5 Common Myths about the Three Wise Men Story

  • Dwight Longenecker
  • Updated Dec 18, 2023
5 Common Myths about the Three Wise Men Story

Everyone knows the legend of the three wise men's visit to Bethlehem as retold every Christmas. Three Arabian princes followed a star to find baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This story has lived on over the centuries as a key part of the birth of Jesus. But is it truly factual?

We know that the Bible is inerrant, but do we know that throughout time traditions have been added to the true Biblical story?

You may be shocked to hear this, but there are multiple myths surrounding this brief story written in Matthew 2. 

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Who were the Three Wise Men?

Who were the Three Wise Men?

The Three Wise Men, also known as the Magi or the Three Kings, are characters mentioned in the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew. According to Christian tradition, they were visitors who traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Jesus Christ. The Bible does not specify the number of wise men; the idea that there were three comes from the mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Gospel of Matthew describes the Wise Men as following a star that led them to the location of Jesus' birth. They are often described as being from the East, and their identities and exact origins are not provided in the biblical account. Over time, Christian tradition and folklore have given them names—Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthazar—and associated them with different regions or ethnic groups.

The visit of the Wise Men is a significant part of the Nativity story, celebrated in Christian tradition as the Feast of the Epiphany, which is observed on January 6th. This event symbolizes the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men who were not of Jewish descent. The story of the Three Wise Men has become an integral part of the Christmas narrative and is often depicted in Nativity scenes and Christmas celebrations.

Bible Story of the Wise Men or "Magi"

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Micah 5:2)

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12)

What does “Magi” mean?

The term "magi" refers to a group of astrologers, wise men, or priests in ancient Persia. The word itself is derived from the Greek "magos," which originally comes from the Old Persian word "maguš." The magi were known for their knowledge of astronomy and other esoteric arts, and they held a special role in Persian society.

Kings were in the habit of gathering the best and brightest into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. Magi are consulted in the Book of Daniel and by Pharoah in the time of Joseph. The Greek word magi indicates these men were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams.

Myths about the Three Wise Men

Truth is, our faith allows a holy place for mysteries to persist. But if you’d like a bit more clarification of the myths surrounding these mystery men, here are some insights from author Dwight Longenecker:

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Myth #1: There were Exactly Three Wise Men

Myth #1: There were Exactly Three Wise Men

We have no idea how many there were. This was assumed because three gifts were given to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, we don’t know the quantity of those gifts or even if Jesus was only given one of each. There is no way to know how many.

Myth #2: They Rode on Camels

This is a common misconception. Whenever you see movies from this time period, the actors are riding on camels. However, people in northern Arabia typically only rode Arabian horses. At the time of Christ’s birth, camels were used as pack animals, but wealthy travelers used the more comfortable and swift horse.

Rejoice and give thanks for the birth of Christ with our FREE 25 Days to a Joyful Christmas Prayer Guide!

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Myth #3: They Followed a Miraculous Star

Myth #3: They Followed a Miraculous Star

Matthew never says that they followed a star. He says they saw a star, which history teaches is the Northern Star. The wise men were astrologers, and the star was an astronomical sign they saw that signified the prophecy of the Jewish king.  That doesn’t mean a star led them from Arabia to Jesus

Myth #4: They Were Kings

It is unclear whether or not they were royalty, but they were not kings. You can throw out the “We Three Kings” picture completely. They had royal connections and were trusted by King Herod.

SEE ALSO: "What Made the Wise Men Wise?"

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Myth #5: The Wise Men came from Persia, India, and Africa

Myth #5: The Wise Men came from Persia, India, and Africa

This idea was added to tradition later. They likely came from Arabia, not from other countries or diverse backgrounds.

Editor’s note: If you’re wondering a bit more about the origin and purpose of the wise men, here is some further clarification:

Where Did the Wise Men Travel From?

They came “from the east,” which, based on the nature of their gifts and Old Testament prophecy, means they most likely came from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Sheba. Arabia was known for its vast wealth from gold mines in Africa, as well as the Boswellian and Commiphora trees — from which frankincense and myrrh are derived. Of course, men from Persia could have brought these gifts, but they signify a giving of the best commodities from their own country to a neighboring King.

What Gifts Did the Magi Give to Jesus?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh have their primary significance in their value, which establishes their suitability for a King. Matthew 2:11 tells us these gifts were great treasures, given as worship, but they may have even greater significance. Gold was indeed associated with royalty, but it may also foreshadow Jesus' purpose: in 1 Kings 6:20-22, the walls of the Most Holy Place and the altar are overlaid with gold. Frankincense was part of the ceremonial worship of a deity. This gift underscores their belief that the newborn king carried a claim of deity. Myrhh was used as a perfume, anointing oil, medicinal tonic, and as a key ingredient in the mixture of spices used to prepare bodies for burial (John 19:39-40). Perhaps this gift indicated Jesus’ humanity and the manner in which he would save his people—that he would die for them.

Dwight Longenecker is a parish leader, award-winning blogger, and speaker. A graduate of Oxford and Bob Jones University, he has written sixteen books on different aspects of religion. He is the author of a new book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, available in bookstores now.

For more information, visit dwightlongenecker.com

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