Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).
Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.
The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.
In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.
The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:
The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.
The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.
The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.
Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).
The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.
We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)
The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).
Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.
And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.
And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.
As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).
So there are a lot of accretions clinging to the story in Matthew 2, about the Magi from the east visiting Bethlehem. The basic story itself is an expanded midrash on older scriptural prophecies, worked up for the purpose of telling a fine tale. (See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/04/herod-was-infuriated-and-he-sent-and-killed-all-the-children-matt-2/)
Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.
The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.
Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.