Who were the Wise Men?

Understanding the mysterious figures of the Epiphany Feast
The Epiphany is celebrated Jan. 6
Special to Catholic Times

The Wise Men in the course of the tradition of the Church have taken on quite an embellishment of riches. Theologically, with Matthew’s reference to Psalm 72:10-11, the Wise Men were raised to the status of Kings:

“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.” 

None of the Church fathers considered these men to be kings from the East. The historical evidence for the Magi stems from Herodotus, who claimed them to be a priest-like group of the Medes. The Magi were attracted to astrology, a form of study which they believed was able to give signs, such as a sign of the birth of a new king. The Magi would have been attracted to the star and reached Bethlehem before 4 B.C., the known date of Herod the Great’s death in Jericho. 

According to Matthew’s account, the Magi brought the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, treasures for one who is king, priest, and prophet (one who will die). Because of these three gifts, the view has been reached that there were three Wise Men — whereas in fact tradition cited anywhere from two to as many as 12. After tradition settled on three Wise Men, naturally names were given to them. In a medieval calendar they were named Melichior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. According to Church tradition, St. Thomas went and found the Wise Men in India and baptized them to the faith.

But in Matthew’s description of Wise Men from the East, these men were likely Zoroastrians and were mostly likely from Persia or Mesopotamia, who gazed into the heavens for signs amongst the stars. Whether the Wise Men were Zoroastrians cannot be known entirely, but these men are understood to be keepers of religious and philosophical knowledge in the Mesopotamia area.  Pope Benedict explains that the Wise Men have a strong tradition in Hellenistic culture, as “they were regarded as ‘rulers of a distinctive religion,’… Greek philosophers have often been portrayed as their pupils … No doubt this view contains some not easily definable elements of truth: after all, Aristotle himself spoke of the philosophical work of the Magi.” 

Furthermore, as Pope Benedict illustrates in his work on the infancy narrative there is archaeological evidence for a star-gazing religious class found in Babylon. Pope Benedict explains that the Viennese astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo points toward the evidence of Earthenware tablets as definitive proof of such a people in Babylon during the period of Jesus’ birth. 

The question still lingers for biblical interpreters whether the Wise Men were added by Matthew as a literary device to move the narrative of Herod opposing the new king of the Jews. Pope Benedict XVI asserts the claim, which I agree, from Jean Danielou who has come to the conclusion that the account of the Wise Men found in Matthew deals with historic events which have been shaped by the theological prose of Matthew in its proper historic understanding. 

This article appeared in www.missiodeicatholic.org by Phillip Hadden, a founder of the website and parishioner of St. Alexius Parish in Beardstown. Reprinted with permission.