A friend of mine recently posted a message on Facebook where he objected to the term “Three Kings Day”. He noted that many Christian churches refer to the Feast of the Epiphany as “Three Kings Day”, but the terminology doesn't make much sense. His father, a Lutheran pastor, noted that The Bible doesn't say how many wise men visited Jesus (he thinks it might have been “fifteen to eighteen”), nor does it refer to them as “Kings”. Is he correct? Essentially, yes.
Earlier this week, we marked the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, 2014. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. It refers to an event which revealed the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is also called Theophany (“manifestation of God”). The Feast of the Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holidays in the world, and even predates the celebration of Christmas in Christianity. Epiphany has been a universally celebrated Christian feast day since the end of the second century. People from the U.S. Virgin Islands actually get the day off on January 6th to observe the feast day, although it is not a public holiday in the rest of the United States.
For Roman Catholics and most of western Christianity, the Feast of the Epiphany is observed by remembering when the magi visited the infant Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It's true that the Feast of the Epiphany is often called “Three Kings Day”, especially in Spanish cultures (“Feliz día de Reyes Magos”) because the magi are usually depicted in artwork and nativity scenes as three kings.
How much of this is accurate? Well, to begin with, the wise men that visited Jesus were most likely priests, mystics, and/or astronomers - not “kings” of any sort of nation. Early Christian writings suggest that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests, and neither the gospels nor a single earth Church writer called the Magi "kings." The reason why evidence points to them as Zoroastrians is because the account in Matthew's gospel tells us they were foreigners who came from the East. Matthew's gospel was written to Jewish followers from Israel. At the time it was written, the Zoroastrian religion was the dominant faith in places like Persia and Iran, although it is virtually extinct today. Zoroastrians focused heavily on prophecy and the idea that a savior would be born, and many of their beliefs most likely influenced the modern religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Most Jews from that era wouldn't have been very familiar with prophecy, unless they were leading scholars. Almost any 1st Century Jew would have immediately seen the Magi's visit from a distant land as a significant and extraordinary event. The Magi may have even been considered the first missionaries in Christianity. There is little evidence of any type of missionary activity among any of the Jewish tribes at the time of Jesus' birth. Only Zarathustra's traveled far and were sent to all nations to teach a better way of living.
Most likely, the magi did not look like how they are depicted in modern artwork – which shows men of three different races (Asian, African, and Caucasian) dressed in different vibrant colorful robes. This symbolism was created centuries later to show that Jesus was born into the world to be the savior of all mankind. It's a far greater likelihood that the magi themselves were actually Persian. It's also very unlikely that their names were “Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior”– the first written accounts of this also came about many centuries after the event. Nor is it likely that the Magi actually arrived on the exact day of Jesus' birth and were there in a stable with the animals. The single biblical account in Matthew simply states that an unnumbered party of unnamed "wise men" visited Mary and the infant Jesus in a “house”. Modern nativity scenes simply combine the magi visit with the Adoration of the Shepherds and angels that occurred on the night of Jesus' actual birth. We assume that there were three of them because three gifts were presented to Jesus. Of course, its entirely possible that the number of magi was not the same as the number of gifts. There may have been two, four, eight, or even twenty of them.
In short, the reason why the visit of the “wise men” is important is because they followed a star for months just to see a 'child with Mary his mother', and then delivered him gifts to him that were suited for a king. The Magi came and knelt before the child Jesus, because He alone was worth their worship. When we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, we must remembered what the feast is meant to honor – the manifestation of Christ's divinity. As I have noted in other columns, Eastern Christians don't even mention the Magi at all during the feast of the Epiphany, they opt to celebrate Christ's baptism on that day. Call it “Three Kings Day” if you wish, but remember that the true king in the story is Jesus Christ himself.