The 12 Myths of Christmas #6

MYTH 6: THERE WERE THREE WISE MEN

No. Not three, necessarily. The Bible simply does not say. Two or more, for sure since it says wise men—plural. 

Here’s what Matthew 2 says:

2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

How ever many there were, certainly made a stir in Jerusalem. It made Herod and “all Jerusalem” troubled. They must have made quite an entrance. 

The idea of three wisemen, or MAGI, comes from the truth that they brought three types of gifts. Matthew 2:11 says:

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

But nowhere does the Bible say there were THREE travelers. Some scholars say tradition puts the number at twelve. There undoubtedly could have been more like seventy. 

Have you read this prophesy from Isaiah?

Isaiah 60:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.

Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.

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 shew forth the praises of the Lord.

What does this passage mean? It SEEMS to be about Israel gaining light. It SEEMS to say Gentiles and kings shall come to the light of Israel. It speaks of multitudes of camels from THREE places bringing gold and frankincense. 

Is there a connection between this passage and the story in Matthew of the wise men? It looks like it. But that’s the thing about prophesies. They’re enigmatic and mysterious. Could there have been multitudes of camels bearing many wise men? Or did they ride horses or chariots? 

Actually, Matthew does not even mention camels. Another assumption since they came from the east, is that they rode camels—an appropriate beast of burden for the time and place, but oddly, not really mentioned.

What we DO know is the wise men brought three types of gifts listed in the text—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These had definite symbolic meanings as well as practical value. Gold was a gift for a king. Frankincense was an incense used by priests for sacrifice. It’s two-fold symbol harkens to a priest and a sacrifice. Both of which Jesus was born to be.

Myrrh was an odd gift for a baby. Matthew 27:34 refers to it as “gall.” Myrrh comes as sap from a small bushy tree cultivated in ancient times in the Arabian Peninsula. It was used raw or crushed and mixed with oil to make a perfume. It was also used medicinally to reduce swelling and stop pain and was used in the embalming process. Myrrh symbolizes suffering, bitterness, and death. Expensive, yes. Symbolic of what was to happen to Jesus, yes.

This Christmas, let’s look beyond the three men, to their three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, that all foretold the amazing, symbolic, astonishing message that the Messiah—the Son of God—was born for us.

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