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Doctrines that creep in: The three wise men

The three wise men are remembered today
The three wise men are remembered today
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The three wise men are well known to us. Sometimes we call them the Three Magi and other times we call them the Three Kings. We see them on Christmas cards either on their camels following the star or around the Baby Jesus. We see them in manger scenes and we see them in Christmas plays and we see them in other Christmas celebrations. We sing about these guys: “We three men of orient are ...”

We sing about what they brought to Jesus:

“Gold I bring to crown Him again …

Frankincense to offer have I …

Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume ...”

People in many parts of the world honor them on Three Kings Day (also known as the Feast of the Epiphany), which is celebrated on January 6th.

We see them in paintings. The earliest known painting of the wise men is a fresco from the mid-third century in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. They are shown as three men of equal size and clothing style. They also appear on a panel from a Roman sarcophagus that dates to the 4th century from the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome. By the fifth century, they began to appear in artwork on public places. Another early depiction of the wise men is a sixth-century mosaic located at the New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris in Ravenna, Italy. The three are portrayed in Eastern clothing and carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Around A.D. 700, Saint Bede the Venerable, a monk at the English Monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria described the wise men: “The first was called Melchior; he was an old man, with white hair and long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was called Baltasar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man.” Other cultures have different names. For instance, the Syrian Christian tradition lists their names as Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.

Most of what is written about the three wise men outside of the Bible comes from the fourteenth century work Historia Trium Regum, or History of the Three Kings, by John of Hildesheim. Hildesheim wrote that they were kings from the East – from Ind, Chaldea, and Persia. Historia gives other details, “Now, in the time when Balaam prophesied of the Star that should betoken the birth of Christ, all the great lords and the people of Ind and in the East desired greatly to see this Star of which he spake … When Christ was born in Bethlehem, His Star began to rise in the manner of the sun, bright shining. It ascended above the Hill of Vaws (meaning Hill of Victory), and all that day in the highest air it abode without moving, insomuch that when the sun was hot and most high there was no difference in shining betwixt them.” Historia claims the three wise men did not know each other, didn't know that any of the others were traveling, and the three met for the first time in Jerusalem. They traveled on to Bethlehem where “the Star stood still, and then descended and shone with so great a light that the little house was full of radiance, till anon the Star went upward again into the air, and stood still always above the same place.”

After worshiping, Melchior, Gaspar, and Baltasar journeyed together for many days until they stopped at the Hill of Vaws where they built a chapel. They agreed they would meet at the chapel once a year and that would be the place of their burial. Years later Historia records, “a little before the feast of Christmas, there appeared a wonderful Star above the cities where these three kings dwelt, and they knew thereby that their time was come when they should pass from earth.” They built a tomb on the Hill of Vaws and after all three died, they were buried there.

Two hundred years later, Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, traveled to Ind and recovered the bodies of the three kings. She brought the relics to the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople where they remained until the late sixth century when the Emperor Mauricius relocated their relics to a church in Milan, Italy. Then, in the twelfth century, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, transferred the relics to the Archbishop of Cologne in 1164, where they were placed in the church of Saint Peter and remain there to this day.

Interestingly, Persian scholars say they were buried near Tehran, Iran and their graves were visited by Marco Polo in A.D. 1270 . In Marco Polo's book Travels, he writes:

In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior.

Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt What I will tell you.

Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-worshippers. And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.'

When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the others what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together.

So, in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.

After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And, since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief.

The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building.

They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.

That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.

All that is great, but what does the Bible actually say?

Matthew 2:1 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, 2 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. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Notice, Matthew never says there were three of them. He just said “wise men.” That means there had to have been at least two but there could have been four or eight or ten or twelve just as easily as there could have been three. So, where do we get the idea of three wise men? Probably from the number of gifts.

“Wise men” comes from the Greek word majoi or magi. Although we get our word “magic” from magi, these men were not magicians. The word actually means “generous” or “benefactor.” Rather than magic, think of the word “magnanimous.” They were priests and astronomers. They were not kings.

The Bible says they saw the star in the east. That doesn't mean they saw the star in the eastern sky, but rather it means they saw the star when they were in the east. By the east, they mean a location east of Israel. Being called magi, they were most likely from modern day Iraq or Iran. They were not from the Orient as we think it to mean: China or Japan.

The only prophecy recorded by Matthew comes from Micah 5:2. Matthew gives no reference to the prophecy by Balaam recorded in Numbers 24:17, “... there shall come a star out of Jacob; and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel ...” Certainly, the wise men had to have known about a prophecy that involved a star and a coming ruler of Israel. Did they have a copy of the books of Moses? If so, how did they know that this particular star in the sky meant the coming King of the Jews?

The book of Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon. It is very possible that Daniel taught the wise men of Babylon about the one true God and the coming Messiah. Since many of the Jews remained in Babylon after the exile it is likely their influence remained strong. Daniel's teaching would have been passed down through the ages until the star was seen.

It is unlikely the wise men were at the manger the same night as the shepherds. Luke tells us the shepherds found the Baby (Greek brephos) Jesus in the manger, which would have been in the innkeeper's stable. Matthew says the wise men found the young child (Greek paidion) in a house. So, unlike the manger scene depictions, the wise men and the shepherds were not there at the same time. When the wise men arrived is not certain. From Ezra 7:8,9, we can determine that the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem was 4 months. From history and Ezekiel 33:21, we can calculate that it took a messenger a little over 4 months to escape from Jerusalem and reach Ezekiel in Babylon. We don't know when the star first appeared and how long it took the wise men to equate it to the prophecy. If the star first appeared at His birth, then Jesus would have been around 5 months old when the wise men visited. Of course the star could have appeared earlier. Why would Mary and Joseph still be in Bethlehem 5 months later? There were several feasts that required all males to be present in Jerusalem throughout the year. And, since Joseph's family was from Bethlehem, they could have been there for other reasons – such as a marriage or a legal proceeding.

The Bible doesn't record their names, but we can be confident their parents did give them names. Many times we can find the names of Bible characters from extra-Biblical sources. For instance, history suggests that King Asahuerus (from the book of Esther) is the same man as King Xerxes. Though Noah's wife is not named in the Bible, Jewish tradition claims he had two wives. The first was Emzara the daughter of Rake'el, son of Methuselah, but she died before the Great Flood and then he married Naamah the daughter of Zillah and Lamech and the sister of Tubal shortly thereafter. The question for the name of the wise men is what was the source that Saint Bede the Venerable used? If it was from records left by Helena, then there is cause to be skeptical as she and Emperor Constantine had visions and "divine impulses: to guide them. (See article on locating Mount Sinai.)

So, “We three kings of Orient are ...” There were not necessarily three of them; they weren't kings; and they weren't from the Orient. It's a reminder that we get our doctrine and beliefs from the Bible and not from Christian music, Christmas cards, non-Biblical writings, and Christian art work.

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