One of my family’s favorite television shows is Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. On this program, co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage scientifically test popular assumptions, with the result either being that the myth is confirmed or busted. The story of the wise men who came and worshiped baby Jesus is a familiar one, but there are a lot of unbiblical misconceptions about this story. Maybe you don’t know the story as well as you thought you did. In this post, we’ll see just how well you know this story as I play myth-buster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. I will follow up this post with one tomorrow that will consider the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men. A final post on Thursday will offer three practical applications that we can learn from the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2:1-12.
There are at least three common misconceptions about the Wise Men that are perpetuated every year by Christmas cards, carols, plays, and nativity scenes. They are their total (how many), their title (what are they called), and their timing (when did they come).
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that there were three Wise Men. The Greek term (magoi) used is plural indicating that there were more than one, but no specific number is given. The number three, of course, is based on the fact that three gifts were given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There could have been three Magi, but virtually any other number is almost as likely. Pick a number, any number.
Nowhere in Scripture are they called kings. This legend was probably originally based on passages like Psalm 72:10, 15, and Isaiah 49:7 which speak of kings bringing gifts to Israel’s Redeemer. Of course, no where do those texts say that these gifts will be brought to the Christ child. I think they are probably best interpreted as referring to the future age in which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord.
Seven hundred years after the birth of Christ, these “three kings” are even given names: Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. In Scripture they are simply called “wise men” or (magoi) from which we get the term Magi. It can mean one who is trained in astrology and dream interpretation or a magician/sorcerer. These were obviously astrologers because they came in response to a star which they had seen. In short, there was only one King present when the Wise Men visited, and his name was Jesus!
Nativity scenes regularly depict the “three kings” kneeling with their gifts before the manger along with the shepherds, cows, donkeys, etc. This almost certainly did not happen. The visit of the Magi could have been as much as two years after the birth of Jesus. It is very possible that Jesus was already walking and talking by the time the Wise Men arrived. There are at least two reasons for this conclusion. First, verse 11 clearly states that Mary and the Child were in “the house.” No cattle were lowing, no shepherds were present, no baby was in a manger. Enough time has elapsed for Joseph to secure a place for his family to live. Second, Herod asks the Wise Men when they began to see the star (v. 7) and on the basis of that knowledge had all the male children killed who were 2 years old or younger (v. 16). Evidently the Magi told him that they had begun to see the star signaling Christ’s birth 1-2 years earlier. In other words, contrary to what is commonly assumed, there were not three kings kneeling at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth.
In tomorrow’s post, I will set forth a more positive account of what the Bible actually says about the wise men and the significance of their gifts to the Christ-child.