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Well, from where exactly in the Orient (which means simply "East") were they, anyway? Matthew's word Magi is a vague clue, since it can mean astronomers, wise men or magicians and was applied to people from all over. The gifts they bore--gold, frankincense and myrrh--hint at Arabia, since unrelated Bible stories describe camel trains of similar tribute emanating from Sheba and Midian, both on that peninsula. Their interest in stars suggests Babylon, famous for its astrologers. The happiest guess of all turned out to be the one made in the 4th century by the decorators of the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, whose golden entry mosaic featured the Magi dressed as Persians, also renowned stargazers. When actual Persians came marauding in 614, it was the only place of worship they didn't torch.
In any case, Matthew's wise men were a classic case of fish out of water. ("Like a meeting of Iranian ayatullahs in Nebraska," quips Theodore Jennings Jr. of the Chicago Theological Seminary.) This impression may have been no accident, since it expressed Matthew's growing frustration at the majority of fellow Jews who dismissed his messianic claims for Jesus and may have ostracized and persecuted some of his co-believers. Thus it was the Magi rather than Jews who followed the star to Jerusalem and innocently alerted Herod. In a dire foreshadowing of Christ's Passion, Matthew reports that rather than being helpful, the half-Jewish King and his Jewish "chief priests and scribes" conspired to kill the Christ Child. The Gospel has the Magi briefly co-opted into his scheme as advance scouts. But on finally locating Jesus, Matthew says, they "fell down and worshipped him." "They responded well, and the insiders didn't," says Fr. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Indeed, the Magi are sometimes used simply as a way of expressing Christianity's openness to the far-flung and the unlikely.
The Magi had a lively postbiblical career. As early as the 2nd century, they were promoted to kings, probably because frankincense is associated with royalty in one of the Psalms. Their number, which varied in different accounts from two to 12, eventually settled on three, most likely because of their three gifts. By the 700s they had achieved their current names--Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar--and multiculti composition. "The first is said to have been ... an old man with white hair and a long beard," reads a medieval Irish description. "The second ... beardless and ruddy-complexioned ... the third, black-skinned and heavily bearded." Scholars have suggested that the mix either was intended to underscore Christianity's world-wide ambitions or referred back to an earlier diverse threesome, Noah's sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.
The wise men seem to have kept busy well into their golden years, at least according to a calendar of saints at the great cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where their alleged remains are housed: "Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel," it reads, they met one last time in Armenia. "Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died. St. Melchior on Jan. 1, age 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6th, age 112; and St. Gaspar on Jan. 11, age 109."
"Away in a manger/ No crib for His bed/ The little Lord Jesus/ Laid down His sweet head"
--AWAY IN A MANGER