How Many Wise Men Were There?

Merry Christmas! How many wise men (or magi, more on that below) came from the East to visit the baby Jesus? Most traditional depictions show us three. But what does the Scriptural text say?

Simply put, Scripture is ambiguous on the exact number. We know there were three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), so it makes narrative sense to cast the story with one wise guy per gift.

But, again, the Biblical text merely says “magi,” which is a plural noun (Matthew 2:1-16). So we know it wasn’t just one. It could have been two, it could have been five hundred, or any other multiple number (including three).

And who were they really? The Greek term is the plural of magos, the root of which can refer to magicians or sorcerers (Acts 13:6-8; see also Acts 8:9-11).

However, New Testament scholar Craig Keener describes them this way:

“‘Magi’ (not ‘wise men’ – KJV) were pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world; astrology had become popular through the ‘science’ of the East, and everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East.”

Craig Keener. 1993. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), p. 48.

Another “Craig” New Testament commentator (Craig Blomberg) agrees as he adds another nuance to their roles:

“The Magi were not kings but a combination of wise men and priests, probably from Persia. They combined astronomical observation with astrological speculation. They played both political and religious roles and were figures of some prominence in their land.”

Craig Blomberg. 1992. The New American Commentary: Matthew (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), p. 62.

So these were important fellows, however many there were. I have always loved the juxtaposition between the shepherds and the magi, showing that Jesus came for the commoner and the politically powerful alike. And we haven’t even gotten into the timing of their arrival! But that’s another discussion for another time. Just don’t put them in your manger scenes next to infant Jesus and the shepherds (they couldn’t have made it there as fast as the shepherds, who were in the adjacent fields :).

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Dr. Jesse Joyner travels nationwide as a speaker and entertainer. His primary role is that of a performing juggler spreading joy and the love of learning to family and kids events. H earned his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). He enjoys playing the piano, bird watching, and old houses. He lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Sarah, and their three kids - the perfect number for juggling children.