Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"What were the names of the 3 Magi?"

Image source.

So at my job, at this week's training meeting, we did a fun little Christmas quiz. (We are ESL teachers- we don't just do normal meeting things at our meetings; no, instead we use all the same tricks we use in the classroom to keep the students interested and accommodate different learning styles. Hey, let's start the meeting by playing a vocabulary game! Now discuss this question in groups of 3. Okay now let's get up and walk around the room and you can draw a happy or sad face on these pieces of paper that have been stuck to the wall, to indicate whether you agree or disagree with the statements on them. Etc.)

Anyway, so we played a quiz game with questions about Christmas. And one question was, "What were the names of the 3 Magi who visited Jesus?"

Now, you may know that back in the day I was a bible quizzer, and I was one of the best ones. I knew all the answers. Anything about the bible, any bit of surprising trivia, I've heard them all before. And therefore, I know that of course, the answer is, this is a trick question because the bible does not say any names for the Magi, and it definitely doesn't say how many there were, even though everyone thinks there were 3.

(Also, what kind of animal did Mary ride when they were going to Bethlehem? Aha! It's a trick question! The bible doesn't say!)

(And did you know the book of Esther never says the word "God"? I know all the bible trivia, you guys. I was the smartest one in my Sunday school class. I know all the answers.)

But anyway, at this point, several of my colleagues (from the US and the Philippines) were like, "oh man, I should know this," "I can't believe I don't know this," "ah I really should know this," etc. Of course I said something along the lines of "in the bible it doesn't say any names..." but I was ignored as others racked their brains trying to come up with names- definitely giving the impression that yes, these IS an answer to this question. Which confused me.

This continues for a bit, with a few of my colleagues frustrated at themselves for not being able to remember a single name, and me just dumbfounded at the idea that there are actual names to know. (Plus another colleague who had no hope of getting the right answer but just started shouting biblical-sounding names. "Jeremiah! Ebenezer!")

Finally the answer was revealed: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.

At this point, I assumed that this was a Catholic thing, because Catholics have a lot of "traditions" which are stories not found in the bible, usually about saints or whatever. Those of my colleagues who really really thought they "should know this" must have been raised Catholic. Catholics seem to place more importance on history and tradition and the structure of the church, whereas Protestants/evangelicals claim to just use the bible and that's it. (This claim of "just the bible" is totally not true though. We evangelicals think we're just doing what the bible clearly says, but there's a load of assumptions there.)

(And here I'd like to point out that actually in different cultures, the Magi's supposed names are different. The answer given here is from Western Christianity.)

Image source.

I'm just totally shocked at the fact that I was always the smartest kid in Sunday school because I knew all the trivia like the fact that the bible never gives any names for the Magi, and now I'm finding out- FOR THE FIRST TIME- that some Christians actually have names for them.

I always thought I was the best Christian because I knew all the bible stuff like that.

It seems like evangelicals always think we're better than Catholics because we just use the bible but those Catholics use other stuff that's probably just made up. (And at this point I'd like to apologize for thinking that.)

But really, why? Why would those other traditions and stories automatically be worthless and not credible, while every word in the bible is rock-solid truth? Is the bible a series of true statements that fell from heaven, while everything else is just nonsense?

If some churches are teaching these extra-biblical traditions, then maybe there's something to them. We shouldn't just say "that's not in the bible, so it's just stupid" (which is an attitude I've encountered a lot in the land of American evangelical Christianity, and, yikes, I'm sorry I thought that way).

Where do you think the bible came from? People wrote it. In actual history. Someone sat down and wrote each part (or compiled it from oral sources or whatever). Do you think some kind of magical trance came over the writer as he (she?) wrote what was destined to become part of the Holy Scriptures? Was the bible created in a way that's so different from any other book that it might as well be from a different dimension?

As you may imagine, I really have no idea how actual Catholics view the stories like that, and the bible, and whether or not they're equally important. I have no idea what Catholics think the role of the bible should be. (So if you know, please tell me.)

I never was interested in finding out, because I knew it was the wrong answer, whatever it was. "Can't believe they call themselves Christians and teach all these ridiculous things that aren't even in the bible." As if nothing in the bible is ridiculous.

Image source.

I was the best one in my Sunday school class. I believed everything in the bible BECAUSE it was in the bible, and didn't question where it came from. Unlike those other (supposed) Christians who believed silly things. I thought I was so much better than them.


All right, if you have any experience with learning the names of the Magi/ other Christian traditions that aren't from the bible/ being Catholic, please tell me about it in the comments, because this is all new to me. Thanks, lovely readers. :)


  1. I love your description of the meetings. It's pretty similar to my experience as an ESL teacher, so this was a happy reminder of the job.
    My years away were in Poland (almost completely Catholic) and I heard about the names for the three wise men while there. It didn't even come across as Bible trivia - it seemed to be pretty common knowledge.

    I'm curious - in your experience, were the magi's names regarded with the same factual importance as other components of the story? Or was it more similar to other assumptions - like Mary riding a donkey? ( I'm not saying the names are incorrect assumptions, but asking if it was treated with similar importance to the assumptions. ) My experience left me the impression that there was the biblical account of Jesus' birth, and then also the "story" of Jesus' birth, and that the latter had a few extra details.

  2. Cool, thanks for commenting. So, from my experience in American evangelical Christianity, I would say that there was always a careful distinction made between what the bible says and the extra parts that that are found in the story as it's commonly presented. (At least, for the bible nerds like me. I think the average churchgoer wouldn't necessarily know what was in the bible and what wasn't.) For example, I've often heard people make little comments about how nativity scenes aren't really accurate because the shepherds were there the night that Jesus was born, but the wise men came when he was maybe 2 years old (inferring this from the passage in Matthew that says Herod calculated from the time the star appeared and gave the order to kill all boys who were under 2 years old). This was always pointed out with an attitude like, "oh it's fine to enjoy the nativity scenes, it makes more sense artistically to have them all together, but we must remember that's not REALLY how it happened."

    So I always thought that the stuff in the bible is true, and the other traditions were just speculation. If the bible doesn't say it, then it might as well just be made up. I never thought about where those other stories came from and how maybe they might actually be worth something. (And even if they're not historically literally true, they could still be valuable- that's how I view some parts of the bible.)

    You referred to the difference between the biblical account and the "story" of Jesus' birth, and I totally see what you mean. If someone's going to make a movie or play showing Jesus' birth, the story needs to be embellished- there's just not enough detail in the bible. So we have these other parts, like Mary riding the donkey, and the process of checking every inn in Bethlehem and being turned away until one kindly man offered his stable, etc, that aren't in the bible but they're part of the "story." I always thought those things were fun bits of speculation, but we shouldn't put too much stock in them because they're just made up by people. Unlike the bible, apparently.

  3. My family would put the three wise men in another part of the room and gradually move them closer to the nativity scene until they "arrived" on Jan. 6 (or we got bored and forgot about them until we were putting things away!). Also, baby Jesus wasn't actually put into place until Christmas. Because we must be precise about these things. :-p

    To answer the bit about the names of the magi (which I know as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar), I learned them at some point while I was growing up, but I have no idea when or where.

  4. Yeah I've heard of people doing that- not introducing the Magi or Jesus until the right day. I guess I never really thought about why. Haha, I always thought the Nativity scene looked too boring without all the characters, so we should get them all there together right from the start. But that totally misses the point about waiting for Jesus and waiting for our world to be redeemed.

  5. Ha - I'd completely forgot about those other speculative details, like Mary and Joseph going from inn to inn looking for a free room. They've been our assumptions for so long, I think we fill in the blanks in the scriptures without even realizing it.

    I like having names for the magi. It's a reminder that there's more to the story than we know. I've never read any other historical accounts from that time period, but I love the idea of finding details in other sources and connecting the dots. Even if it's still just speculation. :)

  6. That's interesting, thanks for commenting. :)

  7. PS the names of the three Magi are mentioned in the Armenian Gospel of the Childhood (an apocryphal gospel), but I read that the tradition was prior to the writing of that gospel.

  8. L. Elizabeth HewittMay 23, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    Sorry about the necromancy, but I've heard the role of "magi" and the pronouns used in Scripture don't even indicate the Three Wise Men were necessarily all male. From a literary perspective, it's pleasing: three men are told by the heavens that Jesus is born, three women are told by the angel the Jesus has risen, but the Bible isn't there for literary analysis.

    For an amusing-but-historically-accurate take on the selecting of the Bible, see: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/014838.html