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) 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 worshiped 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 expert and experienced astronomers and astrologers. 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 an unusual “star“. They knew that the “star” signified the birth of the Messiah – the King of the Jews (Mat 2:2); and they set out on a long journey to follow it with the purpose of paying homage to the new born King.
Early church father Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) stated several times in his Dialogue with Trypho that the magi who visited the child Jesus were from Arabia. It seems, however, that the magi were from Persia, further east of Arabia.
Philo of Alexandria (20BC-50AD), a Jewish philosopher living at the time of Christ, 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.
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 Daniel 2:1-2).
It seems that the magi were regarded and 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. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh suggest that they were also men of wealth (Mat 2:11).
Where the Magi Jewish?
It is quite possible that some magi had Jewish ancestry, especially those of the Eastern School. The Jews had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC, and they were 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).
The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the word “magi” (magos) eight times to describe some of the Babylonian royal advisors (e.g. Dan 2:2). In fact, during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Daniel was promoted and became the chief magi (Dan 2:48b). It is highly likely that Daniel taught the Hebrew Scriptures and Messianic prophecies to the other magi, especially to the other Jewish magi. A Jewish legend states 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 the Christmas cards which often show the magi wearing crowns, the magi were not “kings” in the usual sense. However, they were of a very high rank. 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. (The word for “magi” is plural in Matthew’s narrative.) Furthermore, the magi probably travelled with an impressive entourage which may have been quite extensive.
Despite illustrations of the Nativity which often include the magi, the magi 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 after the “star’s” first appearing for the magi to 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 a few months old. Matthew 2:11 says that the magi came to a house where they saw the child (paidion) with Mary his mother. Here they worshipped the child Jesus and they presented him with expensive, precious gifts, fit for royalty.
The visit of the magi in Matthew 2:1-18 is intriguing. It is fascinating that these wise men were compelled to travel such a long distance, and that they were so sure, despite the ignorance of others (Mat 2:3), that the child they were worshipping was truly the King of the Jews.
 While en tē anatolē literally means “in the east”, this phrase is used in Greek literature to refer to celestial bodies rising in the sky. It’s nonsensical to think that the wise men followed a star in the east by travelling westward towards Israel. Rather, the wise men saw a significant celestial event rising in the sky, knew that they were on to something, and travelled west to Israel.
 Ancient Persia corresponds with modern day Iran.
 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 derived from the word magos and magi.
 Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, later became a believer in the Hebrew God. (See Daniel 4:34-37.)
 Chaldea is practically synonymous with ancient astronomy and astrology.
 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 the 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.
 A paidion refers to a small or young child. This word is used in Matthew 2:9, 11, 13 (twice), 14, 20 & 21 (cf Matthew 2:16). The Greek word for baby is brephos, not paidion.
© 25th of December, 2010; Margaret Mowczko
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Anon., “Commentary: The Visit of the Magi” in Shroro: The Syrian Orthodox Christian Digest, Vol 1, Issue 2, Jan 2005.
Herodotus, Histories, Book 1, (translated by George Rawlinson) from the Iran Chamber Society website.
Lendering, Jona, Magians (Old Persian Magus), from the Iran Chamber Society website.
Martyr, Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, from Early Christian Writings website.
Monk Themistocles, The Magi and the Infant Jesus, from the Orthodox Research Institute website.
For information on the Bethlehem Star, visit The Star of Bethlehem website.
Christmas Cardology Series:
More about the first Christmas in this e-book here.