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TitleWhat Do We Know about the Wise Men?
Publication TypeNewsletter Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsTvedtnes, John A.
Date PublishedDecember 1998
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
Place PublishedProvo, UT
KeywordsChristmas; Jesus Christ, Birth of; Wise Men

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What Do We Know about the Wise Men?

Among the more intriguing figures in the scriptures are the Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus. The story of their journey to Bethlehem is found in the Gospel of Matthew, where we learn that they came “from the east” when Jesus was apparently two years old (see Matthew 2:1–2, 7, 16). By that time, Mary and Joseph were living in a house (see verse 11).

A common assumption is that the Wise Men followed a star from the east to Bethlehem. However, Matthew does not say they followed a star at that point in their journey, only that they had “seen his star in the east” and “came . . . from the east to Jerusalem” (verses 1, 2). Seeking him who was “born King of the Jews” (verse 2), the Wise Men inquired at King Herod’s palace (where one might expect a prince to be born) and were directed to Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem (see verse 8). It was at this point that “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (verse 9).

Though the wording in verse 9 suggests that the Wise Men understood the two stars to be the same star, that may not have been the case. Because the star heralding Christ’s birth was also seen in the New World and was not reported as moving from its fixed position (see Helaman 14:5; 3 Nephi 1:21), this star may not have been the unusual, roaming star that “went before” the Wise Men and “stood over where the young child was.” What, then, did the Wise Men follow from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? We cannot know for certain, but it is interesting that an early Christian document indicates that it was an angel in the guise of a star (see 1 Infancy Gospel 3:3).

Perhaps because so little is told to us in the scriptures about these men, numerous traditions have arisen about them, and some of these traditions are quite speculative (a good source of information on these traditions and of commentary on the scriptural text is Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah). That later Christians would go to great lengths to try to understand these mysterious men indicates how significant their visit was regarded. Some early traditions indicate there were twelve Wise Men. The most prevalent tradition says they were three kings, their number derived from the three gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (see Matthew 2:11). Psalm 72:10–15 is cited as evidence that these three “kings” were from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba. Medieval Christians identified those places with Spain, Ethiopia, and Arabia and thus believed the Wise Men to be a European, an African, and a Semite. Other Old Testament passages sometimes used to support the kingship of the Wise Men are Isaiah 49:7 and 60:3–7.

The Greek term behind the words wise men in Matthew 2 is magoi (the origin of our word magic), sometimes rendered “Magi” in English. Because this word is Persian in origin, some traditions identify the Wise Men as Persian. In the Greek form of the book of Daniel, however, magoi occurs in Daniel’s description of the Babylonian court; for this and other reasons, Babylon is considered a possibility for the origin of the Magi. On the basis of Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:15, the gold and frankincense they bring as gifts are associated with Arabia, marking that as a possible source for the Wise Men (see the discussion in Brown, 167–70).

The thirteenth-century traveler Marco Polo reported that the three Magi had set out from Saba in Persia, where their tombs were still visited in his day and where local tradition since the eighth century named three kings: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Those same names are used in Christian tradition today, though they are associated with non-Persian wise men. Chapter 9 of the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy names the Magi as Melkon of Persia, Gaspar of India, and Balthazar of Arabia. The names, however, appear to be Akkadian, the language used in ancient Babylon, from where such names spread through other parts of the Persian Empire from the fifth century B.C.

There are even traditions that the gifts the Magi gave came originally from Adam. Several early Christian pseudepigraphic books indicate that the presents the Wise Men gave to the infant Jesus had been brought by Adam from the Garden of Eden. Noah subsequently took them aboard the ark, Shem concealed them after the flood, and the Wise Men later uncovered them. In some accounts the Wise Men also found the Testament of Adam buried with the relics and read Adam’s prophecy of the coming of Christ. —Contributed by John A. Tvedtnes