Who really were the three wise men
In Christianity, January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, is celebrated on the day when Jesus showed himself for the first time in public (from the Greek verb ἐπιφαίνω, show themselves). According to Christian tradition, he was visited by the magi, often identified as three oriental kings who brought him gifts after arriving in Bethlehem following a “comet”. The gifts they brought to Jesus were gold, frankincense and myrrh (we return). It is said that their names were Gaspare, Melchiorre and Baldassarre and that they were of three different ethnic groups: one white, one black and one Middle Eastern.
Their story, however, is rather obscure, as well as for other characters present in the crib, so much so that only one of the four Gospels names them, without even specifying who and how many they were. And the story of the so-called “comet” is also most likely false.
What the Gospels of the Magi
Not much, as with all things concerning Jesus’ childhood. Only one of the four canonical Gospels (those accepted by the Catholic Church) names them: that of Matthew, in the second chapter. It does not say how many there were, what they were called or where exactly they came from. However, they had a role in the rest of the story, in particular in the flight into Egypt of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. According to Matthew’s account, in fact, they were the ones who told King Herod that the new “king of the Jews” was born: it was therefore it was because of them that Herod had all the children under two years of age killed in the Bethlehem area.
«Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod. Some Magi came from the East to Jerusalem and asked: «Where is the King of the Jews who was born? We have seen his star rise, and we have come to worship him ». Upon hearing these words, King Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering all the high priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them about the place where the Messiah was to be born. They answered him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:” And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are not really the smallest capital of Judah: for a chief will come out of you who will feed my people. Israel””. Then Herod, secretly called the Magi, asked them to tell exactly the time when the star appeared and sent them to Bethlehem exhorting them: “Go and find out carefully about the child and, when you have found him, let me know, because ‘I come to adore him ». When they heard the king’s words, they left. And behold the star, which they had seen in its rising, preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. Upon seeing the star, they felt a great joy. When they entered the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then they opened their caskets and offered him gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts. “
The chapter continues by saying that on the way back the wise men did not go back to Herod, because an angel appeared to them in a dream to change their way. Another angel instead appeared to Joseph to make him escape to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.
Later traditions they embellished with details the story of the magi. For example, only in the third century it began to be said that they were kings: this hypothesis was suggested by the interpretation of some verses of the Old Testament according to which the savior of the Jewish people would also be honored by kings. It is thought that the names Gaspar, Melchior and Baldassarre, the ones most used by Dolarpean Christians, come from a Greek manuscript dating back to the fifth or sixth century and written in Alexandria in Egypt: it came to us in an eighth century Latin translation, entitled Excerpta Latina Barbari.
Usually Belshazzar is represented as king of Arabia, Melchior as king of Persia and Gaspar as king of India. In other parts of the world Christians use different names: Syrian Christians have always used Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas, the Ethiopians Hor, Karsudan and Basanater, while the Armenians Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Chinese Christians like to think that one of the magi came from China.
We were talking about myrrh, however. Myrrh is a resin that is obtained from the bark of various plants, including the Commiphora myrrha, a tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and parts of East Africa. It is still used today to produce perfumes and toothpastes and in the past it was used to make medicines. In the story of Jesus it has a symbolic meaning, because it was one of the substances with which his body was anointed before burial. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming.
What does “magi” mean
The original version of the Gospels is written in ancient Greek and the term “magi” corresponds to “μάγοι”, which comes from ancient Persian. The Greek historian Herodotus (who lived in the fifth century BC, therefore about 500 years before the writing of the Gospel of Matthew) used this term to indicate the members of one of the six tribes into which one of the peoples that anciently lived in the region corresponding to the today’s Iran: the Medes. When the Persians conquered the kingdom of the Medes, the term began to be used to simply refer to the priests.
Their religion still exists in India, even if fewer and fewer people practice it: Zoroastrianism. It is a monotheistic cult, according to the tradition founded by Zarathustra, known by the Greeks as Zoroaster.
In ancient times the link between religion and astronomy was very strong and the priestly classes were also the most cultured, for this reason it is not surprising that the Magi arrived in Palestine following an astronomical phenomenon.
The word “μάγος” passed from Greek to Latin “magusWhich corresponds to both the Italian “magio” and “magician”, in the sense of a person endowed with magical powers: in fact, the Greeks already began to use this word to indicate the Babylonian priests, who practiced astrology and magical rituals. The difference in meaning has been preserved in Italian by using “magio, magi” instead of “magio, maghi”; in English the problem was solved by translating “μάγοι” with “wise men“, That is” wise men “, or by keeping the”magi“Latin. In other languages, such as Spanish, the terms “magio” and “magicians” they are not distinct.
And was the star a comet?
The expression “comet”, which is usually used to indicate the luminous phenomenon studied by the magi, is obviously wrong: a star and a comet are two very different celestial bodies. Stars are huge masses – the Sun for example is a star and has a mass more than 300,000 times that of the Earth – made mainly of hydrogen and helium in which continuous nuclear fusions take place.
Comets are pieces of rock and ice that, according to the most shared theories, about 4.5 billion years ago broke away from the materials that led to the formation of the Earth and other rocky planets: they scattered over great distances from the solar system due to of their interaction with the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and ended up in an area called the Oort cloud, whose existence is only speculated because it is so dark and remote that it cannot be directly observed with current systems. Each fragment follows its own orbit and sometimes leaves the Oort cloud and ends up in the inner solar system, where it becomes observable.
The first person to think that the “star” mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew – in Greek “ἀστέρα” – was a comet may have been the painter Giotto. In fact, he was the first to represent the star as a comet in one of the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, made between 1303 and 1305, The Adoration of the Magi. Historians think that Giotto represented the star in this way because between 1301 and 1302 he had witnessed the passage of Halley’s comet, one of the most famous in the history of astronomy, which following its orbit periodically returns to approach the Earth and the Sun.
But probably the “star” was not a comet or even a star. Second a study by American astrophysicist and cosmologist Grant Mathews, who teaches at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, the celestial phenomenon mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew may have been an exceptional planetary alignment that occurred in 6 BC: in that year the Sun, Jupiter, the Moon and Saturn were found to be aligned in the constellation of Aries, while Venus was in the nearby constellation of Pisces and Mercury and Mars in that of Taurus.
Matthews came to this conclusion by crossing the Gospel text, information from historical sources (including observations by Chinese astronomers of that period) and astronomical data. Among the arguments in favor of this thesis – which obviously does not question the idea that the Magi went to Bethlehem – is the fact that for astrology the simultaneous presence of Jupiter and the Moon would indicate the birth of a king with a special destiny. In the beginning the conjunction was visible to the east and this would explain the direction of the journey of the magi.