Here we look at the enthralling story of the three wise men or magi that teaches us to seek Christ with all our hearts despite all the difficulties and the challenges we face.
The Biblical Story of the Three Wise Men or Magi
The three Wise Men or Kings or Magi were pilgrims from the East. They followed a guiding star to Bethlehem, where they honored the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1–12). During the time of Herod, the three wise men inquired in Jerusalem about the King of the Jews who was born in Judea. They said that they saw His star and came to worship Him. (Matthew 2:1–2).
When the three wise men stopped at Herod’s palace on their way to Bethlehem, the king asked them to let him know where this newborn baby was so that he may also go and pay him homage. However, in truth, King Herod was overcome with jealousy and wanted to get rid of the baby. The three wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod in Jerusalem, and they left for their own country by another route and were never heard from again (Matthew 2:12).
When Herod found that the Magi had deceived him, he became furious and issued a decree that all male children up to two years of age should be killed in Bethlehem and all its vicinity. However, he did not know that Joseph was alerted in a dream that the king was planning to kill the Christ Child, and so he took the young Child and His mother and departed for Egypt.
The origin of the word Magi is from the old Persian word ‘Magupati’, which became ‘magos’ in Greek. It was the title given to priests in the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. They were astrologers. Back in the day, astronomy and astrology were part of the same overall studies and went hand in hand with each other. They were involved in reading the stars and formed an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. Magi were consulted in the times of Daniel and also by Pharaoh in the time of Joseph.
What Were the Names of the Three Wise Men or Magi?
During the 3rd century, the three wise men or magi were considered to be kings. This is said to be an interpretation of the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 72:11 (“May all kings bow down to him”)
During the 8th century, the names of the three wise men or magi appeared in a chronicle known as the Excerpta Latina Barbari. They were given names and their lands of origin were identified. Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (or “Caspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia or Ethiopia.
In other writings, Melchior is described as a king with long white hair and a white beard and wearing a gold cloak. Melchior is supposed to have brought the gift of Gold to Jesus. Gaspar is described as a king who has brown hair and a brown beard (or no beard). He is depicted as wearing a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. Gaspar is supposed to have brought the gift of Frankincense to Jesus. Balthazar is described as a king who has black skin and a black beard and wearing a purple cloak. Balthazar is supposed to have brought the gift of Myrrh to Jesus.
Significance of the Gifts of the Three Wise Men or Magi
The magi or the three wise men in the Bible bowed down before Jesus and worshiped him, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Gold is primarily associated with royalty and may foreshadow Jesus’ purpose in 1 Kings 6:20-22 where the walls of the inner sanctuary and the altar are overlaid with gold. The gold also signified Jesus’ status as “King of the Jews.”
Frankincense is incense, the burning of which represents prayer. Priests used this incense, and this indicated the priestly nature of the Messiah. It is a part of the ceremonial worship of a deity and emphasizes the belief that the newborn King carried a claim of divinity. It identified Jesus as the Son of the Living God and that people would worship Christ as the King of Kings.
Myrrh is a resin (an aromatic oleoresin, a natural blend of oil and resin) extracted from trees. It is a natural gum and could be burned as a type of incense. Myrrh is also an anointing oil and medicinal tonic, which is used as a key ingredient in the mixture of spices used to prepare bodies for burial. It provides a nice scent and wards off the stench of decay (or slow decay). The gift of Myrrh, which was present at Jesus’ death and burial, showed His humanity and mortality and that He would suffer and die to save people from sin and death.
The three gifts together also underlined the Messiah’s offices as Prophet, Priest, and King.
4 Myths Surrounding the Three Wise Men or Magi
Myth #1: They are part of the Nativity Story. We always see the three wise men or magi showing up in traditional nativity scenes. It is highly unlikely that the three wise men saw Jesus on the night of His birth. Many traditions believe that they visited the Christ Child 12 days after Christmas. Called the Feast of Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, it is the official commemoration of the visit of the Magi from the East to the baby Christ and is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays. Note that the story of the Magi’s visit is only found in the Gospel of Matthew.
One theory states that the three wise men were Parthian Magi (Ancient Iran). The distance between Parthia to Jerusalem is around 500 miles, and traveling by caravan would have probably taken 50 to 60 days. The magi wanting to pay homage to the Child King arrived at the place where Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus were staying around the time of the Summer Solstice, June 21, when the star was directly overhead. Jesus may have been born in late February or early March and would have been around 3 or 4 months old when they arrived.
Another theory states that the actual journey of these three wise men could have easily taken a long time. In Matthew 2:7, the star that the wise men had seen, had appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth. However, the three wise men had arrived after the birth of the Savior. It is presumed that if they saw the star at the time of Jesus’ birth, then it would have taken at least a few months for the wise men to arrive.
Another tradition states that since Herod killed all the baby boys who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16) by knowing the exact time the star had appeared so he could pinpoint the exact moment of this “King of the Jews” birth, it can be presumed that Jesus had been born two years prior. So, it is very clear that the wise men did not arrive at the same time as the shepherds, who arrived the same day as the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:11). The family of Jesus was living in a house and was no longer in a stable at that time (Matthew 2:11).
Myth #2: There were only three wise men or magi. Traditionally, it has been assumed that there were only three wise men because of the three gifts given to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Gospel of Matthew does not mention the exact number of these wise men from the East. They would have probably had many more servants with them. An Eastern tradition dictates that there were 12 Magi.
Myth #3: They came from Persia, Arabia, and India. The three wise men probably came from an area which is now in either Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, southern Turkey, or northern Syria. One theory suggests that they might have come from Yemen, as during this time the Kings of Yemen were Jews. Another theory, states that the magi were wise men from “the East,” most likely only Persia, or modern-day Iran. The magi would have known of the prophecy of Balaam that mentions “a star coming out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17).
One more theory argues that based on the nature of their gifts, the three wise men most likely came from the ancient kingdom of Sheba in Africa. Africa is known for its vast gold mines, as well as the Boswellian and Commiphora trees — from which frankincense and myrrh are sourced. Also in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, there is a vision of nations providing a tribute to Jerusalem: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:6). This incident is possibly a reference to Isaiah’s vision.
Myth #4: They were kings. In the Bible, they are not called kings, and it is not clear whether or not they were royalty. There is also no historical basis for identifying them as kings. The Greek word “magos” indicates these men were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following the patterns of the stars and discerning dreams. They were certainly men of great learning. They were most likely the advisors of kings and would have been very rich and held in high esteem by people in their societies. Seeing an unusual new star that foretold the birth of the King of the Jews, they diligently went in search of Him to worship Him.
The Three Wise Men or Magi were Truly Wise
The three wise men or magi honored Jesus when they found Him and adored and worshiped Him. The three wise men or magi believed God’s direction, sought the King of the Jews with all their hearts, recognized the magnificence of Christ, humbled to worship Jesus, and obeyed God rather than man. They were truly wise men.