Who Were The Wise Men?
by John A. Tvedtnes

Among the more intriguing figures in the scriptures are the wise men who visited the infant Jesus. The story of their journey to Bethlehem is found in the Gospel of Matthew, where we learn that they came “from the east” (Matthew 2:1-2) when Jesus was apparently two years old (Matthew 2:1-2, 7, 16). By that time, Mary and Joseph were no longer in the place where the shepherds had found them (Luke 2:7), but in a house (Matthew 2:11).

A common assumption is that the wise men followed the star from the east to Bethlehem. However, Matthew does not say they followed a star at that point in their journey, only that they had “seen his star in the east” and “came . . . from the east to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1-2). Seeking him who was “born King of the Jews,” the wise men inquired at king Herod’s palace, where one might expect a prince to be born (Matthew 2:3). Herod, after consulting with his wise men, “sent them to Bethlehem,” a few miles south of Jerusalem (Matthew 2:4-8). It was at this point that “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9). The star that had appeared two years earlier had also been seen in the New World, suggesting that it could not have led the wise men to Christ (Helaman 14:5; 3 Nephi 1:21). What, then, did the wise men follow from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? We cannot know for certain, but it is interesting that an early Christian document indicates that it was an angel in the guise of a star (1 Infancy Gospel 3:3).

Perhaps because so little is told to us in the scriptures about the wise men, numerous traditions have arisen about them, and some of these traditions are quite speculative. That later Christians would go to great lengths to try to understand these mysterious men indicates how significant their visit was regarded.

Some early traditions indicate that there were twelve wise men. The most prevalent tradition says they were three kings, their number derived from the three gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Psalm 72:10-15 is cited as evidence that the three “kings” bearing presents, gifts, and gold were from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba, identified by medieval Christians with Spain, Ethiopia, and Arabia, making the wise men a European, an African, and a Semite). Other Old Testament passages sometimes used to support the kingship of the wise men are Isaiah 49:7 and 60:3-7, which Christians have usually read as prophecies of the Messiah.

The Greek word behind the words “wise men” in Matthew 2:1, 7, 16, is magoi, sometimes rendered “Magi” in English. The word is Persian in origin and refers to priests in the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia. It is the origin of our English word “magic.” Zoroaster was accepted in ancient Persia, as among the modern Parsis (meaning “Persians”) of India, as a prophet, and is usually thought to have lived around 600 B.C. One early Christian tradition associates the coming of the Magi with a prophecy attributed to Zoroaster:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem, a city of Judea, in the time of Herod the King, the wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, according to the prophecy of Zoradasht” (1 Infancy Gospel 3:1; the balance of the chapter, mentioning the sacred fire, confirms the Zoroastrian origin).

The thirteenth-century traveler Marco Polo reported that the three Magi had set out from Saba in Persia, where their tombs were still shown in his day. Local tradition named three kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, names given the wise men in documents as early as the eighth century. The same names are used in Christian tradition today, though associated with non-Persian wise men. Chapter 9 of the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy names the Magi as Melkon, King of Persia, Gaspar of India, and Balthazar of Arabia. The names, however, appear to be Akkadian, the language used in ancient Babylon, whence names like these spread through other parts of the Persian Empire from the fifth century B.C. (When Daniel was taken captive to Babylon, the Babylonians renamed him Belteshazzar; see Daniel 1:7.)

The “fire worshipers” (Zoroastrians) of the village of Cala Ataperistan, three days from Saba, told Marco Polo of three local kings from the towns of Saba, Ava, and Cala Ataperistan who long ago went away to worship a newborn prophet. They brought to him gold (symbolic of his kingship), frankincense (symbolic of his divinity) and myrrh (symbolic of his healing abilities). Christian tradition refers to these three gifts as symbolic, respectively, of Jesus’ kingship, divinity, and passion.

There are even traditions that the gifts the Magi gave came originally from Adam. Several early Christian pseudepigraphic books indicate that the presents the wise men gave the infant Jesus had been brought by Adam from the garden of Eden. Noah subsequently took them aboard the ark, Shem concealed them after the flood, and the wise men later uncovered them (see Testament of Adam 3:6; Book of the Rolls folios 102b, 106b, 109b, 110b, 115a-b; Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan I, 31:9-10; II, 21:7-11; III, 5:9-10; 6.3-5; 7.14-17; Cave of Treasures 15b-17a, 20b-21a). In some accounts, the wise men also found the Testament of Adam buried with the relics and read Adam’s prophecy of the coming of Christ.

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