There are many misconceptions about the magi who visited Jesus. The beloved Christmas carol begins, “We three kings of Orient are,” but already it has made at least three errors. First, the number of wise men who made the trip to Bethlehem is unknown.
Tradition placed their number at three probably because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—the assumption being one gift, one giver. Second, they were not kings. When the early church father, Tertullian, said, “The East considers magi almost as kings,” he was not saying that they were actually monarchs. Rather, their powerful standing in court made them “almost” like kings. Therefore, applying Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 49:7 and 60:3 as prophecies that Jesus would be visited by kings probably is not correct in the case of the magi. Finally, they did not come from as far away as the “Orient”—that is, the Far East. “The East” is identified variously as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia.
Some of the mistaken notions can be corrected by understanding the history of this unique priestly order and considering the influence that each of the three divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament, called the Tenach, had on the magi to aid them on their quest.
The term translated as wise men in the text is magoi, which has come to be known in English as magi. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, described the magi as “a priestly caste among sixth century Medes.” Therefore, the term magi designates an old and powerful priestly caste who were supposed to be knowledgeable on the various mysteries of Gentile religions. In general, the magi were specialists in medicine, astronomy, and other related fields.
In addition to their research in the sciences, some also practiced astrology, divination, and magic. Some scholars suggest that secret disciplines originated in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East. They then moved down to Egypt and eventually back to Mesopotamia for refinement and distribution. By the time of the Prophet Daniel (sixth century B.C.), a special caste of astrologers and astronomers was formed in the region of Chaldea (Kurdistan today) who were referred to as “Chaldeans” (Dan. 2:2).
When Babylon fell to the Persians in 538 B.C., the various disciplines of the Babylonian wise men were incorporated into the Persian sciences. Wise men from Persia were credited with possessing higher religious and intellectual skills, while the Babylonian wise men, like those in Daniel’s day, were sometimes looked upon as impostors. This distinction could be related to the incident when Nebuchadnezzar decreed that all the wise men in Babylon were to be killed for failing to interpret his dream (Dan. 2:9–12).
The Persian magi gradually acquired influence. Sometimes their power was too great, such as in 522 B.C., when Darius the Great had to crush a magi revolt against his rule. Still the magi retained their prestigious position in the national life of the empire. During the following centuries, many magi roamed far from Persia to offer their skills and knowledge to receptive nations.
By New Testament times, the magi were common throughout the Mediterranean world. According to Philo of Alexandria, there were two kinds of magi. He praised the first group for their extensive research into the facts of nature, calling it “true magic.” He viewed the second group as “venomous creatures” who preyed upon the people with charms and incantations. In this group Philo included the practitioners of astrology, whom he called “parasites.” So many people were falling victim to their counterfeit science that in 19 A.D., Emperor Tiberius banished all astrologers. Still the magi flourished, and many became experts in the study of stars and dreams. Tacitus, the Roman historian, observed that the Roman people often consulted the Persian magi to interpret dreams.
In the early days of the church, the magi were a problem. A man named Simon used sorcery and witchcraft to show himself to be great among the people. When he saw how the Holy Spirit was given when Philip laid hands on new believers in Samaria, he wanted this power. It is possible that Simon viewed Philip as a great magi and thought he could buy this power with money (Acts 8:9–24). Paul confronted an individual named Bar-jesus, who may have been a magi representative at the settlement of Paphos. Paul rebuked him, calling him “thou child of the devil” (Acts 13:6–11). This man was also a sorcerer, and the practice of astrology is strongly condemned by God (cp. Dt. 18:9–14; Isa. 47:12–14).
Three Jewish sources helped the magi discern the time and place of the birth of this King of the East. The first source came from the Torah and dealt with the prophecy of Balaam: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel”(Num. 24:17). Unknown to the magi, the extraordinary star that they saw may have been the manifestation of the shining glory of God. This glory is referred to in Hebrew as the Shekinah. God may have chosen to overrule the evil of astrology and, on this occasion, to direct these wise men to the place where the Messiah could be found by a method that suited their habit of star-gazing and their understanding of astronomy for the sole purpose of giving homage. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). If the star was a manifestation of the Shekinah glory, it also helps to explain its movement in Matthew 2:9. Such movement would be difficult to comprehend if it was a physical star in the sky.
Interestingly, these Gentile magi did a better job of interpreting the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 than the Jewish leaders did. It is tragic that the Jewish leadership later applied this prophecy to a false messiah. This happened during the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in 132–135 A.D. A rabbi named Akiva proclaimed the leader of the Jewish revolt as messiah and named him “Bar Kokhba” (lit., “Son of the Star”), thus applying the prophecy to him. Hopes were dashed, however, when both the rabbi and his “messiah” were captured, tortured, and killed by the Romans.
The second source of information available to the magi was from the section of the Hebrew Bible called Ketuvim, meaning the Writings. It dealt with the prophecy of the “seventy weeks” in Daniel 9:24–27. As a young man, Daniel was deported to Babylon. There he was instructed in the ways and wisdom of the Chaldeans. Yet Daniel was faithful to his God, who blessed him with a unique ability to interpret dreams. The magi considered this ability important because one of their many functions was to interpret dreams. Because Daniel held a prominent position among the wise men of his day, the magi likely would have studied his writings through the centuries. As a matter of fact, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the word magi for wise men when it says that Daniel was over the wise men. If so, they would have focused particularly on Daniel 9:26, which states that the “Messiah [shall] be cut off” after 483 years. This time frame is within the 490 years that God has determined to accomplish His program for Jerusalem and Israel. For the magi, this portion of Daniel’s prophecy provided a timetable for the Messiah’s arrival.
Supplied with an understanding of the wonders of God and relying, by faith, on Jewish prophecies, they eventually found Jesus, who was no more than two years old at the time. Still, with the revelations available to them, there was no specific mention of where in Judah the king was to be born. When they arrived in Judah, they naturally went to Jerusalem. Perhaps they went there to obtain information as to where in the city the Messiah could be found. In Jerusalem the magi discovered another Jewish source. It came again from the Hebrew Bible, this time from the section called Neviim, meaning the Prophets.
Troubled to hear about a rival king who posed a threat to his throne, King Herod summoned the chief priests and scribes. He demanded to know where this king was to be born and was told of the prophecy found in Micah 5:2: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Herod relayed this information to the magi. This was probably the first time that they had heard about this prophecy.
There is something quite astonishing in the contrast between the magi and the chief priests in Herod’s court. One would wonder why the presence of foreigners asking about a Jewish king did not capture the attention of the religious leaders. They knew of Herod’s cruelty. It would not have been difficult to figure out that Herod’s diligent inquiry to determine the earliest appearance of the star might have been to synchronize that information with the arrival of the magi and thereby estimate the time of the child’s birth. Then he could have the newborn king killed. Still the religious leaders did nothing to protect their long-awaited Messiah. Their indifference to the things of God was already present before their hatred for Jesus was ever formed.
The entire canon of Old Testament Scripture contributed to the steps of faith taken by these wise men from the East. From the Torah they read the prediction about a star, but this was only the beginning. By itself it was insufficient. From the Writings came the insight from Daniel’s prophecy concerning the timing of the Messiah’s coming. But still more revelation was needed. Then from the Prophets came Micah 5:2, telling where He was to be born. The culmination of their journey was God’s gift to them—Jesus.
These noble wise men represent the first Gentile worship of the Jewish King. Their actions symbolize the universal gospel outreach—that not only Israel can be saved, but also that “the nations shall come to thy light” (Isa. 60:3a).
The familiar saying, “Wise Men Still Seek Him,” is still relevant. Are you a wise man?
“But without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6).