Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, who are they?

After welcoming the New Year, there’s this one day that many of us who grew up in the Christian faith look forward to each passing year. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Christians of other Western traditions mark this day as the start of the Epiphany Season in the Christian year. In some countries, it is known as “Three Kings’ Day”. Amish Christians call it “Little Christmas” or “Old Christmas”.

It is one of the three major Christian celebrations along with Christmas and Easter, commemorating the arrival of the Magi or the three wise men to visit the young child Jesus after he had been born. It is always observed every 6th of January, ending the 12 days of Christmas.

The “magoi”

The many versions of the story of Jesus’ nativity as written in the Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) tell us various translations of the Greek word “magoi” who came to visit Jesus when he was born. For this reason, it is a good thing to know the languages that the Bible was originally written in. Google says the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and a few parts of it in Aramaic, while the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

The earliest surviving English translation from the Latin version dating back in the 10th Century AD according to the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), the West Saxon Gospels, which contained only the gospels, mentioned “tungolwitegan”, literally translated as planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers.

The John Wycliffe Bible, the first translation of the entire Bible from Latin to English in the 14th Century AD, mentioned “astrologers who came from the east”.

The Tyndale New Testament, the first translation into English from Greek in 1526 and which contained only the New Testament, mentioned “wise men from the east”.

The Coverdale Bible, the first complete Bible in modern English translated in 1535 (the New Testament translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Latin and German) also mentioned “wise men from the east”.

In the foregoing translations, it wasn’t mentioned how many wise men there were – just that three gifts were given and that they came from the east.

The Bible has been translated into many languages from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Today, Wycliffe Global Alliance (WGA) reports that the full Bible (containing both Old and New Testament) is now available in 704 different languages. The New Testament is available in another 1,551 languages, and selections and stories are available further in 1,160 other languages.

The New International Version, which was first translated in 1978 but underwent significant revisions in 1984 and 2011, mentioned “Magi from the east”.

So who are Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar?

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, as early as the third century, the Magi were considered to be kings. In about the 8th century, the names of three Magi: Melichior, Gathaspa, and Bithisarea appeared in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Melchior, Gaspar (or Casper), and Balthasar.

There may have been between two and twenty wise men, who knew? The Bible didn’t mention. Some reference materials say they were likely to have been Zoroastrian Priests. It wasn’t until about 500AD that three was accepted to be the standard number of wise men, the reason being simply because the Bible mentioned three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In a 2004 report by the general synod of the Church of England, they concluded that ‘magi’ gives no indication as to number, or gender, or even to the level of wisdom.

Despite the lack of Biblical detail, the Magi hasn’t stopped being counted, crowned, and christened the traditional names of the three kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. And according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.

Today, there are countless different ways Christians treat this day, as many as there are Christian denominations that are continuously emerging.

One Christian Church had said that these “wise men” could have possibly been astrologers from Persia who noticed the appearance of an unusual star and, following it, found Jesus and his family in Bethlehem. Note also that these non-Jews worshiped him. Doesn’t this fit into the prophecy that “all nations” will recognize that “God is Lord of all”?

In some cultures, this is the day when people exchange gifts, instead of doing it on Christmas.

Matthew 2:1-12 (New International Version)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:”

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Merriam del Rosario