Three Wise Men

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jesus


Who were the three wise men, and where did they come from?


The wise men are found in Matthew. According to Matthew 2:1ff, Magi "from the east" came to Jerusalem looking for "the King of the Jews." They went to Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and began asking around. Needless to say, Herod was not happy to hear this, and he inquired of them (secretly) when they first saw the star. Then Herod sent them to Bethlehem to search for the child "so that I too may go and worship him." Everyone knows that was a ruse because he eventually ordered the death of all children who were two and under in and around Bethlehem. Perhaps the Magi are called "wise men" because they figured out Herod's evil intentions and did not return to him as he had requested.

As it is, "wise men" is a translation of "magi," which is a transliteration of a Greek word magos, meaning "wise men," "astrologers," "magician," or "sorcerer." This word is a derivative of an old Persian word magupati. It was a title used for priests. There is some non-Biblical evidence that Magi were a sacred caste of the Medes. It was their task to provide priests for Persia dating back hundreds of years. While their influence had seriously waned over the centuries, it is possible that some still existed during the time of Christ

As part of their religion, they paid special attention to the stars and had quite a reputation for astrology, which at that point was a prestigious science. The sudden and inexplicable appearance of a new and brilliant star suggested to the Magi that an important person had been born. They set out to find and adore him. Despite scholars' best efforts, a definitive explanation for the origin of the "star" remains elusive. Today, astrology is known as the modern practice of fortune telling. And derivatives of the word "magi" have evolved into the word "magic." Interestingly, "Magi" says nothing about their number, their wisdom, or their gender. Although it is highly unlikely that these Persian court officials were female, the possibility cannot be completely ruled out. Because of that, some modern day prayer books have changed the reference from wise men to magi. 

Tradition assumes there were only three because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Orient, however, favors twelve. In early Christian art, the number varies from two to eight. One legend has it that there were three to represent the three families that were descended from Noah. Truth is, the text simply doesn't say.

In later Christian tradition (6th century) they were given Hellenized versions of Semitic names: Melchior (King of Persia), Balthasar (King of Arabia), and Gasper (King of India). The Syrians, however, call them Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph; the Armenians have other names. And the label "from the east" is not that helpful. Going east of Palestine, the only ancient cultures that had a Magian priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ were Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylon. From some such part of the Parthian Empire the Magi came. They probably crossed the Syrian Desert, lying between the Euphrates and Syria, journeyed on to Damascus and southward, by what is now the great Mecca route ("the pilgrim's way"), keeping the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho. We have no tradition to explain what precise land is meant by "the east." Some think it's Babylon; others say Persia, others say Arabia. The distance could have been as much as 1000 miles. Traveling by camel would make it a journey of three-twelve months – plus preparation time. Then again, the text doesn't say anything about camels either. They may have traveled by foot. In any event, it was a long time for that star to shine.

And despite the popularity of a Christmas Carol [We Three Kings of Orient are…], no one can confirm that they were kings. It is important to remember that the story of the Magi in the New Testament, though told by Christians, was rooted in Old Testament prophecies that were used to prove the messianic status of Jesus. When these passages were read, they "predicted" that non-Jewish nations of the whole world would come to adore him and would bring him treasures. (See Isa. 60:5-6; Psalms 72:10-11; Jer 6:20; Ezek 27:22.) The tradition that they were international kings grew out of Europe and was intended to further dramatize Nations coming to Christ. One king was thought to be a black African, one was Persian, and one was European. This, too, unfortunately, is more speculative than factual.

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