Who were the ‘three kings’?

By Herbert Vego

“WE three kings of Orient are,” begins the song with the same title, “bearing gifts we traverse afar – field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.”

It is “the last song standing” at Christmas, as it summarizes the visit of the “three kings” to the child Jesus, which the Christian world celebrates every sixth day of January.

The Bible, however, says nothing about the “three kings” named Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar. Not even the number “three”; they were merely identified in the Bible as either “magi” or “wise men from the east”. The word “magi” is adopted from the plural form of the Latin word magus.

The original reference to the “three kings” came from the aforesaid song, which was authored by Rev.  John Henry Hopkins Jr. of the Episcopal Church of New York City in 1857.

The arrival of the magi is documented in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which says they traveled for 12 days to reach Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Roman Catholic Church attaches symbolic importance to these gifts — the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

That reminds us of another Christmas song, The 12 Days of Christmas, which seems to justify the extended celebration of Christmas to the first week of the New Year. This is because, counting from the day following December 25, the 12th day always falls on January 6.

There is no indicator, however, that the period marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the wise men. The 12 Days of Christmas as composed by English singer-composer Frederic Austin in 1909 reveals a different story of somebody receiving a unique gift set from his “true love” every day for 12 days.

In the new Catholic Church liturgy, the magi’s visit is also known as the Feast of Epiphany because it celebrates the “miracle” of the magi guided by a bright star to reach the newborn child Jesus in Bethlehem.

As revealed by the apostle Matthew, the wise men’s “search” for Jesus began in compliance with the order of King Herod of Judea (now believed to be northern Israel), who wanted children under the age of two killed.

Therefore, contrary to the popularized version, they did not arrive at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth; rather, they found the young Jesus, not a newborn infant, living with his parents in a house – no longer in a manger.

This could have been nearly two years after Christ’s birth, since Herod – fearful of a threat to his position as king – had asked them (see Matthew 2:7) to find the child for him.

It was only after the magi had met with Herod that the “bright star” shone, guided them to Bethlehem and hovered over the location of Jesus. The appearance of the “star” was the miracle that emboldened the “wise men” to disobey Herod.

With their change of heart, they proceeded to see the child Jesus with no more evil motive. They never returned to Herod to report their finding.

Assuming that the magi were “three kings”, why would they be afraid of a fellow king, Herod?

No known natural phenomenon would be able to stand over Bethlehem since all “natural” stars seem to rise in the east and set in the west, or circle around the celestial poles. Being millions of light-years away, there’s no way a star could pinpoint an earthly location.

Dr. Jason Lisle, an American astrophysics professor at the University of Colorado, has said in a lecture on the gospel of Matthew, chapter 2:

“The magi already knew that Christ was in Bethlehem. This they had learned from Herod, who had learned it from the priests and scribes. Whatever the exact mechanism, the fact that the star led the magi to Christ is evidence that the star was uniquely designed, made by God for a very special purpose. God can use extraordinary means for extraordinary purposes.”

Ahhhh… Oh well…

On second thought, no believer argues against God’s omnipotence.