Several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Syrian scribes offered these names for the wise men who came to Bethlehem -- King Hormizdah of Persia, King Yazdegerd of Saba and King Perozadh of Shelba.
A late 5th century Alexandria chronicle called them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, which evolved into the familiar Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian commissioned a Ravenna mosaic in what is now called the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, showing three magi wearing what appears to be Persian clothing, and carrying gifts.
Over the centuries, these images shaped countless Nativity scenes, church pageants and carols, noted Father Dwight Longenecker, author of a new book, "Mystery of the Magi." He is an Oxford University graduate and former Anglican priest who, after converting to Roman Catholicism with his wife and children, now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.
This weekend, worshipers celebrating the Epiphany feast -- which closes the 12-day Christmas season -- will hear what the Gospel of St. Matthew says about all this. Comparing the simple biblical account with many colorful "Three Kings" stories, Longenecker explained, is rather like comparing the humble, pious, 3rd century St. Nicholas of Myra with the Santa Claus found in Hollywood flicks.
"I don't think we need to give up Nativity plays and singing 'We Three Kings of Orient Are.' But I do think we need to realize that these are elaborations on the historical story from Matthew's Gospel. They're delightful, but they are related to the facts of Jesus' birth in the same way the Broadway musical Camelot is related to scholars writing about the historical King Arthur," he said.
"Our culture has … stuck the magi in the same sentimental, magical Christmas bundle with Santa and a bunch of flying reindeer.