Christmas Cardology (7): The Wise Men from the East

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 (orhad 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 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,[2] 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.[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 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,[4] 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).[5]

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.[6]  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.[7]  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.


Endnotes

[1] 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.

[2] Ancient Persia corresponds with modern day Iran.

[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 derived from the word magos and magi.

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

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

[6] 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.

[7] 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: 

(1) Introduction
(2) Scandal and Favour
(3) From Nazareth to Bethlehem
(4) Born in a Barn?
(5) Jesus’ Birthday
(6) The Virgin Mary

More about the first Christmas in this e-book here.

(162 visits since April 1st 2014, 10 in the last seven days)

Posted December 1st, 2011 . Categories/Tags: Christian Theology, Christology, Church History, , , , , , ,

10 comments on “Christmas Cardology (7): The Wise Men from the East

  1. Paul Cohen says:

    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

    Paul Cohen
    Ariel Ministries Australia
    http://ww.ariel.org

  2. Marg says:

    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. Don Johnson says:

    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. Marg says:

    True! Also, I often wonder what the Mary and Joseph did with all that loot.
    We picture Jesus’ 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.

  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 :>)

    • Marg says:

      Wiley, I probably won’t have time this year to write about the what sort of astronomical event the “star” was. The viewpoint presented in the video and website of “The Bethlehem Star”, which I have linked to in this article, in not my preferred option. But it is very interesting, and heading in the right direction nonetheless.

      I do believe that our solar system is like a giant clock which marks the times and seasons, literally and prophetically (Gen 1:4). I believe that before the Bible, 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 superceded 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 verses7-14.

      “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

      Please comment. I would love to hear your ideas on this!

  6. Marg, I missed the link you put in on the star. Went back up and found it. I have corresponded with Rick a number of times and even tried to arrange for him to put on his presentation in Granbury (where we attend church). We couldn’t meet all of his requirements at the time. He lives about 150 miles south of me. It amazes me as to how many connections we have in common.

  7. Marg says:

    Wiley, I don’t know Rick personally. I just have his Bethlehem Star video and have visited his website. But yes, we do have several aquaintances and friends in common. Probably because we have similar interests. :)

  8. [...] When Jesus was still an infant, he was presented with expensive gifts from the wealthy and noble Magi (Mat 2:11).  I wonder what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh? [...]

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