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In Matt 2, the men from east who came to visit Baby Jesus are referred to as wise men.

However, now they are also known as three kings. When did they become known as "kings" rather than "wise men" and what is the basis for the description?

Additionally, they are often referred to as the 3 magi. What is the basis for each of these descriptors?

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  • Answered already here: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/4774/… Scripturally, its not clear, and the real identity isn't known. Dec 18 '12 at 8:11
  • @DavidStratton Those answers do not have anything about what I have asked which is "what is the basis to call them kings and from when?" because Bible refers them as wise men"
    – RowenSmith
    Dec 18 '12 at 8:24
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    @DavidStratton Oh! I get it from your answer to previous question and you mean to say that these questions have never been answered definitively?
    – RowenSmith
    Dec 18 '12 at 8:31
  • That is correct. Unsatisfying, but correct. Although I am not 100% sure there isn't some nuance that makes your question more definitively answerable. I didn't vote to close because it is different, and someone might come up with a good answer. But I think the answer is simply tradition, and people embellishing the unknown parts of the story over time. Dec 18 '12 at 12:29
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    @DavidStratton I think there is an opportunity here for a good look at the evolution of these descriptions over the centuries. I'd be interested to see if anyone can achieve that at the very least.
    – wax eagle
    Dec 18 '12 at 18:16
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It is mentioned from The Catholic Encyclopedia website:

In reference to there being three kings:

No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. Tertullian ("Adv. Marcion.", III, xiii) says that they were wellnigh kings (fere reges), and so agrees with what we have concluded from non-Biblical evidence. The [Catholic] Church, indeed, in her liturgy, applies to the Magi the words: "The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him" (Psalm 71:10). But this use of the text in reference to them no more proves that they were kings than it traces their journey from Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba.

... [About there being three]

Among the Latins, from the seventh century, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St. Gaspar, on the first, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, on the eleventh of January.

Another reason that there are traditionally Three wise men / Magi is because there were three gifts brought (Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh).

It should also be considered, the significance of the number three in scripture:

In some cases the number three may signify completeness or finality. Thus Pope observes that the number three “naturally suggests the idea of completeness—beginning, middle, end.”34 Beyond this natural expectation, however, is the realization that “the figure three is an evocative image, filled with connotations” so that “three consecutive occurrences of an event serves as a rhetorical signal indicating special significance.

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1) They brought three gifts (or three kinds of gifts). This is why they were considered to be three people.

2) Judging from the gifts they brought, they were rich people. Nobody could afford gold, incense and myrrh if they were not of considerable wealth. This is how they were associated to kings.

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It's catholic tradition but there is no scriptural evidence that there were three or that they were kings. This assumption is based entirely on the fact that scripture says were three gifts and gold, frankincense and myrrh were very expensive.

The number three has been connected with the trinity in all branches of Christianity for centuries.

However, when we look at history, culture, the geography, climate, and other scripture it's clear they were not kings and likely there were more than three.

  • Kings would not be making a risky, dangerous journey through the dessert on camels.
  • Kings would not have the astronomical knowledge to chart planetary conjunctions and navigate though the harsh dessert.
  • The text said they went to King Herod. If they were kings- the text would have certainly given their names also. Due to the hot climate, robbers, the long journey, extreme temperature changes and need for extra water, people in the time of Christ usually traveled in caravans, so it would be much more likely that it was 5-10.

In addition to the church tradition, this notion became established in the minds of millions with the carols like "We Three Kings of Orient Are".

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    ”It's catholic tradition!” It is popular tradition. Actually no Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. In fact the Feast of the Epiphany is an Eastern Church tradition. In the East the number of Magi is 12, not 3 as in the West! The Church Fathers are strong in their meaning here and not the liturgy.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 4 at 16:50
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    We Three Kings is a Protestant hymn!
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 4 at 16:54
  • Ken, see Andrew's answer below where he cites / quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia that they were in fact referred to as Kings.
    – Tennman7
    Jan 4 at 18:34
  • Read his response more carefully! The Church employs the term kings symbolicly in her liturgy while using Scripture texts.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 4 at 21:57

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