Who were the Magi, or Wise Men?

The gospel of Matthew records that “Magi” (NASB [1], NIV) or “Wise Men” (KJV, ESV, NRSV [2]), came from the East to see Jesus after he was born. The Greek word magoi, correctly translated as “Magi” (Matt. 2:1- NIV), is a plural proper noun referring to people of a specific religious group that existed in the Ancient Near East, most specifically the area of ancient Media and Persia. By the time of Christ, that area was the country of Parthia, which is north and east of Israel. Much has been written in encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries about their origin, history, and beliefs, so that need not be repeated here, however, it is important to know that at least some Magi were looking for a Messiah who would conquer darkness and restore justice in the world.

Magi, especially their leaders and priests, were considered to be wise, and even to have occult powers, so the translation “Wise Men” might at first seem to be a fitting translation, but it is far too broad a term to communicate the meaning of the word “magoi.” After all, there were many wise men in the ancient world, just as there are today, whereas the Magi were a specific group. A good comparison might be if Catholic Cardinals from Rome came to visit Jesus but we only knew them as, “Good Men from the West.” The designation would be true, but it would not give us the necessary information about them. The title “Wise Men” does not tell us who the Magi were, but their proper title does. Similarly, calling them “kings,” as in the song verse, “We three kings from orient are…,” only confuses the record. They were not kings.

Perhaps the most important reason to refer to these men by the proper name, Magi, is so the reader of the Bible can see their relation to the religious group that was at one time led and instructed by Daniel the prophet. Sometime around 600 B.C., Daniel was made ruler over the Magi, although the connection is not as clear as it could be because in the book of Daniel the Magi are referred to as “magicians” and Daniel is referred to as “chief of the magicians” (Dan. 4:9, 5:11). Although there is no proof for it outside the Bible, it seems certain that Daniel instructed the leaders of the Magi about the Jewish origin of the true Messiah, because hundreds of years later some Magi made a long and dangerous trip to Israel to pay homage to the child Jesus (Matt. 2:2).

As the centuries passed after the birth of Christ, the true knowledge about the Magi was replaced by superstition and tradition, and this has persisted in spite of the fact that it contradicts what is clearly written in Scripture. For example, the Magi did not follow a star to Bethlehem. No super-bright, westward traveling celestial phenomena appeared in the sky and went from Parthia to Bethlehem. We today live mostly indoors, and very few people look out at the night sky on a regular basis, yet if something strange appears in the sky, radio stations and police departments are flooded with calls. In the ancient Near East, many people saw the sky on a more regular basis than we do today, and many were very superstitious. Had there been an unusual star traveling westward, not only the Magi would have followed it, but also many other people, all of whom would have arrived at Bethlehem. The fact that only the Magi showed up was because the “star” itself was not unusual, but was a unique occurrence of planetary conjunctions and appearances that, viewed by themselves and considered individually, would not seem unusual at all.

These Magi were astronomers, and the “star” they saw was a series of celestial events, including stars, planets, and conjunctions, especially involving the “king planet” Jupiter (For more on the “star,” see The Star that Astonished the World by Ernest Martin, and Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed by Victor Wierwille). Before telescopes were invented, planets, stars, novas, and comets were all called “stars,” and before the invention of modern devices for measuring their movement, ancient astronomers tracked the timing and position of the stars by when they were first visible over the horizon. We know the Magi used this technique because it was a usual procedure, and also by what they said when they reached Jerusalem: “…For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2 – ESV). The ESV does a superb job of translating the phrase “when it rose.” The Magi were watching the stars and noting their relation to points on the horizon, to each other, and to the constellations in which they appeared. Eventually they saw patterns that convinced them the Messiah had been born.

Most Bible versions say the Magi saw the star, “in the east,” instead of “when it rose.” Although “in the east” is not the most accurate translation of the Greek text, it does tell us that most English Bibles give enough information to dispel some of the traditional mythology that has arisen about the Magi. For example, they did not see the star in the western or southwestern sky. Also, there is no verse that says they “followed” the star to get anywhere. The idea that they “followed” the star comes from tradition that was popularized by Christmas music. The Magi saw celestial events that led them to conclude that the Jewish Messiah had been born. Therefore, they made a logical decision and went to Jerusalem, the religious and political capital of Israel, and asked the king where to find this new Messiah. Matthew 2:1 makes it clear they came to “Jerusalem,” not to Bethlehem. There they got an audience with King Herod, who directed them to go to Bethlehem.

We do not know whether the Magi traveled to Jerusalem by themselves or joined a trading caravan that was heading in that direction. Neither do we know how long the journey took, but it would have taken at least a month and maybe several (Parthia itself is hundreds of miles across, and we do not know exactly where they started their journey). Furthermore, the Bible does not say how many Magi came to see Jesus. Tradition says three, but that idea comes from the three kinds of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were all fitting for a king, and each could easily be sold or bartered to purchase necessities, so they would greatly help Joseph and his new family. It is not likely that each of the Magi individually brought “a gift,” like we would bring “a gift” to a birthday party. The three gifts would have been presented as a collective offering from the Magi who made the journey and the people they represented back in Parthia, who collected the gift.

There were almost certainly many more than three Magi who made the trip. For one thing, the purpose of the trip was to pay homage to the long-awaited Messiah, and many devout people would want to be part of that event. Furthermore, the trip was long and dangerous, and it was standard procedure in those days to travel with a large number of people for protection, especially when traveling with valuables, and more especially when those valuables were to be taken across an international border into an enemy empire (at the time, Rome and Parthia were enemies).

Another good reason for believing that there were more than three Magi is that when they arrived in Jerusalem, King Herod and “all Jerusalem” were disturbed at their coming (Matt. 2:3). To fully appreciate this, we need to remember that Herod and Jerusalem were not disturbed when about a year and a half earlier, shepherds announced that they had seen angels and that the Messiah had been born (how we know that the Magi came when Jesus was about a year and a half old is too much to cover in this article, but it is why Herod killed all the babies two years old and under). When, however, a group of Magi arrived from Parthia and wanted to know where the Messiah was born, that got the attention of Herod and Jerusalem, and upset them greatly.

When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, neither they nor King Herod knew where to find the young Messiah. However, Micah 5:2 foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so that is where King Herod sent them (Matt. 2:4-8). Bethlehem is seven miles south of Jerusalem, and the Magi did not travel there the day they got an audience with King Herod. Even at two miles per hour, the journey would have only taken three and a half hours, and we can conclude from the biblical record that they returned to where they were staying and prepared to make the journey the next day. It was usual for caravans to get started very early in the morning, while it is still dark, and this one was no different.

When the Magi headed out for Bethlehem in the early morning while it was still dark, the “star” they had observed back in Parthia “went before them” (Matt. 2:9 – KJV, ESV). As we already pointed out, they did not follow the star to Bethlehem, they were already going there. The star that seemed to go in front of them was the planet Jupiter, which at that time was in the southern sky (again see the book: The Star that Astonished the World). As it rose in the sky, it became more and more directly south, the very direction they were heading, and thus appeared to be “going before them.” Finally, as it reached its zenith (high point) in the sky south of them, it “stood” directly over Bethlehem, which was also south of them (by the way, astronomers still use the same language today, saying stars “rise,” “stand,” and “set”).

Seeing Jupiter going before them caused great joy among the group. Although they certainly would have known Jupiter was visible in the sky, they did not know where the Messiah or Bethlehem was, and thus would not have known the star would also seem to go before them. To the untrained eye, there was nothing in the sky that morning that would have been a cause for rejoicing, which accounts for the fact that there were not large crowds of people traveling along with the Magi, all following the star.

Bethlehem was a small village, and houses in such villages of the Ancient Near East were all crowded together, so nothing in the sky could point out an individual house. This is more evidence that the star did not lead the Magi to the Messiah. Nevertheless, the Messiah would be easy to locate in Bethlehem, thanks to the shepherds, who had not only told the whole town about him, but all the surrounding area as well. All the Magi had to do was ask, and everyone would remember the baby whose parents were both of the line of David and who the shepherds had announced so joyfully.

Upon finding the “child” (Jesus was not a “baby” anymore; Matt. 2:11), the Magi paid homage to him and presented their gifts. The Magi were not stupid, and Herod had a reputation for killing potential rivals, so they asked God for guidance as to what to do after they found the Messiah. This fact is not clearly stated in most English Bibles, but the Greek word translated “warned” in most of them was usually used of a divine instruction or warning that came to people who asked for guidance from an oracle. The Magi asked God what to do, and He warned them not to go back to Herod, so they went home by another route (Matt. 2:12).

Likely, right after the Magi left, Joseph was also warned by God to flee the area, which he did, going down to Egypt (Matt. 2:13 and 14). This is another piece of evidence that shows the Magi were not present at the birth of Jesus, but long after. Herod and the powers in Jerusalem had ignored the shepherds, and after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary stayed in the area and completed the forty days of cleansing and the sacrifice required by the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:1-8). However, after the Magi left Judea, Herod was furious and would have moved very quickly to do away with this new potential rival for his throne. There is no way that Joseph and Mary could have then stayed around for forty days without Herod finding and killing both them and Jesus. This accounts for the urgency in the angel’s message to Joseph: “…Get up…take the child and…escape to Egypt….” “Take” and “escape” are in the imperative mood; they are firm commands, and Joseph acted on them immediately (Matt. 2:13).

In conclusion, we should ask ourselves why it is important to know the truth about the Magi. What difference does it make whether they were Magi, wise men, or kings? Who cares whether there were three of them or fifty? What is wrong with thinking they just followed a celestial object southwest from Parthia to Bethlehem? The answer relates to God’s purpose for giving us the His Word, which is His instruction for our lives, full of valuable lessons. The Bible is not made up of fanciful stories, but of credible historical records. There is very little to learn from a story of three men in Parthia seeing an unusual “star” and just following it, and no way to discern how they were supposed to know that this “star” was leading them to the Messiah so they should bring gifts.

The truth about the Magi teaches us a lot. We see the great patience and faithfulness they had, passing down the information about the Messiah generation after generation, waiting some 600 years for him. That should remind us to pass on our knowledge of God’s Word to the next generation. We see the great risk the Magi were willing to take, carrying valuables hundreds of miles across an international border to pay homage to the Messiah, and the value of the gifts they brought indicates how thankful they were for him. They remind us that living a godly life often involves risk, and also that prayer, Bible study, worship, and financial support of the Church may not be easy or convenient, but the same Lord who was worthy of the sacrifice the Magi made is worthy of our sacrifice of time, money, and energy.

Endnotes

[1] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission.
[2] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 comment

  1. Sir,
    I am no theologian (yet) but enjoyed the common-sense aspects of your article and video. I have not formed an opinion on the number of Magi that may have traveled to worship and gift Jesus, but I would not argue that traveling through combat most likely required a decent number of men for protective measures.
    As I learn the differences between traditions and truths, customs and values, I find myself thirsting for more breakdowns of words, phrases, concepts, etc. Your ideas from this article made total sense to me. Thank you.

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