The Magi who recognized baby Jesus as lord, how many there were, and where they traveled from.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
—John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1857)
How many kings followed the star to the manger in Bethlehem?
Look up the original story in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Notwithstanding the famous Christmas carol by Mr. Hopkins, Jr (of Williamsport, PA), Jesus’s visitors from the east are Magi: technically, a title for Zoroastrian priests but Matthew’s usage follows the Greco-Roman notion that Magi were dream interpreting astrologer-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge (“magi” and “magic” are etymologically related). Matthew’s Magi weren’t commonly portrayed as kings until the thirteenth century, inspired by Psalm 72:10-11 which was interpreted as a foretelling of the Adoration of the Magi:
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
Even if we substitute “Magi” for “kings” there is still a “does-not-compute” aspect to the question: Matthew never specifies the number of Magi. The now-standard number, three, did not appear until the third century when the Church father Origen derived it from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The number has varied. While Origen was contemplating three Magi in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, away to the east in Syria someone composed a wonderfully strange story called The Revelation of the Magi. It exists in a single Syriac (closely related to Jesus’s Aramaic) manuscript in the Vatican Library and was not published in English until 2010. It recounts the story of the twelve Magi and their journey from a remote kingdom that seems to be China.
Notice all the place names that have come up so far! China, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Tarshish, Sheba… Pennsylvania! Globalism is inevitable where the Adoration of the Magi story is concerned. From the beginning, Matthew’s story about travelers following the trail of a mysterious star was all about including “foreigners” in the Christmas story. Matthew showed Gentiles—in other words non-Jews, people who worshipped so-called pagan gods—acknowledging Jesus as king and, presumably, savior. This is the idea behind Epiphany, one of the oldest Christian feasts. “Epiphany,” from the Greek word for “appearance” (and especially of gods and kings), recognizes Jesus’s first appearance to the world and is celebrated in western Christianity on January 6, the “twelfth day of Christmas.” (Alexandria, Origen’s city, may have been the first place to celebrate Epiphany—in the late second or early third century.)
The international dimension of the Adoration of the Magi comes through most vividly in art—indeed, from the beginning of Christian art. Consider this Adoration of the Magi from a fourth-century sarcophagus. It was created after the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, but the same scene appeared in the catacombs at least a century earlier. (This visual motif is the ultimate origin of the familiar image of the Madonna and Child.) The early Christian Adoration scenes depict the Magi as Persians, one of Rome’s standard “foreigner” stereotypes. This is apparent in the hats that flop down from a slight peak and, although it is not clear in the example here, trousers. Of course, the camels are another exotic element, but they come from Christian interpretation of Isaiah 60:6 as a foretelling of the Adoration (and again, a biblical text in international mode):
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
Where Matthew treats the quasi-Persian Magi almost heroically as intrepid travelers who worship Jesus and refuse to abet King Herod’s malicious schemes, it is also important to note that Persia was Rome’s continuous enemy for some seven hundred years. Early Christians in Rome would likely have viewed images of the reverent Persians bearing gifts to Jesus not just in terms of the Gospel story but also as a sign that the coming of Christ and the Church promised peace. As Pope Leo the Great wrote in a mid-fifth-century sermon for Epiphany: In the three Magi let all people worship the author of the universe: and let God be known not in Judea alone, but in all the world.
Let me conclude by considering another Adoration of the Magi, a painting by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna from around 1460. The three wise men, recognizable from their pink overgarments, approach a cave where Jesus is seated on Mary’s lap under a protective arch of putti (baby angels). From the sumptuous costumes alone, including turbans respectfully removed, Renaissance Italians would perceive that Jesus’s visitors are foreigners.
Perhaps most striking of all, however, is the third wise man, the one on both knees, whose dark brown skin and close-cropped black hair indicate he is from sub-Saharan Africa. He is the most richly dressed, with a gold tunic edged overall with jewels and an immense jeweled clasp at his throat fastening a white hooded cape. Behind the wise men follows a bustling train of servants in every shade of skin color, some leading two-humped Bactrian camels. The headgear on view is not European-Christian but recognizably Arab, Turkish, and even Chinese. This Florentine Adoration presents us with a decidedly multicultural Nativity.
The idea that one of the three Magi was Black appears in Europe in the thirteenth century, but did not become a feature of Adoration scenes until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A number of factors were in play, among them the tradition that the Magi represented the three known continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. A recent exhibition at the Getty Museum featured the Black Magus (the singular word) in Medieval and Renaissance European art, drawing attention to new studies of Blackness and race in European culture of the time. Among the findings are that blackness was associated with sin and heresy (illicit religious beliefs), that instances of the Black Magus in art coincided with the beginning of Europe’s trade in enslaved Africans, and that in the often extravagant pageantry of the time, Blacks represented not real characters but the foreign and exotic.
These are valid and important points. However, I would like to use Mantegna’s “Adoration” to qualify somewhat the Medievalist Cord Whittaker’s claim that, “The black king is little more than a one-off, an exception to the rule, a token.” Europeans at this time were certainly encountering Black Africans more often, many of whom were enslaved, but encounters were still rare. The average European of Mantegna’s time was sub-literate at best and as yet unexposed to racialized views of Blackness—the industrial-level slave trade that would soon motivate new racist views provided labor primarily in the New World, not Europe. I would like to suggest that, yes, Europeans, no less than all of us today, might see Mantegna’s Black Magus as exotic—and good and noble and, most important, human. Mantegna was, after all, participating in Renaissance humanism and its embrace of all that is human. And could not the Magi’s remarkably multiracial retinue have enlightened viewers to the rich range of humanity and even the possibility of peaceful co-existence? This is, after all, the message of Christmas.
Mary Joan Winn Leith has been teaching at Stonehill College since 1993. As a graduate student at Harvard University she participated in archaeological excavations in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Jordan.
At Stonehill she teaches courses on the Bible and the religion, history and culture of the Ancient Near East and Greece. In addition, she offers a popular course on the Virgin Mary.
A version of this post was first published in Bible History Daily in December, 2020
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 Brent Landau, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (New York: HarperOne, 2010). See Newsweek for popular account of the story.
 Sarah E. Bond and Nyasha Junior, “The Story of the Black King Among the Magi,” Hyperallergic Jan. 6, 2020
 Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art, an exhibition at the Getty Center Museum, November 19, 2019 to February 16, 2020.
 Cited in Sarah E. Bond and Nyasha Junior, “The Story of the Black King Among the Magi,” Hyperallergic Jan. 6, 2020
The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith Ever since I first discovered it in college, the “Cherry Tree Carol” has been one of my favorites. Its surprisingly risqué story line shines an unexpected light on the familiar Christmas Journey to Bethlehem from Luke 2:4–5: Joseph walking alongside the donkey and Mary, very pregnant, perched on its back. Creatively building on gospel narrative, the song fills in the gaps of the brief Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke.
The Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad by Mary Joan Winn Leith With another Christmas season upon us and Christmas carols in the air, I am struck anew at how much, within their respective traditions, the Virgin Mary and the prophet Muhammad have in common. I hasten to note that I am not suggesting that Mary and Muhammad are of equal importance in their traditions—just that there are some interesting commonalities; and, of course, both Islam and Christianity honor Mary as the virgin who miraculously conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but I want to pursue a different angle here.
Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke One of the most familiar images of the Christmas season is the nativity scene—the well-known depiction of Jesus’ birth—displayed in an array of public and private settings, including churches, parks, store windows and on fireplace mantles. The scene, first assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, is iconographic, meaning its various elements are intended primarily to depict theological—not historical, nor even literary—truths. It harmonizes two very distinct stories: Luke’s birth of Jesus in a stable, visited by shepherds, and attended by an angelic host and Matthew’s Magi, who are led by a star to the home of Jesus’ family sometime before Jesus’ second birthday.
Is the Earliest Image of the Virgin Mary in the Dura-Europos Church? In the oldest known Christian church, located at the site of Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, a wall painting depicts a woman leaning over a well. Who is she? Some believe this is the Biblical scene of the Samaritan woman who speaks with Jesus beside Jacob’s well (John 4:1–42). In “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Mary Joan Winn Leith discusses another possibility.
Where Was Jesus Born? When the Christmas season draws near each year, the Nativity story is revisited in churches and households around the world. Passages from Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2, the infancy narratives in the Gospels, are read and sung—and even acted out in Christmas pageants.
Where was Jesus born? In the Bible, the answer seems straightforward: Bethlehem. Both Matthew 2 and Luke 2 state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea.
However, Biblical scholarship has recently called the identification of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace into question: If Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, why is he called a Nazorean and a Galilean throughout the New Testament, and why is Bethlehem not mentioned as Jesus’ birthplace outside of the infancy narratives in the Gospels?
Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father? Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father? If not, who was Jesus’ biological father?
The annunciation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount that Jesus was conceived without the participation of a human male. Ancient views on the biology of conception—based on Aristotelian theory—differed from our modern understanding of genetics and biology. For Jesus to have been considered fully human by our modern standards—and not a semi-divine or special being—he would have needed complete human DNA. While Mary would have supplied the X chromosome, who supplied the essential Y chromosome? God? Joseph?
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