No nativity scene is complete without the three wise men presenting their gifts to baby Jesus, a gigantic star hovering over a stable bathing them in light. It’s such a beautiful picture, majestic kings kneeling in the hay with the shepherds among the oxen and cattle, all adoring a baby in a manger.
Except that isn’t what happened.
Who were the wise men really? Where did they come from? Did they ever see the stable? And were there actually three of them?
The answers may not be what you think.
What Does the Bible Say about the Wise Men and the Christmas Story?
The wise men are mentioned in Matthew 2.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).
Matthew goes on to record their search for Jesus. They went to the court of King Herod and asked him where they would find “the king of the Jews” that had been born. Herod called together the chief priests and teachers of the law, who determined that, according to the Old Testament prophecies, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
They discovered Jesus in a house (notably, not a stable) in Bethlehem according to the prophecies and brought him gifts. God then warned them in a dream not to let King Herod know where Jesus was, so they returned home without telling Herod, who was secretly plotting to kill Jesus.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Robert Thiemann
Who Were the Wise Man/Magi in the Christmas Story?
The Greek word μαγοι (mάgoi) is translated as “wise men” or “magi” depending on the English translation. This word was originally meant to refer to a class of Persian wise men that were something like priests, interpreters of special signs, and especially astrology.
Eventually, the word came to be used for anyone who had supernatural knowledge or ability, or a magician. The same word is used in Acts 13:6 to describe the false prophet Bar-Jesus. It could even mean a deceptive person; the NIV translates the word to “sorcerer” in describing Bar-Jesus.
Mάgoi as used to refer to the wise men is probably in line with the first definition. Like these Persian wise men, the magi were interested in astrology (they followed a star) and they were from the east (the direction of Babylon/Persia).
Sometimes the magi are referred to as kings, but the Bible never calls them that.
How Many Wise Men Were There in the Christmas Story?
The Bible never says how many magi there were. There were at least two, but there is no indication other than that. The idea of three wise men probably comes from the fact that they brought three gifts. Early church traditions actually suggested that there were twelve wise men, but we have no idea.
What Was the Star They Followed in the Christmas Story?
No one is exactly sure what star the wise men followed, or whether it was even a “star” in the strictest sense at all.
Some have suggested a supernova. Others have suggested a comet. Many theories concern a specific massing of planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, inside of meaningful constellations, like Pisces.
There are many astronomical happenings that could potentially fit the bill due to the meanings planets and constellations had for ancient astrologers. For example, Jupiter and Saturn were planets of rulers, and Pisces was associated with Israel. When these three came together in 7 B.C., some scholars postulate that this could have been what the magi saw. There are other such theories involving various other planets and constellations. You can read about some of them here.
Others, however, believe that the star was a supernatural manifestation that can’t be explained scientifically.
Whatever the star was, the important thing is that it led the wise men to Jesus.
Why Did the Wise Men Bring Jesus Gifts in the Christmas Story?
The wise men believed that Jesus was “the king of the Jews” whose birth had been portended by a powerful sign in the skies. They expressed a desire to worship Him (Matthew 2:2).
We don’t know enough about the wise men to know exactly why they found a king of the Jews so important. Was the sign in the heavens so powerful? Had they heard the importance of the Messiah from eastern Jews? (Many Jews remained in Babylon/Persia after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C. and did not return to Israel.) Since God later appeared to them in a dream, had they learned of Him in some other way?
In the end, they traveled from afar and brought Jesus gifts because they believed He was a king and worthy of worship.
Why Did the Wise Men Bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh in the Christmas Story?
These three gifts were very costly, and thus the very best, fit for a king. These were also traditionally imported from the Arabian peninsula or Africa, which means the wise men were bringing the best of their homeland.
Christians now point to more symbolic reasons, which the wise men may or may not have originally intended.
Gold is a symbol of divinity, pointing to Christ’s identity as the Son of God.
Fragrant frankincense was often burnt as an offering to God. This could symbolize the fact that Jesus would give Himself up as a sacrifice.
Myrrh was a spice used in embalming. It symbolizes bitterness and suffering. This could symbolize how Jesus would grow up to suffer and die.
How Old Was Jesus When the Wise Men Came in the Christmas Story?
Contrary to traditional nativity scenes and Christmas pageants, the wise men most likely did not arrive to see Jesus in the manger. Most scholars believe Jesus was a year or two old by the time the wise men visited.
The earliest the wise men could have visited would be a couple of days after Jesus’ birth; since the angelic announcement to the shepherds implies that Jesus was born at night, it’s highly unlikely that the wise men obtained an audience with Herod, and then with the chief priests and teachers of the law, in the middle of the night. They would also have to travel the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where they then found Mary and Jesus at a house.
However, a year or two passing is not unlikely. At the point the wise men reach the house in Bethlehem, the word Luke uses to describe Jesus means “young child,” implying He may no longer have been a baby. Herod was also aware of the time the star appeared, courtesy of the wise men, and when he tried to have Jesus killed to protect his own power, he had all the baby boys two years and younger killed. Jesus escaped only because an angel told Joseph to take the family away to Egypt to hide.
Jesus’ exact age thus isn’t known, but He most likely was not a newborn.
Why Was the Wise Men’s Visit Significant for Jesus’ Birth in the Christmas Story?
The wise men, regardless of where they came from specifically, came from afar. Jesus’ birth wasn’t just important for the Jews; it was important for all the world.
The wise men honored Jesus’ kingship and reign long before most realized who He was. The angels appearing to shepherds showed that God cared about the lowly; the magi from the east gave Jesus the worship as a king that He deserved, showing a glimpse of His majesty. This made King Herod so fearful for his own power that he tried everything to kill Jesus—and failed.
The wise men were vigilant. When they saw the signs of the coming king, they gathered precious treasures and set out to find Him. They sought Him earnestly, and when they found Him, they worshipped Him. May we follow their example.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/kevron2001
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
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What were the prophecies of Jesus' birth in the Bible? How many references did the Old Testament make to the coming of a messiah to save the children of Abraham? See the numerous biblical prophecies of the birth of Jesus Christ and what we can learn from the Old Testament about His divinity in this collection of scripture quotes.