Three Wise Men? Maybe Not.

#FunFactFriday — Because TGIF!


Matthew 2. Selected Verses (1, 2 & 11)

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Magi: Meaning & Origins

The bible speaks of wise men from the east, so where did the word Magi come from? Well, “Wise Men” in the Greek Lexicon is translated as:

μάγος = magos 

רב מג 


Outline of Biblical Usage

  • a magus
  • the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.
  • the oriental wise men (astrologers) who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him.
  • a false prophet and sorcerer.
  • mag’-os; of foreign origin (H7248); a Magian, i.e. Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician:—sorcerer, wise man.

So, Magi is derived from the Greek word “Magos,” or “Magoi” which can have four different meanings. Magoi can refer to priestly men of Persia; men who have occult powers and knowledge of astrology; magicians; or charlatans. The term Magi is also the base from which our modern words “magician” and “magistrate” are derived. Magos itself comes from the old persian word ‘Magupati’. This was the title given to priests in a sect of the ancient persian religions such as Zoroastrianism.

The magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. Today we’d called them astrologers and popular myth does call them astrologers but that wasn’t necessarily so. It is more likely that “the Magi were a priestly caste from Persia a once mighty country where modern Iran and Iraq are now located. They would have also probably been very rich and held high esteem in their own society and by people who weren’t from their country or religion.

With this information, it’s likely the magi were Persian priests, men of great learning, educated in astrology and astronomy, who interpreted the star’s appearance as a sign of Christ’s birth. No one really knows what the new star is the sky was, and there are many theories including comets, supernovas, a conjunctions of planets or something supernatural but that is not our main concern at the moment.

Names & Number of The Magi

Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the Magi, so where did this idea of “Three Wise Men” come from?

Many believe that the number of the gifts is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men. The Bible never actually mentions the exact number of wise men. There may have been only two men who presented three gifts, or there may have been more than three who altogether brought several kinds of gold, frankincense and Myrrh. Ultimately, we don’t know.

The Bible only says that the wise men presented three gifts, not that three wise men were present. However many there were of them, they would likely have had servants travelling along with them.

As Christianity evolved, so did the description of the magi. In the second century, a church father named Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship the Christ. Tertullian also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In the seventh century, a work attributed to St. Bede known as the Excerpta et Collectanea indicated the gift of gold was presented by Melchior, a bearded, elderly man who has long white hair and a white beard and wears a gold cloak. He is the King of Arabia.

The priest-astrologer bearing frankincense was described by St. Bede as young, beardless and of ruddy complexion. His name was Gaspar (or Caspar), who has brown hair and a brown beard (or no beard!) and wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. He is the King of Sheba.

The figure associated with offering myrrh to the Christ child is Balthasar, who St. Bede described as black-skinned and heavily bearded. Balthazar,who has black skin and a black beard (or no beard!) and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Tarse and Egypt.

What does the bible say?

All the Bible tells us is that they came from the East to Jerusalem. A common misconception is that the wise men visited Jesus as a baby while He was in the manger. This is not what the Bible actually suggests. In the gospel of Luke, we see that shepherds come and visit Jesus in the manger, and it refers to him as a babe. In the gospel of Matthew, however, we see that the wise men visit Jesus in a house, and it refers to him in that passage as a young child. Some time had obviously passed by the time the wise men reach Jesus, and he was likely several months or possibly a year by this time.



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