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Who were the Magi?

How did the tradition of there being three Magi start up if Matthew 2 doesn't give a number of Magi? How did they get named? Baiscally I need some more information on how this Catholic tradition got started.

First, you’re correct – Scripture (specifically Matthew 2) does not say there were 3 Magi (wise men), it only lists 3 gifts. As with a lot of things, the modern understanding of ‘the 3 wise men’ comes from tradition (small “T”) over the centuries…since about the 8th century, that is.

As for "how many were there really? We don't know for sure. So, let's go with tradition...

Roll call

The names of the magi are commonly held to be Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

What did they look like?

Though, no one knows for sure…it was Venerable Bede (672-735) who filled in the details on the wise men believing, basically:

Melchior - was an older man, with a long white beard and white hair, who brought gold to the King.

Gaspar - was shown as younger, beardless and “ruddy” (reddish haired), who offered incense to Christ.

Balthazar - was depicted as a middle aged man of black complexion, with a heavy beard, who offered myrrh to Jesus.

What happened next?

Medieval legends state that their bones were put in the cathedral of Cologne, the “City of the Three Kings”, brought there in 1164.

Originally they were considered and depicted as astrologers but in about the Middle Ages, or so, the interpretation began to take on more of “kings”. Some traditions hold that St. Thomas the apostle visited them later on in life, catechized and initiated them fully into the Christian faith and that they later were ordained priests and bishops.

More than just Christmas gifts

Regardless of whether or not that actually happened, the gifts (Matthew 2:11) they presented to the Christ Child are of significance for several reasons…

Gold for the royalty of Jesus. Frankincense for the divinity of Jesus. Myrrh for the humanity (passion and death) of Jesus

And what does it mean to you today in the 21st Century?

Basically – they showed up, worshipped Jesus and brought their gifts. Do you do all three? If not, why not? And if so, keep it up. If the truth hurts…the truth will set you free.

Be God’s.


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