Epiphany: The Visit of the Magi
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Epiphany or divine manifestation is the commemoration of the visit of the Magi, popularly known as the Three Kings. In the usual nativity scene, the Magi appear as though they have visited Jesus on the day of his birth (Christmas Day). However, Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas.
Matthew 2:16, on the other hand, gives us a hint. It says, “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” (NKJV) This passages suggests that the Magi appeared by the time Jesus was between one and two years old.
The title Magi may have come from the same Indo-European root magnus, though some find it of Babylonian origin. Herodotus speaks of a tribe of Magi among the Medians. Among the Persians there was a priestly caste of Magi like the Chaldeans in Babylon. The prophet Daniel was head of such an order (Daniel 2:48). It is the same word as our “magician” and it sometimes carried that idea as in the case of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9; Acts 8:11). But the idea in the gospel of Matthew seems to be rather that of astrologers. Babylon was the home of astrology, but we only know that the men were from the east whether Arabia, Babylon, Persia, or elsewhere.
As early as 3rd century, the Magi were considered to be kings. This notion may have arose from an interpretation of Isaiah 60:3 and Revelation 21:24. The idea that they were three in number is due to the mention of three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh), but that is no proof at all. In about the 7th or 8th century, the names of three Magi appear in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper). According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.
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