Merry Christmas! It’s Christmas Day and I am currently on a camping trip in the jungles of Phang Nga Province, north of my home in Phuket, Thailand. By the time this post is published, I will probably have been eaten alive by mosquitoes. For this final post, I thought a stamp showing “travel” might be appropriate as this is actually my first Christmas away from work in more than five years (it’s not exactly an official holiday in this predominately-Buddhist country). The stamp, released by the United States on November 19, 2014, depicts the Biblical Magi or the Three Wise Men or Three) Kings who were, in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four canonical gospels that mentions the Magi. Matthew reports that they came “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never actually mentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the statement that they brought three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalms 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.”
Traditional nativity scenes depict three “Wise Men” visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, but this should be understood as an artistic convention allowing the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience. The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοι) visits him in a house (“οἰκίαν”), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present. The New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:1–12 describes the visit of the Magi in this manner:
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.”
The text specifies no interval between the birth and the visit, and artistic depictions and the closeness of the traditional dates of December 25 and January 6 encourage the popular assumption that the visit took place the same winter as the birth, but later traditions varied, with the visit taken as occurring up to two winters later. This maximum interval explained Herod’s command at Matthew 2:16–18 that the Massacre of the Innocents included boys up to two years old. More recent commentators, not tied to the traditional feast days, may suggest a variety of intervals.
The wise men are mentioned twice shortly thereafter in verse 16, in reference to their avoidance of Herod after seeing Jesus, and what Herod had learned from their earlier meeting. The star which they followed has traditionally become known as the Star of Bethlehem.
The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος magos, as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (μάγοι). Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born (Yasna 33.7: “ýâ sruyê parê magâunô” = “so I can be heard beyond Magi”).
The term refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic, although Zoroastrianism was in fact strongly opposed to sorcery.
The King James Version translates the term as wise men; the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing “Elymas the sorcerer” in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13. Several translations refer to the men outright as astrologers at Matthew Chapter 2,
Although the Magi are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.” Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings.
By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings. Later Christian interpretation stressed the Adorations of the Magi and shepherds as the first recognition by the people of the earth of Christ as the Redeemer, but the reformer John Calvin was vehemently opposed to referring to the Magi as kings. He once wrote: “But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings… Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross i
The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Christian church, they have been all regarded as saints and are commonly known as:
- Melchior, a Persian scholar;
- Caspar, an Indian scholar;
- Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar.
Encyclopædia Britannica states: “according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.” These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500, and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari. Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.
One candidate for the origin of the name Caspar appears in the Acts of Thomas as Gondophares (21 – c. AD 47), from which “Caspar” might derive as a corruption of “Gaspar”. This Gondophares declared independence from the Arsacids to become the first Indo-Parthian king, and he was allegedly visited by Thomas the Apostle. According to Ernst Herzfeld, his name is perpetuated in the name of the Afghan city Kandahar, which he is said to have founded under the name Gundopharron.
In contrast, many Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. These names have a far greater likelihood of being originally Persian, though that does not, of course, guarantee their authenticity.
In the Eastern churches, Ethiopian Christianity, for instance, has Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenian Catholics have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.
Apart from their names, the three Magi developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, so that between them they represented the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other things. In the normal Western account, reflected in art by the 14th century (for example in the Arena Chapel by Giotto in 1305) Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold; he is “King of Tarsus, land of merchants” on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, and is first in line to kneel to Christ. Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from his native Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen).
Their ages were often given as 60, 40 and 20 respectively, and their geographical origins were rather variable, with Balthazar increasingly coming from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa, and being represented accordingly. Balthazar’s blackness has been the subject of considerable recent scholarly attention; in art it is found mostly in northern Europe, beginning from the 12th century, and becoming very common in the north by the 15th.
The phrase from the east (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν), more literally from the rising of the sun, is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. The Parthian Empire, centered in Persia, occupied virtually all of the land east of Judea and Syria (except for the deserts of Arabia to the southeast). Though tolerant of other religions, the dominant religion of the empire was Zoroastrianism, with its priestly magos class.
Traditionally the view developed that they were Babylonians, Persians, or Jews from Yemen as the kings of Yemen then were Jews, a view held for example by John Chrysostom.
Although Matthew’s account does not explicitly cite the motivation for their journey (other than seeing the star in the east, which they somehow took to be the star of the King of the Jews), the Syriac Infancy Gospel provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the third chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht (Zoroaster).
There is an Armenian tradition identifying the “Magi of Bethlehem” as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. Historian John of Hildesheim relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem.
After the visit, the Magi leave the narrative by returning another way so as to avoid Herod, and do not reappear. There are many traditional stories about what happened to the Magi after this, with one having them baptized by St. Thomas on his way to India. Another has their remains found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople, and eventually making their way to Germany and the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral.
A model for the homage of the Magi might have been provided, it has been suggested, by the journey to Rome of King Tiridates I of Armenia, with his magi, to pay homage to the Emperor Nero, which took place in 66 AD, a few years before the date assigned to the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.
There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian relatives, the Keraites, were descended from the Biblical Magi. This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Keraite ruler Toghrul, married Tolui the youngest son of Genghis and became the mother of Möngke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king, Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes. Sempad the Constable, elder brother of King Hetoum I of Cilician Armenia, visited the Mongol court in Karakorum in 1247–1250 and in 1254. He wrote a letter to Henry I King of Cyprus and Queen Stephanie (Sempad’s sister) from Samarkand in 1243, in which he said:
“Tanchat [Tangut, or Western Xia], which is the land from whence came the Three Kings to Bethlehem to worship the Lord Jesus which was born. And know that the power of Christ has been, and is, so great, that the people of that land are Christians; and the whole land of Chata [Khitai, or Kara-Khitai] believes those Three Kings. I have myself been in their churches and have seen pictures of Jesus Christ and the Three Kings, one offering gold, the second frankincense, and the third myrrh. And it is through those Three Kings that they believe in Christ, and that the Chan and his people have now become Christians”.
The legendary Christian ruler of Central Asia, Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Magi
The Magi are described as “falling down”, “kneeling” or “bowing” in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with Luke’s birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. Inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church. While prostration is now rarely practiced in the West it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.
Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, in Koine Greek: chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος) and smýrna (σμύρνα). Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure.
Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The “holy oil” traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as “receiving the myrrh”. The picture of the Magi on the 7th century Franks Casket shows the third visitor — he who brings myrrh — with a valknut over his back, a pagan symbol referring to Death.
It has been suggested by scholars that the “gifts” were medicinal rather than precious material for tribute.
What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas. One tradition suggests that Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their travels when they fled Bethlehem after an angel had warned, in a dream, about King Herod’s plan to kill Jesus. And another story proposes the theory that the myrrh given to them at Jesus’ birth was used to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.
There was a 15th-century golden case purportedly containing the Gift of the Magi housed in the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos. It was donated to the monastery in the 15th century by Mara Branković, daughter of the King of Serbia Đurađ Branković, wife to the Ottoman Sultan Murat II and godmother to Mehmet II the Conqueror of Constantinople. They were apparently part of the relics of the Holy Palace of Constantinople and it is claimed they were displayed there since the 4th century.
After the Athens earthquake of September 9, 1999 they were temporarily displayed in Athens in order to strengthen faith and raise money for earthquake victims. The relics were displayed in Ukraine and Belarus in Christmas of 2014, and thus left Greece for the first time since the 15th century.
Christian Scriptures record nothing about the Biblical Magi after reporting their going back to their own countries. Two separate traditions have surfaced claiming that they were so moved by their encounter with Jesus that they either became Christians on their own or were quick to convert fully upon later encountering an Apostle of Jesus. The traditions claim that they were so strong in their beliefs that they willingly embraced martyrdom.
One tradition gained popularity in Spain during the 17th century; it was found in a work called the Chronicon of Dexter. The work was ascribed to Flavius Lucius Dexter the bishop of Barcelona, under Theodosius the Great. The tradition appears in the form of a simple martyrology reading, “In Arabia Felix, in the city of Sessania of the Adrumeti, the martyrdom of the holy kings, the three Magi, Gaspar, Balthassar, and Melchior who adored Christ.” First appearing in 1610, the Chronicon of Dexter was immensely popular along with the traditions it contained throughout the 17th century. Later, this was all brought into question when historians and the Catholic hierarchy in Rome declared the work a pious forgery.
A competing tradition asserts that the Biblical Magi “were martyred for the faith, and that their bodies were first venerated at Constantinople; thence they were transferred to Milan in 344. It is certain that when Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (Barbarossa) imposed his authority on Milan, the relics there were transferred to Cologne Cathedral, housed in the Shrine of the Three Kings, and are venerated there today.” The Milanese treated the fragments of masonry from their now-empty tomb as secondary relics and these were widely distributed around the region, including southern France, accounting for the frequency with which the Magi appear on chasse reliquaries in Limoges enamel.
There are several traditions on where the remains of the Magi are located, although none of the traditions is considered as an established fact or even as particularly likely by secular history. Marco Polo claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:
“In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.”
— Marco Polo, Polo, Marco, The Book of the Million, book i
Paul William Roberts provides some modern-day corroboration of this possibility in his book Journey of the Magi.
A Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She took the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; they were later moved to Milan (some sources say by the city’s bishop, Eustorgius I), before being sent to their current resting place by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164. The Milanese celebrate their part in the tradition by holding a medieval costume parade every January 6.
A version of the detailed elaboration familiar to us is laid out by the 14th century cleric John of Hildesheim’s Historia Trium Regum (“History of the Three Kings”). In accounting for the presence in Cologne of their mummified relics, he begins with the journey of Helena, mother of Constantine I to Jerusalem, where she recovered the True Cross and other relics:
“Queen Helen… began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind… after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople… and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophi
The visit of the Magi is commemorated in most Western Christian churches by the observance of Epiphany, January 6, which also serves as the feast of the three as saints. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate the visit of the Magi on December 25.
Qur’an omits Matthew’s episode of the Magi. However, the Persian Muslim encyclopaedist al-Tabari, writing in the 9th century, gives the familiar symbolism of the gifts of the Magi. Al-Tabari gave his source for the information to be the later 7th century Perso-Yemenite writer Wahb ibn Munabbih.
The Magi most frequently appear in European art in the Adoration of the Magi; less often in the Journey of the Magi has been a popular subject in art, and topos, and other scenes such as the Magi before Herod and the Dream of the Magi also appear in the Middle Ages. In Byzantine art they are depicted as Persians, wearing trousers and phrygian caps. Crowns appear from the 10th century.
Despite being saints, they are very often shown without halos, perhaps to avoid distracting attention from either their crowns or the halos of the Holy Family. Sometimes only the lead king, kneeling to Christ, has a halo the two others lack, probably indicating that the two behind had not yet performed the act of worship that would ensure their status as saints. Medieval artists also allegorized the theme to represent the three ages of man. Beginning in the 12th century, and very often by the 15th, the Kings also represent the three parts of the known (pre-Columbian) world in Western art, especially in Northern Europe. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor and Caspar may be depicted with distinctly Oriental features.
An early Anglo-Saxon depiction survives on the Franks Casket (early 7th century, whalebone carving), the only Christian scene, which is combined with pagan and classical imagery. In its composition it follows the oriental style, which renders a courtly scene, with the Virgin and Christ facing the spectator, while the Magi devoutly approach from the (left) side. Even amongst non-Christians who had heard of the Christian story of the Magi, the motif was quite popular, since the Magi had endured a long journey and were generous. Instead of an angel, the picture places a swan-like bird, perhaps interpretable as the hero’s fylgja (a protecting spirit, and shapeshifter).
Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein depicted a more controversial tableau in his painting, Epiphany I: Adoration of the Magi (1996). Intended to represent the “many connections between the Third Reich and the Christian churches in Austria and Germany”, Nazi officers in uniform stand around an Aryan woman, a Madonna. The Christ toddler who stands on Mary’s lap resembles Adolf Hitler.
More generally they appear in popular Nativity scenes and other Christmas decorations that have their origins in the Neapolitan variety of the Italian presepio or Nativity crèche.
Designed by Nancy Stahl, Scott #4945 was issued to satisfy the 49-cent first class mail rate. Banknote Corporation of America printed 200,000,000 copies of the stamp for Sennett Security Products, lithographed in sheets of 160 with eight booklet panes of 20 per sheet. The self-adhesive “traditional Christmas stamps” (as opposed to “contemporary Christmas stamps” had serpentine perforations die cut 10¾ x 11.
This post concludes six days of Christmas stamps. Since there are so many other wonderful designs on holiday stamps that I wasn’t able to feature and so many Yuletide themes I didn’t have a chance to explore, I believe I will expand to a full twelve days of Christmas stamps next year. Of course, time will tell what 2018 will bring. In the meantime, I wish every one of you a joyous time of the year, full of good cheer and companionship regardless of your beliefs.