Here is something I found of interest when first I learned it: the term translated in many Bibles as “wise men” is magi. Many here have already pointed that out. But here is something additionally noteworthy: this is the same Greek word used at Acts 13:6-8 in describing BarJesus or Elymas. That same Greek word – magi – is here rendered “sorcerer.”
Many attempt to romanticize the magi or the meaning of the word when discussing the account of the astrologers who came from the east. The truth is, they were pagans who worshipped pagan gods and who practiced something that God’s word repeatedly condemns.
Some people feel God led the magi to Jesus. Look carefully: the magi went to Jerusalem of their own accord – the ‘star’ did not guide them to Jerusalem. As astrologers, they said they "saw the star when they were in the east." They saw the star before they even left home. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they asked about the birthplace of the one born king of the Jews. The account says many in Jerusalem were agitated upon hearing this, including Herod who - himself, a nominal Jew, - inquired of the religious leaders to ascertain the birthplace. Herod then secretly summoned the magi, carefully ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance back home in the east, did the math and personally sent the magi to Bethlehem. By the time the magi got there, Jesus was in a house (as others have mentioned) and could have been as much as two years old. Well, did it take the magi two years to get from their home in the east to Jerusalem? No. Did it take the magi two years to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? Obviously not. What’s the point? Here is the point: they did not arrive on the day of Jesus’ birth. They did not arrive anywhere near the date of Jesus' birth. Yet, if this star was so knowing, so powerful, so whatever, it would have made sure they got there on the child’s birthday. They did not. It is not until Herod sends them to Bethlehem that this “star which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” Matthew 2:9 – King James.
Some say God used the magi to help protect the child. Nothing could be further from the account. God simply told Joseph to take his family to Egypt (where a large population of Jews already lived). This is what protected the child, not the magi. True, God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod. But that was not his means of protecting his son.
Some people call the magi astronomers rather than astrologers. Is there a difference? Most assuredly. Consider what the Imperial Bible-Dictionary (Vol. II, p. 139) says: “According to Herodotus the magi were a tribe of the Medes [I, 101], who professed to interpret dreams, and had the official charge of sacred rites . . . they were, in short, the learned and priestly class, and having, as was supposed, the skill of deriving from books and the observation of the stars a supernatural insight into coming events . . . Later investigations tend rather to make Babylon than Media and Persia the center of full-blown magianism.” Further, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian, commented in connection with Matthew 2:1, “thought of maʹgoi as astrologers. Tertullian (“On Idolatry,” IX) says: “We know the mutual alliance of magic and astrology. The interpreters of the stars, then, were the first . . . to present Him [Jesus] ‘gifts.’” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1957, Vol. III, p. 65) The name Magi became current “as a generic term for astrologers in the East.”—The New Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, 1952, Vol. 22, p. 8076." Yes, this is not astronomy. Astronomy is a science that studies celestial objects and phenomena – and has nothing to do with divination, fortune-telling and such.
You are right, the Bible does not give a number. Neither does the Bible romanticize the visit, or the giving of their gifts, or what brought them there. Here is another interesting tidbit: while some folks point to what the magi did as the basis for gift-giving at Christmas time, history shows that something else is clearly involved. It was customary for people, high-ranking and otherwise, to bring gifts to royalty. See, please, 1 Samuel 10:24-27, 1 Kings 10:1, 10 and 13, and 2 Kings 20:12. Notice that among these examples is one of pagans bringing gifts to the King of Judah.
Notice the divinely wise counsel at Proverbs 14:15: “A naive person believes everything, but the shrewd person discerns his steps.” New English Translation
Christians must be shrewd and discern the result of every step taken. They must make sure that whatever they are doing does not bring dishonor to our Lord Jesus and our Heavenly Father. We cannot afford to simply gulp down practices because they stir our emotions and appear to our eyes so pretty.
Hannah J Paul