Who Were the Magi, and Why Should We Care?


Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”, mosaic of an Italian-Byzantine workshop in Ravenna, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”.

Did the three wise men really visit the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas day bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

The town and the gifts are right. At best, the rest of the familiar scene is dubious. Who were the wise men (magi), and what does it matter?

The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) simply says wise men (it’s plural, so there were at least two) followed a star from the East (a vague enough reference that only rules out other directions). Eventually they got to Bethlehem, entered “the house,” presented their gifts, and rode out of history.

Who were the magi?

Magi had a long history in Babylon. They probably include “magicians, the conjurers, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans” of Daniel 2. Daniel became their chief. Under Persian rule, they were elevated to the priesthood.

It would stand to reason, then, that they came from Persia, but that’s no more than an educated guess. The Assyrians had resettled the people of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) to Media, and Median astrologers would have taken great interest in the prophecy of the star of Jacob (Numbers 24:17).

If a large concentration of Jews lived anywhere in the former Babylonian empire by the time of Jesus’ birth, the magi may have even been Jews, but the church has a long tradition of regarding them as gentiles—the first gentiles attracted to Jesus. At any rate, the magi told King Herod that they had come to worship.

Scripture says that the magi followed a star. Bible scholars and scientist alike have long speculated on what kind of astronomical event inspired their journey. But how could any possible natural occurrence have led them to the very house where they would find Jesus?

Why Should We Care?


Seven Joys of the Virgin / Hans Memling, 1480

The magi, in the guise of the three wise men, appear on Christmas cards, ornaments for the Christmas tree, nativity sets, centuries of songs, and of course the ubiquitous church dramas with kings in phony-looking costumes showing up at the manger with the shepherds.

They deserve more attention, because they show both the greatness of God, the greatness of humanity at its best, and the inability of humanity to stay at its best.

  • Whatever the star was, the magi not only received revelation from it, but acted on the revelation. They undertook a long and very possibly uncomfortable journey because of it.
  • Besides whatever prophetic literature they knew and the appearance of the star, they acted on no other evidence. They had no assurance they would find anything at all—except for their faith in the guidance of an unseen God.
  • When they got near their destination, their faith wavered. They stopped relying on the star and asked the notoriously insecure and tyrannical Herod for directions.
  • Where nearly everyone else in Bethlehem saw only a baby boy, the magi saw a king. Not a mere earthly king, either, but one worthy of worship.

That lapse of faith had dire consequences. First Herod asked the priests and other experts in Scripture where the Christ would be born. They gave him the answer—Bethlehem—and showed no interest in the imminent fulfillment of what should have been their longing. Herod commanded the slaughter of every boy in Jerusalem younger than two.

The magi probably never learned of Herod’s atrocity. Likewise, we will never know the full consequences of our own faithlessness in the lives of other people, but they can be devastating.

Act on the lessons from the magi:

  • Seek Jesus.
  • Act on divine revelation.
  • Give sacrificially.
  • Hold on to trust in God to lead.
  • Worship, and remain at worship.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, entry for “Magi, The”
Picture credits.
The mosaic. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
The painting. Public domain. Madame Pickwick Art Blog — With an interesting and informative commentary.

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