Troublesome Topic: How Many Wise Men Were There?

Matthew 2:11


On coming to the house

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they saw the child with his mother

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MARY, and falling down prostrate, they worshipped Him.

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After opening their treasure stores

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they presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

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When they had arrived at the house they saw the child

with his mother, THE [PREVIOUSLY] REBELLIOUS ONE, and falling down with their faces to the ground, they worshipped Him. After they had uncovered the precious items they carried, they presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

You may already know that we are not told how many wise men there were and that the number three has been assumed because of the three gifts mentioned in the biblical text. I have already stated that it is very likely that they brought many other gifts as well. In fact, for each one to make such a long journey to visit someone of higher esteem than any other being on earth and bring only one gift would have been unthinkable. The fact that only three gifts were mentioned does not tell us how many gifts there actually were and it tells us nothing about how many wise men there were.

 Is there any way for us to know how many wise men there were?

No. There really is no way to know.

How likely is it that there were only three of them?

It is very unlikely that there were three. This is simply due to probability ratios. We know it was more than one, but that is all we know. It is likely that there was a group of scholars in an Eastern country who had started studying Hebrew scrolls and become convinced of what they read there. This group of scholars could have been large or small. Would all of the group make such a journey? We can assume that their level of conviction about what they had learned, together with the appearance of a special star (light in the sky) would have produced a strong yearning in all the scholars to make the journey. However, those who were very old, feeble, or sickly would have seen it necessary to back out. Therefore it could have been seven, or ten, or four, or twelve, or any other number for that matter. That is why I say there is a very low chance of it being exactly three.

This is the last lesson on the topic The Birth of Jesus. Thank you for taking time to read them!


1: “on coming to the house”

By now things had calmed down in the town of Bethlehem and most of those who had travelled there to be registered had returned home. We do not know if this was the house of relatives, or their own small home, or that of strangers. It seems unimportant because the text does not mention it. All we know is that it was no longer a stable, or no longer just a stable, for Joseph had fixed it up to feel more like a home. The same holds true for the theory that it was a cave or outcropping of rock, Joseph could have fixed it up so it now looked almost like a house. We should not quickly dismiss the words of the early church fathers, several of whom state that the wise men visited Jesus in a cave. I like the outcropping idea because it can be called a cave but it would have allowed Joseph quite a bit of freedom to build within it a structure which would cause Matthew to call it a house, thus reconciling the account of Matthew with the words of the early church fathers.

While there are many things we do not know, we can be confident that in those days, when someone suffered rejection, it was usually permanent and complete. In a small town like Bethlehem, which was proud of its heritage as the place of David’s birth, everyone would join in that rejection so as to not also become victims of the same. Therefore, it is a safe assumption to think that the same rejection which meant Mary was not given an acceptable or normal place to deliver her child was the same rejection which meant Joseph was not able to find a house for them to live in.  He was forced to fix up that original place they had found, whether it was a stable or a cave or an outcropping. In God’s wisdom, Joseph had the skills to do just that.

We don’t know with certainty how much time transpired before the arrival of the Wise Men. However, we can be sure that at least 40 days had passed since the birth of Jesus because Joseph and Mary had already been to the temple for Mary’s cleansing ritual.

2: “with his mother”

This verse makes no mention of Joseph. It may be that Joseph was not home when they arrived, or this is a way to emphasize that Joseph was not the father of this child. It is probably the latter.


To “fall down prostrate” with one’s face to the ground before someone was to say to that person, “You are far greater than I, therefore, I am completely at your disposal; do with me as you desire; command me to do anything you wish and I will do it.” Here these highly educated, wealthy men who had stood before kings and given them advice on what to do, were telling a baby that they would obey His every wish. What a beautiful irony!

4: “their treasure stores”

They would have traveled with their valuables well hidden, so it would have taken them a few minutes to access them. It may have required totally removing the saddles from the camels.

5: “gold frankincense and myrrh”

While these gifts were likely intended to represent things of value from their homeland, they were also significant in deeper ways. Gold was likely a recognition of His royalty, while frankincense and myrrh pointed ahead to His death, because both of them were used commonly in the process of wrapping a body for burial. In this way the narrative of Jesus’ birth is hinting at the fact that he was born to die; His greatest salvific act as Messiah would be His death (and resurrection).

These items were also very useful in every-day life and we can be sure they came in handy during the flight to Egypt. Frankincense and myrrh were two of the most common and useful essential oils of ancient times with a wide range of beneficial uses. Although it is ironic, there is deep significance in the reality that these two essential oils enjoyed widespread use in the maintaining of life and health, yet were also used to wrap the bodies of the dead.

Gift-giving was practiced widely and could often be lavish. The more important the person was that the gifts were intended for, the more costly and numerous the collection of gifts became. Since they were convinced that this baby would prove to be someone of inestimable value, their give-giving had to match their belief, or they would be seen as liers. It is likely therefore, that these three were not the only gifts given, but rather these were the most noteworthy and spiritually significant gifts. All the wisemen, however many there were, probably gave gold, and all of them probably gave spices and fine articles of clothing, as well as various other articles.