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At Matthew 2:16 (RSVCE), we read about the visit of the Wise Men to Infant Jesus, and the massacre of children by Herod :

" Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men."

That implies that Child Jesus was nearly two years of age when the Wise Men reached Him. Surely, they should have come from a far away place.

The book " Travel in the Mogul Empire AD 1656- 1668" by Francois Bernier , with English translation published in 1891 ( available online on Rarebooks online State Central Library, Kerala ), cites the presence of settlement of Jews in Kashmir, India in ancient times. Of course, other parts of the world could also have had Jewish settlements at the time of Jesus' birth.

My question, therefore, is: were the Wise Men from the East, in fact, Jews who had settled in a far away place, say India? What do the teachings of Catholic Church say about such a prospect ?

  • Well, the Bible doesn't really tell us, so there are a number of theories. Most theories make them out to be Zoroastrians from Persia. Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a new book out this year in which he argues they were Arabians. I haven't read it (yet) but I think it's worth checking out his evidence if you really want an answer. – workerjoe Jan 8 '18 at 18:45
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Given the accompanying texts to the Gospel that are read in the Epiphany of the Lord (based on the Roman Calendar), these magi might have well been non-Jews.

For example, the first lecture, in the link above, taken from Isaiah, states:

Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

The genealogy of the Bible states that Midian, Ephah, and Sheba are, strictly speaking, not Jews (mainly descendants of Jacob).

Similarly, the Psalm reads:

The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and S[h]eba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.

So, given this context, there seem to be a suggestion that these magi were indeed non-Jews. Surely, these could have been Jews settled elsewhere, but the context of the quotes is that of non-Jews expressing homage to the Lord.

Another interesting answer comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia (not official doctrine but official in the sense that it has the Imprimatur). The entry on the magi states:

The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were occasions of their finding Christ.

It also refers to non-biblical evidence:

Herodotus (I, ci) is our authority for supposing that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes.

The Medes were non-Jews.

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Were the Wise Men from the East in fact, Jews settled in a far away place?

Maybe, but probably not. Historical data on this subject is hard to find. In fact we do not even know how many Magi were present at the Epiphany.

Subsequent traditions embellished the narrative. As early as the 3rd century they were considered to be kings, probably interpreted as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 72:11 (“May all kings fall down before him”). In about the 8th century the names of three Magi — Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa — appear in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar (or Casper). 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.

The three are often venerated as saints and martyrs, and their supposed relics were transferred from Constantinople (modern Istanbul), possibly in the late 5th century, to Milan and thence to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. Devotion to the Magi was especially fervent in the Middle Ages, and they are some of the patron saints of travelers. - Magi (ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA)

Dom Gueranger in his Liturgical Year mentions the fact that the number of Magi are unknown to us, but the traditional number is three. The Syrian tradition also holds this to be of the number of 12.

The story of the Three Wise Men is one of the most familiar and beloved parts of the Christmas story. But for all of their popularity, the mysterious travelers from the East -- known as the Magi -- appear in only one short passage in the New Testament, following a star to the site of Jesus' birth and bringing gifts of gold, francincense and myrrh.

Now, a first-ever English translation and detailed analysis of a little-known eighth-century text uncovers a far more substantial version of the wise men story.

Brent Landau, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert in ancient biblical languages, found references to a text about the wise men in writings from the Middle Ages and learned that a collector in the 18th century had discovered in a Turkish monastery a manuscript called "the Revelation of the Magi" with a narrative about the wise men. He gave it to the Vatican Library, where the document, written on vellum, a type of parchment made of animal skin, remains archived away in virtual obscurity.

Among the book's other revelations:

•The text names 12 Magi, not three, while other parts of the text suggest that "a group the size of a small army" traveled to Bethlehem. - The Story of the 12 Wise Men

Another source has this to say:

St. Matthew doesn't say how many of them there were; Eastern traditions put their number at twelve and artistic renderings depicts anywhere from two to eight. And although he didn't write about the Wise Men, St. John the Evangelist knew the story and passed it down, according to St. Irenaus, his disciple.

Some five centuries before the Birth of Christ, the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned that the Magi were a priestly order of rulers whose influence held sway during the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian (Chaldean) and Persian Empires.

It was during the time of the Parthian Empire that the Wise Men familiar to us embarked on their famous sojourn. The historian Strabo tells us that these monarchs formed one of the ruling councils of the empire of the Parthians.

It was during the time of the Parthian Empire that the Wise Men familiar to us embarked on their famous sojourn. The historian Strabo tells us that these monarchs formed one of the ruling councils of the empire of the Parthians.

Their notable visit was prophesied in the Bible: “Kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; Kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore Him, all nations shall serve Him.” (Psalm 71:10-11) “1Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. 2 For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. 3 And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. [4] Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. [5] Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee. [6] The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.” (Isaias 60:1-6).

Many Jews lived in Babylon and within the Parthian Empire, as they had chosen to not return to Palestine during the time of King Cyrus of Persia. Some experts say that this is where non-Jews would have encountered the Old Testament, which foretold the coming of the Messiah.

A century after this earliest depiction known of the Magi was carved into the side of a Roman Christian sarcophagus, Pope St. Leo the Great wrote that the Magi through some extraordinary revelation knew that the Star they followed heralded the birth of a divine King. None of the Church Fathers say that they were kings, though Tertullian describes them as ‘well nigh’ kings.

Many stories were handed down through tradition and the writings of saints and historians as well as private revelation. They were said to have been baptized into the Faith by St. Thomas the Apostle in India after Our Lord's Ascension. Some have them dying of very old age while others say they suffered martyrdom. - The Story of the Magi

If we do not actually know their number or even how they died, how can the Church absolutely know that they were of Jewish descent. Tradition is in favor of them being of pagan descent.

In the visions of Blessed Catherine Emmerich, this early 19th century German mystic gives their names as Theokeno, Mensor and Seir.

She explains that each of the Kings had in his train as companions four nobles of his own race which would help explain the Eastern tradition of twelve Kings. She also gives the origins of their names: “The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar were given to the kings, because they so well suited them, for Caspar means ‘He is won by love; Melchior, ‘He is so coaxing, so insinuating, he uses so much address, he approaches one so gently’; Balthasar, ‘With his whole will, he accomplishes the will of God.’ - The Story of the Magi

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It is certainly possible that he wise men of East were Jews settled in other nations; we may also consider that they were possibly men from the governments of the empires where the Children of Israel lived during the captivity.

Remember that in Luke 19:44, Jesus condemns the ancient city of Jerusalem because her people "knew not the time of (her) visitation. Contrast this against the wise men from the east who were closely following the scriptures that were given to them in the time of Daniel (Dan 9:24) speaking about the timeline to "anoint the most Holy", thus it was foreigners who know of the time of the visitation of Christ since they were the ones reading the scriptures and expecting the Jewish Messiah.

With this in mind, one can consider that it could also have been the wise men of Babylon (Iraq) and the wise men of Medo-Persia (Iran) who were both counting the days and the weeks and the years of the prophecies delivered to Daniel by the Arch-angel Gabriel. Their calculations being confirmed by a sign in the heavens: The Star of Bethlehem, and they traveled east to see the child wonder (as had the Queen of the South traveled north in the time of Solomon).

On a side bar... Having mentioned the Queen of Sheba, it is also noteworthy that Phillip's roadside encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch is a very revealing incident in that if bears testimony that in the time of Christ, the Ethiopian King's Court had strong adherents to the Hebrew Faith. This we can trace back to the Queen's original visit to Solomon's Court - and demonstrates how what one does for God today can play out centuries into the future.

Just like Christ validated the Queen of the South and said that she would rise in judgement against that generation, likewise it can be reasoned that the encounter between the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch were the work of the Holy Spirit to send news back to Ethiopia, news that there was a new King in Jerusalem, a king wiser than Solomon. Thus Ethiopia was likely one of the first countries to hear the Gospel. With one caveat, it is possible that the Kings of the East beat Ethiopia to the punch and that their respective countries first heard the Good News of the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, long before any other country.

  • The first query of the Wise Men to the people of Jerusalem i.e. " Where is he who has been born king of the Jews...? " (Matt 2: 2) still keeps me wondering who but a Jew could have had a stake in the birth of King of Jews . – Kadalikatt Joseph Sibichan Jan 11 '18 at 11:00

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