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The 3 Wise Men by smartkulk(m): 2:36pm On Dec 10, 2007
The Christmas carol "We Three Kings" tells the story of the Wise Men from the East who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. But who were the Three Kings, otherwise known as the Magi or Wise Men, and were they really royal?

According to tradition dating back to medieval times, their names were Balthasar, Gaspar (or Casper), and Melchior. They are often depicted as representing the three races. The Bible says they came from the East, but exactly where is not known. Arabia, Babylon, and Persia are popular choices. According to one tradition, Balthasar was king of Arabia, Gaspar was king of India, and Melchior was king of Persia.

An 8th century saint, Bede the Venerable, described the kings this way: "The first was called Melchior; he was an old man, with white hair and long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was called Baltasar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man."

The Bible, however, does not describe the kings or reveal their names. In fact, it does not call them kings at all, but simply Magi, or Wise Men. The Magi were a Median priestly caste who rose to power in ancient Persia (today's Iran). Their religion, Zoroastrianism, was founded around the 6th century BC by a Median man named Zoroaster. The Magi were held in awe as highly educated scientists and scholars who could interpret dreams and even control demons.

The Magi of the Nativity were probably important men in their own country and may well have been of noble or royal birth, but there is no evidence to back this up. The idea that they were kings arose in the Middle Ages and was based on earlier Biblical prophecies about kings bearing gifts.

We can't even say for sure how many Magi visited Jesus. The Bible does not specify three. According to Eastern tradition, the number was 12. The Western tradition of three wise men probably arises from the three gifts they brought to Jesus.

Tradition has it that in later years the Wise Men were baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle; all three became bishops and spent the rest of their lives spreading Christianity, and at the end of their lives they each saw the Star of Bethlehem again and were reunited. One legend says that they were over 100 years old when they met to celebate Christmas, then died within a few days of each other.

Their purported remains were brought to Constantinople by St. Helena, mother of the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine the Great, and later moved to Milan. In the 12th century they fell into the hands of Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne, Germany. The archbishop built a cathedral for the relics in Cologne, where they remain to this day.

The carol "We Three Kings" was written in 1857 by an American minister, John Henry Hopkins Jr., for use in a Christmas pageant.

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