The Mystery of the Three Wise Men

On the night of January 5, Epiphany eve, the Three Wise Men sneak into our homes and leave their gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children. However, for those who have not been so good during the year, the Wise Men from the East will only leave them a lump of coal. We all know this tradition well, but beyond the custom, have you ever wondered who these mysterious characters that are so familiar to us really were? - 3 wise men

The figure of the Wise Men

The figure of the Wise Men and the strange circumstances of their presentation to the Baby Jesus raise many questions, including the very authenticity of their existence. The visit of the Wise Men represents one of the three ‘epiphanies’ or manifestations of Christ as God: the adoration of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and the wedding at Cana. Regarding the first epiphany, the scene of the adoration of the Wise Men has been transmitted to us only (in canonical literature) by the evangelist Matthew (Mt 2,1-12). However, Matthew’s account leaves many questions open, such as the number and names of these wise men, the exact date of their visit to Bethlehem, and their place of origin.

In Matthew’s Gospel they are called «wise men», a name that, around the first century B.C., was associated mainly with the Persian priests of Zoroaster, religious sages who were dedicated to the study and interpretation of astronomical phenomena. Therefore, one possible theory about the true identity of these wise men is that they were astronomers who lived in Persia and who had interpreted the appearance of the star as a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the imagination of the ancient world, the appearance of stars was a phenomenon that was usually associated with an important event that was to occur. - 3 wise men

Wise Men from the East

Another question is the meaning of the expression «Wise Men from the East», which does appear in the Gospel of Matthew. Traditionally, the wise men were thought to have come from Mesopotamia or Persia. However, for the Jews, this region was commonly known as «the country of the northern villages», since its inhabitants used to enter Palestinian territory by this route. Therefore, another possibility to locate the place of origin of the Wise Men from the East is Arabia, a region closer to Palestine and whose caravan routes came from the East; perhaps this is the place to which Matthew referred. Another interpretation, although less plausible, suggests that the Wise Men came from India, as is recorded in an apocryphal version, the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy.

The significance of these presences is another issue that has greatly aroused our interest. Why did the Wise Men give Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh, according to the Gospel of Matthew? Well, the main reason seems to derive from a purely economic issue, since they were highly valued products on the market at the time; in fact, of the three presents, the value of myrrh far exceeded that of the other two. Some interpretations have also given the gifts of the Wise Men a more transcendental significance: gold, a metal associated with kings, refers to the kingship of Jesus; incense, used mainly in religious ceremonies, implies his recognition as God; myrrh, which used to be used in mortuary rituals, symbolizes the human aspect of Jesus. - 3 wise menAnother issue that has not been without controversy over the centuries is the actual number of the Wise Men. The Gospel of Matthew does not specify it, but from very early on it was assumed that there were three, although some Eastern Churches wanted to introduce the number 12. It was not by chance that the number 3 was chosen, because, in addition to coinciding with the gifts detailed in the Gospel, Christianity gives a special significance to this number, associated with the Holy Trinity. With the passage of time, later literature eventually identified the three wise men with the three regions of the known world, Europe, Asia and Africa, and represented them differently: three races (Caucasian, Asian and black) and three ages (youth, maturity and old age). In this way, some also wanted to link the place of origin of the wise men with the three races that originated from Noah’s descendants: Shem (Asian), Ham (African) and Japheth (European).

As for the names of the Wise Men, these do not appear in the Gospel of Matthew either, but it is in the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy that we find the names that are now familiar to us: Melkon, Gaspar and Baltasar. - 3 wise men

A collective entity

The Three Wise Men have always been conceived as a collective entity. Their true origin remains a mystery, as does their mother tongue, although it was most likely Aramaic, Persian or Arabic. They were first represented as wise men, then as kings, replacing Phrygian hats with crowns. But beyond these details, it is possible that behind the Epiphany scene lies a symbolic and propagandistic charge of greater scope: the presentation of the Wise Men before Christ bearing his gifts denotes a ritual very similar to that imposed by the Romans on the defeated peoples, who had to render them vassalage. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to think that through the Adoration of the Wise Men an attempt was made to establish a link between the Christian world and pagan tradition.

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Carlos Sánchez Luis