The Visit of the Magi, the wise men, or the three kings has become inexorably bonded to the Christmas story. What Nativity scene would be complete without Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar? But how much of the story we know is fact, and how much is tradition? And what’s the role of Joseph in all of this?
The word magi derives from the name of the Persian religious caste into which the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster was born. As part of their religious practice, these priests, or wise men, were advocates of astrology. The study of the stars was considered a science at the time. The idea that they were kings probably derives from prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Psalm 72:10 that speaks of the Messiah being worshipped by kings. As for their number, Scripture doesn’t tell us how many there were—all we know is that there were more than one. (The fact that they brought three gifts is one reason people assumed there were three of them.)
We don’t even know where they came from, other than “from the east” or literally “the rising of the sun.” Since Persia’s dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, it’s likely they were from Persia or modern-day Iran. Christian tradition says that Caspar was from Turkey, Melchior from Arabia, and Balthazar from modern-day Yemen or Ethiopia, but that’s just fanciful storytelling. The Scripture says they went back to their own “country”—singular.
Add their traditional names to the myth mix. We haven’t a clue what they were called, even if tradition has declared them saints. The names seem to have been derived from a Greek manuscript dating from the sixth century and another from the eighth.
What we do know is that they observed the rising of a star indicating a “king of the Jews” had been born, so they came to Jerusalem to pay homage. There is no indication that they were following a traveling star at this time. Instead, they quite practically went to the capital city, where they asked about the child. They were told he had been born in Bethlehem, but by then, the Holy Family had returned to Nazareth, so the moving star, aka miraculous GPS, was needed to find them.
We generally assume that the Magi arrived almost immediately after the birth of Jesus, but that might not be the case. It would have taken some time to assemble the supplies needed to trek from Persia, not to mention the travel time since Persia (Iran) is well over 1,300 miles from Israel on modern roads. Plus, it’s not as if these revered priests were leaping on donkeys and barreling across the barren lands. They would have travelled in a caravan, with guards for the treasures they were transporting, as well as many of the comforts they were accustomed to.
Several months of travel is likely, but many scholars believe that it might have taken as long as two years before the Magi arrived. This notion is supported by the fact that Herod ordered the murder of all baby boys under the age of two. If the Magi appeared immediately after the birth, only infants would have been targeted.
So where is Joseph in this? Presumably, he is quietly working his job, supporting Mary, watching Jesus grow up, and generally being a normal first-century Jewish man—which isn’t a bad thing to be at all.
“Devotion to Saint Joseph is one of the choicest graces that God can give to a soul, for it is tantamount to revealing the entire treasury of our Lord’s graces. When God wishes to raise a soul to greater heights, he unites it to Saint Joseph by giving it a strong love for the good saint.” –Saint Peter Julian Eymard
Saint Joseph, help me to appreciate the ordinary, the normal, and the daily as much as the extraordinary moments of my life. Amen.
Image credit: M.MIGLIORATO/CPP/CIRIC