and Balthazar were mentioned in a Greek manuscript dating from 500 A.D. or thereabouts. Melchior’s name has been rendered as Melichior; and Balthazar’s also called Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea.

Gaspard/Gizbar’s name has morphed into Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa and more.2

“…Tales That to Me Were So Dear….”

James Tissot's 'The Exhortation to the Apostles.' (ca. 1890) via Brooklyn Museum, Wikipedia, used w/o permission
(From James Tissot, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)

“Tell me the tales that to me were so dear,
Long, long ago, long, long ago….”
(“Long Long Ago!,” Thomas Haynes Bayly (1845) via Digital Commons, Connecticut College)

We’ve collected a mess of stories about the magi over the last couple millennia. Some are as well-documented as my homeland’s ‘John Henry ‘and Washington’s cherry tree’ tales

Not very, in other words.

Others may be factually accurate by today’s Western standards, but based on now-untraceable records and oral traditions.

And some are either plausible speculations, like “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Other Wise Man,” or magi-themed seasonal specials, like “A Cosmic Christmas.”

I could let that bother me, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about what we do know about the magi; and why I think their trip to Bethlehem was a big deal.

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)Right after I explain why I think the magi, Herod and Jesus are real people and that the Bible really is Sacred Scripture.

Basically, I think that the Bible is not on the same level as, say, “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington:” an 1800 exaltation of America’s first president, a literary analog to Constantino Brumidi’s “The Apotheosis of Washington.”

I think the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with Sarah and Abraham’s descendants and, later, folks like me.

The Bible’s books include history, prophecy, poetry, and correspondence. But the Bible is not a science or history textbook, and it’s not a political manifesto.3

And I certainly don’t try believing that the Bible was written by an American literalist.

Or that stories like “A Cosmic Christmas” and “The Other Wise Man” must be true because I’ve enjoyed them, and that’s almost another topic.

Herod and the Magi

James Tissot's 'The Magi in the House of Herod.' (ca. 1890)
(From James Tissot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
“saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.'”
(Matthew 2:12)

There’s a lot to unpack here.

For one thing, this Herod isn’t the Herod who’s chiefly known for his role in our Lord’s trial and execution. The Matthew magi Herod is Herod the Great: who was great because of his high-end building programs, or not-so-great for pretty much the same reason.

At any rate, Herod the Great demonstrated — I’ll call it an abundance of caution — in dealing with threats, real or imagined.

Take his second wife, Mariamne, and her mother Alexandra, for example.

Josephus says that Mariamne stopped sleeping with Herod when she learned that he planned to kill her. So Herod accused Mariamne of adultery and put her on the death row waiting list.

Alexandra gave state’s evidence against her daughter, possibly because she was also slated for execution.

Then Alexandra said Herod was unfit to rule and that now she was in charge. So Herod had her executed without a trial.4

Yes, American politics could be worse, and that is another topic.

Bethlehem’s Dead Boys

Adam Elsheimer's 'The Flight to Egypt.' (1609)
(From Adam Elsheimer, via Wikimedia, used w/o permission.)

Anker Eli Petersen's 'The scream from Ramah' Faroe Islands postage stamp. (2001) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Matthew’s Gospel says that Herod had his people look up where this “newborn king of the Jews” would be.

Then he passed the information along to the magi, and told them to let him know when they’d found the kid.

They didn’t. Instead, they left the country by another route.

Meanwhile, Joseph — acting on an urgent warning — pulled Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and headed for Egypt.

Herod realized he’d been double-crossed, at least from his viewpoint, and implemented his usual response to threats. He told his enforcers to kill every male child in Bethlehem who was under the age of two.

The incident is recorded in Matthew’s second chapter and nowhere else.

Which doesn’t surprise me. Over the course of his career, Herod had arranged for quite a few folks to stop living: important folks, including members of his family.

At that time, Bethlehem was a small town. One scholar said a reasonable body count, considering the population, would be around 15 or 20. That’s nowhere near the 144,000 toll imagined by some medieval writers.5

Even so, from the viewpoint of Bethlehem’s families, that’s a lot of dead boys.

But first century Judea was not 21st century America. The 24-hour news cycle hadn’t been invented yet, and political leaders enjoyed a certain degree of impunity.

Like I said, I’m not surprised that killing a dozen or so obscure kids in a Podunk town didn’t get recorded, apart from Matthew’s account.

Philistines, Naaman, the Magi and Me

Tissot's 'David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might.' (ca. 1896-1902)
(From James Tissot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Tissot’s “David Danced….” (ca. 1896-1902))

I don’t know which of the many ‘magi’ stories come closer to the mark for identifying their homelands. What is certain is that they were foreigners, gentiles. Like me.

But they weren’t the first gentiles who realized that “I AM,” who had been dealing with Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, was — special.

Take the time, for example, when Israel’s elders decided that using the Ark of the Covenant as a good luck charm would be a good idea. It wasn’t.

An Ark Incident and an Army Commander

Sketch of a scene from the north wall of Ramesses III's temple at Medinet Habu.Philistines, a bunch of Sea Peoples who had moved into the area’s coastal plain, had already defeated Israel’s forces once.

Then, when Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, showed up with the Ark, Israel’s forces let loose a whoop and a holler.

Which scared the Philistines, inspiring them to fight even harder.

When the dust settled, Hophni, Phinehas and a whole bunch of others were dead and the Ark was in Philistine hands.

Eli and company were none too pleased, but neither were the Philistines.

They’d put the Ark in Ashdod’s temple of Dagon. Then the statue of Dagon fell down. Twice.

Then folks in Ashdod started experiencing health issues and asked if anyone would take the Ark off their hands. Gath’s decision-makers obliged, but passed the Ark along to Ekron when Gathians — Gathites?? — developed the same occasionally-lethal symptoms.

Long story short, the Philistines finally decided they’d had enough, and sent the Ark back to the Levites by way of Beth-shemesh.

Then there was Naaman, a Syrian army commander who was a leper. Which means he could have had anything from psoriasis to Hansen’s disease.

At any rate, Naaman’s condition cleared up after he finally followed Elisha’s instructions. Which impressed Naaman so much that he wanted to have two mule-loads of dirt, so that he could sacrifice to Elisha’s “I AM.” Exclusively.

Well, almost exclusively. Naaman apologetically explained that his official obligations included accompanying his master in a temple of Rimmon, and bowing with his master.

We lost track of the Ark a little over two and a half millennia back. It’s not so much lost, as secured.6 And that’s yet another topic.

“…Our Life is a Journey….”

sporki's photo, World Youth Day, Vatican. (2000)

I think the magi’s journey to Bethlehem is a big deal because I think Jesus matters.

And I rejoice that folks like Naaman, the magi and me can turn toward “the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations.” (Catechism, 528)

And can join “a great procession that continues throughout history.”

“…The destiny of every person is symbolized in this journey of the Magi of the East: our life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World. Like the Magi, every person has two great ‘books’ which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God who speaks to us, who always speaks to us….”
(Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Pope Francis (January 6, 2014))

“The Epiphany is a feast of light. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’ (Is 60:1). … He who is the true light, and by whom we too are made to be light, has indeed come into the world. He gives us the power to become children of God (cf. Jn 1:9,12). The journey of the wise men from the East is, for the liturgy, just the beginning of a great procession that continues throughout history….”
(Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Pope Benedict XVI (January 6, 2012))

It’s the best news humanity’s ever had:


1 Meet the magi:

2 Names and languages:

3 Legends, literature and records:

4 Herod the maybe-Great:

5 Remembering Bethlehem’s boys:

6 Learning to take God seriously:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Epiphany, the Magi and Me: The Big Aha!

  1. Again, I think about why some Old Testament books had the Israelites being asked to cut ties with foreigners, if I remember correctly. Right now, the most reasonable explanation in my mind is to fight off the Israelites’ exoticism, their disorderly interest in the foreign, a disorder which also implied their disorderly interest in their own selves as well. And we were so stubborn, we could only comprehend refraining from exoticism and promoting God-centered culture as being xenophobes and the like. Thinking about it some more, I once again find God bazillions of steps ahead of us, hahaha~ Anyway, Happy New Year, Mr. Gill, and may God Almighty keep on working on and through us different folks with different strokes!

    • I think a key term there is “disorderly:” an unbalanced, unhealthy interest in that which is foreign, unfamiliar; and unbalanced self-focus. – – – And agreed, promoting a God-centered culture would not be xenophobic: since God makes “xenos,” too. And that’s another topic. – – – On the other hand, I grew up in a time and place where some folks were loudly promoting what they may have believed was a God-centered culture: but sounded a very great deal more like a culture-centered god. I hope they meant well. – – – In any case, Happy New Year and amen!

Thanks for taking time to comment!