But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times - Micah 5:1-3 (according to the Masoretic text) -- ancient prophecy predicted in the Torah, which inspired the magi to search for the Star of Bethlehem.
These are charcoal portraits of the three wise men whose honor Catholics celebrate today, January sixth, as the Feast of the Epiphany. An ex boyfriend who is an artist sketched these pictures for my parents as their Christmas present years ago. My sister Nancy had them displayed in her Love Shack at Christmastime, quite beautifully I think.
The three magi as they are called were Zoroastrian priests from ancient Persia, which is now modern day Iran. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Indo-Iranian religion that you can learn all about on Wikipedia. These priests, who some people believe came from Syria, would have been skilled physicians/astrologers, almost like modern day shamans. They'd heal illnesses, cast fortunes, interpret dreams, etc. In their culture, astrology was a highly regarded profession because it pre-dated astronomy and math. In fact, Zoroastrian priests were like international rock stars when it came to fame via their astrological knowledge. Which makes sense then, that they followed the star of Bethlehem across the desert to find Jesus.
Astrologers today aren't in complete agreement about what was going on in the sky when Jesus was born, but there is a theory that seems pretty plausible and well-received. An astronomer recently wrote a book published by Rutgers University Press called The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. According to him, it was a Jupiter retrograde lunar eclipse conjunction in Aries thing. There's a fascinating explanation of his theory here.
The maji were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Here's a cool factoid from Wikipedia: Upon meeting Jesus, the Magi are described as handing over gifts and "falling down" in joyous praise. The use of the term "falling down" more properly means lying prostrate on the ground, which, together with the use of kneeling in Luke's birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practice. Previously both Jewish and Roman tradition had viewed kneeling and prostration as undignified (although for Persians it was a sign of great respect, often showed to the king), but inspired by these verses, kneeling and prostration were adopted in the early Church; while prostration is generally no longer featured, kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.
The Bible says the magi had originally paid a visit to King Herod to inquire about this sign of a Messiah for the Jews. Herod had feigned an interest in finding this Messiah, supposedly so he could pay respects to him, and asked the magi to come back and tell him where to find the new Messiah. All the while, Herod was secretly plotting to kill him. But the magi went home by another route to avoid the evil King Herod; and it is speculated that they also helped Jesus and his family escape to safety in Egypt, which was the place where the Bible says Jesus lived throughout his childhood.
Herod wouldn't have known about the star because neither Romans (nor Jews) were mad astrologers like the Zoroastrians and Greeks. Did you know Herod killed his own sons when he thought they threatened his power? That is some sick stuff. How did the magi know to avoid him like the plague on their return trip from Bethlehem? They had a dream warning them to stay away from the nutjob. Never doubt the power of dreams, there's some pretty powerful messages in them sometimes.
The gold, frankincense, and myrh were what, in the culture of the three maji, were gifts typically bestowed upon a new king. No one knows what became of these gifts. Joseph probably had to hawk them en route to Egypt while fleeing crazy Herod. As for the kings, their remains are supposedly in a church in Cologne, Germany. Originally, Marco Polo recorded having seen their tombs near Tehran in 1270s. He writes, "In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining." Then Saint Helena brought them to a church in Constantinople (Istanbul), and from there they got moved again to Milan, and finally to Cologne. Those poor guys certainly did their share of traveling, both in their lives and the afterlife.
Here are some beautiful paintings of the three magi. Enjoy.
Journey of the Magi (public domain art)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Baroleme Esteban Murrilo