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Who were the Three Kings? The Biblical message of the Feast of the Epiphany

An account of the arrival of the “wise men from the East” in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus is found only in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Matt. 2:1-12). A more careful reading of this text allows us to see that the Evangelist does not reveal their identity as kings. Unknown is also their number, or the exact place of their origin.


Matthew the Evangelist uses the Greek noun "magoi" to describe them, which means wise men or priests, proficient in the interpretation of dreams, in various secret doctrines, especially in astrology. Therefore, many translations do not use the title "kings from the East", but "wise men from the East" or "magi from the East". Only from the end of the 10th century, they began to be depicted as kings wearing crowns on their heads. The text of Matthew's Gospel does not strictly specify their number: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:1-2). Based on the number of gifts offered, it is assumed that there were three of them, although in the apocrypha and in ancient iconography we also find the number of six, seven or even twelve. The medieval author Bede the Venerable, in his commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, presents them as kings of the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe. The names Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar only appear in later apocrypha and in medieval iconography.


In the narrative of St. Matthew's Gospel, there is a reference to a star that shows the wise men from the East the way to Bethlehem: “We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). In ancient commentaries, the star is interpreted as a sign of Christ, the King of Glory, who is worshipped by pagan nations represented by the wise men. By using the symbolism of the star, Matthew the Evangelist, who wrote his work to Jesus' followers of Jewish origin, may have been referring to the prophecy of Balaam known to them from the Torah of Moses which identifies the star with the future Messiah. The prophecy is included in the Book of Numbers: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). It is very likely that St. Matthew portrayed the text in his Gospel about the arrival of the wise men from the East led by the light of a star (Matt. 2:1-12) as the fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy. A clear reference in the narrative of the first Gospel to the Old Testament texts is demonstrated by the answer concerning the place of birth of the Messiah given by the chief priests and scholars to the terrified King Herod: “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Mt 2,5-6). There is a clear reference to the text of the prophet Micah, who lived in the 8th century BC. (cf. Mic. 5:1)


The infancy narrative of Jesus (Matt. 1-2) in terms of literary genre can be classified as Midrash, in which the author used ideas, symbols, and images from the Old Testament to convey a message of salvation to his audience. Balaam was a pagan prophet from the Euphrates River, or, from the Jewish perspective, from the East. Centuries later, wise men from the East saw the rising star as a symbol of the birth of the King of the Jews. In other parts of the New Testament - in the Gospel According to Saint Luke - Jesus is referred to as “the Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78) and in Revelation, "the bright Morning Star" (Rev. 22:16). The rising star is a light shining in the darkness. This star heralds a new day, the advent of morning, liberation from the power of darkness. The star is a sign of hope for all those who live in the darkness and shadow of death. The star announces to every person that the true Light, which is Jesus Christ, has appeared. He himself strongly emphasizes his identity as "the light of the world" (John 8:12; 9:5). This truth is exposed in the messianic poem of the Four Nights found in Targum Neofiti 1 to Exodus. The text shows God's work of salvation in the history of the chosen people in the image of the four nights. During the first night described as the night of creation, the Word of the Lord (Memra Adonai) is presented as Light: “The first night: when the Lord was revealed over the world to create it. The world was without form and void, and darkness was spread over the face of the abyss, and the Word (Memra) of the Lord was the Light, and it shone. And He called it the First Night” (TgN Ex. 12:42). This text allows us to understand better the Prologue in the Gospel According to Saint John, in which the creative and saving Logos appears as Light: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:4-5,9). In this context, the most important message of the Feast of the Epiphany is that Jesus Christ is revealed as the shining Star whose light overcomes all darkness and evil. It is the salvific work of Jesus, Light that is not limited to the Jewish world but is for all the nations. Like the wise men of the East, we are invited to a grateful and joyful worship of the Lord who is able to illuminate all the dark corners of our existence: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:10-11). Their worship is combined with the offering of the gifts: “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh“ (Matt. 2:11). The gifts offered by them have a symbolic meaning. A certain intertextual connection can be seen with the prophet Isaiah's description of the bright and glorious Jerusalem, to which nations and kings are heading, bringing gifts and praising the Lord: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (Isa. 60:2-3,6). The gold offered to the infant Jesus may refer to his royal status. The frankincense used in the Jerusalem temple may symbolize His priestly rank, and the myrrh used to embalm dead bodies may have foreshadowed Jesus' redemptive death, which opened the gates of eternity. The gifts given to Jesus by the wise men from the East are an encouragement to each person to offer the King of human hearts everything that is most precious in life. Only such an attitude brings true peace and joy of heart.