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Where Do We Get the Names of the Three Magi?

Q. Where do we get the traditional names of the three Magi (Wise Men)?

A. The Gospel of Matthew, which tells us about the Magi (Matthew 2:1–18), provides no names for them. In fact, even the number of Magi isn’t specified there. The presumption in Western tradition has typically been that the reference to three gifts (verse 11) implies three givers; but some Eastern traditions have insisted there were twelve.

Various traditions about their names have arisen. The common Western tradition has identified them as Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa), Melchior (also Melichior), and Balthazar (also Bathasar, Balthassar, Bithisaria). One popular legend has portrayed Caspar as a king of India, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Balthazar as a king of Arabia.

In the East, however, other names for the Magi appear. Many Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopians name them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badalilma.

The Western tradition of their names seems to have derived from a Greek manuscript most likely composed about the year 500 in Alexandria, Egypt, and translated into Latin. A second Greek document, from the eighth century, continues that tradition and adds other details. It is presumed to be of Irish origin and was also translated into Latin.

Matthew tells us nothing about the Magi after he reports that they returned to their own country (Matthew 2:12). But two independent traditions teach that their encounter with the Baby in Bethlehem led them eventually to become His followers, either on their own or in response to the later preaching of an apostle. These same traditions insist that the Magi were ultimately martyred for the Faith.

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