Do We Know the Three Wise Men’s Names in the Bible?

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).

We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, Moor and mountain,

Following yonder star (“We Three Kings” written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.).

We all know the words, don’t we? “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” If we don’t know the rest of the lyrics, we can certainly hum along.

Other than the birth of Jesus itself, there is perhaps no other event written that has garnered so much attention and resulted in more Christmas traditions than the story of the Magi from the east who came to visit Jesus and give him gifts worthy of a king.

Wait though…Magi? Really? Isn’t it three wise men? No, wait, three kings, right? Well, yes…and no.

We see them in almost every Nativity scene — three men in glittering robes and crowns. If it is a living nativity at a church, the scene will include fake beards. And if not the “kings” we see the star. We all know the “three wise men.”

The “Star of Bethlehem” is a common sight at Christmas. Indeed, even the “12 days of Christmas” tradition and song is derived from the story of the men who visited the baby Jesus from the east, all bearing gifts.

Perhaps if Luke, the doctor/historian, had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had more details. But Matthew’s story is quite vague and shrouded in mystery. Where did they come from? “The east” is hardly specific.

What were their names? Matthew doesn’t say, and the other gospel writers never mention them. Who were they? Matthew calls them magi — but what are magi? Are they kings? Kings of what countries? Wise men? Sorcerers? Astrologers?

Centuries of intrigue have swirled around these three. Despite being among the best-known figures of Christmas, little truth is known, leaving only speculation. And for all that time, Christians have been trying to answer this confusing and difficult question.

Much, though, of what people think they know about the Magi comes from later Christian legends and traditions, rather than from the Word of God.

What History and Geography Tell Us

The term magi isoften referred to astrologers, or “men who studied the stars.” It should be noted that in that day, astronomy and astrology were quite interchangeable.

Whoever they were or wherever they came from, the Magi would have been men of great learning. The word itself comes from the Greek word “magos” — itself coming from an old Persian word, “magupati.”

This title was given to priests, thus quite likely could have been used to refer, more specifically, to priests of the Zoroastrian religion — a Persian (now, Iranian) tradition. These priests were rather known for their skills interpreting the night sky.

Thus, the Magi could well have been from Persia, which indeed was east of Jerusalem. Much of early Christian thought was along these lines. Many other traditions though have laid claim to the three kings. Babylon is often thought to be the birthplace of astrology.

Two of the gifts — frankincense and myrrh — were exotic spices more commonly found in Arabia. When the gift of gold is included, these luxurious gifts certainly further indicated that these visitors were people of great wealth and power.

They would have been very rich and held in high esteem by people who were not from their country or religion. Looking to the stars, one star, in particular, would have been very much in keeping with their religious tradition — looking to the heavens, the stars, and the planets for information about their god or gods. In other words, the Magi would have followed the patterns of the stars “religiously.”

As educated men, they would have been quite familiar with the Old Testament prophesies of a Jewish Savior, also known as the Messiah, from when the Jews had been held captive in ancient Babylon. Thus, they would have known of Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “…a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…”

Then, they had seen an unusual new star in the western sky. Something different. Something they believed told of the birth of that special king in Israel. Their faith, their religion, their education all required that they follow this star to see where it led.

Historically, the visit of the Magi has played an important role in Christmas celebrations around the world.

Traditions from Other Countries and Cultures

Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25, but that is hardly the end of the Christmas story. In many Christian traditions, there are 12 days of Christmas, culminating on January 6, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, or the day the “Magi” arrive to see the newborn king, baby Jesus.

This tradition comes from Matthew 2:11, which says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” Notice — they came “to the house…” not to the stable or manger. Joseph had already found a place for them to live.

The Feast of the Three Kings is celebrated in Spain and other Latin American countries. While socks are hung for Santa Claus, children put shoes out, when it was said the three kings would put money in the shoes.

In Mexico, their version of traditional King Cake — Rosca de Reyes — is eaten. In Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, kids also put out grass and water for the camels belonging to the three kings. The morning of the sixth, they wake up to find the gifts left by the kings.

In Bulgaria and Greece, Three Kings Day starts with the Blessing of the Waters. Then people jump into icy waters to retrieve a blessed cross. In many countries, there are celebrations with parades and festivals.

Armenians celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and Revelation of Jesus Christ on January 6. Christmas is not complete until gifts are opened on this special day.

Many scholars, in fact, attribute the names of the three kings to Armenian tradition: Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar. Legends are told about them, and often even descriptions are attached.

1. Melchior, often represented as the King of Persia, with a gold cloak, is said to have given the gift of gold to the Christ Child. In art, he is often depicted as the oldest of the three, and often with white hair and a long white beard.

2. Balthasar, often depicted as the King of Arabia or Ethiopia, is represented as a black man in ancient art, with a black beard and wearing a purple cloak. He is said to have given the gift of myrrh.

3. Gaspar (or Caspar) is the King of Sheba, who wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels and is said to have given the gift of frankincense to Jesus.

And we may not realize it now, but those names have an important meaning.

What Are We Celebrating?

Today, we have seemed to simply take them for granted. The three kings. The wise men. The Magi. Whatever you choose to call them, they have fallen into obscurity. Faded into the scenery of Christmas, not much more than a Christmas accessory.

Like the belt or socks that we got as a gift. Or the green bean casserole we’ll have with Christmas dinner. They’re a throw-in. We know they are there, but do we really know what they stand for anymore? What do — or should — the Three Kings mean to us?

While many of us don’t know the names of the Three Kings from the Bible, I believe they are important to the celebration of Christmas, as are the celebrations and the festivals around them.

Their names make it personal. These were real people in a real time. Educated people who realized exactly who it was they were visiting. They had ridden more than 2,000 miles on camels to come see, to come honor, to bring their very best to the newborn King.

Can you even imagine that? Today, some days we can’t offer Jesus more than a passing glance or a few minutes of our time.

Their gifts represented who Jesus is:

1. Gold. Associated with wealth and power, just like today, fit for the birth of the King of Kings.

2. Frankincense. A very expensive type of incense and perfume, representing our prayers rising up to heaven.

3. Myrrh. A fragrance embedded on dead bodies, representing Christ’s death on the cross — but also mixed into the oil used to anoint kings.

Indeed, the Three Kings gave Jesus their best and finest. The Feast of the Epiphany is now mostly now celebrated by Catholic and Orthodox Churches — it is a day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. God offering mankind mercy, grace, and reconciliation to Himself.

And the day that Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar — and perhaps many others — came to see the newborn King. Our redeemer. Emmanuel — God with us. 

Greg Grandchamp is the author of In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins – an easy-to-read, conversational-toned search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Grandchamp offers perspective as an everyday guy on the very same journey as his readers and listeners – as a disciple of Christ Jesus, and learning life’s lessons along the way.

2 thoughts on “Do We Know the Three Wise Men’s Names in the Bible?

  1. Ruth

    My Bibles don’t say there were three wise men or magi. My Bibles say wise men or magi brought three gifts. Seems there could have been 11 or 39 or 53 of these gentlemen. Or maybe only two?

    Reply

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