The Joyce Hill Column

January 2021

The Afterlife of the Magi

The ‘big story’ of the season of Epiphany, starting on 6 January, is the Coming of the Magi. Epiphany continues for several weeks, with the lections focussing on the manifestations of the divinity of Jesus — the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια  (epiphaneia), which gives us ‘Epiphany’, means just that: ‘manifestation’. So we have the veneration by the Magi, symbolising recognition by the world beyond Judaea of Christ’s kingship, priesthood, and death as represented by the gold, frankincense and myrrh; his recognition as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna in the Temple; the demonstration of his understanding of the Scriptures at the age of twelve, when he disputed with the scholars it the Temple; John the Baptist’s acclaim and God’s proclamation, together  with the descent of the Holy Spirit, at the baptism; and the first miracle when, at the wedding feast of Cana, Jesus turns water into wine, prefiguring the Eucharist. These were all subjects of preaching in Epiphany from the earliest centuries. But it is the Coming of the Magi which is tied to the feast-day itself.

As John Barton has said in his recent History of the Bible (thoroughly to be recommended if you enjoy a scholarly read), this is a story ‘for which it is hard to imagine any historical source’. But it has undoubted power as a symbolic narrative and it has always seized the imagination, so much so that stories have grown up around these intriguing figures. On the basis of the three gifts, the Western church has always assumed that there were three Magi, although other Christian traditions have different numbers: there are twelve, for instance, in the Syriac tradition. But whatever the tradition, it wasn’t long before they were given names. Later, in a further imaginative elaboration, they were represented in art in ways that distinguish them one from another, for example in age and ethnicity, in order to draw out the essential symbolic meaning: that this story’s purpose was to ‘manifest’ the divine and prophecy-fulfilling nature of the young child and to foreshadow his recognition by people of all ages and races. 

The names we are familiar with in the traditions of Western Christendom — Caspar Melchior and Balthazar — differ from those in in the east. It’s impossible say where they come from. We first find them in a Latin text of the sixth century, known as the Excerpta Latina Barbari, which is a translation of a Greek text probably composed in Alexandria round about 500 AD. However, there’s no indication here that the names were a new creation at that point, so the tradition doubtless goes back quite a bit farther. It’s generally thought that the name Caspar may be traceable to Gondophares (subsequently reduced to Gaspar/Caspar), who appears as a king of India in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, which seems to have been written before the middle of the third century. There aren’t any comparable candidates for the names of Melchior and Balthazar, but not surprisingly, in view of  their exotic associations in Matthew’s narrative, later legends have them coming from distant lands: Melchior from Persia and Balthazar from Babylonia or Arabia. It was soon assumed that, because of their encounter with the Christ-child, they were converted and were martyred for their beliefs. Constantinople (founded in 330) claimed to have their relics, but these moved to Milan later in the fourth century and to Cologne in the twelfth, where the present gold shrine of the Three Kings dates from c. 1200.

Joyce Hill