Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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[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)[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 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.”[2]

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 a few 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.[3]

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.[4]

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 most of 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).[5] The Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the word “magi” (magos) eight times to identify some of the Babylonian royal advisers (e.g., Dan. 2:2, 10, 27).[6]

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). In this role, Daniel may have 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.[7]

Three Kings?

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.[8] 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 several months after the star’s first appearance for the magi to plan and 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).[9] 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).


[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 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.

[2] Themistocles Adamopoulos, The Magi and the Infant Jesus, Orthodox Research Institute.

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

[4] “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.

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

[6] 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.

The wise men from the east.[7] Cyrus is mentioned by name a few times in the Hebrew Bible. See here.

[8] 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.

[9] 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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Postscript: September 11, 2023
The Star in Yemenite Midrash

In Yemenite Midrash on Numbers 24:19, it is noted that Gentile astrologers will recognise “the star of Israel.”

And there shall be a ruler amidst Jacob [Num. 24.19].
At first a star arose in the east, at the head of which there was a sword. Israel saw it, and said to one another, “What is that?” The other nations asked their astrologers, “What is the character of this star?” They [the astrologers] said to them, “This is the star of Israel. This is the king who shall yet arise for them.” As soon as Israel heard that, they approached the prophet Samuel and said to him, “Give us a king to judge us, just like all the nations” [1 Sam. 8.5] – just as the nations said. In this context it says, “A star shall arise from Jacob.” [Num. 24.17]

And so also at the end [of days], a star shall arise in the east, and it is the star of the Messiah; as it says, “And there shall be a ruler (yerd) amidst Jacob.” Rabbi Yose said, “In the language of the Arameans, the east is called yerd. And it spends fifteen days in the east. If it tarries even longer, it is only for the good of Israel; and then you may expect the footsteps of the Messiah.”

Midrash ha-Gadol, Numbers, quoted in Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah: An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen, translated by Yitzhak Tzvi Langerman (HarperCollins, 1996), 175-176.
Also quoted in Matthew: A Rabbinic Source Commentary And Language Study Bible (Vol. 1) by Al Gaza (Sefer Press, 2015) (Google Books)

Further Reading

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 wesbite.
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.
The Biblical Magi in Syriac Christian Tradition, on the Assyrian Culture 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

9 thoughts on “Christmas Cardology 7: The Wise Men from the East

  1. Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for this page, you made me question some thing I held to be true.

    The shepherds we know are the first Jewish worshippers of Messiah and here at the text you are now looking at we see the Babylonian Magi, and I would state that they were the first Gentile worshippers of Messiah.

    They had sufficient knowledge about the Jewish Messianic King who was to come, don’t have a complete set of the Hebrew Bible. If they were Jews they would have know where the Messianic King would be born, but they don’t know the writings of the Jewish prophet Micah. They really only know a few things, When, Who and What.

    But that does raise the question why would Babylonian (Gentile) astrologers make the long trek to Jerusalem to worship the Jewish king? “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) Babylonian astrologers did not want to worship Jewish Kings in the past, (that is during the days of the Old Testament) so why this one?

    Your identification of east being Babylon is correct, some have seen Shinar as a reference to China but the biblical identification is always Mesopotamia or Babylon.

    You already mentioned Daniel, its important to note that Daniel did saved the lives of the Magi once (Daniel 2) and because of that he was elevated to the head of the school of the Magi (astrologers) in Babylon (Daniel 2:48), though he worshipped the creator of the stars not the stars themselves, which is prohibited (Deuteronomy 4:19).

    But his writings were readily available to the school. The Book of Daniel was written in Babylon, and half of the book is written in the Babylonian language (Aramaic).

    We also note the writings of an other Babylonian prophet namely Balaam who also was an astrologer. According to Numbers 22:5 and Deuteronomy 23:4, Balaam was from Pethor, which was in Babylonia.

    When we put the writings of these two men together we understand the background to Magi’s coming to Messiah.

    Daniel 9:24-27, tells us how exactly how many years would transpire before the Messiah would come. It is this passage which contains the Messianic timetable and indicates how many years would transpire before the Messiah was born.

    Balaam in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite through the corners of Moab, And break down all the sons of tumult.”

    Note that the Magi know about Balaam his repute was well known in the ancient world Numbers 22:6 whosoever Balaam blesses is blessed, but whosoever Balaam curses is cursed. A number of utterances by Balaam have been found in modern day Iraq and Jordan.

    So when we put it together, Daniel gave the when, Balaam connects Him with a Star and identifies Him as the king (Sceptre).

    So why did the Magi come and worship the Jewish Messianic King? We can see that in the three gifts that are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of these have Old Testament symbolic significance: Gold is the symbol of kingship –Jesus is the King; Frankincense is the symbol of deity – Jesus is God and Myrrh which is the symbol of death and sacrifice – Jesus is the final Sacrifice for sin. The saw in Him God, King and Sacrifice.

    Much more could be said about the star but that might have to wait for another year.

    God Bless

    Paul Cohen
    Ariel Ministries Australia

  2. Hi Paul,

    Many thanks for this additional info!

    There was so much more I wanted to write, but felt that at Christmas time few people want to read lengthy essays.

    As you said, the star will have to wait for another year. (While there are different ideas about the date the star appeared, and what constellation it involved, several astronomers believe that the starry sign was a rare conjunction involving the king planet, Jupiter.)

    Next year, I would like to explore the birth of Jesus and the shepherds more. I think there may be more to this. Jesus truly was born, and lived and died as the Lamb of God. 1 Peter 1:18-19.

  3. We know only that there were 3 TYPES of gifts. It may or may not be true that there were 3 gifts, one for each type.

    And we certainly do not know how many magi there were. Although the mythology is 3.

    Also, magoi is the plural masculine form. We know that some women were magi, although they were rare, but it is possible that women were in the group.

    All we can say for sure is that there were at least 2 people and at least 1 of them was a man.

  4. True! Also, I often wonder what Mary and Joseph did with all that loot. We sometimes picture Jesus’s family as rustic and poor, but here they were given very expensive gifts.

    And when Jesus died on Cross, he was wearing an expensive cloak. Possibly a gift from one of his devoted followers (Luke 8:1-3.)

    Maybe Jesus wasn’t as poor as we have been led to believe. I’ve written about this here: https://margmowczko.com/was-jesus-poor/

  5. Regarding your comment on what happened to the wealth presented by the Magi: I believe that part, or most of it, was probably used to fund the escape from Herod to Egypt, living expenses in Egypt, and the return from Egypt as this type of travel was very expensive and the distances involved would have required that they be in a caravan for safety.

    God provided the funding through these very expensive gifts for Joseph and Mary to be able to care for and protect Jesus from the beginning of time when he set the stars and planets in motion, knowing that Joseph, being a carpenter, would not be able to fund this type of venture.

    I would love to comment on your comment about the Star being conjoined planets (God putting the plan into motion at the creation of the planets and stars!) But I want to read what you post first :>)

    1. Wiley, The viewpoint presented in the video and website of “The Bethlehem Star” is not my preferred option. But it is very interesting and heading in the right direction nonetheless.

      Our solar system is like a giant clock that marks the times and seasons, literally and prophetically (Gen 1:4). Some suggest that before the scriptures were written, the skies taught the message of salvation, a message that people like Daniel and Abraham could read and put their faith in (Gen 15:4-6).

      Importantly, I believe that the Bible has superseded the message in the heavens and that we have lost the ability to read the heavenly message.

      Compare with Romans 10:13-18 with Psalm 19, which juxtaposes the heavenly message in verses 1-6, with Torah in verses 7-14.

      “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:

      “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Romans 10:13-18

      The heavens declare the glory of God;
      the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
      Day after day they pour forth speech;
      night after night they reveal knowledge.
      They have no speech, they use no words;
      no sound is heard from them.
      Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
      their words to the ends of the world.
      Psalm 19:1-4

      1. Hi Marg! Since you mentioned it, I’m just curious about your thoughts on “The Bethlehem Star”. I went to college at Texas A&M and attended the same church as Rick Larson (about 20 years ago). His presentation was always so fascinating to me! So now I’m very curious what your thoughts are if you’re willing to share. Thanks!

        1. I think it was a significant conjunction of stars (or a star) and planets (or a constellation), but I don’t know which exactly.

  6. In Yemenite Midrash, it is noted that Gentile astrologers will recognise the star.

    And there shall be a ruler amidst Jacob [Numb. 24.19] At first a star arose in the east, at the head of which there was a sword. Israel saw it, and said to one another, “What is that?” The other nations asked their astrologers, “What is the character of this star?” They [the astrologers] said to them, “This is the star of Israel. This is the king who shall yet arise for them.: As soon as Israel heard that, they approached the prophet Samuel and said to him, Give us a king to judge us, just like all the nations [1 Sam. 8.5] – just as the nations said. in this context it says, a star shall arise from Jacob. [Num. 24.17] And so also at the end [of days], a star shall arise in the east, and it is the star of the Messiah; as it says, and there shall be a ruler (yerd) amidst Jacob. Rabbi Yose said: In the language of the Arameans, the east is called yerd. And it spends fifteen days in the east. If it tarries even longer, it is only for the good of Israel; and then you may expect the footsteps of the Messiah.”

    “Midrash ha-Gadol, Numbers,” Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah: An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen, translated by Yitzhak Tzvi Langerman (HarperCollins, 1996), 175-176.
    Quoted in Matthew: A Rabbinic Source Commentary and Language Study Bible (Vol. 1) by Al Gaza (Sefer Press, 2015) (Google Books)

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