Magi Mythbusting

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The Washington Post has an interesting little article about the myths that have grown up about three kings visiting the Christ child. Not only is there no mention of kings in the scriptures, there isn't even a head count.

The scene ingrained in the public imagination — a stately procession of three kings in turbans, crowns, elaborate capes and fancy slippers, with an entourage of servants and camels trailing behind — is a common image in books and films, but it isn't from Scripture.

In fact, there's no evidence in the Gospels that the Magi were kings, or even that there were three, much less that they sidled up to a manger on dromedaries exactly 12 days after Jesus's birth.

"Legends pop up when people begin to look closely at historical events," said Christopher Bellitto, assistant professor of history at New Jersey's Kean University. "They want to fill in the blanks."

Only the Gospel of Matthew mentions "wise men from the East" who follow a star to Bethlehem. In the original Greek, they were called magoi (in Latin, magi), from the same root that gives us the word magic. It's been posited that they were astrologers or members of a Persian priestly caste.

The myths sprang up and were fleshed out many years after the events actually mentioned in Matthew. The third century Christian writer Tertullian called them 'almost kings'. In the sixth century, they acquired names, Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior and Balthazar and they – whoever or however many of them there were – became important figures. (By the way, none of this is new information, I actually found a sermon plan online discussing these points and others.) It is interesting tracing the way these kinds of embellishments develop over time, though.

None of which changes the fact that We Three Kings is still one of best known and best-loved Christmas carols. It's one of my favorites.

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4 Responses to Magi Mythbusting

  1. old_dawg says:

    The sermon outline you referenced answers the major questions about why we think there may have been 3 kings/magi/astrologers, but the points in the “Lessons to be Learned” are more important than the story itself.

  2. Gaius says:

    Yeah, I know. It is interesting seeing how all those made-up details just kind of crept into the story, though.

  3. K T Cat says:

    Dromedaries? I heard they all carpooled in a Prius.

  4. Sam L. says:

    The best version I ever saw was on “A Claymation Christmas”–the camels sang it. “Carol Of The Bells” was done exceptionally well, too–with lots of humor as the bells played themselves: each had his own hammer.

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