73. Who Were the Magi?

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Notes on the Magi based on the EHV Study Bible

The Magi (or wise men) were learned men from a foreign country to the east, most likely Persia or perhaps Babylon. The original members of the class magi were Persians, but by New Testament times not all magi were Persians. Often magi were involved in the practice of astronomy/astrology (which were not necessarily separate fields at this time). The biblical text does not say that there were three magi. Other traditions say that there were as many as twelve.

The idea of three magi perhaps arose from the three gifts that the Wise Men brought. Gold was very valuable then as it is today. These Gentiles gave gifts fit for a king (Psalm 72:15). Frankincense was a very expensive substance made from the resin of a certain type of tree (Boswellia sacra) which was used as a sweet-smelling incense. Myrrh was made from the natural gum or resin of certain small trees (commiphora) and was used in preparing a body for burial (John 19:39).

A better reason for proposing three magi was the idea that the Wise Men were representatives of the descendants of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. One of them is brown, one black and one white. In this way they were representatives of the whole human race.

Interpretations of the Magi often borrowed heavily from Old Testament prophecies like Psalm 72:10:

10 The kings of Tarshish and of the sea coasts will bring tribute.

The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer him gifts.

Tarshish, a Mediterranean port far to the west, perhaps in Spain or Portugal, was the most distant place that the Israelites were familiar with on the western sea. This location represents Europeans, the descendants of Japheth. Sheba and Seba, places in southern Arabia and eastern Africa, were the most distant place that the Israelites were familiar with on the eastern sea (the Red Sea and Indian Ocean). This represents descendants of Shem and Ham.

Medieval paintings of the Magi often portray one of them as black, and the others as shades of brown or white, but this is not consistent. Many traditions provide three names of the magi, but this is not consistent either. The most common names are Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar.

We are not told in the New Testament that the Magi were kings. That idea is based on Psalm 72:10-11 and Isaiah 60:1-6. It is very likely that the Magi were not kings. These magi possibly were learned advisors to a king or kings, as Daniel was (Daniel 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7). The identification of the Magi as three kings is especially strong in Hispanic tradition.

Contrary to many manger scenes and common notions, the Wise Men were not at the manger that first Christmas. Instead, they arrived some time later when Jesus was a child living in a house. The meager offering which Mary and Joseph could afford at the time of Jesus’ presentation indicates that they were still poor, forty days after his birth (Luke 2:24).

It is most likely that the Magi, however many they may have been, were astronomer astrologers from Persia or Babylon. According to legend, early in the 7th century, when Persian invaders destroyed many churches in Israel, they chose not to destroy the Nativity Church in Bethlehem because they saw the Magi pictured as Persians in the nativity art.

The association of the Magi with descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth is likely a very nice legend that expresses a great truth, but nothing in the New Testament text suggests this as the historical identification of the Magi.

The Star of the Magi

Many attempts have been made to provide a natural explanation for the star of the Magi (a conjunction of planets, a comet, a supernova), but Scripture seems to describe a special, miraculous phenomenon, because of the way it moved and then stayed over the place where the child Jesus was. Long before GPS, God directed these Gentile Wise Men to the very house where they could find their Savior. Like the plagues in Egypt, the star may have been a combination of natural and supernatural elements, possibly the appearance or reappearance of a conjunction of planets, with special divine direction. It seems to be an event significant to astronomers but not necessarily spectacular to ordinary observers. Some references in the text seem to refer to a type of observation significant to astronomers.

In Matthew 2:2,9, did the Wise Men see the star “in the east” or “in its rising”? “In the east” certainly has a lot of support in recent translations, but if the Wise Men were from the East why would the text have to tell us that they were “in the east” when they saw the star? We would know that. Or why would they need to tell us that they saw the star rise in the eastern part of the sky? All stars arise in the eastern part of the sky and march across the sky from east to west. Since the Wise Men were astronomer/astrologers, it was the appearance of a star at a certain time and place that was significant to them. The study of exactly what the Christmas star may have been is a complicated and much disputed topic that we cannot resolve here, but a translation should recognize the astronomical significance of the text of Matthew. “In its rising” in this passage is a technical term that points to the astrological significance of the appearance or the reappearance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term translated “from the East” in verse 1 is ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν (apo anatolon). It is a plural form, risings, that is typically used of the rising of the sun. In verses 2 and 9, however, a singular form, ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ (en tey anatoley), in the rising, is used. This singular form here is used of the rising of a star and should not be translated “in the east.” Because of the singular form and the article, this phrase in verses 2 and 9 is probably not a geographical expression like the one in verse 1, but it is instead an astronomical term. See the article on anatole in the BDAG Greek Lexicon. Recent translations that recognize the astronomical significance of this phrase include NET, NLT, ESV, and NRSV. To find out more about the “rising of stars” google “heliacal rising.”

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, when Herod was king, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, 2“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4He gathered together all the people’s chief priests and experts in the law. He asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, because this was written through the prophet:

6You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are certainly not least among the rulers of Judah: because out of you will come a ruler, who will shepherd my people, Israel.”

7Then Herod secretly summoned the Wise Men and found out from them exactly when the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find him, report to me, so that I may also go and worship him.”

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. Then the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them, until it stood still over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with overwhelming joy. 11After they went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12Since they had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.