[Please read the very short introduction first, here.]
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) and have come to worship him.”
. . . and the star which they had seen in the east (or, had seen when it rose) 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 these foreigners with their expensive gifts? Where in the east were they from? And what had compelled them to travel to worship a toddler?
Who or what were the Magi?
The magi, or wise men, mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel were elite scholars. They were especially well-trained in astronomy. 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.”
The magi of Matthew 2 were greatly interested in the appearance of an 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 long journey, westward, to “follow” it with the purpose of paying homage to the newborn King.
Where did the Magi come from?
Early church father Justin Martyr (103–165 AD) stated several times in his work Dialogue with Trypho that the magi who visited the young Jesus were from Arabia.] It is more probable, however, that they were from Persia, further east of Arabia.
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 (11 §72) 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.”
Writing several centuries earlier than Philo, the Greek historian Herodotus (485–425 BC) wrote that the magi in his day were Zoroastrian Persian Priests (Histories 1.132). (Zoroastrians are monotheists who follow the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia.)
Were the Magi wealthy?
Herodotus also wrote that the order of magi was one of six social orders of the Medes in Persia (Histories 1.101), and that the magi were an elite, sacred class of men who specialised in the interpretation of dreams (Histories 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 seemingly had easy 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). Their presents were the usual gifts given to royalty and to divinity.
Were the Magi Jewish?
It is possible that some Persian magi had Jewish ancestry. In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the Jews and he took them to Babylon as prisoners of war (Jer. 25:11-12). The brightest and best of the Jewish men, which included Daniel, were then taught all the Babylonian (or Chaldean) literature and learning, which would have included astronomy, in preparation for royal service (Dan. 1:3-7). 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).
Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, became a believer in the Hebrew God. (See Dan. 4:34-37.) But before this, he had appointed Daniel as chief minister over all of Babylon’s sages. This meant that Daniel, the Jewish prophet, had leadership over the magi (Dan. 2:48b). It is possible that Daniel taught 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.
In 539 BC, Babylon became part of the Persian Empire after it was conquered by Cyrus, king of the Persians.
Despite the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings, and despite Christmas cards that often depict at least one magi wearing a crown, the magi were not kings. Also, we can’t be certain that there were three magi who visited Jesus. 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 were probably from noble families, and they probably travelled to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with an extensive and impressive entourage (cf. Isa. 60:6).
The Wise Men in Bethlehem
Traditional illustrations of the Nativity often include the magi, the wise men. But these 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 or two years old. Considering that Herod wanted to kill the baby boys under two years of age—based on the information he received from the magi (Matt. 2:16)—Jesus may have been a toddler by the time the magi arrived in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the biblical text reads, “They entered the house and saw the child (Greek: paidion) with Mary his mother” (Matt. 2:11a, italics added). Here they worshipped the child Jesus and they presented him with precious and expensive gifts fit for a king.
The story of the wise men in Matthew 2:1-18 is intriguing. It is intriguing that these noble scholars were compelled to make such a long and difficult journey, and that they were so sure, despite the ignorance of others (cf. Matt. 2:3), that the child they were worshipping was truly the King of the Jews. They worshipped the baby King Jesus but disobeyed King Herod (Matt. 2:12, 16).
 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 situated in the east by travelling westward towards Judea. Rather, the magi saw a significant celestial event rising, or visible, in the sky, knew that they were on to something, and travelled west to Judea.
In this fascinating article, Michael Theophilus looks at how astronomical events were interpreted by Roman Emperors and depicted on coins: Ancient Coinage and the First Christians.
 Themistocles Adamopoulos, The Magi and the Infant Jesus, Orthodox Research Institute.
 Ancient Persia corresponds geographically with modern-day Iran and Iraq.
 “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. Christine Schenk discusses Viviano’s idea here.
 “Chaldea” is practically synonymous with ancient astronomy and astrology.
 Magos is the word used for the sorcerers Simon, in Acts 8:9-11ff, and Elymas (Bar-Jesus) in Acts 13:6-10. These magi studied “secret wisdom,” or the occult. The word “magic” is etymologically related to the word magos.
 Cyrus is mentioned by name several times in the Hebrew Bible. See here.
 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, as do later ancient depictions of the magi visiting Mary and Jesus. Traditions name these three magi as Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthazar.
 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
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Walter Drum, “Magi”, The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9 (New York: Robert Appleton, 1910), on the New Advent website.
Jona Lendering, Magians (Old Persian Magus), on the Iran Chamber Society website.
The Epitaph of Severa (an epitaph dating to the late third or early fourth century which depicts the deceased woman, Severa, and the adoration of the magi), on the Vatican Museum website and here.
Visual Elements in the Nativity, on the Glencairn Museum website.