Magi, Three Kings, Three Wise Men…who were they?

Steven PutmanQandA

Question: Magi, Three Kings, Three Wise Men…who were they?
Answer: We sing songs, give gifts, and move three mysterious men into our manger scenes. There’s a rich heritage in the Catholic Church of celebrating the magi, but their origins are steeped in mystery. The original Greek calls these men magoi. The word is translated elsewhere in Scripture to mean “magician,” but a similar word was used in ancient history to describe an entirely different set of people altogether. In what is now modern-day Iran, the ruling empire had a wealthy priestly caste known as the Magi. At the time of Christ, the Magi formed one of the ruling councils of the Parthian Empire. These priests interpreted dreams and read the stars to anticipate major events that could affect the fortunes of the empire.
We’re not exactly sure where the magi of the Gospels traveled from. Matthew simply says “the east.” History tells us that the ancient regions of Persia, Assyria, and Babylon all had a magi priesthood at the time of Christ. Whichever region they hailed from, they likely traveled over one thousand miles over the course of several months to arrive at the Holy Family. Unfortunately for the classic song, there is no concrete evidence these men were themselves kings, though they did bear gifts “from afar” at the prompting of their astronomical calculations.