They’re the best-dressed trio in any Nativity scene. You’ll hear people singing about them, you’ll see drummer boys tagging along with them, and you might even hear a sermon about them.
They’re the wise men, the magi, the rich visitors who worshiped the newborn King Jesus and gave him gifts.
They’re a Christmas icon, but the Bible doesn’t say very much about them. Only two of the four Gospels even give the story of Jesus’ birth, and only the Gospel of Matthew mentions this group of visitors.
So what does the Bible say about them—and what has been added to the story?
5 myths about the wise men (magi)
When Bible characters get more face time in media than they do in the Bible, you’re sure to hear a few things about them that aren’t biblical. Here are some things the Bible doesn’t say about the wise men.
1. There were three wise men.
The Greek word mágoi (translated magi or wise men) is plural, so we’re sure there were at least two. But a traveling caravan could have been far larger. The Eastern church has traditions of 12 wise men, but there’s no more biblical evidence of this number, either. We probably got the tradition of three wise men based on their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Mt 2:11).
2. Their names were Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchoir.
These are the traditional names the wise men are known by, but the Bible gives us no such names.
3. They were kings.
They were important enough to merit an audience with Herod, the ruler of Judea, but we’re not told they were kings. They were more likely priests and magicians (see below).
4. They visited Jesus at the manger.
We often see three magi huddled around a newborn Jesus in a stable, but the Bible speaks pretty clearly against that image.
For one, Matthew begins the magi story with the Greek word dé (“now” in English), and he uses it as a way of transitioning (Mt 2:1). You see Matthew doing the same thing elsewhere in his book to mark a passing of time (Mt 3:1; 4:12; 8:5; 16:13; 28:1).
Matthew says the wise men met Jesus and Mary at a “house,” not a stable (Mt 2:11).
After Herod discovered when the star of Bethlehem had appeared, he calculated that he would have to kill every boy two years old and under if he were to get rid of this new “King of the Jews” (Mt 2:7, 16). He calculated correctly, because Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape. This means the wise men probably appeared within the first two years of Jesus’ life.
5. There was a little drummer boy with them.
We have no record of such a character.
What are wise men (magi), anyway?
The Greek word Matthew uses for magi, or wise men, is mágoi: astrologers, sorcerers, or priests. In addition to the wise men of Jesus’ childhood, this word only refers to a few other people in Scripture:
- The sorcerers and dream interpreters of Babylon. Back in the book of Daniel, the Babylonian emperor has a distressing dream. He calls on his magicians to interpret the dream, but they are completely unable to do so (Da 2:2, 10). The king almost wipes them out, but God interprets the dream through Daniel, saving all the wise men of Babylon. When the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek, they used the word mágoi for the magicians in this passage.
- A Jewish magician and false prophet named Elymus. In the book of Acts, Paul and Barnabas spread the gospel through the island of Cyprus, but Elymus opposes them. The mágos particularly tries to turn the ruler of the province away from the faith. According to Paul, this magician is “full of deceit,” a “son of the devil,” and an “enemy of all righteousness.” You can read the whole story in Acts 13:4–12.
We can assume that these wise men are not necessarily the kind of men the book of Proverbs strives to train up!
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible sheds some more light on the role of the wise man:
The historian Herodotus mentions “magi” as a priestly caste of Media, or Persia, and, as the religion in Persia at the time was Zoroastrinism, Herodotus’ magi were probably Zoroastrian priests. [. . .] Believing the affairs of history were reflected in the movements of the stars and other phenomena, Herodotus suggests the rulers of the East commonly utilized the magi’s knowledge of astrology and dream interpretation to determine affairs of state.1
So although they weren’t singing “We Three Kings,” they were certainly interested in royalty, and may have served in royal courts back east.
By the way, if you’d like to study the New Testament in its original Greek, you might want to check out this online course from my friends at Zondervan Academic.*
So . . . should we learn anything from these guys?
The Bible doesn’t have many positive things to say about magi, but the ones in the story of Jesus’ childhood do teach us a few things:
- Jesus is the King of the Jews. Matthew’s Gospel shows us how Jesus is the son of David, the anointed Messiah. The magi recognized His advent, and worshiped Him (Mt 2:11).
- Jesus is the savior of the Gentiles, too. The book of Matthew begins with the pagan priests recognizing Jesus as king and worshiping Him; it ends with the Jewish priests crucifying Him and denying His resurrection (Mt 27:20; 28:11–13). The pagan priests worshiped Jesus; the Jewish priests killed Him.This book was primarily written to Jews, but non-Jews (like me) can join the wise men in worshiping the King.
The wise men are often misrepresented when we hear about Jesus’ birth, but they are part of Jesus’ story. The Holy Spirit and the apostle Matthew knew that the story of the wise men (whoever and however many they were) would help us understand the good news of Jesus’ coming—and that good news doesn’t stop at the end of Matthew’s second chapter.
*Sometimes I’ll partner with organizations to help more people know about their resources—in return, they give me a kickback when people purchase. This is one of those times. ;-)
1 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volumes 1 and 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 2153–2154.