All About the Wise Men

The visit of the Wise Men; journeys, political intrigue and not a stable in sight!

The Story in the Bible

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”

And when King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Messiah would be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written through the prophet, ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people, Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.”

And they, having heard the king, went their way; and look, the star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered gifts to him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way.

Matthew 2:1-12

The History behind the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi in the Christmas Story

After Jesus was born, Wise Men came to look for Him, probably from an area which is now in either Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or an area in what's now southern Turkey, northern Syria. Although they are often called the 'Three Kings', the Bible does not say how many there were, or that they were kings.

One theory is that they might have been Kings of the Yemen, as during this time the Kings of Yemen were Jews. There are also two passages in the Jewish Bible/Old Testament (Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72) which speak of 'kings' visiting a new important person and evening bringing Gold and Incense with them. So the connection to 'kings' have also come from those verses.

The number of Wise Men being 'three' comes from the three gifts they brought with them: but however many there were of them, they probably would have had many more servants with them. They also probably didn't ride camels, because they were generally only used for carrying goods in those times. Important people like the Wise Men would have ridden horses.

The word used to describe the Wise Men in the original Greek in Matthew is 'Magos', 'Magus' in Latin, or 'Magi' in English ('magi' is where the english word 'magic' comes from). Magos/Magus comes from the old Persian word 'Μάγος' or 'Magupati' (chief of the Magi). This was the title given to priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. Today we'd call them something like astrologers. However, in those times astronomy and astrology were part of the same overall studies (and 'science') and went hand in hand with each other. The magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. They were certainly men of great learning in all sorts of topics. They would have also probably been very rich and held high esteem in their own society and by people who weren't from their country or religion.

They had seen an unusual new star in the sky, and knew that it foretold the birth of a special king in Israel. No one really knows what the new star in the sky was, and there are many theories including comets, supernovas, a conjunctions of planets or something supernatural! Find out more about the star in the Star of Bethlehem page in the Christmas Customs section. The Magi would have known about the prophecies of a special Jewish Savior (also known as the Messiah) from when the Jews had been held captive in ancient Babylon several hundred years before. (The Jewish Bible/Old Testament says that the Jewish prophet Daniel was made 'Chief of the Magi' by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, during that time, because Daniel was so wise and learned.)

Legends are told about them and they have been given names. This is how they are often described:

  • Gaspar (or Caspar), who has brown hair and a brown beard (or no beard!) and wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. He is the King of Sheba. Gaspar represents the Frankincense brought to Jesus.
  • Melchior, who has long white hair and a white beard and wears a gold cloak. He is the King of Arabia. Melchior represents the Gold brought to Jesus.
  • Balthazar, who has black skin and a black beard (or no beard!) and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Tarsus/Macedonia and Egypt. Balthazar represents the gift of Myrrh that was brought to Jesus.

Herod asked the Wise Men to find Jesus and tell him where he was, not so he could go and worship him as he said, but so he could kill him! He thought that Jesus sounded like a new King that could come and take his power away.

A cartoon he Wisemen visiting baby Jesus and Mary in a house

When the Wise Men found Jesus and Mary, they would have been living in a normal house, probably in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, because by this time Jesus would have been aged between one and two. Then they gave their gifts to him. The gifts seem quite strange to give to a baby, but Christians believe that they had the following meanings:

  • Gold: is associated with Kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings.
  • Frankincense: is sometimes used in worship in Churches and showed that people would worship Jesus. Frankincense (also sometimes called olibanum) is a resin from trees in the genus Boswellia.
  • Myrrh: is a perfume that is put on dead bodies to make them smell nice; Christian believe that it showed that Jesus would suffer and die. Myrrh is also a resin from trees in the Commiphora genus.

The gifts are also all things that come from east of Israel in Arabia.

When the wise men were about to go to tell Herod where Jesus was, they were warned in a dream not to, so Herod could not carry out his horrible plan.

You can read more about the historical accuracy of the Magi in Matthew 2 in an article on the blog of theologian, Rev Dr Ian Paul (goes to another site).