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From Matthew 2, NIV:

1bMagi from the east came to Jerusalem... 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Nowhere does it say there were three Magi. For all I can tell from this passage, there could have been two, or thirty. The only clue I see about there being three is that three gifts are mentioned.

So what is the history behind the concept of three Magi in this story?

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This isn't a dupe, but your question was answered within the answer to a similar question here: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/4774/… –  David Stratton Feb 26 '12 at 17:41
    
@DavidStratton: That answer provides some interesting details, but still falls short of of explaining the history of the number three in this context. –  Flimzy Apr 26 '12 at 14:21
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I've heard a few different things. You're right though: it's not in canonized scripture. The idea of "three" wise men is only (mostly unimportant, but interesting) tradition.

The enumeration of three specific gifts contributes to the "trio" of persons. Their alledged names even appear in writings later in history.

Dr. Talmage remarks on this in his excellent book, Jesus the Christ:

Much has been written, beyond all possible warrant of scriptural authority, concerning the visit of the magi, or wise men... As a matter of fact, we are left without information as to their country, nation, or tribal relationship; we are not even told how many they were, though unauthenticated tradition has designated them as "the three wise men," and has even given them names; whereas they are left unnamed in the scriptures, the only true record of them extant, and may have been numbered but two or many.

See also: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/356642/Magi

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This answer addresses the authenticity of the claim of "three," but not the history of the claim, which is what the question is asking for. –  Flimzy Apr 26 '12 at 14:18
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The idea that I've heard is that there were three magi (Persian Lords) but there were many with them; this should be obvious since if they were traveling and were nobility they would not go alone. It is traditionally assumed that each lord brought a gift to the messiah. Here is some relevant stuff:

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Magi

In Latin tradition dating from the seventh century,(from a greek manuscript) their names are given as Gaspar (or Caspar/Jasper), Melchior and Balthasar. According to one tradition, the Magi were baptized by the Apostle Thomas, and became bishops. The Church commemorates the Magi as saints; the Eastern feast day of the Magi is December 25.

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