Epiphany: The three astronomers from Babylon | BR.de

The three kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar: The Christian legend describes the “wise men from the east” mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. Led by a star, they came to Bethlehem and were the first to pay homage to the baby Jesus. But who were they really?

Strictly speaking, they were not saints, for there has never been a process for their canonization. Nor were they kings – the Bible only speaks of wise men, magicians or astrologers. They only became kings through the ambiguous translation of the word “magician”. The word “king” meant far less in Jesus’ time than it is understood today. Even the names are fictitious: The evangelist Matthew, who is the only one in the New Testament to tell of this incident, mentions neither the number nor the names of the wise men from the Orient.

Frankincense, myrrh and gold

It was not until the 3rd century that scholars concluded that there should have been three from the number of their gifts – they brought frankincense, myrrh and gold. Variations by Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar appear as names in the Latin tradition from the 7th century onwards. With the Syrians they are called Larvandad, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph, with the Armenians Kagba and Badadilma. Under the impression of the Crusades, Caspar finally became a “Mohren”, a corrupted form of the North African Moors.

Star research in Mesopotamia

The episode from the Gospel of Matthew certainly has a historical core. The “magicians from the east” obviously refer to members of a Babylonian caste of priests who were already practicing astronomy at an amazingly high level at the time of Jesus. In 1925 archaeologists found a cuneiform tablet in Iraq with the astronomical events of 7 BC. Are calculated in advance. This is the likely year of birth of the historical Jesus. The tablet predicts the close coexistence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The so-called triple Jupiter-Saturn conjunction on May 27th, October 6th and December 1st in the year 7 BC. BC, which researchers now consider the biblical “Star of Bethlehem”, fits well into the story of Matthew.


On Epiphany, carol singers from Catholic parishes remember the three wise men from the Orient. Children and young people go from house to house disguised as the three kings with a star in hand and sing Epiphany songs. On the top bar of the front door they write a formula with blessed chalk: the year and “C + M + B”. This is an abbreviation that stands for the initials of the three kings and has often been interpreted as “Christ mansionem benedicat” since the middle of the 20th century: “Christ bless this house”.


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