The emperor Justinian is responsible for the famous mosaic of the Magi in Ravenna which illustrates this post. His reign dates from the sixth century. If you remember your history, he was from the area of present day Kosovo, and managed to reconquer some of the Empire that had been lost to the barbarians.
But what interests me more is his link with the East–with Asia Minor, Armenia and further East to Persia. That was the area where Manicheanism began and flowered, and it was also the center for most of the gnostic sects of the preceding centuries. It was the teachers in these gnostic sects that picked up the magi story from Matthew’s gospel and ran with it.
You can see why. The gnostics were enchanted by secret magical myths. They were delighted by myths of angels, astrology, esoteric knowledge and ancient mysteries. There was an ancient caste of shamans in Persia called the Magi, so the Manichees–also from the same geographical area–along with other writers from gnostic sects were entranced by the idea of the mystical magicans from Persia who followed their magic lore went to find baby Jesus.
However, St Matthew used the word “magi” in a generic way indicating any sort of court wise man, soothsayer or prophet. The gnostics connected it with the ancient caste of Persian magi–who were shamans, astrologers and masters of esoteric lore and the occult. The gnostic apocryphal writings of the third and fourth centuries went to town with the magi story and exaggerated it–adding all sorts of mystical, magical elements.
These stories would have influenced the church in Asia Minor and therefore Justinian would have believed that the magi were Persians named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. Thus the mosaic in Ravenna shows them in Persian with their names captioned below.
However, this is bogus history. As I have shown in my book Mystery of the Magi the earliest records say that the wise men came, not from Persia, but from Arabia.
Justin Martyr was writing at the beginning of the second century, and he said repeatedly that the magi came from Arabia. Furthermore, he was writing from Samaria–just North of Jerusalem–where the memory of the facts would have been much better remembered than Justinian’s sixth century Constantinople.
Not only does Justin Martyr’s witness from a more ancient date and a closer location, affirm that the magi came from Arabia, but he mentions it in passing as if it was a commonly accepted fact. In other words, he doesn’t argue his case because he doesn’t think he needs to. This would indicate that he is referencing an even older source or shared memory from the area of Samaria-Judea.
Another point I bring out in my book is that Matthew says the magi came “from the East”. If you are in Asia Minor, Greece or Rome “the East” would be Persia–present day Iran and Iraq. But if you are in Judea (from where St Matthew wrote) “the East” is Arabia. Furthermore, all through the Old Testament “the East” is Arabia and the nations of Persia are “the North”. That is because the invaders from Persia came West before turning South into Judea–therefore they came from the North.
So we can thank Justin Martyr for recording the truth–that the magi were real historical figures who came from Arabia–which in Jesus’ time would have been the Kingdom of the Nabateans with their capital at Petra.
Get the whole story in my book Mystery of the Magi. The book makes an excellent Christmas gift for a friend or family member who is dubious about the faith because it is purely a historical investigative study. It’s not a “Catholic” book per se. It’s available on my website and Amazon. At Amazon you can also get the e-book or audiobook version. If you purchase from my website I benefit a bit more and I’m happy to sign or inscribe the book if you put a note in the purchase software.