On the variations in the gospel accounts of the Nativity, see “Where Was Jesus Born?” BR 16:01, a debate between Steve Mason and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor.


For more on the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, see Dennis Groh, “The Arian Controversy: How It Divided Early Christianity,” BR 10:01.


An infancy gospel is an apocryphal (noncanonical) gospel that recounts stories about Jesus’ and Mary’s parents as well as about Jesus’ birth and childhood.


See Ronald Hock (article) and David Cartlidge (captions), “The Favored One,” BR 17:03.



The painting appears in the catacomb’s Capella Graeca. A short, general discussion of the art is found in Neil MacGregor, Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2000); and an older and finely detailed collection was done by Henri Leclercq, “Mages,” in the Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie 10.1 (1920), pp. 980–1070.


On the development of the feast of Epiphany (which means “appearance” or “manifestation”), and the relative place of the Nativity, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the arrival of the magi as celebrated on this day, see Thomas Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (New York: Pueblo, 1986), pp. 144–147, in which Talley shows that the development of January 6 as a celebration of the visit of the magi emerges when the date of the Feast of the Nativity is firmly established as December 25 (rather than January 6), and generally should be dated no earlier than the late fourth century. The Latin-speaking West shows this development earlier than the Greek or Syriac-speaking East, as shown by Augustine’s sermons and Prudentius’s hymn written for the feast of the Epiphany. See Augustine, Sermons 199, 200, 201, 202, 203 and 204; Prudentius, Hymn 12.

The determination of the 12 days between Jesus’ birth and the magi’s arrival in Bethlehem was most likely due to the reconciliation of the two different dates for Christmas in the first centuries (December 25 and January 6). Still, not everyone agreed, and different calculations remained. For instance, see Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 51.22.17, who not only argues that the magi took two years to arrive, but that they arrived on what he claimed to be the “very day of Epiphany”—the eighth day before the Ides of January, or 13 days after the increase of daylight (probably January 6 or 7, depending on which calendar he was using).


The unidentified author (Pseudo John Chrysostom) of the fifth- or sixth-century Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, Homily 2.2 (Patrologia Graeca 56:637–638) gives this number, probably on the basis of an apocryphal gospel attributed to Seth. This Syrian tradition had a parallel in parts of the Armenian Church. Also see the seventh- or eighth-century Chronicle of Zuqnin in which 12 magi are described as seeing different faces in the star, each a different age. Leo’s enumeration appears in Sermon 31.1, 36.1.


The eastern literature (Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian and Persian) contained the greatest variety in names. The first documented appearance of the names in the West seems to be in the Excerpta latin barbari, ed. Theodore Mommsen, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: AA 9, Chronica minora 1 (Berlin, 1892), p. 278 (cited by R. McNally, “The Three Holy Kings in Early Irish Writing,” in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. Patrick Granfield and Josef Jungmann, [Münster/Westfalen, 1970], vol. 2, p. 670, n. 14). A detailed study of the names of the magi is by Bruce Metzger, “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition,” Kyriakon, vol. 1, pp. 79–85. See also Hugo Kehrer, Die Heiligen Drei Könige in Literatur und Kunst, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1908–1909; reprint: Hildesheim, 1976), vol. 1., p. 68ff; and A. Bludau, “Namen der Namenlosen in den Evangelien,” Theologie und Glaube 21 (1928), p. 275ff.


Richard C. Trexler, The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press), pp. 44–52. In 1903 the cardinal of Cologne sent some of the relics back to Milan.


Protevangelium James 21.1–3, in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, ed. Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), p. 386.


Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 77.4, 78.1. Although it might seem a stretch to the modern reader, Justin identifies Herod with the king of Assyria.


Tertullian, On Idolatry 9. This reading is repeated in the sixth century in a sermon of Caesarius of Arles, who (in his Sermon on the Epiphany, 194) describes the journey of the magi as a spiritual pilgrimage of conversion. See also Tertullian, Adversus Marcion 3.13.


Their outfits are also the standard costume worn by the popular mystery gods Orpheus and Mithras in late antiquity. Concerning their dress, see Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p. 84. Here Mathews also makes this point about Orpheus. Mathews also cites Franz Cumont’s analysis of their dress as replicating that of captive barbarians. See Cumont, “L’adoration des Mages et l’art triumphal de Rome,” Memorie della Pontificia Accademia Roma di Archeologia 3 (1932–1933), pp. 81–105. On Orpheus’s role in Christian art, see Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); and M. Charles Murray, Rebirth and Afterlife: A Study of the Transmutation of Some Pagan Images in Early Christian Art (Oxford: BAR, 1981), pp. 37–63. On the comparison with Mithras, see Leroy A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology (Leiden: Brill, 1968).


Mathews (Clash, pp. 79–81) makes this point and argues against earlier analyses that the parallelism between the two sets of three orientally dressed characters was simply a case of mistaken identity. We also might recall that the three youths in the furnace were not alone. From a traditional Christian perspective, the fourth figure who appeared “like a God” (Daniel 3:25) was a precursor of Christ.


Origen, Contra Celsus 1.49–50. Also see Origen’s Homilies on Numbers 13.7, 15.4 on Balaam; as well as his commentary On Genesis 14.3 (in which he sees Abimelech, Ochozath and Philcol as prefiguring the magi).


On the story of Balaam as background to the Gospel Matthew, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 190–196. Also see Jerome’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 1.2.


Tertullian, for instance, in his treatise Adversus Marcion 3.13, reads Psalm 72 in this way, and understands the magi “as like kings” (fere reges). On their royal status, see also Caesarius of Arles.


Prudentius, for example, speaks of the magi as Persian. See Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.15; and John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 6.2.


See a discussion of this in The Image of the Black in Western Art, ed. Jean Vercoutter, Jean Leclant, Frank M. Snowden and Jehan Desanges (New York: Morrow, 1976), vols. 2 and 3.


Some art historians have claimed that the magi are supposed to look like defeated and tribute-bearing barbarians, offering their homage to an earthly ruler. See Cumont, “L’adoration des Mages et l’art triumphal de Rome,” pp. 81–105; and André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 44–45. This interpretation is often applied to the mosaics from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (c. 430) and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, where Jesus and Mary are seated on a throne. However, as Mathews argues in Clash of Gods, one may argue that the image of Jesus enthroned suggests the transcendence of imperial power rather than the ratification of it.


Irenaeus, Adversus omnes Haerses 3.9. In the fifth century, Leo the Great repeats this interpretation in Sermon 33, 34, 36 where he speaks of the One Person with a “three-fold function”: God, mortal human, and king. Compare Fulgentius of Ruspe (a North African writer, c. 467–533), Letter to Ferrandus 20.


Leo, Sermon 34.4 (my paraphrase). I have discovered that Otto Georg Von Simson made this same connection in Sacred Fortress: Byzantine Art and Statecraft in Ravenna (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1948; reprint Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), p. 89.