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The term “wise men” appears 44 times in the Bible, and the meaning varies somewhat.
The first mention of “wise men” is in the account of Jacob's son, Joseph, in Genesis 41:8 where it says that the pharaoh “called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men” [Hebrew: chakam] to interpret his dream. Chakam means intelligent, skillful, artful or cunning man. This same word is used throughout the rest of the Old Testament, except in the Book of Daniel.
In Daniel, the word used in the original language is chakamim or chakkiym from a root corresponding to chakam. The first of these “wise men” is mentioned in Daniel 2:12. At this time, “wise men” apparently consisted of three different types: (1) astrologers, (2) Chaldeans, and (3) soothsayers.
In the New Testament, three different words are translated as “wise men.”
The Magi who worshipped Jesus. The first word translated “wise men” is the Greek word magos. This is the same as magus, an old Persian word equivalent to the chakam of the Old Testament (above). Magi is the plural of magus.
The first and only mention of magi in the New Testament is in the story of Jesus Christ's young life. In Matthew 2, it is recorded that they came from the East to Jerusalem looking for “he that is born King of the Jews.” These were magi, a priestly caste of learned men. The only known Magian priests East of Judea (at the time of Christ's birth), were in ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia. There is no proof of what country these men came from, and there is no consensus among the early Church Fathers.
Although the word magic is derived from the same root as magi, and magi are generally associated with occult studies, even in our modern world. However, these magi seem to be different. There is no indication that they practiced sorcery or claimed magical powers. Their recorded conduct is sincere and worshipful. They appear to have researched the Old Testament and believed its prophecies about the Messiah. They apparently gained nothing material from their long journey.
The record does not specifically say that there were three, or that they were kings; this is assumed by some from the number and types of gifts that were given to Jesus (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The gifts reflected the aspects of Christ's nature: gold to a king, myrrh to one who will die, and incense, as homage to a God. None of the Church Fathers suggested that these men were kings, but there was obvious wealth involved. It is possible that the wealth was theirs, or that they were religious or scholarly envoys of royalty in a distant land.
These magi did not arrive until possibly almost two years after Christ's birth, certainly sometime after his presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-39). (Immediately after the visit of the magi, Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, where they probably stayed till after Herod's death in 4 B.C.)
There is no mention of camels or any mode of transportation in the biblical record. There is also no mention of their names. The traditional names adopted in the West are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar
. The Syrian tradition uses the names Gushnasaph, Hormisdas and Larvandad. Others use Hormizdah, Perozdh and Yazdegerd, or Basanater, Karsudan and Hor, or various other names.
A quite different type of learned man is referred to in Acts 8:9 which describes the evil Simon who practiced “sorcery.” The Greek word was mageuo, meaning to practice magic, use sorcery. Mageuo is derived from the same root as magi.
In Acts 13:6-12 a false prophet named Barjesus or Elymas is described as a magos, translated in all versions as “sorcerer” or “magician.”
Note: Isaiah 60:6 mentions kings coming to praise the Lord with gold and incense. However, in context, it is clear that the prophecies involved in this section of Isaiah have not yet come to pass. Also, the land of Sheba mentioned does not fit the record; the magi came from the East. The magi who came to the young Jesus were a precursor of the fulfillment, but not the fulfillment itself. If you read all the prophecy, it is clear that these things have not fully happened yet. Isaiah 60:1-9, 19-20 are referring to events in the Millennium.
The Greek word sophos appears in Matthew 23:34 which is translated as “wise” men by all versions except the NRSV , “…I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes…” The New Revised Standard Version translates sophos as “sages,” while other versions say “wise men.” The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 1:26, “…not many wise men… are called.”
Greek: Phronimos appears in 1 Cor 10:15, “I speak as to wise men…” This word means thoughtful, i.e. sagacious or discreet (implying a cautious character).