The Three Kings & the Star - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Three Kings & the Star December 21, 2004
by Mark Rose

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(Forschungsarchiv für Antike Plastik) [LARGER IMAGE]

Matthew and John of Hildesheim

One of the most evocative tales in the Bible is that of the journey made by the wise men to Bethlehem. Today, the Three Kings and the Star are celebrated in Christmas carols, on greeting cards, and with front-yard light displays. But the popularity of the story is not new. From a just few lines in the book of Matthew, the story and veneration of the three grew over the centuries. And, in Cologne, Germany, there is a gilded shrine that, if you choose to believe, has held the remains of the wise men since the middle ages.

Matthew calls the three travelers "magi" and says that they came from the east, having seen a star. After their interview with Herod, "the star which they had seen in the east went before them till it came to rest over the place where the child was." Having located the infant Jesus and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they departed, returning home by another route so as to evade Herod. (Click here for the text from Matthew.) Beyond that, there is nothing. In Matthew, we aren't told their names, how many there were, or even if they were all men. They were not even kings.

The elaborate story that we know today can be found in the Historia Trium Regum, the History of the Three Kings, which is attributed to the fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim. In this compilation of the legend, we are told much more about the star: "When the day of the nativity was passed the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; and as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about." And we are told that the three wise men, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, are the kings of "Ind, Chaldea, and Persia." They only meet on the outskirts of Jerusalem having traveled from their own lands "in great haste" and without stopping. And so they reach Bethlehem and present their gifts. When the kings depart, they continue together until the reach the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind, where a watchtower was maintained (it was here that the Star was first sighted). There, before departing to their own countries, the three made "a fair chapel in worship of the Child they had sought. Also they agreed to meet together at the same place once in the year, and they ordained that the Hill of Vaws should be the place of their burial."

John of Hildesheim continues the story of the wise men: "after many years" a Star appears above the cities in which the kings dwell just before Christmas, indicating to them that their lives were nearing an end. "Then with one consent they built, at the Hill of Vaws, a fair and large tomb, and there the three Holy Kings...died and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people." If we were to assume that this actually happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, it might have been in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults already in Bethlehem). If so, the kings had little more than two centuries of rest in their tomb before beginning another journey. Their tour director would be Helena, the mother of Constantine and now St. Helena. After 323-324, when he defeated his last rival, Constantine began rebuilding the city of Byzantium. He rededicated it as Constantinople in the year 330. One of the new buildings was the church Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the first of three that would have that name. In the same period, Helena went to the Holy Land and collected various relics, including the true cross, and brought them home to Constantinople (see Cynewulf for an unusual retelling of this). The relics of the wise men were among her trophies: "Queen Helen...began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind...after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Casper, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople...and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia."

John of Hildesheim is rather brief about the wise men's later career. On Constantine's death, he says a persecution of Christians led to the relics being moved by the emperor Mauricius, who had them placed in a church in Milan. This may refer to the attempted pagan restoration under Julian (361-363), but Mauricius is a bit later (582-602). Much later, Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was at war in Italy and requested aid against Milan, which the Archbishop of Cologne Rainald von Dassel provided in the form of an army. The grateful Frederick rewarded him with the relics of the wise men in 1164. And to Cologne the relics were taken, and there--whoever the bones belong to--they remain today.

The Mummy Detective and the Magi

The Learning Channel's "Mummy Detective" series takes on the biblical wise men in an episode titled "The Three Kings" to be broadcast on December 23. It starts with some engaging hook lines from the show's host, Egyptologist Bob Brier, a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY, who presents the wise men as the "most mysterious characters in the Bible" and promises to track down what may be the "only relics of people who actually knew Jesus." At the end of an hour, will we agree that these "could just be the real deal"?

The program has the hallmarks of Bob Brier in pursuit of something--animated and sometimes quirky language ("Herod was not a happy camper") and a fast pace. The Three Kings subject provides opportunities to look for evidence in unusual places. A card store and Christmas light displays in front of houses provide examples of the traditions about the kings we know today. These scenes are instructive in showing what comes from the few biblical references to the wise men (or is appropriate for the time) and what was added later: camels on the cards okay; crowns not. Footage takes us from Bronx neighborhoods to the Persian capital of Persepolis to Bethlehem (where a local shepherd is asked what time of year he watches his flocks by night), to Cologne, Germany.

From Ravenna, Italy, we see the famous mid-sixth-century mosaic of the wise men from the Basilica of St. Apollinarius (they are also in a mosaic of the Byzantine empress Theodora, appearing as embroidered figures on the hem of her mantle, at Ravenna's San Vitale). The mosaic is used to establish the eastern origins of the wise men based on their clothing. Their hats and trousers are compared to reliefs from Persepolis showing what are identified as Parthians in pointy hats and trousers. Brier says this Parthian connection and the Greek word used to name them, magoi, identifies the wise men as members of the Zoroastrian religion from Persia (the footage showing a Zoroastrian temple in Iran today is very interesting). One could argue that the caps worn in the Ravenna mosaic are the same old, floppy Phrygian caps long known in classical art, or that the trousers are known from many steppe peoples, such as the Scythians. At any rate, we have the wise men coming from the east, as the Bible says, and as their costume (depicted centuries later) indicates.

So, what were they following? Brier quickly runs through the errors of the monk Dionysius, who was assigned the job of revising the calendar but left out five years by accident. The traditional date of Christmas, he says, is nothing more or less than the birth date of the Roman sun god Sol Invictus. This leaves us with a birth of Jesus in 6-5 B.C., at some unknown time of year. This is where the program digs into the astronomy, using an expert from Rutgers University. Their candidate for the Star of Bethlehem? The conjunction of the planets Venus, Saturn, Jupiter rising among the constellation Aries the ram in April of 6 B.C. It's an interesting proposal and uses the biblical text, an ancient coin stamped with a sheep and star, and computer simulations of the movements of the planets millennia ago. But viewers of titled "The Three Kings" should be aware that there are other explanations of the star that seem to fit the evidence, for example the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces that occurred three times in the year 7 B.C. (see astronomer Anthony Aveni's November/December 1998 ARCHAEOLOGY article on this). Both possibilities have pros and cons.

Meanwhile, Brier and "The Three Kings" move on to Cologne and its magnificent cathedral and the shrine with which supposedly contains the remains of the magi. We are shown a fourteenth-century fresco of St. Helena, but is this evidence that the relics are from Constantinople, or merely evidence that the painters were illustrating the well known story of her finding the relics? And, after all, there's no guarantee Helena got the right men since Matthew doesn't say there were three (or they were all men) to begin with. Fragments of textiles from within the shrine are dyed purple and consistent with Syrian weaving of the second through third centuries, so the cloth in which the relics are laid does not suggest this is just another example of the medieval faking of holy relics.

And what about the bones? Well, access was limited to say the least, but using a photograph of the shrine in which the backs of three gold-crowned skulls can be seen, Brier comes up with a neat bit of evidence. In the Ravenna mosaic, the three kings are shown as an older, middle-aged, and young man. At the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Brier's home base, they zoom in on the skulls and print out the image at poster size. Sure enough the sutures (which knit together the bones of the cranium) indicate that the three are younger (sutures open), middle (partly fused), older (fused and smoothed over). So the skulls in Cologne do match the sixth-century Ravenna mosaic. And the cloth in the shrine looks even older. But does this mean that the wise men--said in John of Hildesheim's account to have lived for "many years"--somehow kept their cranial sutures unchanged from the time they went to Bethlehem to the time they passed away? Hmm...

There is just enough evidence here to weave an engaging story, and Brier has done that (and added new evidence), but for many reasons I was not convinced at the end that the bones in Cologne are "the real deal." Ultimately, the basic facts, from the few lines in Matthew, give too little to go on. Relying on the later tale raises questions of circular arguments. Could the Cologne relics simply reflect the later story rather than being the originals? Perhaps they are three gentleman from Constantinople or somewhere in Palestine who were available for the role when Helena went on her search. Regardless of the answer, "The Three Kings" is entertaining and covers a lot of ground. It's worth having a look at.

Mark Rose is executive editor/online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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