Who Were the Three Wise Men?

Transcript from a lecture series by Professor Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt University

The Magi, the ‘Three Wise Men’ who provide gifts for the Virgin and the baby, show up in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. And although the carol ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ remains popular, it’s not clear that the Magi are kings, that there are three, that they are from the Orient, or even that they are very wise.

Magi are not kings. Magi is simply the plural of magus. They’re magicians and astrologers. The Gospel never calls them kings. The association of the Magi with kings begins around the 6th century. It is at this time that the star they follow becomes imaged as the Greek letters chi and rho, the sign of Constantine. What is the 6th-century theologian telling us? As one pays homage to the child Jesus, so one should pay homage to the emperor, the Byzantine emperor, the Roman emperor, the representative of both church and state.

Magi as Servants

byzantine mosaic showing three wise men
The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c. 565.

There are proof texts to support the identification of the Magi with kings. For example, in the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 60, we read, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Verse 6 says, “They shall bring gold and frankincense.” In Psalm 72, we find a prediction: “The kings of Tarshish and the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.”

St. Matthew by Rembrandt
Matthew, author of the biblical gospel

But Matthew does not want these Magi to be kings. To the contrary, Matthew does not favor earthly kings at all. King Herod—and Matthew quite deliberately tacks on King to Herod’s name—represents Roman rule, and he is horrible. He’s involved with the slaughter of the innocents. Pilate also represents Roman rule, and he’s a coward. Satan, at Jesus’s temptation, will offer Jesus all of earthly rule, as if Satan had the power to bestow it. Jesus himself states, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” Indeed, Matthew’s Herod treats the Magi as servants, which is appropriate, because the Magi actually were often viewed as servants in royal courts.

Magi as Troublesome

painting of Herod of Antipas by James Tissot
Herod Antipas, 1st-century ruler of Galilee

When the Magi tell Herod about this newborn child, Herod becomes frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, so Herod makes inquiries about this Messiah: Where is he to be born? And he’s told by his wise men and scribes, “In Bethlehem.” This allows Matthew another fulfillment citation to explain why the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem. “Then,” Matthew says, “Herod secretly called the Magi and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word that I may also go and pay him homage.’” Herod has no desire to do anything of the sort. Herod is interested solely in killing a potential rival. So Herod treats the Magi as servants, and the Magi, being warned in a dream, do not report back to Herod.

Herod has no desire to do anything of the sort. Herod is interested solely in killing a potential rival.

In fact, the Magi in antiquity occasionally carried the reputation of engaging in impolitic action and not doing what the government wanted, so much so that the Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Tiberius the emperor banished all Magi from Rome in the year 19 C.E. Nevertheless, there is a Persian legend that speaks of Magi being present at the birth of King Cyrus of Persia, and strangely enough, the prophet Isaiah refers to King Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed,” the Lord’s mashiach, and it’s likely that Matthew knew that story.

Not Always Men, Not Always Three, Not from the Orient?

In terms of the other legends concerning the Magi, they haven’t always been perceived to be male; and if one looks at Renaissance art, very typically one of them—usually the one shown as African—is effeminate, often with women’s clothing and jewelry. It’s the way Europeans looked at Africa and Asia—as places of mystery, as peoples who are exotic. Eventually, they gain names—Caspar, Balthassar, and Melchior—and medieval churches even claimed to have their relics.

If they’re not kings and they’re not necessarily men, are they three? Again, not necessarily. The number of Magi has varied across the centuries.

If they’re not kings and they’re not necessarily men, are they three? Again, not necessarily. The number of Magi has varied across the centuries. The word is plural; all we know is that there are more than one. How about “from Orient are”? Matthew states that the Magi see the star anatole, “at its rising” or “in the east.” The word could be translated either way. Given the possible variation in translation, early Christian art actually associates them with the Roman faithful. And thus in early Christian art, the Magi are not depicted as traveling from the east in Babylon to Israel; they’re depicted as traveling the other way, from Rome to the east. So were they from the Orient? Not necessarily.

The Star of Bethlehem

image of a nativity scene featuring the Three Wise Men and the star of bethlehem
The star of bethlehem interpreted as a comet by the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone.

The star itself, a source of substantial astronomical speculation, might, in fact, better be taken as part of ancient lore. Astronomical portents were expected for great figures in antiquity. They would show up at the birth and at the death of famous men, and that’s in part why we see, at the crucifixion, portents in nature—for example, earthquakes and the world becoming dark. No star shines directly over a house such that people can follow it. It’s difficult to find a star shining directly over a city, for that matter.

The Three Fools

image of the three wise men
The Magi would have been considered by Matthew’s audience likely to be figures not of wisdom, but of foolishness.

The New Testament writers, the evangelists, certainly knew not only how to teach but also how to entertain, and how to draw people in. The Magi would have been considered by Matthew’s audience likely to be figures not of wisdom, but of foolishness. We know from Philo of Alexandria, as well as from documents that are in Aramaic (called Targums, and they paraphrased the Old Testament for Jews who could no longer read or speak the Hebrew; the Aramaic is like a translation model for them), that the Magi are equated with Balaam, a figure who shows up in the book of Numbers. Balaam is perhaps most famous for having a donkey who was smarter than he.

The only explicit reference to Magi in the Septuagint, where the word is actually used, is in the book of Daniel, chapter 2, where Magi are summoned by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, not only to interpret his dream but also to tell the king what he, in fact, dreamed. Thank heaven for the prophet Daniel, who was able to tell the king what he wants. Otherwise, all those Magi would have been killed. But the point here is that the Magi cannot practice magic. At best, they’re fools.

Bede, the English Doctor of the Church—known as “the Venerable Bede”

The term “wise men” was actually first applied to the Magi by a man who was himself wise, the venerable Bede, an 8th-century British monk, but Matthew’s readers would not have seen these figures as wise. Indeed, to inquire in Jerusalem, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” is, at best, politically non-astute, because Herod, who was called the king of the Jews, is on the throne, and his paranoia was legendary. The Magi show no knowledge of this extremely well-known paranoia. Herod had, at this point, killed several of his children, his in-laws, and others he felt were rivals to his crown, and so the Magi also show no awareness of Herod’s plot to kill his rival. If “wise men” means book-based wisdom, then Matthew is not in favor of it. As Jesus states in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the wise, and revealing them to the simple.”

So the import of the Magi is not that they’re kings and certainly not that they’re wise. To the contrary, they’re figures of foolishness. They’re figures of simplicity, and yet they—not Herod the Great in Jerusalem and not Herod’s wise men and councilors—they, the Magi, get the point about the newborn king.

From the lecture series Great Figures of the New Testament
Taught by Professor Amy-Jill LevineVanderbilt University
Image of the Three Wise Men on a map courtesy: By Kattigara – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of the Three Wise men in Persian dress courtesy: By Nina-no – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
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