Three Kings, Three Wise Men, or What?

QUESTION: The feast of the Epiphany often describes the magi as three wise men — and even three kings, as in the old carol: “We Three Kings.” Yet we don’t find the word “kings” in the Gospel’s infancy narratives. Can you explain a proper understanding of who the magi were — and their significance — so I can teach my middle schoolers? — PAT W.

JONATHAN F. SULLIVAN Responds:

The wise men appear only in the Gospel of Matthew where they are described with the Greek word magoi, which in addition to “wise men” implies astrologers or even magicians. Little is known about them (the Gospel doesn’t even say how many there were!) except that they came from the East, where they may have been priests of Zoroastrianism or another religion in Persia.

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