Popular tradition has it that Three Wise Men also referred to as the Three Kings or the Magi came from the east to worship the child Jesus. In more recent years, theologians have pointed out that this view is not entirely accurate. In Matthew 2:1, it states “When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” No specific number of kings is given. How then did we come to decide that there were three of them? The most likely reason given is that we are told that they brought with them gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Three gifts = three gift-givers…or at least that was the assumption.
These men are often given actual names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar but it is believed that again this was based on assumption. These names were associated with three powerful kings believed to be living at the time and so it seemed a logical conclusion that it was likely that if any three kings were to go and visit Jesus, it would be them. In many traditions, the Magi are depicted as one of them being white, one being African, and one being Asian. Again, this is not stated anywhere in the Bible and it is believed that this originated from the assumption that if there were three Magi, they would each be of a different race as this would symbolize and represent all nations of the world coming together to worship Christ.
Current information however also puts into question whether or not these men were actually kings. The gifts they brought were considered precious riches at that time – ones not available readily to the general public so again the assumption was made that they must be very wealthy, therefore royalty. Most theologians believe that the term Magi is far closer and far more accurate a description of them. No definition of Magi is provided in the book of Matthew, likely because it was assumed that his followers and readers at the time would know the meaning of the term. Best research believes that the Magi were indeed considered to be wise men. They were believed to be extremely well educated, well respected men, priests most likely in ancient Persia. It is thought that they noticed the star in the sky indicating the birth of the Messiah because they studied the skies – perhaps part astronomers, perhaps part astrologers. They were associated with dream interpretation, maybe even were seen as prophets who could interpret visions as well. The Magi would indeed have been wealthy men despite not being royalty given their high status in society.
Historically, many have held the belief that the Magi arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth and worshipped him at the stable/cave in which he was born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:11 states "And when they came into the house, they saw the young child Jesus with Mary his mother and fell down and worshipped…" It doesn’t have them coming into the stable/cave but into a house…and they saw a young child not a baby. This suggests that they arrived quite some time after his birth, not on the night of his birth as previously held by tradition. Further evidence to support this is born out by the fact that it was simply too long a journey for the Magi to make in such a short amount of time. Of course, all of this wording is subject to interpretation and others have suggested that the Magi, perhaps being prophets themselves, saw it foretold that the Christ child would be born on a certain night and set out well in advance so as to be able to make it there in time for the birth.
Much as many children leave out cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, in some countries it is traditional to leave out food and drink for the Magi and their camels on the eve before Epiphany. The belief that the Magi travelled by camel is another widely held tradition but again not backed up by any actual evidence or reference in the Bible. It was assumed that because they had such a long distance to travel and came from the east that they would be travelling by camel as it was a common practice in the day. It however is also just about as likely that they travelled on horseback or even simply on foot. There is a notion that they returned to their homes by ship however. This was because they were avoiding going back through Jerusalem and having to encounter Herod again since they had been warned in a dream that he might learn Jesus’ location from them.
This notion of them travelling by ship is reflected in the song “I Saw Three Ships”:
Have you ever wondered about the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus? Gold seems pretty obvious. Jesus was considered the king of the Jews – what more fitting gift for a king than riches like gold? At that time, frankincense and myrrh were also gifts commonly given to kings but it is believed that these three gifts had more symbolic, spiritual, and even prophetic meanings behind them. Gold obviously is seen as a symbol of an earthly king but other views see it as a symbol of virtue as well. Myrrh was an embalming oil and was used as an incense during funerals and cremations. Some believe that because of this myrrh is a symbol of death and suffering and was prophetic in foreshadowing Jesus’ death on the cross. Frankincense has been suggested as a symbol of priesthood and prayer because in those times, people believed that if they burned frankincense it would help to carry their prayers up to heaven.
People can debate what parts of our view of the Magi are accurate or not but I think if we look at the essential lessons in the story of the Magi, that’s where their importance really lies. Does it really matter whether there were 3 of them or 12 of them? Does it really matter what mode of transportation they used? Scholars have suggested that we had the presence of shepherds worshipping the infant Jesus – representative of the common person, whereas the Magi were wealthy and powerful men so in their presence, we see even the rich, at the highest station in their society also recognizing the Messiah and humbling themselves before Him. In addition, they suggest that they were known to be extremely learned men and this fact reinforced the idea that even the learned saw the significance of Jesus’ birth and honoured it. What really matters to me is the example the Magi provide. They kept their eyes open, watching for any signs or learning opportunities that might come along. They saw their star and they chose to follow it. They travelled a great distance to see Christ and acknowledge his importance without even knowing for sure that they would ever find Him (and let’s remember how extremely difficult that was at the time). They were courageous and they stuck to their beliefs. They rejoiced when they found Jesus. They bowed down to Him and presented Him with gifts – both acts of honour and reverence. Even if not a Christian, couldn’t we all benefit from staying open to opportunities that come along? Seeing those opportunities and choosing to follow “our star”? Journeying towards that star, giving up what we need to along the way, enduring difficulties to make way for new joy? Not being afraid to humble ourselves when faced with something greater? And then once we find our star, rejoicing in it? Sounds like the path to happiness and fulfillment to me!