The Bible refers to the three wise men in the gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 2:1-2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
These verses tell that the wise men came “from the east to Jerusalem.” The land east of Jerusalem at that time was the Parthian Empire. It was the area that, at one time, had been the kingdom of Babylon (founded in 250 BC). The Parthian Empire rivaled Rome, and Israel served as a buffer state between the two contending empires.
The word our Bibles translate as “wise men” is “magos,” which means a Magian, Oriental scientist, a magician, a sorcerer, or wise man. Modern day dictionaries define “magian” as relating to the magi of ancient Persia.
The Bible tells of the magi in the days of Daniel the prophet. Daniel had been taken to Babylon in 606 BC in Nebuchadnezzar’s first siege of Jerusalem, and he was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to rule over all the “wise men of Babylon.”
Daniel 2:48 Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon.
When the Medes and Persians conquered Babylon, they established a hereditary priesthood of wise men, which was known as magicians or magi. Just as Nebuchadnezzar had made Daniel the ruler over all the wise men of Babylon, so also when Medo Persia’s King Darius the Great reigned, he appointed Daniel to be master of the magicians.
Daniel 4:9 O Belteshazzar [Daniel’s Babylonian name], master of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in thee, and no secret troubleth thee, tell me the visions of my dream that I have seen, and the interpretation thereof.
A State Religion
Because the Magi could interpret dreams, King Darius declared the magi to be the state religion. The priestly caste of the Magi remained during the Greek Empire and became very influential after the death of Alexander the Great when the empire was divided into three large kingdoms, the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid Empires. The Parthian Empire, which stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates (now central-eastern Turkey) to eastern Iran, contended with Rome during the time of Herod and occupied much of what we know as Palestine.
During this time, the Magi held a dual priestly and governmental authority. Some have called them “king-makers” because they had power to give rule and authority. From this hereditary priesthood came the Magi of the Persian Empire. They were the wise men who followed a star in search of the baby who was born King of the Jews.
When the wise men entered Jerusalem and inquired of Herod, he was troubled (Matthew 2:3). Remember, these king-makers asked Herod questions about the birth of “he that is born King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod considered himself to be king of the Jews; and he knew that no heir to this title had been born in his house. The wise men also said that they had “seen his star in the east” and they had “come to worship him.”
More Than Three?
These wise men were not only three men on camels (as portrayed in Christmas traditions). The designation of only three comes from the fact that only three gifts are recorded as having been given to the Christ Child. From historical information, it is likely a cavalry of formidable men on horseback rode into Jerusalem. No wonder Herod was troubled. So also was the entire city. (Matthew 2:3)
Threatened by the Baby
Herod was not only troubled. He also felt threatened. Rome had named him king of the Jews and sent him to rule in Jerusalem and have authority over the Jewish people. Another to come would threaten his rule. It is evidenced that Herod took the claim seriously through his actions. He called upon the chief priests and scribes and demanded that they tell him where Christ would be born (Matthew 2:4). Interestingly, this reveals that Herod expected the Jewish Scriptures could answer his question — perhaps because he knew of prophecies that had already been fulfilled. The priests and scribes gave Herod the answer:
Matthew 2:5-6 …In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
Herod was so convinced that he conspired to secure his position and authority. With evil intent, he sent forth the wise men and deceitfully claimed a desire to worship the child.
Matthew 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When the wise men did not return, Herod determined to eliminate any threat to his rule and ordered children two and under be killed (Matthew 2:16).
Summary: Who Were the Wise Men?
The wise men were the magi of the Parthian Empire. The Bible only mentions three gifts presented to the Christ Child—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—therefore, it has been erroneously thought there were only three magi. However, it is much more likely that there would have been a large cavalry of Parthian wise men/magi.
Because of an out-of-context application of Psalm 72:11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him…, the magi have come to be known as The Three Kings. Tradition has even suggested that we know their names—Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. But we must remember that the Bible does not support them being kings, nor does it give their names.
Although Herod’s intentions and desires were evil and self-serving, God’s purpose and plan always reign sovereign. Herod required that all children two and under were to be killed (Matthew 2:16). But God, in His providence and omnipotence, protected the promised Child who had been born a baby in Bethlehem.
And being warned of God in a dream that they [the magi] should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt. (Matthew 2:12-14)
Read About the Wise Men
- Who were the Three Wise Men? Fact, or legend?
- How Did the Wise Men Know This Was the Messiah? How Did They Know to Follow His Star?
- Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 Days After Jesus’ Birth? Or Was It Much Later?
- WHAT is the Significance of the Wise Men's Gifts? Were These Men Kings?
- What’s the Story Behind “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry?
The Season of Advent (the 4 weeks before Christmas)
Will You Find Rest This Advent Season?
HOPE Advent Candle 1 – Prophecy Gives Hope (video)
LOVE Advent Candle 2 – Promise Reveals Love (video)
JOY Advent Candle 3 – Jesus Is Our Joy (video)
PEACE Advent Candle 4 – Pause to Find Peace (video)
Christmas Day: When Love Was Born — Light the CHRIST Candle
Christmas-themed GOT QUESTIONS?
- Misconceptions about the Journey to Bethlehem (video)
- Errors in the Nativity Story? Is Jesus’ birthplace wrong?
- Who were the Three Wise Men? Fact or legend?
- How Did the Wise Men Know to Follow His Star?
- Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 Days After Jesus’ Birth? Or Was It Much Later?
- What is the significance of the Three Kings' gifts?
- Was Jesus born in a stable, a cave, or a house?
- Was Jesus born in September (not December?)
- Should we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in September?
- Does “Xmas” Cross Jesus Out of Christmas?
- What is the Prophetic Symbolism of Advent Candles?
- The Most Important Lesson for YOU in the Nativity Story?
- Was Mary a Levite, making Jesus both King and Priest?
- Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?
- How did Jesus become a man?
- Do You Get These 7 Things Right or Wrong About the Nativity Story?
- Are You Stuck in the Middle This Christmas? (short video lessons from the popular comedy TV show "The Middle.")
- What are the Prophecies of Christmas? (video)
- Where are the genealogies of Jesus in Mark and John?
- Why Are There Two Different Genealogies for Jesus?
- Should I Say “Happy Holidays” Instead of “Merry Christmas?”
- A Boastful Christmas Letter
- Peace Delivers Hope
- Promise Ignites Hope
- Preparation Produces Hope
- Prophesy Reveals Hope
- Alone at Christmas? Feeling lonely?
- Another reason God came to dwell with man.
- How can you have a white Christmas without snow?
- Christmas, abortion, and Joseph, the forgotten man of Christmas
- Remember the Wonder of Christmas
- Will you find rest, peace, and joy this advent season?
- A Christmas Morning Prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
- I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, performed by Casting Crowns
- Mary’s Child — from the movie, A Christmas Wish
- The True Meaning of Christmas: The Sacrifice Began (How Many Kings)
- What If You Had Been There When Jesus Was Born? (video)
- Pause To Find Hope. Receive the Promises of God. See Jesus. Hear God’s Plan.
- Christmas Trivia Fun
- Songs of Christmas Series: Away in a Manger; Mary, Did You Know? Rose of Bethlehem; Good Christian Men Rejoice; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; I Wonder As I Wander; What Child Is This? The First Noel In the Bleak Midwinter (a golden oldie)
Have You Heard About This Baby Boy? A most beautiful rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, with a Christmas message to touch your heart and give joy to your soul.
Jesus is the Reason this Ministry Exists
We continue to reach people worldwide with the truths of God's Word and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Your generosity is both a blessing and encouragement. Our mission is to glorify God by equipping, encouraging, and empowering YOU to understand the Bible and grow in faith. If our online resources have blessed you, please support Reasons for Hope* Jesus. Our ministry outreach has grown significantly and . . .
Please support Reasons for Hope* Jesus with a donation of $5, $10, $20, or more. A donation of any amount is needed and greatly appreciated.
CLICK TO DONATE
to Reasons for Hope*Jesus(a 501c3 Ministry)
Use a Credit Card or PayPal for safe, secure giving.
***A Hidden Message in Psalm 23?***
Hidden in the six verses of Psalm 23 are 11 names for Jesus. When you subscribe to our newsletter, we’ll send you The Names of God in Psalm 23 PDF that reveals all 11 names and Scripture verses of comfort and hope (link will be sent in your confirmation email).
A Room with a View of Eternity—The Last Will & Testament of Jesus Christ Take a seat at the Master's table. Learn about the riches He gives to all who are His. This book will bless and encourage you, give you hope, and help you live in the joy of your salvation and the riches of Christ that are yours.
The Top Ten Got Questions? in 2022
- The Meaning of NUMBERS in the Bible?
- Was Jesus CRUCIFIED on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday?
- Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 DAYS AFTER JESUS’ BIRTH? Or Was It Much Later?
- How long did JOB SUFFER?
- What is the Significance of the Wise Men's THREE GIFTS? And were they kings?
- How are the Shepherd’s ROD and STAFF Different?
- Which Old Testament Book Did JESUS QUOTE most often?
- The Meaning of COLORS in the Bible?
- ONLY ONE LIFE, Twill Soon Be Past – by C.T. Studd (1860 – 1931)
- How was Jesus Like a Worm? What’s the CRIMSON (OR SCARLET) WORM in Psalm 22?
This is not a Got Questions? article. But it's so popular it ranked among the top pages viewed:
More Popular Got Questions
- Did Jesus Fight Satan to Take Back the KEYS of Death and Hell?
- How Did the Wise Men Know This Was the Messiah and KNOW TO FOLLOW HIS STAR?
- What do the 12 stones UNDER the JORDAN River mean? (Joshua 4)
- Jesus' Last Days TIMELINE: The Cross and The Crucifixion
- How Many MIRACLES Did Jesus Do?
- Is Leonard Cohen’s “HALLELUJAH” a Christian Song?
- Where did OT Saints go at death? ABRAHAM'S BOSOM?
- SIN, INIQUITY, TRANSGRESSION? How are they different?
- What are the NAMES of JEHOVAH Hidden in Psalm 23?
- Jesus in the Gospels: What are the Four Different Presentations of Jesus?
- If BAPTIZED as an Infant, Do I Need to Be Re-Baptized?
- Why Did God Create Man Knowing MAN WOULD SIN?
- What Did Jesus Say About HEAVEN (and HELL)?
- What are the “I Will ” STATEMENTS of Satan, God, and Jesus?
- Was MARY a LEVITE Making Jesus both a Priest and King?
- Why Was a RAM SACRIFICED in Genesis 22 Instead of a Lamb?
- Is Satan’s Real Name LUCIFER?
- Can Jews go to Heaven without knowing Jesus?
TOP TEN Videos from Reasons for Hope* Jesus
- Memorial Day BAGPIPES TRIBUTE: Amazing Grace
- RISE AND SHINE and Give God the Glory, Glory!
- WERE YOU THERE When They Crucified My Lord?
- PAUL HARVEY: THE BIRDCAGE
- PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: A SOLDIER'S PLEDGE
- Hark! the Herald Angels Sing -- CHARLIE BROWN Christmas
- JOHN WAYNE ~ WHY I LOVE AMERICA
- Jimmy Stewart - Nativity Scene Prayer: Mr. Krueger's Christmas
- THE LEGEND OF THE CANDY CANE - A Christmas Story to Share
- Not by Might, Not by Power, But BY MY SPIRIT says the Lord (Zechariah 4:6)
- Erwin Lutzer - We Will Not Be SILENCED