Who were the three wise men?
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” Matthew 2:1
They’ve been called magi, kings, and wise men. But who were they, really? They were most likely the King’s personal advisors. Their responsibilities included reading the stars, and a host of wisdom-seeking work. Some early church traditions say there were twelve. Today, we choose to honor three, because three very significant gifts were offered. Over time, church traditions have assigned them names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.
What does “Magi” mean?
Kings were in the habit of gathering the best and brightest into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. Magi are consulted in the Book of Daniel, and by Pharaoh in the time of Joseph. The Greek word magi indicates these men were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams.
Truth is, our faith allows a holy place for mysteries to persist. But if you’d like a bit more clarification of the myths surrounding these mystery men, here are some insights from author Dwight Longenecker:
Myth #1: There were three wise men
We have no idea how many there were. This was assumed because three gifts were given to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, we don’t know the quantity of those gifts, or even if Jesus was only given one of each. There is no way to know how many. There may very well have been 100+ wise men representing such a large geographic area. They were carrying very valuable gifts so there might have been a large number of soldiers accompanying them as well. This was probably quite a large caravan.
Myth #2: They rode camels
This is a common misconception. Whenever you see movies from this time period, the actors are riding on camels. However, people in northern Arabia typically only rode Arabian horses. At the time of Christ’s birth camels were used as pack animals, but wealthy travelers used the more comfortable and swift horse.
Myth #3: They followed a miraculous star
Matthew never says that they followed a star. He says they saw a star, which history teaches is the Northern Star. The wise men were astrologers, and the star was an astronomical sign they saw that signified the prophecy of the Jewish king. That doesn’t mean a star led them from Arabia to Jesus.
Myth #4: They were kings
It is unclear whether or not they were royalty, but they were not kings. You can throw out the “We Three Kings” picture completely. They had royal connections though and were trusted by King Herod.
Myth #5: They came from Persia, India, and Africa
This idea was added to tradition later. They likely came from Arabia, not these other countries or diverse backgrounds.
Where did the wise men travel from?
They came “from the east,” which based on the nature of their gifts, and Old Testament prophecy, means they most likely came from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Sheba. Arabia was known for its vast wealth from gold mines of Africa, as well as the Boswellian and Commiphora trees — from which frankincense and myrrh are derived. Of course men from Persia could have brought these gifts, but they signify a giving of the best commodities from their own country to a neighboring King.
What gifts did the magi give?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh have their primary significance in their value; which establishes their suitability for a King. Matthew 2:11 tells us these gifts were great treasures, given as worship, but they may have even greater significance. Gold was indeed associated with royalty, but it may also foreshadow Jesus’ purpose: in 1 Kings 6:20-22, the walls of the Most Holy Place and the altar are overlaid with gold. Frankincense was part of ceremonial worship of a deity. This gift underscores their belief that the newborn king carried a claim of deity. Myrrh was used as a perfume, anointing oil, medicinal tonic, and as a key ingredient in the mixture of spices used to prepare bodies for burial (John 19:39-40). Perhaps this gift indicated Jesus’ humanity and the manner in which he would save his people—that he would die for them.