The Bible’s answer
Contrary to popular Christmas tradition, the Bible does not use the terms “three wise men” or “three kings” to describe the travelers who went to see Jesus after his birth. (Matthew 2:1) Instead, the Gospel writer Matthew used the Greek word ma’goi to describe those who visited Jesus. The word likely refers to experts in astrology and other occult practices. a A number of Bible translations call them “astrologers” or “magi.” b
How many “wise men” were there?
The Bible does not say, and traditions about their number vary. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Eastern tradition sets the number of Magi at 12, but Western tradition sets their number at three, probably based on the three gifts of ‘gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ (Matthew 2:11) presented to the infant.”
Were the “wise men” kings?
Although in Christmas tradition the visitors are often depicted that way, nowhere does the Bible call them kings. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, that designation was added centuries later as part of the traditions that “embellished the narrative.”
What were the names of the “wise men”?
The Bible does not reveal the names of the astrologers. According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “attempts to name them (e.g., Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) rest upon legends.”
When did the “wise men” visit Jesus?
The astrologers may have visited Jesus a number of months after his birth. This is evident because King Herod, who wanted to have Jesus killed, ordered the slaughter of boys who were two years old and younger. He based that age range on information he had received from the astrologers.—Matthew 2:16.
The astrologers did not visit Jesus on the night of his birth. The Bible says: “When they went into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother.” (Matthew 2:11) This indicates that the family were by then living in a house and that Jesus was no longer an infant in a manger.—Luke 2:16.
Did God have the “wise men” follow the “star” of Bethlehem?
Some people believe that God sent the so-called star of Bethlehem to guide the astrologers to Jesus. Consider why that cannot be the case.
What appeared to be a star led the astrologers first to Jerusalem. The Bible says: “Astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, saying: ‘Where is the one born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when we were in the East, and we have come to do obeisance to him.’”—Matthew 2:1, 2.
King Herod, not the “star,” was the first to direct the astrologers to Bethlehem. When he heard of a rival “king of the Jews,” Herod investigated where the promised Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:3-6) On learning that it was to be in Bethlehem, he told the astrologers to go there, look for the child, and report back to him.
Only then did the astrologers go to Bethlehem. The Bible says: “After they had heard the king, they went their way, and look! the star they had seen when they were in the East went ahead of them until it came to a stop above where the young child was.”—Matthew 2:9.
The appearance of the “star” set in motion events that threatened the life of Jesus and resulted in the murder of innocent children. When the astrologers left Bethlehem, God warned them not to return to Herod.—Matthew 2:12.
How did Herod react? The Bible says: “Herod, seeing that he had been outwitted by the astrologers, flew into a great rage, and he sent out and had all the boys in Bethlehem and in all its districts killed, from two years of age and under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the astrologers.” (Matthew 2:16) God would not have caused such a wicked thing to be done.—Job 34:10.
a Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E., said that the ma’goi of his day belonged to a Median (Persian) tribe that specialized in astrology and interpretation of dreams.
b See the New American Standard Bible, The New American Bible, The New English Bible, and the New International Version Study Bible. The King James Version refers to these visitors as “wise men,” but it does not say that there were three of them.