“Dear Three Wise Men…” This is undoubtedly the beginning of the letters that we have recently sent and which we hope have reached their addressees, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar. But even if we know them by name, even if we know where their bones rest when they are not handing out presents, do we know what those names mean, do we know how many there really were, and what they were?
The first written reference we have of these characters is the Gospel of Matthew, (dated around 80 CE), but there it speaks of “magi”, it does not give names, nor does it say that they are kings, nor does it specify their number. Let’s give some context:
It is in the Excerpta Latina Barbari, also known as Chronographia Scaligeriana, that their names first appear. The Chronographia… is a historical compilation originally written in Greek and possibly in Alexandria around 500 c.e., of which only a Latin translation from the end of the 8th century survives. It is here that the three characters are christened Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, versions of Balthasar (from the Hebrew Belshazzar, from the Akkadian Bel-shar-uzur, meaning “Bel protects the king”), Melchior (from the Hebrew Melekhi Or, “my king is light”, or perhaps from the Persian Melk qart, “king of the city”) and Gaspar (from the Chaldean Gizbar, “treasurer”).
The famous mosaic in the Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna dates from the same period, 6th century AD, and shows the three figures with their present names and dressed in Persian style.
We have seen that as early as the 6th century CE their number was three, and this seems to derive from the logical deduction from the number of gifts brought to Jesus. However, the Armenian Apostolic or Syriac Orthodox Churches still consider them to be twelve, perhaps by assimilation with the twelve Christian apostles or the twelve tribes of Israel.
Another possibility is that there are three to represent what in Late Antiquity were the three known continents, Europe, Asia and Africa; or the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth; or, later, in the Middle Ages, what were considered to be the three human races. In this sense, it should be noted that it was from the 15th century onwards that Balthasar began to be assimilated with the black man.
In Matthew’s Gospel they are called, in its Greek version, magoi (μάγοι), from which derives their status as “magi” in our tradition. But the magi, in their original sense, were but the Zoroastrian priestly caste, whose members, beyond dynastic vicissitudes, always maintained over their domains (Persia; and more specifically at that time, the Parthian Empire) their religious influence, and had astrology among their activities.
Why they later became “kings” in the Christian tradition seems to be related to ancient Jewish prophecies such as those expressed in Isaiah 60:3, which says that “(…) the nations shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising”, and which goes on in verse 6 to say that “a multitude of camels shall cover thee; dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they of Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense”. Or in Psalm 72:11, which states that “all kings shall bow down before him”. It seems logical to appropriate these prophecies to give importance to Jesus, qualifying him as one who from his birth is above even earthly kings. This is how astrologers became kings.
And where did these three kings end up? In one of the largest cathedrals in the world, the Cologne Cathedral. This, despite the fact that Marco Polo himself, back in 1270, claimed that his travels had shown him their tomb, south of Tehran (Iran).
Another Christian tradition explains how his bones ended up in Germany. It is assumed that it was Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, who found them on her travels through Palestine in search of relics – the most important of which was undoubtedly the cross on which Jesus was crucified. From there he took them to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, from where they were taken to Milan and then by the Holy Roman-Germanic Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, in 1164, to Cologne.
Quite a journey for the Three Wise Men. Almost as long as the one they will take, on the 5th, to reach our homes. We hope they bring you lots of presents, as a sign that you have behaved well.