How many kings visited the baby Jesus?
“We Three Kings” is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857, and has been a popular favorite ever since. But did three “Oriental” kings really visit the baby Jesus?
Let’s look to the gospel of Matthew. First, the Bible never calls them kings; it calls them “magi,” using the Greek word magus, which led to our English word “magic.” You may recall King Nebuchadnezzar assigned the prophet Daniel to the high office of “chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” (Dan 5:11)[i]. In other words, Daniel was appointed Chief of the Magi. Magi would have been trained in, among other things, astrology, or watching the stars, but “[t]he Magi were neither astronomers nor astrologers in the modern sense. They brought together science, poetry, art and religion to explain and to understand their universe.”[ii]
Second, the Bible doesn’t say how many magi there were. All we know is that three kinds of gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In ancient times, these men usually traveled in caravans, along with a full entourage for protection, so there could easily have been a dozen or more. The Bible does mention that not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him” was troubled. The arrival of a whole caravan of magi asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” and wanting to worship him, would likely have had that effect. (Matt 2:2)
Third, although the carol doesn’t specify about Jesus’ age, the Bible does. He wasn’t a baby in the manger anymore by the time the magi arrived. After going into "the house [the magi] saw the child with Mary his mother…” (Matt 2:11) The Bible tells us the magi traveled “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…” (Matt 2:1) They were likely from Persia, a distance of about 1,000 miles from Israel, a journey which would have taken some time. (“The Orient” is that was used for the East, traditionally comprising anything that belonged to the Eastern world, with respect to Europe. The Western World was known as the Occident.)
So how old was Jesus by then? The Bible gives us some insight because the paranoid King Herod had asked the magi to find Jesus and then report back to him, ostensibly so he could also worship him (right!). But Herod didn’t hear back from the magi because they were “warned in a dream not to return to Herod…” (Matt 2:12) “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” (Matt 2:16) Herod did the math from when the magi had told him they saw the star, and slaughtered all the innocent male children under the age of two.
The popular carol “We Three Kings” is somewhat misleading. When the unknown number (more than three) of magi (not kings) from likely Persia (not the Orient) visited Jesus, he was no longer a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. He was likely a toddler, somewhere between the ages of 1-2 years old, and living in a house.
Let us be wise like the magi, and bring our best gifts to this child born King. As Adrian Rogers writes, “What will you give Jesus this Christmas? Your wealth? All that we have belongs to Him. Your worship? Fall on your face before Him. Your witness? I want the world to know that He died for me. Do you? My wealth, my worship, and my witness belongs to my Lord. And so does yours.”[iii]
[i] ESV quoted throughout. Underlines added [ii]The Star of Bethlehem|Was the Star of the Magi a Genuine Astronomical Occurrence? Hugh Welchel, 2007 [iii]The Gifts of the Wise Men and Our Gifts to Jesus, Adrian Rogers