Wise Men; Three Kings; the Magi – take your pick on what to call these biblical figures. But who exactly were they, how many were there and what do we know about them?
If you've ever starred in a school nativity play, the chances are you’ve come across the Wise Men in one form or another. You might remember them traipsing across the stage wearing luxurious robes and glistening gold crowns, bearing gifts of various shapes and sizes to present to baby Jesus.
But how closely does this image match the original source? And how much has been added over the years?
We find the Wise Men in the Bible in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which provides an account of the life of Jesus from Matthew, someone traditionally perceived to be his close friend and follower.
So, what does Matthew's account reveal?
Admittedly, Matthew doesn’t offer a documentary-style depiction of these figures, which is why so many throughout history have been keen to find out more about them. These are just a couple of questions that keep cropping up:
Let’s investigate some of the leading theories ...
If you’re a fan of Christmas carol services, you might be familiar with the popular carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’. So that means the Wise Men were a trio, right? Sadly, it’s not that simple ...
But where does this number come from? How many Wise Men were there according to the Bible? And was there a fourth Wise Man – or could there have been, at least?
Matthew’s account simply states, ‘some men’; we don’t get an exact number. As a result, different cultures and belief systems have reached their own conclusions on the potential number of Wise Men.
For example, Western tradition teaches that there were three Magi, typically linked to the fact that the Bible states that they brought three gifts, whereas Eastern tradition sets the number of Magi at 12.
It’s widely accepted that the exact number of Magi is unknown; tradition, culture and art have contributed to the possible numbers we have today.
Lots of questions remain about the identity of this small group of intellectuals – were they royals, astrologers, astronomers or something else entirely?
Can Matthew’s account provide any clarity? Let's dig a little deeper.
Halfway through chapter 2 of his book, Matthew states that the Wise Men presented Jesus with an expensive trio of gifts, which suggests a certain level of wealth and status. This might be one factor to support the theory that they were kings – along with the prophecy found in Psalm 72.11. However, it’s important to note that Matthew never describes this group as royalty.
If we turn to certain Bible translations, we’re given another potential clue to their identity, thanks to the word, ‘Magi’. Translated from the Greek, this term can mean conjurer or sorcerer – hinting that something supernatural might be going on here (more on that a little later ...)
But the term ‘Magi’ also refers to a subclass of Persian priests – a highly respected group of individuals, who often played a part in selecting a new king for the empire.
Lots of questions remain around the cultural and ethnic identity of the Three Wise Men.
Matthew’s account simply states that these men were from ‘the east’ but doesn’t say where they might have travelled from. Here are some of the leading theories ...
Some scholars suggest that these figures may have travelled from Arabia as their gifts would have been accessible and highly valued in this part of the world.
Other experts focus on the Wise Men’s knowledge of the night sky, suggesting that the Magi were from Babylon: the birthplace of astrology.
Another popular train of thought suggests that the Wise Men were Persian, in line with the use of the word ‘Magi’. This theory is supported by the entry mosaic found in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which depicts the Magi dressed in Persian clothing – in artwork dating back to the fourth century.
Around the eighth century, a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari attributes three names to the Magi. Following this, some church traditions taught that the Wise Men gathered from different areas: Balthasar was a king of Arabia or Ethiopia, Melchior was a king of Persia, and Gaspar was a king of India.
Ever had to put up with the commute home on Christmas Eve? That’s nothing compared to the Magi’s journey. But how long did it take for the Wise Men to get to Jesus?
Questions remain around the exact time of year that Jesus was born – and when he was visited by the Wise Men, too. However, scholars typically agree that Jesus wouldn’t have been a newborn when they arrived. Estimations place their visit any time between 40 days and two years after his birth.
This is due to a key detail found in Matthew’s account. Threatened by the prospect of new king, King Herod – the region’s ruler, appointed by Rome – ‘found out from them the exact time the star had appeared’ (Matthew 2.7) and ordered any child under two years of age to be killed – predicted to be around 20 infants based on the population of Bethlehem at the time.
Although we can’t confirm the date of their arrival, the Epiphany – which marks the arrival of the Magi – is celebrated on 6 January.
According to Matthew’s writings, the Magi brought three gifts to present to Jesus. But what’s the meaning behind the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?
Just like today, gold represented wealth and power; an image that could suggest the social status of the Magi, but is also interpreted as a nod to Jesus’ kingly status, a belief reiterated by the Wise Men’s search for the ‘king of the Jews’ (Matthew 2.2).
Frankincense, a type of incense and perfume, was commonly used during worship and within ritual sacrifice. You’ll even find it mentioned a few times in the Old Testament as a symbol of holiness.
Last up is myrrh. Used as a perfume and as part of the embalming process since ancient Egyptian times, Christians view this as foreshadowing Jesus’ death. This links to Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, which describes how he was offered wine mixed with myrrh – acting as a painkiller – before his death.
Another link can be made, too. Myrrh was often used in oil during the anointing of kings, making this another physical symbol to suggest the kingship of Jesus.
Matthew – the author behind this book of the Bible – was writing for a contemporary Jewish audience, who had a strong knowledge of Old Testament writings. As a result, they would have picked up on his references to earlier Old Testament texts.
One example is found in the book of Isaiah, which talks of Isaiah’s vision of the future: ‘They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.’ (Isaiah 60.6, ESV)
This image is picked up in Matthew’s writings about the Wise Men’s visit, with Christians viewing Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of prophecy: God staying true to his promise of a Messiah.
But who really was this Jesus? And why is he so important to the Christmas story, the Bible narrative and the Christian faith?
Discover a little more about the evidence for Jesus’ existence and what that means with Man or Myth? Is there evidence that Jesus existed?
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