Three Wise Men History: Were They Wise? Who Were They? Why Frankincense?

By | December 22, 2020

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(Toledo Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone who's heard the story of Jesus in the manger knows that three wise men showed up at one point, guided by a bright star in the night sky, and presented the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But were there really three wise men? The Bible doesn't get specific about the Magi, who they are, or what these "wise men from the East" were doing wandering through the desert.

The Wise Men In The Bible

According to Matthew 2:1-12, the wise men followed a star to Bethlehem and started asking around about this king of the Jews they seemed confident had just been born. It caused quite a stir, especially with King Herod, who rounded up all the priests and intellectuals and demanded to know why so many people were coming to see this mystery child. They explained the prophecy, and Herod instructed the wise men to hit him up on their way back, but they were "warned in a dream" that he was sketch. After dropping off their gifts, they took a different route home and out of the Good Book forever. 

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(Hortus Deliciarum/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Were The Three Wise Men?

Because there's so little information about the Magi in the Bible, people have tried to fill in as much information as they can about these three travelers. Their names are never given, but because they feature so heavily in the nativity story that is told over and over in Christian culture, they had to call them something. According to Western tradition, the three kings of Persia, India, and Babylonia are called Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, respectively. In Syria, the wise men are named Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph, while other Christian cultures named them Kagba, Badadakharida, and Badadilma.

It's not clear how the Magi, who were initially only referred to as magos (a caste of priests and, yes, wise men), became kings. In fact, they were probably astrologers to the stars (that is, the priests), simple servants of the court rather than rulers. Between the third and eighth centuries, however, new translations of the Bible imbued them with this royal designation, specifically the line "May all kings fall down before him." Thanks to this combination of mystique and suggestion of significance, the Magi have become saints and martyrs in some traditions. Several churches even claimed to house their remains, but it's pretty hard to identify the body of someone with an unknown, uh, identity.