Among the events celebrated at Christmas, the weirdest — apart from the virgin birth and the new star created for the occasion — is surely the sudden appearance of the three men bearing gifts for baby Jesus. in fact, the Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-12 — which is the only biblical reference to the event — doesn’t actually mention how many gift-givers there were, but since three gifts were involved, it has always been assumed three people showed up.
But who were they? According to one tradition they were “kings,” but the only biblical reference here is from the Old Testament — Isaiah 60:3 — where it is said that the Messiah was “worshipped by kings.” What Matthew mentions is instead “magi,” a word derived from Old Persian maguŝ, which was the name of a priest in the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrian priests were great star-gazers, experts in astrology and, well, in all forms of “magic.” Hence it’s not surprising that they were guided to Bethlehem by a star.
Since the 8th century, the Magi have been named as “Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar,” but they have no names in the Bible itself. Among Syrian Christians they were instead known as “Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas,” and that certainly sounds a lot more Persian.
The gifts they brought with them were “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” All three are clearly things you give to a man who already has everything. Frankincese was a sort of incense used as perfume and myrrh was an oil used for embalming the dead body. Curiously, the Bible never tells us what happened to the gifts. Yet gold must have been quite a sensation for a poor carpenter’s family. Why didn’t Joseph use it to invest in some more lucrative business?
In fact, the Bible never tells us what happened to the magi themselves. They popped up unexpectedly and then they sodded off for ever. But apparently there is an oral tradition which says that they were baptized in India by St. Thomas, and according to another tradition their remains were taken to Europe after their deaths. This at least is the explanation they give in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where there is a “Shrine of the Three Kings.”
Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, is usually regarded as the day they appeared in Bethlehem, and appropriately enough in Spanish speaking countries this is when children get their Christmas presents. The festivals associated with the occasion all elaborate on the all-too-obvious Oriental theme. For the same reason the “Adoration of the Magi” was a favorite topos among Renaissance artists who loved to accompany the gift-givers with exotic animals and to dress them in outlanding clothes.
Yet it should be obvious that the three magi cannot have arrived as early as twelve days after Jesus was born. It must have taken quite a lot longer to travel to Bethlehem from Persia. In fact, the Bible acknowledges as much when it has Herod kill all children under the age of 2 when the magi tell him about the birth of Jesus. If the magi had alerted him to a recent birth, it would have been sufficient to kill all the newborns.
Considering how much Christianity has appropriated from Zoroastrianism — including the very idea of a “savior” and of an “end of all time” — it is appropriate that Jesus’ first worshippers were Zoroastrian priests. I like to think that the three magi are a subconscious way of acknowledging how much Christianity has borrowed from Zoroastrianism. historically speaking, Christianity is just a new Zoroastrian dispensation. Of course the Church would never quite put it like that.