On Friday I visited the local bank. The teller asked me had I had a good Christmas. I said ‘Well, we are only partway through the twelve days of Christmas. So far, yes.’ ‘What do you mean?’ he said. I spoke to him about the twelve days of Christmas ending with the Epiphany, the arrival of the three wise kings, as we are told. I’m not sure they were kings but they did bring three gifts to the Christ child. He said he was surprised as he had not heard about the twelve days even though he went to Catholic school.
There is not a shred of evidence that there were three. There may have been more or less. Probably the best we can offer is to say that someone, and probably Matthew, the writer of the Gospel, linked the three gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the idea that there must have been three wise men and hence the tradition developed. Most likely they were astronomers from Babylon who heard about the promised messiah from earlier Jewish writings. This is storying that Matthew has constructed to influence the audience to whom he is writing and teaching, and I am not suggesting that my comments about the three kings detracts in any way from the central meaning of Matthew’s message of the coming of God in human form among God’s people. The crowds however who gathered for Christmas, although smaller in numbers than previous years, are not to be seen today awaiting the arrival of the Magi at the manger.