Ron Pappalardo
speaker and author of Reconciled by the Light

A memoir by Ron Pappalardo

Author's Blog

Who were the Three Kings in the Christmas story?

Posted on December 24, 2010 at 4:50 PM

While it’s difficult to say exactly who the “Three Kings” are, it is possible to shed some light on the matter. We can begin by discussing who they were not. First of all, it is almost certain that the “Three Kings”  weren’t kings at all.

The Bible has no reference to any kings visiting Jesus. We are familiar with the “Three Kings” reference because of artistic interpretations of the Nativity and because a favorite American Christmas carol begins with the words “We three Kings of Orient are…” This song is not very old in light of the long history of Christianity. It was written in the 19th century by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., an Episcopal priest who served as rector of the Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

What the Bible does mention is found in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It speaks about gift-bearing “wise men from the east” coming to visit Jesus. That’s it. There are no other clues as to their identity. The Bible doesn’t even mention how many there were. Historical records vary widely from as few as two to as many as twelve.

The strongest clue comes from early Christian writers who referred to these “wise men” as “Magi.”  We know a lot about Magi. Magi is plural for magus, the root from which the word magician developed.

Specifically, Magi are practitioners of an ancient religion called Zoroastrianism. They were purported to be knowledgeable and wise regarding spiritual matters. It was said that they could give prophetic messages and sometimes foretell the future, and that they could use the stars as signs to help them do this.

Some scholars believe they were astronomers, some believe they were astrologers. In my view, they were probably both. The Bible gives a strong clue that the wise men were Magi when it records them saying:

“Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

This sounds very much like something a magus would say, for they believed it was possible to discern the mysteries of God by studying the stars.

When we study the facts surrounding Zoroastrianism, the idea of Magi visiting Jesus sounds plausible.

Although there are perhaps less than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, they were in ancient times a great Middle Eastern religion, and the major faith of the Persian Empire until the advance of Islam uprooted them about 1200 years ago. Some scholars believe Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion, while others believe that Judaism holds that title.

In comparing Zoroastrianism to Judaism and Christianity, we find that Zoroastrianism contains ideas that became important tenets of the later theologies. For example, Zoroastrianism teaches that although the world is full of fighting between the forces of good and evil, the struggle is not a futile one; someday, with the help of a God who is all good, the good side will ultimately win, and evil will be vanquished. Also, the Zoroastrian religion contains the concept of a leader called the Saoshyant. The Saoshyant  is one who will "make existence brilliant". Literally, the term means "one who brings benefit." In common usage, this term refers to a future savior or Messiah-figure, who will spread divine truth and lead humanity in the final battle against the forces of evil.

            Taking all these things into account, it makes all the sense in the world that

Magi from the Zoroastrian faith would visit a baby that they believed might have Messianic characteristics. If Jesus was the awaited Saoshyant, they had every reason to be excited.

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