The Three Wise Men: History or Myth?

Dwight Longenecker
9 min readDec 18, 2020

In just twelve short verses the gospel of Matthew records the visit of mysterious magi to pay homage to the child Jesus. The allure of mystical wizards from exotic lands captured the imagination of early Christians. Matthew’s short narrative was expanded and elaborated to the Christmas tale we hear today.

But did any such wise men exist, and if so who were they and where did they come from? The predominant opinion among New Testament scholars is that the whole story is a fabrication — a fantastic myth devised to make the birth of Jesus extra special, but are they correct?

The Making of the Myth

The magi story began to be elaborated along with the growth of Gnosticism and early Christianity. Extra Biblical writings about the mysterious magi proliferated. The earliest apocryphal version of Jesus’ birth is a document called The Gospel of James or The Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium tells the story of Mary’s birth and childhood, her betrothal to Joseph and the birth of Jesus. The account of Jesus’ birth follows Matthew and Luke’s account, but there are some extra details: Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem, there is no mention of an inn as such, and the stable where Jesus is born is in a cave.

There is a midwife named Salome present, and as Jesus is born, a wonderful, mysterious light appears. In the Protoevangelium there are no shepherds, but the story of the Wise Men is told — obviously quoting from Matthew. Adding to Matthew, the wise men in the Protoevangelium say the star was so bright on its appearing that all the other stars dimmed in its light.

Around the same time one of the earliest Christian writers, Ignatius of Antioch (d.108) in his epistle to the Ephesians, waxes eloquent about the star, “A star shone in the night brighter than all other stars. Its light was indescribable, and its strangeness produced wonder. And all the rest of the stars with the sun and the moon made a choir around that star which outshone them all.” The exaggeration and glorification of the Magi story had already begun.

By the third century the idea that the magi were kings was starting to get traction. Tertullian and Origen mused on the Old Testament prophecies that kings would come to worship the Messiah bearing gold and frankincense and…

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Dwight Longenecker

Catholic priest, author and speaker. Author of Immortal Combat-Confronting the Heart of Darkness. Blogs at dwightlongenecker.com