The true story of the Magi

This article is also available in: Italiano

The Magi have always been considered mysterious and fascinating figures in the history of Christianity, also thanks to some particularities that distinguish them. The only foreigners present at the birth of Jesus, wise astronomers and Zoroastrian faithful, these figures were able to make their way in the evangelical revelation, so much so that they became some of the main figures.

The Magi in the Gospel

The only canonical Christian source to mention the Magi is the Gospel of Matthew, in which they are described as wise men of the East, who have come as far as Palestinian to worship what they call “the king of the Jews“. They will be guided by a legendary star, which will take them from their distant lands to the famous manger that will accompany the first days of Jesus’ life. Here to pay homage they will donate: gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbols that are still considered “gifts” today.

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Before reaching Bethlehem, however, they stopped in Jerusalem, the place where they met Herod, the legendary Jewish king, to whom they told their mission, with the promise to make a promise to return to the capital to inform him about it. A premonitory dream, however, will push them to avoid this last step, leading Herod to carry out the famous “Massacre of the Innocents”, terrified by a sort of future “coup d’etat” ante litteram.

History or fiction?

Although considered by the Church to be a canonical episode, many over the centuries have wondered about the truthfulness of the facts, so much so that many doubts still remain today; the first, paradoxically, is linked above all to the figure of the lord of Jerusalem. In fact, it is almost absurd that he could not find the famous child when 3 richly decorated foreigners were heading towards him. Not only that, to guide them there would even be a star that, according to Matthew, would have stopped right on the manger, a sort of ante litteram luminous sign that very few would have found it difficult to observe.

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Magi in a Neapolitan nativity scene

For this and other reasons, the episode of the Magi was considered by most as a way of making the figure of Jesus “international”, showing, in a certain sense, what the future of Christianity will be. From this point of view, the names attributed to the 3 in the Oriental Churches are perfectly linked to the message, also giving cultural and geographical indications regarding their origins.

Zoroastrians in the Gospel

In fact, for the Western Churches they are known as Gaspar, Melchior and Baldassarre, while for the Syrian one they are: Larvandad, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph. The first derives from the union of Lar, a region located near Tehran, and vandad which in Middle Persian means “located in”. The second would be a variant of the Persian name Hormazd, a name given by Ahura Mazda, supreme deity of Zoroastrianism, to the angel on the first day of each month. Finally, the third was a particularly widespread name in Persia, meaning “from the energy / vitality of a horse“, an animal deeply linked to the culture of the Iranian peoples.

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John Tissot, Journey of the Magi (1894)

Even their appellation of “magi” leads us to assume that they were Persians, as these were the Zoroastrian priests, particularly linked to these lands and astrology. This last element perhaps gives us the definitive certainty of who they were, as knowledge at that time was within the reach of very few, especially of elements as much linked to the sacred as the stars. This is also perfectly linked to the alleged end of Matthew, showing from the beginning how wise men of other faiths prostrated themselves before the future “king of the Jews”, confirming the worldwide significance of his revelation.

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