A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the deal with the three wise men?

April 26, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Did the three wise men actually come to visit Jesus when he was born, as the myth says? If three wise men from the Orient were willing to track down Jesus when he was born, why wasn't there a conversion of faith where they were from? It kind of seems like European ego boosting to me.

Okey dokey, let's do a little deconstruction here.

First, let's look at the verses in question. Since it's the most familiar, we'll use the King James version as our jumping off point. Here's Matthew 2:1-12:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

We'll assume the story is true, although scholars disagree about whether it actually happened or merely symbolized Christian belief that Jesus was the King before whom all other kings would bow down. Certainly the episode has its fishy aspects. It doesn't jibe with the account of Jesus' early days given by Luke, who says nothing about any visiting wise men, nor does history record a mass execution of children by Herod, as Matthew goes on to describe. Had Jesus been recognized as the Messiah in infancy, as the adoration of the Magi implies, it seems strange that no one took notes about his life (except for one brief mention of his experience in the Temple as a youth) until he reached adulthood.

But even assuming the story is true, we should note that scripture never says there were three wise men, only that there were three gifts. Matthew, trying his best to find prophetic fulfillment in any scriptural passage he could (and he found a lot) saw this as a fulfillment of Psalms 72:10-11:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

But even there, three kings are only implied, not specifically mentioned. Not everyone agreed there were three. The first pictorial representation of the Magi appeared in the third century Roman catacomb fresco at St. Domitilla and showed four magi. Later in the fourth century the wise men show up in the catacombs of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus, but this time there were only two. Some medieval lists in the eastern church give as many as twelve.

There were some early attempts at naming the wise men. One text refers to them as Hormizdah (King of Persia), Yazdegerd (King of Saba) and Perozadh (King of Sheba.) Another states their names as Hor, Basanter and Karsudan. However, the reigning western tradition shows up in a sixth century Greek text entitled Excerpta Latina Barbari, which calls them Gaspar (or Casper), Melchior and Balthasar. Tradition also depicts at least one of the kings as black, but that element didn't show up until quite late in literature and even later in art.

Taken literally the story of the magi gives us a great deal of difficulty, but if we view it figuratively it becomes much clearer. In Christian tradition Jesus is the King of kings and the gifts of the Magi symbolize important aspects of his life: gold signifies his kingship; incense prayer and meditation, and myrrh, often used in those times for embalming and anointing of the dead, his eventual suffering and death. As usual, the easiest answer is always the best.

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