Three Wise Men



Deriving from the account of the Gospel of Matthew, there is a traditional depiction of three wise men from the east visiting the event, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Though wise men or kings is the traditional understanding, the Bible actually refers to Magi, the Persian caste that were priests of a form of the Zoroastrian religion, and while three is their traditional number, this simply derives from the three gifts, as the bible merely states that there were plural Magi. The men were said to be following a mysterious star, commonly known as the Star of Bethlehem, that had suddenly appeared in the sky, believing it to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, or king of the Jews. This is somewhat unlikely to be historic, however, since although Zoroastrians were widely known at the time for their reputation in astrology and wisdom, they were not in any way Jewish.

On the other hand, Luke’s account does not mention the Magi, instead having Jesus being visited by local shepherds, who had been informed in the night by an angel (herald) who said “Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people, for there is born to you, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (strips of cloth), lying in a manger (feeding trough).” After this an innumerable company of angels appeared with the herald singing “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.” (see The First Noël). The shepherds went quickly to Bethlehem, finding the sign to be as the angel foretold, and subsequently publicised what they had witnessed throughout the area.


Matthew 1:23 reproduces a quote from the Book of Isaiah (chapter 7 verse 14), which some ancient manuscripts of Matthew openly state is the origin. Rather than using the Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern Christian Old Testaments, Matthew’s quote matches the Septuagint instead. Matthew however twists the prophecy to make it apply to Jesus by altering one word – rather than using the phrase they shall name, it is changed to you shall name, making it Joseph who is meant to give Jesus the name Immanuel. The fact that he actually was given the name Jesus instead is usually dismissed by Christian apologists as being due to Immanuel being a title not a name, though almost all Jewish sources are certain that Immanuel was intended as a name not a mere title.

Scholars have other concerns with Matthew’s reference to Isaiah. France, for instance, believes that it is far more likely that Isaiah is referring to the far more immediate future, particularly as the text can be considered to be past tense – implying that the saviour in question was already conceived when Isaiah was writing. Matthew also appears to have adjusted the meaning slightly, but in a significant way – although Matthew uses the Greek term parthenos, usually translated virgin, Isaiah uses the Hebrew word almah, which more accurately translates as young woman.

The purpose of the quote is better understood by looking at the context in which it is used in Isaiah. Isaiah is in the process of promising that God can save Israel from the immediate threat of the Assyrians, but that if the Jews continue to sin, the Assyrian empire will be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Hence, in the eyes of scholars such as Carter, Matthew is using the situation as an allegory for the time in which he was writing; if followed, Immanuel would lead to salvation from the Roman empire, but if rebuffed, Rome will be the instrument of punishment against the Jewish people.