The Three-ish Wise Men

Most of what we think we know about the three wise men comes from art and folk tradition … and is wrong.

Part of the Christmas narrative is that the Holy Family was visited by three wise men shortly after the birth of Jesus. Similar to how we aren’t exactly sure when Jesus was born, we also aren’t exactly sure how many wise men there were. We say three because there were three gifts given but the Bible doesn’t specify. Maybe a few wise men went in on a gift together.

Some people say three because the names of the wise men are said to be Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar (kings of India, Persia, and Arabia or Ethiopia respectively), but this is just a folk tradition – there is no evidence to support any of this.


How we think of the wise men has been influenced by centuries of art. Liberal artistic license places the shepherds, the wise men, farm animals, and the Holy Family all in the manger shortly after the birth of Jesus. That said the Bible doesn’t actually give a specific date for the arrival of the wise men and it’s more likely they arrived much later – having them all in the manger together is just more convenient for a painting. Matthew 2:11 states that the wise men visited the Holy Family in a house, not the manger.

While many Christians celebrate the arrival of the three wise men on January 6th (the Epiphany) this seems to be more a date to celebrate the event than when it actually occurred. It is speculated that the arrival of the wise men could have been as late as two years after Jesus’s birth. This is “supported” by Herod’s command to have all boys 2 years of age and younger slaughtered in an attempt to kill the newly born King of the Jews – the idea being that perhaps the wise men relayed news of Jesus to Herod some time after Jesus’s birth and Herod cast a wide net of ages. That said this Massacre of the Innocents is also something that probably never happened.

The three wise men have been the subject of art for centuries, which has influenced how we think of them.

Kings, Wise men, Zoroastrian priests

So aside from not knowing how many wise men there were, or when they arrived, do we at least know what sort of men they were? By the 3rd century CE people were referring to these travelers as kings. As good as the song We Three Kings is, there is no evidence that these travelers were kings. In fact it is highly unlikely (and a little silly) that the crowned heads of multiple kingdoms would have been traveling in such a fashion. Isaiah 60:1–6 and Psalm 72:11 are mostly to blame for this idea, as both passages allude to kings showing deference and worshipping the Messiah – but kings in general. Neither of these passages say anything about specifically these individuals in the Christmas narrative being kings.

The wise men are also known as the “magi”. The term “magi” comes from Latin, by way of Greek, from the Old Persian “maguŝ” who were priests. It’s unclear if the magi were originally priests of just Zoroastrianism or a mix of regional Persian religions. That said over time the magi of Persia became esteemed for their knowledge, but the magi of nearby Babylonia were thought of as frauds/imposters.

From this “magi” came to be a general term for practitioners in esoteric/mystical fields of study: astrology, alchemy, etc. Incidentally “maguŝ” is the same etymological root for the word “magic” for this reason. So rather than wandering kings, the wise men (of some unknown number) were more likely Zoroastrian priests / practitioners of mystical arts from the East, following the movements of the stars.

Added info: much is made of the gifts brought by the wise men. Using the three supposed names of the wise men: Gaspar brought frankincense, Melchior brought gold, and Balthasar myrrh. What does one do with these gifts?

Gold has the most obvious purpose. Then and now gold was valuable. It is also symbolic of Jesus’s kingship. 

Frankincense is a resin that comes from the Boswellia sacra tree. It was blended with other ingredients and used as an incense burned in religious ceremonies. In Judaism in particular it was used by priests as a literal smoke screen because to see God was to die, and the smoke of the incense could diffuse actually seeing God (should God appear). The symbolism of frankincense is that Jesus is the high priest.

Myrrh is a resin taken from the very thorny Commiphora myrrha tree. It was used as an embalming oil and, as a gift of the magi, alludes to Jesus’s mortality and eventual crucifixion.

Finally, the three kings who gave the gift of music were the three kings of the blues. Albert King, B.B. King, and Freddie King make up the three kings of the blues and were massively influential musicians who shaped blues music and thereby shaped rock & roll.

(Tangentially related) One of the three kings of the blues, B.B. King’s cover of Merry Christmas Baby.

Devil’s Advocate

Using the Socratic Method, the Devil’s Advocate was the person who argued against the canonization of someone, preventing them from becoming a saint.

In the Catholic Church the “Advocatus Diaboli”, aka the “Devil’s Advocate”, was the person whose job it was to test the veracity of candidates for canonization. Created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, the official name of the job was the “Promoter of the Faith”. Essentially their job was to argue against sainthood and force their opponent, the “Promoter of Justice”, to bring a stronger case and better demonstrate the merits of a candidate.

The intention was that the Promoter of the Faith was to take a critical / skeptical approach to help weed out unworthy candidates for sainthood. The “Devil’s Advocate” lasted until 1983 when Pope John Paul II drastically changed the responsibilities of the Promoter of the Faith in the canonization process. Interestingly after this change the Church saw an explosion of new saints. Pope John Paul II canonized 482 people which is more saints than the previous 500 years of popes combined. Curiously nobody seems sure exactly how many saints there are but it’s frequently said to be around 11,000 and counting.

Created by Pope Sixtus V the role of the Devil’s Advocate was to use the Socratic Method and argue against sainthood for canonization candidates.

the Socratic Method

Having someone play the role of Devil’s advocate, someone who takes a counter position to help both sides better arrive at the truth, existed before the Catholic Church. The philosopher Socrates is credited with inventing (or at least popularizing) this method of debate in the 5th century BCE.

In the Socratic Method someone (the interlocutor) puts forth a claim/idea to which someone else (essentially the Devil’s Advocate) challenges this assertion through a series of questions. By questioning the premises of someone’s position the Socratic Method helps to bring out the inadequacies, limits, & faults in their logic. Like tempering steel in fire, should the the initial premise survive the debate it will be stronger than it started because the problems of its logic will be corrected. Through success or failure both sides learn from the process. The rigorous analysis of the Socratic Method brings both sides closer to the truth and potentially gives us only the best Catholic saints.

A nice crash-course of the Socratic Method.

Homer plays “Devil’s Advocate”.

the Number of the Beast

Depending on your translation (and your agenda), the number associated with the “beast” changes.

In the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, John the Evangelist (or possibly someone else) describes an apocalyptic vision of the end times culminating in the second coming of Jesus. There are trumpets, fire mixed with blood being hurled to earth, the four horsemen, the Whore of Babylon drinking from a golden cup, piles of corpses, a seven-headed dragon – the stuff of nightmares and/or a metal album. However, in a book of memorable ideas one stands out: the beast.

As is typical in the Book of Revelation it isn’t exactly clear who or what the beast is. There is the beast with ten horns that rises from the sea, but there is also the beast of two horns that speaks like a dragon (known as the “false prophet”) which comes out of the earth. At some point in the future the two beasts as well as the seven-headed dragon join forces to to fight the armies of heaven, a battle that they lose, and as punishment are thrown into the lake of fire for eternity. Before this happens though John tells us that we will know the beast when it arrives because it will be identified by a number.

666 … or 616, it depends

Most early copies of the Book of Revelation say the number of the beast is 666, but because of different translations and discrepancies the number 616 has been a viable alternative since as early as the 2nd century CE. Today most Bibles have the number of the beast as 666. That said in 2005 Papyrus 115 was discovered in Egypt which is the oldest known copied portion of the Book of Revelation. This torn fragment of papyrus has the number of the beast as 616.

The number of the beast is frequently associated with the antichrist but nowhere in Revelation is “antichrist” written. The term antichrist typically means “heretic” or “false prophet”, but is also sometimes used as a more general term for an especially evil person (which the beast would certainly would qualify as). It’s through this general idea that the number of the beast enters pop culture as the spooky number of evil.

666 in pop culture
As 666 became associated with the antichrist or the devil it spread across pop culture as the spooky number of evil (and led to loads of crazy conspiracy theories).

So it’s a number … or a person

The Book of Revelation is perhaps the most unusual book of the Bible, and not just because of the end of world visions. Unlike the rest of the Bible it offers no moral lesson and is the only book that values wealth and possessions. But most importantly the Book of Revelation is written in metaphors and symbolism – very little should be taken at face value. As such the number of the beast isn’t a number at all.

the Book of Revelation in art
The Book of Revelation has been a popular source material for artists over the centuries.
Albrecht Dürer's Apocalypse series
Albrecht Dürer’s 1498 series Apocalypse is one of the best collections of art focused on the Book of Revelation.

In ancient Greek and Hebrew every letter had a corresponding number. The letters used to write 666 as well as 616 could both (through some generous math) be used to write variations of the name Nero Caesar – the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christians and the most likely candidate at the time to be associated with evil. Like any book, the Book of Revelation was a product of its time. It would have been dangerous to write Nero’s name outright so writing it in code to an audience who would have understood how to read these numbers would have been safer for both the author and the reader.

Past, Present, Future

Typically the Book of Revelation is thought of as a vision of things to come, of future destruction, but it wasn’t always that way. For hundreds of years Revelation was interpreted as a book about the recent past with words of encouragement for the near future. John lived through the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE which decimated the Jews (as well as early Christians, who still saw themselves as Jews). In 1st century CE the return of Jesus to save the Jews from the enemy would have been a very relevant message. The Book of Revelation was read as confirmation to an early Christian reader that they were on the side of good, that punishment was coming to those who deserved it, and that there would be a new Jerusalem. Instead of doom & gloom the Book of Revelation was a message of hope.

If the evil John wrote about was Nero and the Roman Empire, and as the Romans eventually became Catholics, then John’s vision failed to play out as foretold. Christians had to reconcile this failure and so they looked to the future. The Book of Revelation was reinterpreted to represent things still to come. Therefore, various historical figures over the millennia have been said to be “the beast” including the pope, Muhammad, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc – forever moving the beast goal posts as society’s enemies change with the times.

Added info: The numbers on a roulette wheel add up to 666. Because of his association with the roulette wheel, gambling / entertainment impresario François Blanc was said to have made a deal with the devil. Also, the combination to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction is 666.

Courting controversy, Iron Maiden’s third album was 1982’s The Number of the Beast, from which the title track is one of the band’s most popular songs. The song The Number of the Beast opens with a spoken word reading from the Book of Revelation. The band wanted Vincent Price to do the reading but he wouldn’t do it for less than £25,000 so they hired English actor Barry Clayton instead.

A demonstration of how 666 corresponds to letters in Greek and Hebrew, and how to turn Nero Caesar into 666.

A more lighthearted use of 666 by Jeremy Messersmith.

Iron Maiden’s classic The Number of the Beast.

When is Christmas?

Jesus’s birthday wasn’t December 25th – it was more likely sometime in September.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. He wasn’t even born in the year 1 AD (AD, Anno Domini, a calendar system created entirely on the idea of the year of Jesus’s birth). There are competing theories as to why December 25th was chosen.

Christmas: meh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

To start, early Christians weren’t particularly focused on the date of Jesus’s birth – they were much more interested in Jesus’s ministry and Easter resurrection. The first recorded mention of Jesus’s birthday was around 200 CE by Clement of Alexandria who offered several possible dates, none of which were December 25th.

By around 300 CE two dates became associated with Jesus’s birth: December 25th and January 6th. December 25th became Jesus’s birthday for most western churches while January 6th became Christmas in a few others (January 6th also became the Feast of the Epiphany in western churches).

Despite what the internet might tell you, it is unlikely that December 25th was selected to usurp the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals in general. Early Christians were strongly focused on distancing themselves and their beliefs from pagan religions. By the time Christians were co-opting pagan festivities to increase adoption of the faith the December 25th date for Christmas had already been established for over a hundred years.

From John the Baptist to Jesus

One of the best theories as to why we associate December 25th with Jesus’s birth has to do with the date of his crucifixion. There was a theory that great figures would be born and die in the same month (and even on the same date). The crucifixion has been calculated to have taken place on March 25th (but even that is debatable). Early Christians seem to have replaced his birth with his divine conception for this theory, and believing Jesus was conceived on March 25 (and counting 9 months later) brings us to his birth on December 25th.

So Jesus was born in December … except it could have been September. In Luke 1.26–27 we’re told that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and, if we calculate his birth based on his father Zechariah’s priestly duties at the temple, John was most likely born in late March. If Jesus was conceived 6 months after John, and adding 9 months, then Jesus’s birth took place sometime in September. That said, this math could also work with Zechariah’s second time serving in the temple, which would then place Jesus’s birth around March.

Either spring or fall, these dates make more sense with the idea that shepherds would be out tending their flock (which the Christmas narrative tells us) – there aren’t a lot of shepherds out tending their flock in the cold of December. Further, it’s unlikely the census that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for would have been in the winter, when the roads were in poor condition.

QI discusses the notion that Joseph & Mary traveled to Bethlehem to be a part of a Roman survey … which isn’t true.

When is Easter?

Easter if a floating holy day whose date has been a moving target for millennia.

The modern confusion over when to celebrate Easter goes back to the earliest Christians. To start, it’s not entirely clear what day of the week the crucifixion of Jesus took place on. The Bible can be interpreted to say that the Sunday resurrection took place three full days after the crucifixion, meaning the crucifixion took place on a Wednesday. Or the resurrection was simply “on the third day” (not three full days) and as such the crucifixion took place on a Friday. As for celebrating the resurrection some early Christians chose to celebrate on the first day of Passover (the holiday during which Jesus was crucified) while others celebrated on the Sunday of Passover when the tomb was found empty.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, established that the resurrection would be celebrated not just on a Sunday but on the Sunday following the full moon after the March (northern Spring) equinox. This kept the holiday near Passover, which is also around the Spring equinox, but not necessarily on Passover. This helped to standardize the observance of the resurrection … until the change of calendars confused things again.

East meets West

Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was used by western churches to (among other things) calculate the annual observance of the resurrection. Orthodox churches however continued using the Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar). The use of two different calendar systems is why there are usually two different dates for Easter each year – falling near one another but not usually on the same Sunday.

Another confusing detail is what to call the holiday. Given the holiday’s connection to Passover many languages and church denominations call the holiday some translated variation of the word Passover (which in Latin & Greek is “pascha” which also gives us the word “paschal” the term for things pertaining to Easter or Passover). In German and English however, the names “Ostern” and “Easter” are used which come from a pagan goddess.

Easter / Ēostre pagan goddess

The Germanic goddess Ēostre (aka Ôstara or Austra) was a Spring deity … probably. There is very little documentation of Ēostre. It is unknown how widespread the worship of her may have been or for how long. The primary source we have is The Reckoning of Time written by the English monk Saint Bede the Venerable in 725 CE. Bede writes about calculating the date of the resurrection and mentions that it took place around the Spring equinox, the same time of year that the Anglo-Saxons used to hold a feast in honor of Ēostre. From this timely reference to Ēostre the name “Easter” came to be the English name for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (even though she had nothing to do with it).

Added info: Constantine not only helped to standardize when to celebrate Easter but he was also the reason the Chi Rho became the symbol of the Roman empire as well as the early Catholic church.