How many wise men came after Jesus was born?

by Luke Wayne
11/9/16

It is well known that Mathew 2 describes a group of magi (or "wise men") coming to worship Jesus after His birth.

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'" (Matthew 2:1-2).

Though it is a popular tradition to picture exactly three magi, the Bible never tells us how many magi came. The notion of three magi is very ancient and shows up in a number of different streams of Christian tradition (with a wide variety of different names given to the three), but it hardly goes back to the earliest days of the church, and there is no direct biblical support for it. The most likely explanation for the tradition of three magi is that the Bible describes the magi bringing three distinct gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This could lend itself to the idea of three men, each bringing one of the gifts, though the Bible does not actually describe it that way.

"After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way" (Matthew 2:11-13).

Nothing in this hints at three men with three separate gifts. It simply mentions the three valuable substances that the wise men brought.

It does seem likely, however, that the party of magi would have been fairly small. Their valuable gifts do not appear to have been so numerous and cumbersome as to prevent Mary and Joseph from fleeing abruptly to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15) nor to have been of such great value as to propel Jesus' family to wealth and prosperity. It was probably no more than enough to provide for their temporary flight to Egypt. The magi were also able to slip away and travel home unnoticed (Matthew 2:12) which seems unlikely if their number was very large. Considering that the magi would have almost certainly traveled with attending servants, three magi would actually represent a reasonably sized group and would fit the narrative well. If we are being honest, however, the idea of exactly three magi is purely a traditional legend, and there is no way we can know for sure how many magi there were.