Who were the Magi?

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matt. 2:1-2)

Three MagiThe Magi are first mentioned in the OT book of Daniel and were called “magicians” (Dan. 2:2, 4-5, 10).  They were most likely astronomers, but some practiced astrology.  It appears throughout history they were a mixed group, with some being believers and some unbelievers.  Matthew records a group of Magi who were positive believers, who had traveled a long distance to come and greet the newborn King of Israel and to give Him gifts and worship Him (Matt. 2:11).  All Israel should have gone to greet the baby Jesus upon hearing the news that the “King of the Jews” had been born (Matt. 2:2), but instead, it was Gentiles from the East who came to give respect.  By the time the Magi arrive to visit Jesus, Mary and Joseph are living in a “house” (Grk. oikos – house, permanent dwelling) and Jesus is called a “Child” (Grk. paidion – young child), and is no longer a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (Matt. 2:11).  According to the Gospel of Luke, it was perhaps a year earlier that the Jewish shepherds came and expressed joy at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:8-20).  Concerning the identity of the Magi, Dr. Thomas Constable states:

It is not easy to identify the Magi (from the Gr. magoi) precisely. The Greek word from which we get “magi” comes from a Persian word that means experts regarding the stars. Centuries before Christ’s time they were a priestly caste of Medes who could interpret dreams (cf. Dan. 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7). Later the term broadened to include men interested in dreams, magic, astrology, and the future. Some of these were honest inquirers after the truth, but others were charlatans (cf. Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8). The Magi who came to Jerusalem came from the East. Probably they came from Babylon that had been for centuries a center for the study of the stars.[1]

       Matthew records no specific number for the Magi, and three are chosen only because there were three gifts given to Christ at His birth.  It’s possible there were many Magi, maybe even more than a hundred.  It’s difficult to imagine Herod or anyone else in the city of Jerusalem being surprised by the presence of three Magi from the East.  However, for more than a hundred Magi to suddenly appear in the city, asking “Where is He who has been born King of Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).  That would more likely gain the attention of a lot of people, including king Herod.  Today we mention three Magi mainly because of the three gifts that were given to Jesus at His birth. 

Their worship was heightened by the giving of gifts . . . gold . . . incense and . . . myrrh. These were gifts worthy of a king and this act by Gentile leaders pictures the wealth of the nations which will someday be completely given to the Messiah (Isa. 60:5, 11; 61:6; 66:20; Zeph. 3:10; Hag. 2:7-8). Some believe the gifts had further significance by reflecting on the character of this Child’s life. Gold might represent His deity or purity, incense the fragrance of His life, and myrrh His sacrifice and death (myrrh was used for embalming). These gifts were obviously the means by which Joseph took his family to Egypt and sustained them there until Herod died.[2]

       Scripture is silent about the names of the Magi or any noble offices they might have held.  By the end of the 6th century A.D., some in the church had assigned kingly offices to at least three of the Magi and given them names as well.  Dr. D. A. Carson writes:

The tradition that the Magi were kings can be traced as far back as Tertullian (died c. 225). It probably developed under the influence of OT passages that say kings will come and worship Messiah (cf. Pss 68:29, 31; 72:10–11; Isa 49:7; 60:1–6). The theory that there were three “wise men” is probably a deduction from the three gifts (2:11). By the end of the sixth century, the wise men were named: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper. Matthew gives no names. His magoi come to Jerusalem (which, like Bethlehem, has strong Davidic connections [2 Sam 5:5–9]), arriving, apparently, from the east—possibly from Babylon, where a sizable Jewish settlement wielded considerable influence, but possibly from Persia or from the Arabian desert. The more distant Babylon may be supported by the travel time apparently required (see on 2:16).[3]

       The MagiWhat Matthew emphasizes in his Gospel account is that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, born in the line of Abraham and David (Matt. 1:1, 17), and is the rightful King of the Jews (Matt. 2:2).  The Magi recognized Jesus with gifts that honored Him as King and gave the worship that is due Him.  Matthew tells us, “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat 2:11).

       So then, Scripture pulls back the curtain for a moment and gives us a little information about the Magi.  We know they came seeking the King of Israel, and worshipped Him properly.  Though we cannot know all we would like to know about them, we can identify with them in their recognition of Jesus as King.  Like the Magi, we can offer Jesus the worship that is due to Him.  After all, He is “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 19:16).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Mt 2:1.

[2] Louis A Barbieri, Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 22.

[3] D. A. Carson, “Matthew” In , in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 85.

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