Please read the very short introduction first.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the east (or, when it rose)[1] and have come to worship him.”
. . . and the star which they had seen in the east (or, had seen when it rose)[1] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11.

Who were the Magi?

The magi were, in short, astronomers. Astronomy and astrology were inseparable in ancient times, and the magi believed, “like most people in antiquity, that Heaven communicated its desires and intentions through signs, comets, stars and astronomical phenomena. Indeed, a person’s destiny was considered determined by the stars under which one was born.” (Themistocles)

The magi of Matthew 2 were greatly interested in the appearance of the unusual “star“. Somehow, they knew that it signified the birth of the Messiah, the King of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). So they set out on a journey of about one thousand kilometres to “follow” it with the purpose of paying homage to the newborn King.

Early church father Justin Martyr (103–165 AD) stated several times in his Dialogue with Trypho that the magi who visited the young Jesus were from Arabia.  It is possible, however, that the magi were from Persia, further east of Arabia.[2]

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–50 AD), a Jewish philosopher living around the time of Jesus, wrote favourably about an Eastern School of Magi. In Every Good Man is Free he wrote, “Among the Persians there exists a group, the Magi, who investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations . . . Additionally, the Persian Magi were esteemed as honourable and virtuous sages. Skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, they became the scholars of Persian society.[3]

Writing several centuries earlier than Philo, the Greek historian Herodotus (485–425 BC) wrote in his Histories, Book 1, that the magi were Zoroastrian Persian Priests (1.132). (Zoroastrians are monotheists who follow the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia.) Herodotus also wrote that the order of magi was one of six social orders of the Medes in Persia (1.101). The order of magi was an elite, sacred class of men who specialised in the interpretation of dreams (1.107, 108 & 120; cf. Dan. 2:1-2).

The magi were recognised as men of elevated rank, even in Jerusalem. This is evidenced by the fact that they had instant access to King Herod’s court. Furthermore, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh suggest that they were also men of wealth (Matt. 2:11).[5]

Where the Magi Jewish?

It is quite possible that some magi had Jewish ancestry, especially the magi of the Eastern School. The Jews had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC,[4] and taken into captivity in Babylon (Jer. 25:11-12). The brightest and best of the Jewish men, which included Daniel, were then taught all the Babylonian (or Chaldean) literature—which would have included astronomy—in preparation for royal service (Dan. 1:3-7).[6]

The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) uses the word “magi” (magos) eight times to identify some of the Babylonian royal advisers (e.g., Dan. 2:2, 10, 27).

During Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Daniel was appointed chief minister over all Babylon’s sages, which would have included the magi (Dan. 2:48b). It is likely that Daniel taught the Hebrew scriptures and messianic prophecies to the other sages, especially to those who were Jewish. A Jewish legend even claims that Daniel founded an order of magi and instructed them to watch for the Messiah through the generations.

The Magi’s Visit to Bethlehem

Despite the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings”, and Christmas cards which often show the magi wearing crowns, the magi were not “kings”, but they were of a high rank. Also, we can’t be certain that there were three Magi who visited Jesus.[7] All we can say is that there were two or more magi because the word for “magi” is plural in Matthew’s narrative. Even though they weren’t kings, the magi probably travelled with an impressive entourage which may have been quite extensive (cf. Isa. 60:6).

Despite traditional illustrations of the Nativity which often include the magi, the wise men did not visit Jesus when he was a newborn in the manger. The “star” had announced Jesus’ birth but it would have taken many months, perhaps even a year, after the “star’s” first appearing for the magi to complete the one thousand kilometre trek from Persia to Bethlehem.

By the time the magi arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was no longer in a manger. Mary and Joseph had found more suitable accommodation, and Jesus was probably about one year old. Considering that Herod wanted to kill the baby boys under two years of age (Matt. 2:16), Jesus may even have been a toddler by the time the magi arrived in Bethlehem and at the house where they saw the child (paidion) with Mary (Matt. 2:11).[8] Here they worshipped the child Jesus and they presented him with expensive, precious gifts fit for a king. [See endnote 5.]

The visit of the magi in Matthew 2:1-18 is intriguing. It is intriguing that these noble and wise astronomers were compelled to make such a long and difficult journey, and that they were so sure, despite the ignorance of others (Matt. 2:3), that the child they were worshipping was truly the King of the Jews.


Endnotes

[1] While en tē anatolē literally means “in the east”, this phrase is used in Greek documents and literature to refer to celestial bodies rising in the sky. It’s nonsensical to think that the magi followed a star in the east by travelling westward towards Israel. Rather, the magi saw a significant celestial event rising in the sky, knew that they were on to something, and travelled west to Israel.

[2] Ancient Persia corresponds with modern-day Iran and Iraq.

[3] While some magi were simply educated wise men and elite sages, others were sorcerers who studied secret “wisdom”, including the occult. The Greek word used to describe the sorcerers Simon, in Acts 8:9-11ff, and Elymas (Bar-Jesus) in Acts 13:6-10, is magos. The word “magic” is related to the word magos.

[4] Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, later became a believer in the Hebrew God. (See Dan. 4:34-37.)

[5] “These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.” (Source: biblicalarchaeology.org)
The Queen of Sheba brought similar gifts of gold and spices, as well as precious stones, when she visited King Solomon (1 Kings 10:10; cf. Isaiah 60:6). Because the queen—a woman who was seeking wisdom—brought these gifts, New Testament scholar Benedict Thomas Viviano has suggested that one of the “wise men” may have been a woman. (Viviano also gives two other reasons for his suggestion.) You can read his essay, “A Woman’s Quest for Wisdom and the Adoration of the Magi” from Catholic Hermeneutics Today Critical Essays (Wipf and Stock, 2014) 183-200, here. Or, an article about the magi which mentions Viviano’s essay, is here.

[6] “Chaldea” is practically synonymous with ancient astronomy and astrology.

The wise men from the east.[7] While we cannot be sure of the number, there may have been three magi who visited Jesus. A second-century painting of the Adoration of the Magi on a wall of the catacomb of St Priscilla in Rome shows three magi. Later traditions name these three magi as Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthazar.

[8] A paidion often refers to a small or young child. This word is used in Matthew 2:9, 11, 13 (twice), 14, 20 & 21 (cf. Matt. 2:16). The Greek word for baby is usually brephos rather than paidion.

© 25th of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko

Image Credits

The wise men from the east. © Lisa Thornberg (istockphoto)
“Adoration of the Magi” in the Catacomb of St Priscilla, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)


Bibliography and Further Reading

Anon., “Commentary: The Visit of the Magi” in  Shroro: The Syrian Orthodox Christian Digest, Vol 1, Issue 2, Jan 2005.

Anon,. “Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?” on the Biblical Archaeology website.

Herodotus, Histories, Book 1, translated by George Rawlinson, on the Iran Chamber Society website.

Jona Lendering, Magians (Old Persian Magus), on the Iran Chamber Society website.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, on the Early Christian Writings website.

Monk Themistocles, The Magi and the Infant Jesus, on the Orthodox Research Institute website.

Further reading: “Magi” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, on the New Advent website.


Christmas Cardology Series 

(1) Introduction
(2) Mary’s Scandal and Favour
(3) Nazareth to Bethlehem
(4) Was Jesus born in a barn?
(5) When was Jesus born?
(6) The Virgin Mary