How Many Magi Visited Baby Jesus?

Within the story of the Star of Bethlehem, the identity of the persons who saw the Star that led them to Bethlehem is one of the key questions. We know almost nothing about them, we are sure that they were not kings. We have little idea of where they came from. Just who were the Magi? And what was their interest in the baby Jesus?

Neither Matthew’s Gospel, nor the Protoevangelium of James describes the Magi. We are not told who they were, where they came from (apart from a vague mention that the came from the east, which may even refer to the Star being in the east and not the Magi). We do not even know how many of them there were.

The fact that they are generally shown, in the western tradition, to have been three, is due to their three gifts for the baby Jesus. In fact, there is no other evidence that there were three of them. In the eastern tradition, there were twelve Magi. In ancient murals and paintings in churches there were sometimes four, or more. Similarly, the names of the Magi (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar) date from centuries later. The first use of their names was in the 5th century, but they did not become common usage until the 10th. For the early church the Magi represented the three races of man: the black-skinned peoples of Africa (in Spain, at least, the personification of Balthasar, but usually represented as Melchior); the Asiatic peoples (Balthasar); and Europeans (Gaspar).

We actually have no proof that the three Magi all came from the same place, although it makes sense for them to have travelled together as they (apparently) arrived together at Herod’s palace. It is usually tacitly believed that the Magi came from Babylon, although Arabia and Persia have been suggested as alternatives.



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