During the winter holiday season in the Judeo-Christian West there is always mention of the three Magi who traveled to Bethlehem to give gifts to the Christ Child. These Magi are now depicted as three kings, but earlier versions of them show them as three Persians. Were the Three Magi Zoroastrians? How much Zoroastrianism is there in the story of these three pilgrims?
The first thing we must remember is that the story of the Three Magi is just that - a STORY. It is not history, and is not meant to relate an actual incident (of course, there is always the chance that it actually happened, but no one will ever be able to prove it). This is a sacred story, and every detail in it is meant to convey a symbolic spiritual meaning. The fact that this is a story and not history does not mean that everything in it is false. Stories are told using real data, and thus the tellers of the story of the Magi could draw on actual details of the cosmopolitan civilization they knew in the first century A.D.
The story is in the Gospel according to Matthew, 2:1-12, and goes as follows: "After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. "Where is the infant King of the Jews?" they asked. "We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage." .".. King Herod interviews the wise men, hoping to have them lead him to the newborn Jesus, whom he regards as a threat to his reign. The miraculous Star leads the wise men directly to the child. "The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh..."
The Greek word for "wise men" is magoi which is derived from the Persian word for priest; the Avestan origin is obscure, perhaps coming from maga translated by Dr. Ali Jafarey as "magnanimity, generosity, or great fellowship". As is stated in the "Jerome Biblical Commentary," by the time of Jesus the word magos in Greek no longer meant only Persian priest, but could mean astrologer or occultist - or charlatan. Here it is not used in a negative sense.
The story of the Magi in the New Testament, told by Jews who had become Christians, is spun from elements in the Old Testament, which are used to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, King not only of the Jews but of the whole world. As the "messianic" passages of the Old Testament were read, they "predicted" that the non-Jewish nations of the world would come to adore the Jewish messiah (or nation) and would bring international treasures. Some of the relevant passages that were alluded to in the Magi story are Isaiah 60:5-6: "...The riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of nations come to you; camels in throngs will cover you, and dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of the Lord." Another passage is in the Psalms, 72:10-11: "The kings of Tarshish and of the islands will pay him tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts; all kings will do him homage..." Other prophetic texts mention trade in incense and spices, such as Jeremiah 6:20 and Ezekiel 27:22.
Thus in Christian interpretations the Magi passage is usually cited as a symbol that the non-Jewish nations will eventually come to Christ and honor him. There is no identification of the Wise Men as Persian in the Gospel, and their gifts are not Persian in origin: frankincense and myrrh come from Arabia or Yemen. The gifts themselves have symbolism for Christians: frankincense is for Christ's divinity, gold is for his royalty, and myrrh is a symbol of his eventual Passion and death, since it was used to anoint corpses. The number of the Magi is never specified in the Gospel, though it was assumed they were three, since there are three gifts mentioned. In the Psalm 72 passage three kings appear, which was one origin of the "We Three Kings" concept.
Even though there was no specification of Persian origin for the Magi of the Gospel, in the early centuries of Christian story and art they were assumed to be Persian. In paintings and mosaics they were dressed in Persian garb; one example is in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Another example, cited by German writer Manfred Barthel, is the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, which was spared from destruction by Persian invaders in A.D. 614 because the church had a fresco of the Three Kings dressed in Persian dress. A sixth-century Syrian source, cited by Zoroastrian scholar Dariush Jahanian, names the Three Kings as "Hormizdah king of Persia, Yazdegerd King of Saba, and Perozadh King of Sheba," but those names are all Persian, not Sabaean or Arab.
It was in Europe that the current image of three international kings was created, to further dramatize the coming of the Nations to Christ. One King was made into a black African, another an Oriental or an Arab, and the other a European. Their names were no longer Persian, but Orientalizing: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. These are Hellenized versions of Semitic names, and already appear inscribed in the 6th-century San Vitale mosaics.
Given the telling and retelling of the story in the Christian Middle East and Europe, is there really anything Zoroastrian about the Three Magi?
There really were Magi, of course, in Jesus' time, and they had been Zoroastrian priests for hundreds of years. As the Zoroastrian faith, and the Persian empire, expanded westward into the territory of Media, the priests of the old religion, the Magi, adopted themselves into Zoroastrianism, though not without major social upheavals. The general scholarly opinion is that these priests of the old Indo-Iranian faith, which Zarathushtra preached against in the Gathas, re-adapted many practices of the old religion back into the faith - such as reverence for subordinate divinities, the haoma- sacrifice, and purity rituals. "The teachings of Zarathushtra were intermingled with the old religion, and the Magi's position was transformed into the priests of the new religion..." writes Dariush Jahanian. Many of the Magian practices were themselves adapted from Mesopotamian religion, such as purity laws and especially astrology. This is how the Magi came to be known in the West as astrologers. The word for "magic," as is well-known, comes from "magi." Thus the "magus" was known in the Hellenistic world as an astrologer and occultist, even if he were not Persian.
The Magi who were featured in the story may not have been completely Zoroastrian. They may have been practicing a syncretistic (mixed) tradition that included not only Zoroastrian and Mesopotamian elements but practices and beliefs from various pagan traditions. What, then, were they searching for? One idea held by many scholars is that they were searching for the Saoshyant or "Savior," who was an ideal king-figure hoped for by both Persians and Jews. Jahanian, in a short article about the Christmas Star (FEZANA Journal, Winter '94) tries to disprove this by stating that this concept is not messianic in the Gathas, but just describes very good people who are of benefit to society. But by the time of Jesus' birth, the Gathas were far from being the most influential text in the Zoroastrian world, and their meaning had long since been re- interpreted.
Later Persian legends state that the Magi had come from Ecbatan, a Western Iranian city; others, cited by Marco Polo in his 13th-century account of his travels, place their tombs at Saveh, southwest of Tehran, which was a center for Islamic Iranian astrology.
What about the Star that the Magi were following? The Christian story is intended to recall the "star of Jacob" mentioned in Numbers 24:17 : "A star from Jacob takes the leadership..." A star was symbolic of a god, or a deified king, in the ancient Middle East - stars appear on carved signature seals and wall-carvings. There are Zoroastrian legends about the Star of the Magi, that identify it as Tishtrya, or Sirius, the star whose rising heralds the coming of rain. Sirius first rises in late summer, just before dawn, and in winter nights around the solstice and Christmas it blazes in the sky in the early and middle evening. Tishtrya is a yazata or guardian spirit, now known as "Tir," whose festival, Tirgan, is celebrated in the summer with much splashing of water. But remember that this is Story, not History, so that the element of the Star of Bethlehem is not a real, identifiable star or celestial event. (That hasn't stopped generations of scholars from trying to find it.)
There are other factors in the Magi story which would be familiar to Zoroastrians, though it is doubtful that these were recognized by the Gospel-writers. The three kings, to a Zoroastrian, symbolize the Threefold Path of "Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds." Many other Zoroastrian symbols also follow this threefold symbolism, such as the three steps to the ancient Achaemenian fire-altar or the three windings of the kushti cincture. Christians, though, interpret the three kings as Trinitarian, one to adore each Person of the Trinity. The frankincense which the Jewish/Christian authors interpreted as honor to Christ's divinity is also part of Zoroastrian worship: known as loban, frankincense is sprinkled on the embers of the Sacred Fire as a fragrant homage to the bright symbol of Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrians are rather proud of their presence in Christian story, even if their Magi adore a Christian God-incarnation. Unlike Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians have almost always been tolerant of other religions (except for the evil-doing daeva-worshippers in the Gathas, and during the Sassanian Persian Empire). As Dr. Jahanian says in his article, "So, it appears, the Zoroastrians were the first to recognize the birth of Jesus Christ." This sacred story thus gathers together elements from three great monotheistic religious traditions.
Hannah M.G. Shapero