One of the most evocative tales in the Bible is that of the journey made by the wise men to Bethlehem. Today, the Three Kings and the Star are celebrated in Christmas carols, on greeting cards, and with front-yard light displays. But the popularity of the story is not new. From a just few lines in the book of Matthew, the story and veneration of the three grew overthe centuries. And, in Cologne, Germany, there is a gilded shrine that, if you choose to believe, has held the remains of the wise men since the middle ages.
Matthew calls the three travelers "magi" and says that they came from the east, having seen a star. After their interview with Herod, "the star which they had seen in the east went before them till it came to rest over the place where thechild was." Having located the infant Jesus and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they departed, returning home by another route so as to evade Herod. (Click here for the text from Matthew.) Beyond that, there is nothing. In Matthew, we aren't told their names, how many there were, or even if they were all men. They were not even kings.
The elaborate story that we know todaycan be found in the Historia Trium Regum, the History of the Three Kings, which is attributed to the fourteenth-century cleric John of Hildesheim. In this compilation of the legend, we are told much more about the star: "When the day of the nativity was passed the Star ascended up into the firmament, and it had right many long streaks and beams, more burning and brighter than a brand of fire; andas an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, right so the streaks and beams of the Star stirred about." And we are told that the three wise men, named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, are the kings of "Ind, Chaldea, and Persia." They only meet on the outskirts of Jerusalem having traveled from their own lands "in great haste" and without stopping. And so they reach Bethlehem and presenttheir gifts. When the kings depart, they continue together until the reach the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind, where a watchtower was maintained (it was here that the Star was first sighted). There, before departing to their own countries, the three made "a fair chapel in worship of the Child they had sought. Also they agreed to meet together at the same place once in theyear, and they ordained that the Hill of Vaws should be the place of their burial."
John of Hildesheim continues the story of the wise men: "after many years" a Star appears above the cities in which the kings dwell just before Christmas, indicating to them that their lives were nearing an end. "Then with one consent they built, at the Hill of Vaws, a fair and large tomb, and there the three HolyKings...died and were buried in the same tomb by their sorrowing people." If we were to assume that this actually happened, that all three died at the same place at the same time, it might have been in the mid-first century (since the kings were adults already in Bethlehem). If so, the kings had little more than two centuries of rest in their tomb before beginning another journey. Their tourdirector would be Helena, the mother of Constantine and now St. Helena. After 323-324, when he defeated his last rival, Constantine began rebuilding the city of Byzantium. He rededicated it as Constantinople in the year 330. One of the new buildings was the church Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the first of three that would have that name. In the same period, Helena went to the Holy Land and collectedvarious relics, including the true cross, and brought them home to Constantinople (see Cynewulf for an unusual retelling of this). The relics of the wise men were among her trophies: "Queen Helen...began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind...after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar,...