Early Christian legends tell of twelve wise men living in the East. Their special treasure was a scroll written by Seth, the son of Adam. On this scroll was written prophecies concerning the Messiah of the Jews and the star which would appear at His birth. This group of wise men devoted themselves to watching for the Messiah's star. From generation to generation, every month, these twelve wise men would ascend into a mountain cave and spend three days purifying themselves in its fountains, searching for the star, and praying to be led to the Messiah. As each man died, his son or other close relative took his place. (According to some, when these men were not being wise men, they were simple farmers and only went up on the mountain for a few days each year after the corn was threshed.)
About the year 6 B.C., the long awaited star appeared. It shone brightly in the shape of a beautiful boy child with a cross glowing behind him. The star-child announced, "The King of the Jews is born in Judea. Go quickly to worship him."
Some say the Christ-Star miraculously enabled the wise men to reach Jerusalem in 12 or 13 days without stopping for food or rest. The journey seemed to last only a day! Others say the journey took about two years during which the Christ-Star taught them the Gospel of Peace and replenished their supplies of food and water so they had no need to stop on the way to Jerusalem. This legend was so popular that Chrysostom included it in his commentaries.
A later legend states that a young shepherdess named Madelon met the wise men journeying to Bethlehem and wept because she had no suitable gift to give a king. Catching the sweet aroma of a lily, Madelon looked up from her tears and found an angel standing before her with a wand made of lilies. As soon as she shared the cause of her sorrow with the angel, it waved its wand, causing the road to Bethlehem to be lined with white Christmas roses. Madelon gathered a bouquet of these flowers as she ran to catch up with the wise men. In Bethlehem, she presented her roses to the Christ Child and His touch caused them to glow with a pink tinge.
In exchange for their expensive gifts, Mary gave the wise men some of the swaddling clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped. She also gave them a little box with a stone in it. The stone was supposed to remind them that their faith ought to be as strong as a rock. Mary must've neglected to tell them that because, thinking this stone was worthless baggage, the wise men tossed it into a well. Whereupon fire from heaven filled the well. The amazed wise men carried the fire back to their own country and built a magnificent cathedral around it so that the people could worship it. Later, they were baptized and, giving all their possessions to the poor, they went about living a life of poverty and preaching the Gospel of Peace until their martyrdom in India.
Although it is common to see images of the wise men worshiping Jesus in the manger, two scripture passages make it seem more likely that the Child was a toddler living in a rented house in Bethlehem at the time of the wise men's visit. According to Matthew 2:11, the wise men came "into the house" and saw "the young Child with Mary His mother." And in Matthew 2:16, it is written that Herod put to death all the male children who were "two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men."
The star which the wise men followed appeared in fulfillment of the prophecy of Balaam: "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel..." (Num 24:17). The most likely scientific explanation for the Christmas star is that a triple planetary conjunction occurred in the House of the Hebrews (Pisces) on February 6, 6 B.C. and appeared to be a temporary new star. But no scientific explanation for the star's appearance is necessary. At various times, Christians have believed this star was an angel, the Christ Child, the Holy Spirit, or even a temporary star created only for this mission and then removed from creation.
The Greek word interpreted as "wise men" is "Magoi." It has several possible meanings. One is "deceiver." They were magoi because they deceived Herod by returning to their homes by a different route rather than betraying the Child to him. Another meaning for Magoi is magicians or sorcerers. The "science" of the Medes, Persians, and other Gentile nations of that time included astrology, divination, and enchantment. Chrysostom speculates that Christ chose to reveal His birth to such men in order to give future sinners the hope of divine welcome and forgiveness. (Astrology, sorcery, and divination are forbidden in the Bible. The LORD warns that unavoidable and unpredictable disasters will fall upon those who rely on such practices (Deut 18:12-15; 18:18; Is 47:11-24). "Magoi" can also refer to those who interpret dreams and offer wise council. Daniel was called the chief of Nebuchadnezzar's magicians because he interpreted the dream messages God sent to this king (Dan 2; 4).
By the 6th century, the wise men were referred to as kings in the popular imagination. This assumption is linked to such prophecies as: "The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (Is 60:3); "Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship.." (Is 49:7); and "The kings of Tarshish and of the isles will bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts" (Ps 72:10). The number of kings varied - usually being two, four, or twelve. Eventually, the number three was settled upon because of the three gifts they bore and the twelve wise men became known as the "Three Kings of the Orient" (Mt. 2:11). They are usually referred to as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Furthermore, some people believe each of the wise men came from one of the three continents that were known of at the time of Christ's birth. (See chart below.)
Caspar (a.k.a. Gasper) is alternatively portrayed as the oldest and the youngest of the wise men. He is believed to have come from Europe or Tarsus bearing the gift of myrrh. Myrrh is the fragrant gum of certain plants which grew in Arabia and India. It was imported by the Israelites for use in expensive perfumes and incense (Ps 45:8; Prov. 7:17; Esth 2:12; Ex 30:23). It also had medicinal uses. Because it was believed to strengthen a child and get rid of worms, the gift of myrrh signifies Christ's mortality, and His roles of the Suffering Savior and the Great Physician. It both a Christmas and a Passion symbol. At Golgotha, before He was crucified, Jesus was offered "wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it" (Mk 15:23). This drink was believed to lessen the pains of crucifixion. Myrrh was also used in the burial practices of the Jews. Nicodemus supplied a mixture of myrrh and aloes to wrap Christ's body when it was placed in the tomb (Jn 19:39-40; Mk 15:23). The wise men are said to have received the gifts of truth and humility in exchange for their myrrh.
Melchior (a.k.a. "the white one") came from Asia or Arabia. He is usually portrayed as an old man. His gift of gold is believed to have financed the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. It represents the immortality, purity, divinity, and kingship of Jesus Christ and His titles of the Light of the World, the Morning Star, and the Dayspring. Gold was used in both the temple worship (Ex 25:11; 28:2-30; 1 Ki 6:14-35) and in the worship of idols (Ex 32:2-4; 1 Ki 12-28). The wise men received spiritual wealth and the gift of Charity for their gold.
Balthasar came from Ethiopia or Saba. He is often portrayed as a black man of about forty years of age. He brought the gift of frankincense. Frankincense is the dried resin of Boswellia trees which, at the time of Christ, grew in Arabia, India, and Ethiopia. It was used in perfumes (Song 3:6; 4:6) and incense for the temple worship (Ex 30:9, 34-38; Lev 2:1-12; 6:14-28; 24:7). Because incense represents the prayers of the faithful rising towards Heaven, the gift of frankincense symbolizes sacrifice, Christ's divine nature, and His titles of High Priest and Son of God. The wise men were given the gift of Faith for their frankincense.
The gifts of the wise men were also thought to represent the three items contained in the Ark of the Covenant. Gold symbolized the manna. Frankincense represented the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And myrrh was emblematic of the rod of Aaron.
The story of the wise men may be found in Matthew 2:1-16. Their visit is commemorated on the feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night or January 6). On January 6th, four great events in the life of Christ are celebrated - the visit of the Magi (Epiphany); Christ's baptism in the river Jordan by John (Theophany); the miracle at Cana where Jesus changed water into wine (Bethany); and the feeding of the 5000 men along with their wives and children with five loaves of bread (Phagiphany).
At one time Epiphany was celebrated in much the same way as Christmas is now. Even today, in some countries, the wise men or their camels bear Christmas gifts for the children each year. In Czechoslovakia, the initials of the magi's names are written over the entranceways of houses to celebrate Epiphany.
Today, the bodies of the magi are in the Cologne Cathedral where they are venerated as saints and called the "Three Kings of Cologne." Their feast day is July 23. They have become the patron saints of travelers. Their names have been engraved on rings to prevent cramps and objects have been touched to their skulls and worn to prevent accidents.
Unless otherwise indicated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible.
Read more about the Epiphany at:
© 1997 by Suzetta Tucker
To cite this page:
Tucker, Suzetta. "ChristStory Christmas - The Three Wisemen or Magi." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1997. http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/wisemen.htm ().