“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
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
“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.
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.
“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.'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- “Jesus, the Ultimate Alpha: a Personal View”
(April 4, 2021)
- “12 Days of Christmas, Plus 1”
(January 4, 2020)
- “Jesus Didn’t Stay Dead”
(April 21, 2019)
- “Epiphany: Still Shining”
(January 6, 2019)
- “The Best News Ever”
(April 1, 2018)
- Balthazar (magus)
- Caspar (magus)
- Chinese characters
- Filippo Sassetti
- Friedrich Schlegel
- Giacomo Leopardi
- History of writing
- Indo-European languages
- Indo-Semitic languages
- Melchior (magus)
- Neo-Babylonian Empire
- Semitic languages
- Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego
- Suret language
- Chaldean Americans
Chaldean American Student Association; Preserving the Chaldean Culture, History, and Language; University of Michigan
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133
- Understanding the Bible
- The Fourth Wise Man (1985)
- “A history of the life and death, virtues and exploits, of General George Washington. Faithfully taken from authentic documents, and, now, in a second edition improved, respectfully offered to the perusal of his countrymen; as also, all others who wish to see human nature in its most finished form”
Mason Locke Weems (1800) via Evans Early American Imprint Collection, Text Creation Partnership, University of Michigan Library
- Remembering to remember
- “The Immaculate Conception and a Legacy of Valor” (December 11, 2021)
- “Misusing Opioids” (July 7, 2017)
- “God, Angels, and Belshazzar” (December 13, 2016)
- Holy Innocents
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)
- The Holy Innocents First Century Feast—December 28
Christmas, Liturgical Year, USCCB
- Ark anecdotes