The Magi were Medes from the Median tribe of the Persian empire. They had tried to overthrow the Persians and establish the rule of Medes. When that failed, they became a tribe of priests like the Levites of Israel. They also served as teachers and advisors of the Persian Kings. Hence, they were men of holiness and wisdom.
Magi had expertise in all branches of knowledge. Along with other specializations, they were also astrologers, fortune tellers, and interpreters of dreams. The Bible does not specify how many wise men came. According to one tradition, they were twelve. The universal notion of three wise men has links to the three gifts the Magi gave to Infant Jesus. The legends gave them names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
Matthew does not specify the Magi as kings. Some Old Testament texts predicted the visit of kings with the same gifts that Magi brought (Ps 72:10, 15; Isa 60:6). That led to the interpretation that the Magi were kings. Another interpretation came from Palms 72:11. “All kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.” According to the 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” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Magi). East of Jerusalem can mean Arabia, Persia, or Mesopotamia. The traditional concept is that Magi came from Persia.
The Magi came to Jerusalem, the capital city of Jews, because they assumed that the King of the Jews might be born in that royal city. The star that guided them withdrew for a while, prompting them to inform the birth of the Messiah to King Herod, the priests, and the Jewish scholars. They signified the royal, priestly, and prophetic representatives of God. He thus communicated to them the incarnation of His Son as the eternal king, priest, and prophet. However, the narrow-minded leaders ignored the important message because it came through the Gentile kings.
GIFTS FROM MAGI
According to tradition, the Magi were of different ages. Melchior was an old man with gray hair and a long beard, who presented gold, acknowledging the kingship of the child. Gaspar (Caspar) was young and beardless who brought frankincense, honoring Jesus as God. Balthasar was middle-aged, dark-complexioned with a black beard carrying myrrh, portending Jesus’ sacrificial death.
The offerings represent the three-fold functions of Jesus. Frankincense is an aromatic used in holocaust offerings because animal sacrifices emit an unpleasant odor. It stood for Jesus, the new High Priest and the Lamb of God who sacrificed his life to replace all the earlier animal sacrifices. People used myrrh in perfuming ointments to anoint the representatives of God: prophets, priests, and king. So, it stood for the prophetic role of Jesus. Ancient people used myrrh to embalm the dead bodies. Thus, it also signified the death and burial of Jesus. The offering of gold, the king of metals, represented the kingship of Jesus, though his kingship differed from that of worldly kings. These three valuable gifts would have stood the Holy family in good stead at a tough time because of their unexpected stay in Bethlehem and later in Egypt as refugees.
THE MAGI STORY
A fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim in his writing Historia Trium Regum (The History of the Three Kings), gives the story of what happened to the Magi: The three wise men, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, were kings of “Ind, Chaldea, and Persia.” They traveled non-stop from their own lands, “in great haste.” When they departed Bethlehem after worshipping the Infant Jesus, they continued together until they reached the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind. It was here that the star first appeared to the Magi. There was a watchtower there. Before leaving for their own countries, the three kings agreed to meet at that place once a year. They also decided that their burial should be at the Hill of Vaws.
Years later, a star appeared above the cities in which the kings lived just before Christmas, signifying to them they were near death. They gathered at the Hill of Vaws and built a large tomb for them. When they died, the grieving local people buried them in the same tomb.
Queen Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, collected the bodies of the three kings and brought them into the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople in the Fourth century. At a later period, because of the persecution of Christians, Emperor Mauricius moved the relics to a church in Milan. In the 12th century, Roman Emperor Frederick I rewarded the relics to Archbishop of Cologne Rainald von Dassel for offering him military aid to win a war in Italy against Milan. So, the archbishop moved the relic to Cologne in 1164. (https://archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/threekings).
The Church in Cologne keeps the relics now above and behind the high altar of the Catholic Cathedral there. The church venerates Magi as saints. The tradition of exchanging gifts during the Christmas season has its origin from the three kings who gave gifts to Infant Jesus.
The painstaking travel of the Gentile kings manifests their faith in the newborn King of the Jews as their Messiah as well. The reluctance of the Jewish priests and scribes to accept the Messiah, even when God revealed that to them through the gentile kings, was because of their selfish interests. We have the choice to accept the Messiah like the wise men or ignore him like the Jewish elites of the time.