The Three Magi—Fact or Fiction?
“C + M + B”
Do these letters mean anything to you? If you live within a Roman Catholic area of the Federal Republic of Germany, they might. There you will often see the letters along with the year chalked on doorposts. Why is that?
Popular legend has it that these letters are the initials in German of the so-called three Magi, or “wise men,” Gaspar (German, Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar.a Supposedly, the Magi’s bones were transferred to Cologne in the year 1164 and later deposited in the city’s cathedral, thus making Cologne the center of their devotion. Yearly, on January 6—known as the Feast of the Three Holy Kings—groups of youths dressed as ancient kings go from door to door chalking the letters onto doorposts. According to custom, this offers householders protection from misfortune.
Religious art and tradition imply that the three Magi, or “kings,” were led by a “star” to where Jesus was born. In view of the honor, even devotion, accorded these “kings,” the question arises as to whether this belief is based on the Scriptures.
Matthew is the only Gospel that refers to these visitors. (2:1-12) But does Matthew mention that there were three and that they were kings, and does he record their names? The Catholic newspaper Kirchenzeitung für das Bistum Aachen admits: “The Three Holy Kings are not referred to as such in the Bible. Starting in the sixth century, the wise men were understood to have been . . . three kings. . . . As to the number of astrologers, . . . Matthew gives no details. . . . In the ninth century they first appeared under the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.” Furthermore, the Catholic reference work Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche notes that the Greek word maʹgoi does not mean kings but, rather, “ones having secret knowledge of astrology.” Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian each understood the word to mean “astrologer.” Modern Bible translations also use “astrologers” at Matthew 2:1, 7.—The Living Bible; An American Translation.
Although Nativity scenes of Jesus as a baby invariably include the “three kings,” were they present at his birth? The lexicon adds: “Matthew 2:16 indicates that the visit took place perhaps one year or more after the birth of Jesus.” Indeed, Mt 2 verse 11 speaks of a “house,” not a stable, where they “saw the young child.”—King James Version.b
What about the term “Holy Kings”? Can the visitors properly be called holy? Scripture never describes them as such. They were, in fact, violators of divine principle. At Isaiah 47:13, 14, God condemns “worshipers [“astrologers,” according to the Septuagint] of the heavens, the lookers at the stars.” (Compare Deuteronomy 18:10.) These astrologers came “from eastern parts,” most likely the then center of occult worship, unholy Babylon, where they worshiped false gods. Thus, they were guided by what they thought was a moving “star,” which no one else is reported to have seen. Also, Matthew shows that the “star” led them first to King Herod, who then tried to have Jesus killed.—Matthew 2:1, 2.
No, God did not send a “star” to conduct them to Jesus. Is it not more likely that this “star” was sent by someone seeking to destroy Jesus before he was able to fulfill his God-given assignment?—Compare Genesis 3:15.
Jesus warned that the Word of God could be made “invalid” by mixing it with “tradition.” (Matthew 15:6) The traditions surrounding these persons are clearly unscriptural. Therefore, do you not agree that it would be wrong to venerate the astrologers or to regard them as holy?
a The clergy point also to the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless this house,” as an explanation.
b For further information regarding the arrival of the astrologers, see the December 15, 1979, issue of The Watchtower, page 30.