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.