The Wise Men in History and Tradition

Strictly speaking, the Gospel of Matthew does not identify the Wise Men from the East as rich and powerful kings, nor does it mention their names or even their number. Although some Eastern Christian traditions assert that there were twelve (or even thirteen), Western Christians have commonly assumed (from the number of gifts bestowed) that there must have been three.

Their now familiar names, Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, first appear in early fifth-century sources (as in the Excerpta Latina Barbari where they are named Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa) and their representation as kings was derived from Old Testament texts (notably Psalms 72:10-11 & Isaiah 60:1-6).

From the 6th century onwards they came to represent the three ages of man (youth, middle age and old age) and the races of mankind from the three regions of the known world (Europe, Africa and Asia).

According to the 12th-century Vita Eustorgi, the supposed remains of the bodies of the Three Kings were discovered in the early 4th century in the East by St. Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine I, and were transferred to the Church of St. Sofia in Constantinople. When St. Eustorgius became bishop of Milan he obtained permission from the emperor to take the remains of the Three Kings with him to that city. There they remained until 1164 when they were removed to Cologne after the city of Milan was looted by the army of Frederic Barbarossa. There they are now preserved and revered in the Cathedral of Cologne in a magnificent golden shrine on which several artisans (including Nicholas of Verdun) worked between the 1180’s and the 1220’s.

The Historia trium regum

The best-known and most detailed medieval account of the legendary travels of the Three Kings was the Historia trium regum, written around 1370 by the Carmelite scholar John of Hildesheim. The work enjoyed great popularity in the late medieval period and was also translated into German, Dutch, French, English and Danish.

According to the account of John of Hildesheim, the star was first sighted in the 42nd year of Octavian (Augustus) from the summit of mount Vaus in the East by a group of heathen astrologers, who, mindful of the Old Testament prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17), had for many generations watched the heavens for a sign of the Messiah.

After reports of the star, which had shone as bright as the Sun, had reached Melchior (king of Nubia and Arabia), Balthasar (king of Godolia and Saba) and Caspar (king of Tharsis and Egrisoulle), they each (and unknown to each other) set out on the same day with a magnificent following to Jerusalem. Guided by the star they each completed the journey in only 13 days and arrived at the same time near the outskirts of Jerusalem where they met and discovered that they could understand each other's languages. After their audience with King Herod, and instructed by his scribes, they continued their journey to Bethlehem, again guided by the star.

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