We Three Kings?

The story of the Magi is filled with images of the “three kings” riding camels in robes and crowns, carrying chests of gold, etc. Typically this event is celebrated on Epiphany, on January 6 the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Of all of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, this one is often thought (at best) to be an invention of Matthew to show parallels between Jesus and Moses, or the “stuff of legends” at the worst.

Three wise men

The carol “We Three Kings” was written by an Episcopal deacon named John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857 it was not published until 1863. It was originally intended for a Christmas Pageant at General Theological Seminary in New York City. This song is likely the reason every Christmas scene has three kings dressed like Persian royalty (usually one black and one Asian).

More perplexing is “I Saw Three Ships,” a song which dates to the 17th century. There is no way for three ships to come sailing into Bethlehem, so it is usually explained that the Wise Men on Camels are the ships. It is possible, however, that the ships refer to three ships bring the relics of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. According to church tradition dating back to the fourth century the names of the three magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, although this varies in eastern forms of Christianity (Casper becomes Gaspar or Jasper, master of horses, for example).

The arrival of the Wise Men is celebrated by some Christians on January 5 or 6, in association with Epiphany, the day Jesus was revealed. For example, until recently, in Spain children receive their gifts from “Reyes Magos” rather than Santa Claus. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic children put it a box of greenery (representing grass) under their bed on January 5 for the camels of the wise men.

Who were the three Wise Men in Matthew 2? They were not kings, although the song “we three kings” has kept that interpretation alive. The idea that they were kings comes from the fact that they bring gifts (i.e., tribute) to Jesus. Craig Blomberg, for example, says “The gifts used to honor the new king were typically associated with royalty” (Matthew, 65). Magicians and astrologers often were important advisors to kings. If they were not political advisors, they were certainly the educated, scientific class of the ancient world.

A Magus was an astrologer, although not in the modern sense of the word. They did in fact tell fortunes by the stars, but there were more or less the astronomers of the ancient world.  The same word is applied to advisors of king Nebuchadnezzar, in the KJV this is also translated as wise men, although they are court magicians or astrologers. As odd as it seems, having an astrologer in the court who would read the signs and omens in the heavens was common in the Ancient world.

Where are the Wise Men From? We are simply told “from the east,” likely following the spice route from as far away as Persia. The word Magus has a Persian origin, although they may have been from only as far away as Nabatea on the east of the Jordan.

It is likely “from the east” refers to Babylon, and that the magi themselves were Jewish astrologers who had determined that the time for the birth of the messiah was at hand. There was a lively Jewish community in Babylon from the time of the exile, and it is not unlikely that Jewish men were still functioning in local governments.

A potential problem with this identification is that they do not know where the Messiah was to be born, something which Herod’s own wise men knew. It would seem odd that educated Jewish men would not know this somewhat obvious prophecy.

10 thoughts on “We Three Kings?

  1. We have all probably heard the song, “We Three Kings” or may be dressed up and performed before. This Christmas song was written for a Christmas pageant but did not make it, rather it was released six years later (Long, 2010). There was another song that resembled this song that was written much earlier than this but was about three ships. Although they would not have been able to sail to Bethlehem, they could refer to when the relics were brought to the Magi. There are many things children may think about these wise men because of childhood stories and presentations. The wise men would not have come on the same day Jesus was born, but rather it would have been a journey, arriving over a week after the birth. They were also not kings. This title would have been given because they brought gifts, which could be associated with royalty (Long, 2018). They were high-up men that would have been educated at this time. These Magi would have been astrologers, those who charted the stars and attached religious significance to their movements (Strauss, 2007). The Bible tells us they are from the east. Scholars are not exactly sure where they were from but have some theories. Overall, these men brought significance to Jesus’ birth story as they brought gifts to Him.

  2. The songs, more than likely made for entertainment purposes, are great examples of how we as Christians can neglect to use discernment or seek out information for ourselves about scripture. I am sure that all of us were told that the wise men were kings in Sunday school, but who questioned it? I certainly didn’t. We are also not totally sure there were three of them (Strauss, 418). We know from Matthew that they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). All of these gifts would have been fit for royalty. It is likely that the wise men did not show up very soon after the birth of Jesus but could have taken place up to two years after, based on Herod’s insistence that all young boys under two years old be killed in Bethlehem. The wise men were likely very rich and potentially powerful from where they came from. Though likely not royalty, they might have been often associated with royalty and politicians. This is in contrast to the shepherds that heard the news before anyone else. These two groups of people, from different parts of the world, different economic backgrounds, different occupations, and potentially different religious beliefs, came to know that Jesus had been born. Based on their separate experiences, they came to understand the magnitude of the event they were witness to. God used common men to proclaim the good news that Jesus had been born.

  3. This post was an interesting read for me. According to Matthew 2:1, there could’ve been anywhere from two to many wisemen since the text only says “wisemen from the east” (HCSB). However, this common misconception is often linked to the number of gifts that were brought. Another thing I thought was cool was that the wiseman followed the star that showed where Jesus was even though Jesus was likely 1-2 years old. I thought it was amazing that even though it had been 1-2 years that the star was still there “above the place where the child was” according to Matthew 2:12 (HCSB). However, this raises the question of why it took the wisemen so long to get to Jesus. According to Strauss, the wisemen “came from the east” (Strauss 506). Though we are not told exactly where they were from in the east, it does hint that the wisemen or magi came from quite a distance away in order to visit the new king of the Jews. The wisemen were also able to tell Herod the exact time that the star caught their attention in the sky which is part of the reason why Herod was able to specifically tell the warriors under his command to only kill the boys of 2 years old or younger. For a final concluding thought, I think that it’s amazing that God brought both shepherds and Gentiles to meet Jesus instead of kings and those of Jewish nobility.

  4. I definitely remember growing up in church singing the tunes, “We Three Kings” and “I Saw Three Ships” and I never thought anything of it! I do not think I ever considered the three men kings though, always just as “wise-men”. Wise maybe referring to the fact that they could have been astronomers, or magis.
    It is very interesting how drastic of an effect a tradition of singing a certain song around christmas can have on our theology though. People around the world sing this song now, and undoubtedly most would assume and take the song’s word as truth that these three men were indeed kings. “It is in the Psalter so it must be true!” Some might say. I also never knew that the wisemen would have gotten there so much later after Jesus’ birth, I always assumed it was just weeks after. So Jesus could have been nearly two years old by this time. Interestingly enough, according to Strauss, “It is widely believed in the ancient world that the stars heralded the birth of great people, and the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus even speak of an expectation that a ruler would come from Judea.” (Strauss, 418).

  5. The story of “three kings” has always been very interesting. It really perplexes me why we still refer to them as kings when in reality they were astrologers. The songs such as “We Three Kings” are extremely misleading. While they are referred to as wisemen in the bible, we actually know little about them. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, this we know from Matthew 2:11. Regardless of who they were, we cannot deny that they treated Jesus how we all should. They showed him respect, loyalty and honor. What might be the weirdest thing is pointed out on page 506 of Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark Strauss which reads, “the number three comes from the three gifts.” Keeping that in mind we really don’t even know if there was three people who went to see Jesus. There could be any number of people who went to see Jesus. As I state earlier, very little is known about the wisemen, kings, astrologers. As time passes by I feel that more questions will arrive than answers regarding these “kings.”

  6. I find it interesting that the three wise men in Matthew were not actually kings, as I’ve never questioned it. My home church has a Christmas program every year, and when we were younger, the little kids dressed up as angels, shepherds, the 3 kings, and we would have a crib to represent baby Jesus. We would sing many of the well known Christmas songs, as well as “we three kings”. I’ve never thought to research beyond these songs. It’s fun to think about who they may have been and their significance and roles in society, as stated in the article, while they may not have been kings they certainly had some role of power in order to not only visit the Messiah, but bring him gifts of gold as well. It mentions as well that Herod told the three wise men to report back to him, but they chose not to after having a dream advising them against it (Matthew 2:12). In this, they were clearly high up enough to be trusted with the task of finding out where baby Jesus was – to bring him treasures – and to figure out where exactly he was. It’s fascinating to delve deeper into the topics that I’ve never further researched.

  7. The three wise man is something I think ever one who has grown up going to church, especially if you were ever in a churches kids Christmas play. I just had essentially accepted that there were some smart guys that rode camels to meet Jesus, and never really put much thought into. However, as many people may have assumed that they were kings of some sort, growing up, and hearing the story so much, I knew that they were essentially astronomers, or as it says, wise men, that offer up services to the kings. It is very interesting to hear more about the wise men, as when it comes to the birth narrative, they are mentioned, but after that they seem to be easily forgotten.

  8. This post reminds me of just how much we don’t know about the “wise men”. It brings to mind many questions. How many wise men did come? It would seem common for people with this amount of wealth and prestige to travel in large caravans. How did they get this much time away from their work if they were court officials. I don’t know how much Babylonian/Persian culture had changed since Nehemiah’s time, but he was a cup-bearer and had to get special permission to leave the kings court to go fix up Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1-2). How much gold, frankincense, and myrrh did they bring? What was its value? Is this how Joseph paid for the family’s flight to Egypt? Also, who came up with the thought that they were from as far away as Asia and are those names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, authentic (since they were from earlier on).
    I like the idea that these where Jewish trained/Jewish/Jewish converts. It would make sense in Matthew’s narrative which is more Jewish centered to have “wise men” from an outlying Jewish community come to visit. Another thought I have heard is that these men were trained in wisdom passed down from Daniel. This would explain why they do not know where The Child is to be born, but know something of His significance.

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