We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t

by Greg Lanier

They typically receive fourth billing in Christmas plays. Outfitted with oversized bathrobes and foil crowns, they present shoeboxes to the baby doll in the manger. Nearby are cattle-a-lowing, angels, and shepherds too young for speaking parts.

They are the “wise men.” Immortalized in Matthew 2:1–12 and seared into our collective consciousness by the song “We Three Kings,” these figures have been a mainstay in retellings of Jesus’s birth for centuries.

But what do we really know about these men? Narrative padding has tended to stifle their profound importance in Matthew’s Gospel. Yet by looking at things afresh—what they aren’t and what they are—we can better appreciate their role in heralding the gospel itself.

Indeed, God can use even pagan astrologers to inaugurate the worship of the world’s divine King.

Mental pictures of biblical stories can gain traction even if they don’t quite square with Scripture. Let us first, then, recalibrate some things about these “three kings of Orient” by asking six specific questions.

1. HOW MANY WERE THERE?

Tradition pegs their number at three. One is hard-pressed, however, to find that detail in Matthew 2. Three, which dates back at least to Origen (AD 185–254), comes from ascribing the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) to the number of men bringing them.

But church history is not uniform here: Two men appear in the ancient catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, four in the catacomb of Domitella, and eight or twelve in other medieval lists.

We simply do not know. Matthew just uses the plural.

2. WHAT WERE THEY?

The traditional “wise men” or “kings” are not found in Matthew’s account either. He simply calls them “Magi” (Greek magos).

Who are these mystery figures? Magos derives from a Persian word denoting a priestly caste, but it’s also used for interpreters of astrological signs or dreams. Philo uses magosfor the Egyptian sorcerers of Exodus 7. Josephus uses it for dream interpreters. In the Greek of Daniel 2, magoi appear with the Babylonian enchanters and wise men consulted by Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Acts 13:6–8 describes Bar-Jesus/Elymas as a magos. Some believed magoi legitimately possessed supernatural abilities; others deemed them charlatans.

Matthew’s magoi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena, as attested by their interpretation of the star. They were “wise men” only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings…

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