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Q. Who were the magi? Do we know anything about them after they visited Jesus?
A. Matthew’s gospel speaks of “wise men” from the East coming to worship the newborn king of the Jews, having been led by a star. When King Herod heard this, he became jealous and felt threatened by a king who might usurp his power. So, he summoned the Magi, ascertained the time that the star appeared and directed them to Bethlehem.
He deceitfully told the Magi that he wanted them to tell him the location of the newborn king, so that he could do him homage, but he really only wanted to kill him.
The Magi continued to follow the star and found the newborn king, Jesus and Mary his mother. They worshipped him and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Scholars believe each gift to have a prophetic meaning: gold, a gift given to a king; frankincense, the gift for a priest, used as a sign of prayers being lifted up to the Lord; and myrrh — a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
Beyond these details in Matthew’s gospel, much of what we know about the Magi is known extra-biblically, or outside the Bible. The Magi are believed by some scholars to be a part of a priestly caste from Persia, following the Zoroastrian religion. The word “magi” can mean “magician” or “astrologer,” which may indicate expertise in the interpretation of stars.
Sacred Scripture does not indicate the number of magi who pay homage to Jesus. Some early traditions posited that there were as many as 12 magi. The belief that there were three may stem from the fact that three gifts were offered. Based on tradition, the names of the Magi are believed to be Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
According to legend, the Magi were baptized by St. Thomas and were great evangelists of Christ. The Cathedral of Cologne, Germany contains what are believed to be the remains of Magi.
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