The three kings have now reached church crib scenes. But if you look at the words of Matthew’s Gospel from which the story comes, there aren’t any kings, just three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s the number of the gifts that gives rise to the idea of three wise men (Greek: μάγοι, magoi).
Magi appear first in Persian culture about 600 years before Jesus’ birth. They were religious experts, scholars who advised kings, performed religious rituals, observed the stars and interpreted dreams.
The Magi of Matthew’s Gospel aren’t described as ‘kings’ until about 500 years after the birth of Jesus. This fulfills the prediction of Psalm 72 that ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts. All kings shall fall down before him;’ and Isaiah 60: ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ Both texts are set to be read with Matthew’s Gospel at Epiphany.
By the sixth century, these kings had acquired names and descriptions. Caspar, meaning ‘treasurer’ was imagined as a beardless young man. Melchior, meaning ‘king of light’ was imagined as a bearded old man. Balthasar, which means ‘God protect the king’ was portrayed as dark skinned.
These developments of the story were not arbitrary. The whole point of Matthew’s account is to show that Jesus is of significance to the whole world. Later additions to the story simply amplify its main point.