Who were the Three Wise Men?

Willow Creek | December 11, 2022

There are many characters when it comes to the Christmas story: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the shepherds, livestock, and even the wisemen; but who were the three wise men? In the Bible, in Matthew chapter 2 verses 1 and 2, we’re told about the Magi (more commonly known as wise men): “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” They traveled from the east, following a moving star in the sky. The star stopped over where Jesus had been born, so the wise men bowed down and worshipped Jesus (who they referred to as King of the Jews), and also presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

Now, in the story, it doesn’t mention three wise men, so who were the wise men? Traditionally, Christians have said there were three wise men based on the number of gifts that were presented to Jesus, being three (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). However, it’s entirely possible there were more than three wise men, maybe even a few dozen! 

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Christian tradition has also commonly called the three wise men the three kings. In the book of Matthew, the wise men are not referred to as kings. Many scholars believe Christians began calling the wise men kings based on a set of verses in Isaiah, which say, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:3 and 6b). In Matthew, the wise men brought gifts (which are gold and incense), so many Christians drew parallels between Matthew and Isaiah, and instead of wise men called the men “kings”.

So, who are the three wise men? Christian tradition has called the Magi who visited Jesus when He was born the three wise men, but it’s extremely possible there were more than three of them. Christian tradition has also called these men kings, even though that’s based on possible assumption over fact. We do know Jesus was visited by wise men, who brought Him three gifts, and worshipped Him as king.

The entire story of the Magi visiting Jesus can be found in Matthew 2:1-12, also found below.

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Matthew 2:1-12:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

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