Was one of the three wise men, Balthasar, really a black man like some artwork depicts?

According to legend in Western Christianity, there were three “wise men,” their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, and they were of various ethnic/racial origins. However, Matthew’s account of the magi’s visit (which is the only reference in the Bible to these famed visitors) tells us none of these details.

Because Matthew tells us that the magi brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, popular imagination has pictured three gift-bearers, although Matthew didn’t say how many there were. In fact, in the East, tradition has generally pictured 12 magi. It was later tradition, not Matthew, who named the magi. A document dated to about 500 A.D. lists the names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, a tradition that has been maintained in Western Christianity.

Other Eastern Christian churches have asribed other names to these figures. Finally, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t specify where the magi originated from, except to say that they came “from the East.” The East could have been Babylonia or Persia, although later legends imagined them originating from destinations as varied as India and China.

Ultimately, we simply don’t know how many magi there were, what their names were, or what color skin they had.