Three Wise Kings? Were They Really Kings and Were There Only Three?

The well-known three wise men or three wise kings or the Magi of the Christmas story are only mentioned in one of the gospels, that of Matthew. They seem to play an integral role in the story, however, so many theories and little known “facts” about these important personages have developed in the subsequent centuries.

three wise kings

Three wise kings greet Jesus. What is the truth about them? Source: catholicdirectory.in

What Does the Book of Matthew Say About Who the Magi Were

To begin exploring the mysteries surrounding these wise men (they certainly were not females), we need to go back to the oldest source, the Book of Matthew. What does it tell us? First, it says that the Magi came from the east and went to Jerusalem and had an audience with King Herod. But it does not specify exactly which countries east of Israel they came from.

At that meeting with Herod they stated that they had seen a star in the sky that foretold the birth of the King of the Jews, and they wanted to see this new king. They later told Herod when they first saw the star. Herod told them to find the new king and to let him know where he was to be found. The Magi then went to an unnamed location where they found Jesus and Mary (Joseph is not mentioned as being present).They then presented Jesus with three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, warned by a dream, they did not report back to Herod but returned to their native lands by another route.

And that’s all the bible tells us about these enigmatic Magi. But many later stories and legends have attempted to fill in the blanks of their story.

How the Story of the Three Wise Kings Developed

First off, it is not commonly agreed that there were only three wise kings. True, only three gifts were mentioned as being presented. But the gospel story does not state that the number of gifts equaled the number of Magi. More than one Magi could have presented Jesus with gold, for example. In many Syriac churches, in fact, the number of Wise Men is twelve.

Three Wise kings

The wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for baby Jesus.

Another important question is: were they kings? In its truest sense, “Magi” would most likely mean astrologer/priests from the faith of Zoroastrianism.

Most Western Christian faiths came to eventually believe there were three Magi and even named them. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.” According to ancient documents, these names and countries of origin were in place by the 6th century.

What Happened to the Magi?

And what became of the three wise kings after they returned to their native land(s)? The bible does not tell us, but several stories are featured in later documents. An early 17th century book titled “Chronicon of Dexter” tells that the three Magi became martyrs after converting from Zoroastrianism. And there is another interesting glimpse of the later lives of the three wise kings. Although he does not state the cause of their deaths, Marco Polo reported that he saw their three tombs in the Persian city of Saba while on his famous travels.

The Magi story became very popular in all forms of art throughout the centuries. A whale bone Anglo-Saxon box from the early 8th century depicts a carved scene including the Magi. Artwork from the Middle Ages onward feature the Magi upon finding Jesus and Mary as a popular topic. They have also been featured in countless works such as books and operas and the famous “We Three Kings” Christmas carol. And, of course, the three Magi are integral figures in nativity scenes throughout the world.

They also perform gift-giving rites similar to those of Santa Claus in parts of the world, especially Spanish-speaking countries.

Not much is known about the Magi from the original source material of the Book of Matthew. However, their stories have been fleshed-out over the past two thousand years to reflect many aspects of modern beliefs and Christian thought.

Biblical Magi”. Wikipedia, pulled 12/15/14.
Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks ‘Who Were the Magi’?” Bible History Daily website, pulled 12/15/14.
We Three Kings”. Answers in Genesis website, pulled 12/15/14.

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries