Mosaic of the Three Wise Men in Persian Clothing
(photo by Nina-no CC-BY-2.5 more)
According to Matthew 2:1-12, wise men (Magi) from the east arrived in Jerusalem saying:
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star (aster) when it rose and have come to worship him.”
How many wise men (Magi) made the 750 – 1000 mile trek from the east to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem looking for the one “born king of the Jews?
Were their names recorded in any historical record?
How Many Wise Men Traveled to Bethlehem?
What Were Their Names?
Because three wise men (Magi) are traditionally displayed in familiar nativity scenes, many people are surprised to learn the Bible doesn’t actually say how many wise men traveled to Judea looking for the one born “king of the Jews” (see, Matt. 2:1-2) and eventually finding him in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:4-11).
As explained by Barry Setterfield, the idea that three wise men traveled to Judea didn’t emerge until the third century and it wasn’t until the fifth century that the wise men were given names. [BarrySetterfield, The Christmas Star (2008); see also, Paul Maier, “First Christmas” (2001)]
Apparently, the idea of there being three wise men stems from Matthew 2’s reference of the wise men presenting Jesus with three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh (see, Matt. 2:11). [See, Paul Maier, “First Christmas” (2001); see also, Harold Willmington, Willmington Bible Handbook (1997)]
In the West, the names traditionally associated with the wise men are Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar (sometimes, Gaspar or Jasper) which emanate from a 6th century Greek manuscript entitled Excerpta Latina Barbari. Eastern churches adopted the names Hor, Karsudan and Basanater. Armenians took up the names Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Syrian Christians used the names Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas. [See, Wikipedia, “Biblical Maji” (accessed 12/17/08)]
As posited by Setterfield, regardless of how many wise men traveled to Judea, it is unlikely they would have traveled alone. Most scholars believe the wise men (Magi) were from greater Persia (an area located east of Jerusalem which included present-day Iraq and Iran) and were well-educated in various disciplines including astronomy, medicine and religion more>>. There are also indications the wise men may have been part of the legacy of Jews (including the Daniel the prophet) who were transported to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar after Jerusalem was besieged in 605 B.C. more>>
Some scholars, including Setterfield, suggest the wise men may have been members of one of the houses of the Parthian Government — the “Sophoi” (wise ones) and the “Magoi” (great ones) — or the Parthian priestly class. [See, Barry Setterfield, “The Christmas Star” (2009); see also, Frederick Baltz, “The Census and the Star” (2008)]
Given the elevated social and/or political status the wise men enjoyed as well as the fact that they were transporting very valuable items (gold, frankincense and myrrh — see, Matt. 2:11), Setterfield maintains the wise men most likely would have been escorted to Jerusalem by a large entourage of armed men to protect them and assist them on their long journey from Persia to Judea [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star (2008)], an estimated distance of about 750 – 1000 miles depending on their point of origin and route traveled.
Based on Matthew 2’s account of the wise men as well as other historical records which reference wise men (Magi), many Christian apologists and theologians believe the wise men (Magi) were members of the Parthian Government or Parthian Priestly Class and/or a legacy of the Jews (including the prophet Daniel) who had been transported to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C. (more >>).
Regardless, because of the limited amount of information disclosed in Matthew 2 about the wise men, there is no way to specifically identify them or come to a firm conclusion regarding how many wise men made the trek from the east to Bethlehem. Nevertheless, because the wise men were traveling with a treasure full of expensive items, it seems very likely they would have been accompanied by a large armed entourage to protect them and assist them in their travels.
© 2014 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: November 5, 2014 / Last Updated: December 21, 2014
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
Paul Maier, “The First Christmas” (2001)
Paul Maier, The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story, (Kregel Publications, 1st edition; 2012)
Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star (Freedom Films and Video, 2008)
Harold Willmington, Willmington’s Bible Handbook (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.,1997)
IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING
Slideshow Photo: Cropped photograph taken by Nina-no of the mosaic of “Mary and Child, Surrounded by Angels” completed within 526 A.D. by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare” in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Raveen, Italy which was erected by the king of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great, during the first quarter of the 6th century. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.orgwhich states the image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic. (CC-BY-2.5 )
Frankincense Tree: This photo was, taken by “Becky”, is of a Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) grown in Biosphere II. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Frankincense trees start producing resin when they are about 10 years old which has been used in medicines, perfumes and incense.
Myrrh: This photograph was taken by Alsterdrache in Oman in 2009. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.