Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How Many Magi (Wise Men) Were There? Three? - Matthew 2 Bible Commentary

About a month before Christmas, all across the world, nativity scenes begin popping up everywhere. These scenes contain many fictitious, invented elements that never appear in the Bible. The very presence of the Magi (also sometimes translated "wise men") at the nativity scene is a historical inaccuracy.

Sadly, even if the Magi were portrayed in the right way (hundreds of miles to the east when Jesus was born), there would still be a problem. Ever notice that whenever the Magi are portrayed there are always exactly three of them? The Bible never states that there were exactly three Magi. It is only an assumption, based on this text from the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew:
And going into the house they [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
The assumption is that since the Magi offered the Christ three gifts, then there must have been exactly three Magi. But is this really a good assumption?

The only information Matthew gives us regarding the number of Wise Men is that he refers to them as "they". From this, we can conclude that there had to be at least two Magi, but we have no way of making any firm conclusion beyond that.

Perhaps there were only two wise men, or perhaps there were twenty. We really have no way of knowing. It does, however, seem reasonable to conclude that, at the very least, the Magi would have brought along several servants. The wise men, after all, are thought to have been wealthy kings, and they were making a journey probably hundreds of miles long. It would have been almost unthinkable to not bring along guards and servants for what was likely a treacherous journey. This makes it all quite likely that the Magi's party had more than three people in it.

So the next time that you see a nativity scene with three wise men bowing down and giving gifts, know that the scene is mostly fictitious. The Magi were hundreds of miles away when Jesus was born, and in all likelihood, there were more than three of them.

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1 comment:

  1. Reading a novel right now -Map of Bones- about exactly this topic! From what I gather, we only think three kings are there were three gifts. Also, they were referred to at Magi which can mean king, magician, wise one, (wise men?) or a number of other things. Interesting stuff!