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English Legends of the Three Kings

Alison Barnes explains our special fondness for the Christmas legend.

Detail of the Three Kings from The Adoration of the Magi tapestry (Manchester Metropolitan University)





Although the account in Matthew's Gospel of the 'wise men from the East' who were guided to the infant Jesus by the Star of Bethlehem (2:1-12) is so tantalizingly short and vague, it is a magical story whose unfathomable mystery has captured the imagination of Christians and others from the earliest times to the present day. And no country in the world possesses more legends about the Magi than England.

In these legends the Wise Men are almost always referred to as the Three Kings, an appellation derived not from Matthew but from two Roman authors, Tertullian (c. 160-230) and Origen (c.185-254). The former was the first person to call the Magi kings in his Adversus Judaeos, probably because of the prophecy in Psalm 72, verses 10-11, that kings would come to worship Jesus bearing gifts, and because of the costliness of the gold, frankincense and myrrh offered. The latter was the first to state that there were three kings in his Genesim Homiliae.

The names of the Three Kings, Caspar (often changed to Jasper in English legends), Balthasar and Melchior, are not found until the early sixth century, when they appear in a lost Greek manuscript which was included in the seventh-century Excerpta Latina Barbari in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

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