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Who Were the Three Wise Men in the Bible?

Although the wise men (also known as the magi) appear only briefly in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1-12), and then are never heard from again, they managed to capture the imaginations of Christians and have been portrayed in art and stories ever since. So who were the wise men in the Bible? And how many of them were there? Why do we assume there were three? Matthew isn't specific about the actual number of magi who visited the baby Jesus, only about the three gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These items were precious in the ancient Near East and probably came in handy when the Holy Family fled to Egypt.

Scholars have speculated for centuries about who these magi may have been. Some say they were Babylonian sorcerers while others have posited that they were Persian Zoroastrians. An eighth-century Syriac manuscript, "The Revelation of the Magi," contends that the wise men were mystics from a faraway land called "Shir" -- perhaps China -- and there may have been anywhere between 12 and 40 who made the trip. The actual origin of the wise men may be lost to antiquity, but their story of following the "star with royal beauty bright" for thousands of miles to Bethlehem continues to fascinate the faithful.

More about the magi:

  • According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi visited King Herod first, to inquire about the child's whereabouts. Herod charged them to return with the child's location so he could also go and worship him. The magi, however, were warned in a dream not to return to the king, and went back to their homes by another way.
  • The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were traditional gifts to a king or deity, although some scholars have said the gold represents Christ's kingship and the frankincense his deity, while the myrrh foretold his death.
  • In art, the visit from the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ early life, including images of the baby Jesus in a manger.
Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By anon995180 — On Apr 09, 2016

The bible says the magi visited the young child in the house. So it was some time after Jesus' birth this happened. Also, they seemed to be the only ones that could actually see the "star."

By anon995162 — On Apr 08, 2016

The story of the "Three Wise Men"/Magi is my personal favorite, Christmas story, and the basis of a PBS special I saw only once, and yet I never again but I remember certain details extremely clearly, an d it was said to have some basis in fact:

The North Star was actually an astronomical osculation of Jupiter and Saturn, that was the true/real navigational source across the desert at that time.

The Christ child was actually found at the site, but in a house, not a manger, some while later because it took that many years to cross the desert by camel from, probably, Yemen because that's where, the traditional place is, even to this modern day to find Frankincense.

By dimchild — On Apr 07, 2016

@MemphisBelle: "The three wise men were mentioned" where? Where did you get your information?

By anon995157 — On Apr 07, 2016

What were the value of the gifts given to the Christ by the magi?

By MemphisBelle — On Apr 07, 2016

Sure, the three wise men were mentioned: Their names were: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. (sp?)

The nuns who taught your Catechism classes would be disappointed.

By Flywheel1 — On Apr 07, 2016

Even James Taylor wrote a song about the Magi. Youtube: "Home By Another Way."

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With...
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