Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

The Manifestation, the Appearance, the Illustration, the Radiance.

It is not easy to perceive what relation this word can have to the three kings or magi, who came from the east under the guidance of a star. That brilliant star was evidently the cause of bestowing on the day of its appearance the denomination of the Epiphany.

It is asked whence came these three kings? What place had they appointed for their rendezvous? One of them, it is said, came from Africa; he did not, then, come from the East. It is said they were three magi, but the common people have always preferred the interpretation of three kings. The feast of the kings is everywhere celebrated, but that of the magi nowhere; people eat king’s-cake and not magi-cake, and exclaim “the king drinks”— not “the magi drink.”

Moreover, as they brought with them much gold, incense, and myrrh, they must necessarily have been persons of great wealth and consequence. The magi of that day were by no means very rich. It was not then as in the times of the false Smerdis.

Tertullian is the first who asserted that these three travellers were kings. St. Ambrose, and St. Cæsar of Arles, suppose them to be kings, and the following passages of Psalm lxxi. are quoted in proof of it: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall offer him gifts. The kings of Arabia and of Saba shall bring him presents.” Some have called these three kings Magalat, Galgalat, and Saraim, others Athos, Satos, and Paratoras. The Catholics knew them under the names of Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar. Bishop Osorio relates that it was a king of Cranganore, in the kingdom of Calicut, who undertook this journey with two magi, and that this king on his return to his own country built a chapel to the Holy Virgin.

It has been inquired how much gold they gave Joseph and Mary. Many commentators declare that they made them the richest presents; they built on the authority of the “Gospel of the Infancy,” which states that Joseph and Mary were robbed in Egypt by Titus and Dumachus, “but,” say they, “these men would never have robbed them if they had not had a great deal of money.” These two robbers were afterwards hanged; one was the good thief and the other the bad one. But the “Gospel of Nicodemus” gives them other names; it calls them Dimas and Gestas.

The same “Gospel of the Infancy” says that they were magi and not kings who came to Bethlehem; that they had in reality been guided by a star, but that the star having ceased to appear while they were in the stable, an angel made its appearance in the form of a star to act in its stead. This gospel asserts that the visit of the three magi had been predicted by Zerdusht, whom we call Zoroaster.

Suarez has investigated what became of the gold which the three kings or magi presented; he maintains that the amount must have been very large, and that three kings could never make a small or moderate present. He says that the whole sum was afterwards given to Judas, who, acting as steward, turned out a rogue and stole the whole amount.

All these puerilities can do no harm to the Feast of the Epiphany, which was first instituted by the Greek Church, as the term implies, and was afterwards celebrated by the Latin Church.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25