During the Epiphany on 6th January, the Holy Catholic Church celebrates the physical manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the visitation of the Magi. The visitation scene is told in the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew (2:1-12) as described in the following 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.”
Thus, the common nativity scene during Christmas displays the three kings offering their gifts to the Holy Child Jesus with His mother, Blessed Virgin Mary, and foster father, St. Joseph. But, were those visiting magi Three Kings?
First, the Holy Catholic Church holds no dogmatic definition that the magi who visited the Holy Child were indeed three kings nor there are unanimous testimonies from early Church Fathers supporting such claim except for Tertullian (AD 155-240), theologian, who called them “wellnigh kings” in his writing, Against Marcion (3:13). In fact, the Holy Church teaches:
“The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighbouring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations” (CCC 528).
Hence, 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), which literally mean magicians or sorcerers. In fact, the term magos itself came from the Old Persian word magupati, a title given to priests in a sect of the ancient pagan Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. But these biblical magi were not magicians like the modern performers. They were of noble birth, educated, wealthy, influential, philosophers, the counselors of rulers, and learned in all the wisdom of the ancient East. Perhaps, they had apparently studied the Hebrew Scriptures and known the prophecies of the Old Testament through the mouth of Balaam: “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17); the prophecy of Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2); the prophecy of Daniel regarding the appearance of the Messiah (cf. Daniel 9:25, 26); and came to the conclusion that His coming was near.
However, the tradition of the kinghood of the magi was related to the Old Testament prophesy written in the book of the Prophet Isaiah (60:1-6), as it reads: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. ‘Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.'” Note that it mentions the camels with the kings who would bring the wealth of their nations, including frankincense and gold, to the city of the Lord.
Indeed, Psalm 72:10-11 agrees that far off kings would bring gifts to the Son of David, as written: “The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.”
The tradition also holds that there were three magi or wise men from the fact that the Holy Bible mentions three gifts: gold frankincense and myrrh in accordance with Matthew 2:11. Though there were inconsistencies on how many magi there were as portrayed in the early Christian art but Origen (AD 184-254), St. Leo the Great (AD 400-461), and St. Maximus of Turin (AD 380-465) accepted three magi.
Furthermore, the magi have been identified as Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthasar which could have been taken from a Greek manuscript Excepta Latina Barbari around AD 500, as it reads: “At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.” Also, a work called the Excerpta et Collectanea attributed to St. Bede (d. AD 735) states, “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard . . . who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned . . . honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar . . . by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.”
According to a 5th-century Christian incomplete commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, it is said that after worshipping the Holy Child, the magi returned home and surrendered their high positions, gave their property to the poor, and went to spread the Good News. St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have baptized them 40 years later in India, ordaining them as priests. In fact, a citation from a medieval Calendar of Saints which was printed in Cologne reads: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa in AD 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on 1st of January, aged 116; St. Balthasar on 6th of January, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on 11th of January, aged 109.” They became martyrs and were buried in the walls of Jerusalem.
The remains of the magi were first discovered by St. Helena (AD 248-330), Queen-Mother of Emperor Constantine I, on her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land and took them to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; but were later moved to Milan in AD 344 before being sent to the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in AD 1164.
Meanwhile, the earliest extant portrayal of the magi, dated to the mid-third century, appears above an arch in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome, which shows three men in which each of them carries a gift.
At last, regardless how many magi there were, or who they were but what matters most is the significant meaning of their visit and offerings. They have proven that Christ did not come only for Jews but also to the Gentiles as what St. Irenaeus (d. AD 202) in his Adversus haereses, said that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh showed that Christ is indeed King, God, and Suffering Redeemer.