How the Wise Men Became Kings

by Eric D. Huntsman, from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 104

Matthew uses the term magoi for the special visitors who come to the child Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Nowhere, however, does he number them, but because he speaks of wise men in the plural, there must have been two or more.  Early artistic representations depict two, three, four, or even as many as twelve wise men visiting the Mother and Child.  The number three seems to have become established because of the number of gifts that they brought.

More interesting is how the Magi came to be viewed as kings.  The possibility of their royalty might have been suggested by their wealth, since gifts they presented Jesus were worthy of a king.  But early Christians seem to have made the connection with royalty as they reflected upon certain Old Testament passages, such as Psalm 69:29 and 72:10, that suggested that kings from among the nations would come to Israel bearing gifts.  Particularly significant, however, were passages from the prophet Isaiah.  Connecting the coming of kings with the light of a rising star, Isaiah 60:3 prophesies “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”  A few verses later some of their gifts, and even the camels that were later assumed to be their conveyance, are mentioned: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).[1]

While the various Eastern churches produced a variety of names for the wise men, by the third century the tradition in the West settled on the names Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior for the “kings.”  Eventually the three were associated with different continents and peoples, showing how all the nations of the earth come to honor Jesus.[2]

[1] Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 197–200; Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 168–170; Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, 93–95.

[2] Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem, 170–74; Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, 101–104.