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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2005 Archives > January 2005 > Wholly Bible: How Many Wise Men Were There?

Wholly Bible: A View from the Pew

How Many Wise Men Were There?

Ray Waddle

My favorite Bible Christmas trivia question has always been, "How many Wise Men are mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth?"

Yes, it's a trick question. The answer is "none." The Bible doesn't give an exact number at all. We assume three Magi because they famously brought a trio of gifts with them — gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Wise Men are my favorite part of the nativity story. They are full of mystery, following the sky (for months? for years?) before they found Jesus. Were they astrologers? Gentiles? Kings? Every year, a new theory is brought out to explain their identity and origins. But they elude it, just as they eluded Herod on their way back home after their Bethlehem rendezvous. One recent argument says they were Iraqis — that is, they hailed from ancient Mesopotamia, today's Iraq. It's a small world after all.

The wildest version of the Magi story comes from the Armenian Infancy Gospel, written probably in the 6th century. The story gives the three Wise Men names and nationalities — Melkon the Persian, Gaspar the Hindu and Balthasar the Arab. They arrived from Persia with 12,000 soldiers on horseback and a bursting bundle of gifts — aloe, cinnamon, pearls, fancy fabrics and strange books sealed by the finger of God foretelling the birth of Christ, according to the Penguin Book of Carols.

Theories come and go, but the Wise Men keep showing up, trekking annually through the pages of the Bible. They symbolize faithful effort and wordless amazement. They never talk in the gospel story (found only in Matthew). Their actions speak instead.

I like the Wise Men for another reason. Tradition says they arrived not on Dec. 25 but Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas. This helps me stretch the feeling of Christmas beyond the rushed expectations of one day. The Magi remind me that Christmas isn't over the night of Dec. 25 amid the empty boxes and exhaustion. They were still on the road, following a star, readying themselves for redemption and wonder at an unexpected manger.

They are worthy mentors for the journey toward truth. They accepted the role of a lifetime, bore the difficulties of a long trip and delivered the goods. They kept an eye on the light no matter what.

--Ray Waddle is a writer based in Nashville, Tenn., and author of A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time [Upper Room Books , (800) 972-0433].

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