How many wise men?

How many wise men?

Tradition has flavored a lot of things for us that causes us to see everything in terms of tradition instead of thinking outside the box.


Today I am offering a guest post to Don Johnson who will challenge us to see things without our traditional “glasses”.

How Many Wise Men? by Don Johnson (guest post)

The Question

Here is a fun question you can pose to your friends. Please be as specific or as general as warranted by the biblical text. The answer may surprise you if you have not heard this before. 

According to the Bible, how many wise men visited Jesus as an infant and gave Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

The Bible Text

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12, ESV)

The Succinct Correct Answer

The wise men included at least one man!

The Explanation

Although some traditions say there were three wise men (and even gives them names of Casper, Melchior and Balthasar), the idea of three men is likely due to the three types of gifts given, as the number of people is not mentioned in Matthew. Note that Matthew does not say there were only three gifts, just that there were three types of gifts.

As magi (Greek magoi) is plural, we know that there were at least two people, but a magus (singular of magi) could be a woman or a man (like a doctor today); although most were men. In Greek, the plural male form is used for a group whenever the group includes at least one male, up to and including a group of all males. So the most that can be said for sure is that there was a group of at least two people that contained at least one man — based on Matthew’s account, what we know from historical documents about the term magi, and Greek grammar.

11 thoughts on “How many wise men?

  1. One aspect to this is that it takes both knowledge of how Greek works with the male plural form AND cultural knowledge that female magi were possible.  If you do not know both, then one might think that the answer is at least 2 males.

  2. Thanks Don. My mom had pointed this out to me as a kid. But it seems no one wants to believe it. It really is amazing how we will believe tradition over actual words in scripture.

    BTW: Some friends brought me back some francincense from the ME last year. When I finally got it to burn, it smelled wonderful.

  3. I caught a Catholic believer on this a couple of years ago.  We started talking about the James Taylor song that sings about how God showed mercy to the Magi, sending them home by another way.

    The woman was shocked because even the liturgy separates their observance of epiphany from the advent celebration.  Epiphany comes a few days after the new year on our calendar.  She didn’t believe me until she realized the subtleties in her own tradition that identified the epiphany (“upon the revealing” of the Messiah to the Magi).

    It sounds like one of those trick questions on an intelligence test or the GRE.

  4. Off topic….

    Please pray for an ongoing discussion with a long time friend in my church.  We are debating the subject of female subjection to men in home and church.  One never knows how these discussion may end.  We could end up long time enemies.  But I am hoping for something better.


  5. Thank you Cheryl.

    It took an interesting turn. He acknowledged that my understanding of ezer may be correct.  After I answered a few more of his statements he decided he didn’t want to talk anymore.  I think I shook his pedestal.  :o)

  6. tiro,

    Interesting turn of events.  When the opposition no longer wants to talk, you have made your point well.  I recognize the signs quite well.  Good job!

  7. I do hope that is the way of it.  I know its a difficult conversation for him, although he didn’t think so at first.  At first he was all bravado, and said, “sure, give it your best shot”.  But underneath I suspect he is now  both angry and scared. Prayers are surely in order.

  8. He needs to digest these anomalies in his paradigm.  But he needs space to do it.  When he is ready he will ask more.

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