The Bible’s Viewpoint
Did Three Kings Visit Jesus in Bethlehem?
AFTER Jesus was born, notable persons from the Orient arrived in Bethlehem to pay him homage as king of the Jews. To this day many people throughout the world who celebrate Christmas commemorate that visit.
In some areas people build Nativity scenes that depict the Oriental visitors as three kings approaching the newborn Jesus with gifts. In other lands, children parade around their neighborhoods wearing the costumes of “the Holy Kings.” Even after 20 centuries, people everywhere still remember those unusual visitors. Just who were they?
Were They Kings?
The historical record of this event is found in the Bible book of Matthew. There we read: “After Jesus’ birth . . . astrologers from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem inquiring, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’” (Matthew 2:1, 2, New American Bible) Why does this Bible translation call the visitors from the east astrologers and not kings?
The scriptures here use the plural form of the Greek word maʹgos. Various Bible translations render it as “wise men,” “astrologers,” or “stargazers,” or they simply transliterate it as “Magi.” This word refers to those who give advice and make predictions based on the position of the stars and the planets. The Bible thus identifies the visitors to Bethlehem as diviners, who used occult practices disapproved by God.—Deuteronomy 18:10-12.
Were they also kings? If they were, it is reasonable to expect that the Bible would have identified them as such. Matthew 2:1-12 uses the word “king” four times, once referring to Jesus and three times to Herod. But not once does it call the Magi kings. On this point The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings.” Neither does the Bible.
Were There Three?
The number of Magi is not mentioned in the Bible record. Nevertheless, Nativity scenes and Christmas songs espouse the commonly held tradition that there were three. Evidently this springs from the fact that there were three types of gifts. Regarding these, the Bible says: “They also opened their treasures and presented [Jesus] with gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”—Matthew 2:11.
Is it sound reasoning to conclude that since the Magi gave three different gifts, there must have been three Magi? Let us consider the account of another notable visitor to Israel. The queen of Sheba once visited King Solomon and presented him with “balsam oil and very much gold and precious stones.” (1 Kings 10:2) Although three different kinds of gifts are spoken of, the only person mentioned as giving them is the queen of Sheba. The number of her presents does not indicate that three people approached Solomon on that occasion. Similarly, the three gifts made to Jesus have little to do with the number of people who brought them.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “The Gospel narrative omits to mention the number of the Magi, and there is no certain tradition in this matter. Some Fathers speak of three Magi; they are very likely influenced by the number of gifts.” It goes on to mention that various works of art show two, three, four, and even eight visiting Jesus. Some traditions favor up to 12. There is simply no way to verify the number of the Magi.
A Popular but Inaccurate Story
Contrary to popular belief, the Magi first arrived, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem, after Jesus was born. They were not present at the time of Jesus’ birth. Later, when they went to Bethlehem, the Bible says that “when they went into the house they saw the young child.” (Matthew 2:1, 11) So, it is clear that by the time the Magi visited Jesus, his family had moved into a normal dwelling. They did not find him lying in a manger.
In the light of the Scriptures, the popular story of three kings honoring Jesus at the time of his birth is not accurate. As mentioned above, the Bible teaches that the Magi who visited Jesus were not kings but astrologers who practiced the occult. The Scriptural record does not say how many there were. Also, they did not visit Jesus at the time of his birth, when he was placed in a manger, but, rather, sometime later, when his family was living in a house.
The popular narrative of the three kings and other traditional Christmas stories, although Scripturally inaccurate, are generally viewed as harmless holiday tales. Christians, however, highly esteem a form of worship that is free of falsehood. This is how Jesus himself felt. In prayer to his Father, he once said: “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) He said that “true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.”—John 4:23.
[Picture on page 15]
“Adoration of the Magi”