Our Redeemer
Lutheran Church

Lexington, Kentucky

The Magi / Wise Men FAQ

1. What Scripture Passages Tell Us of the Magi?

Only Matthew 2:1-18. Some Christians have thought that Isaiah 60:1-7 is a prophecy of the wise men since it speaks of kings coming to "the brightness of your rising" (60:3) and gifts of "gold and frankincense" (60:6). Others have viewed Psalm 72:10 as referring to the magi. However, since the New Testament doesn't identify these explicitly as prophecies of the magi, we cannot be certain about it. Furthermore, Matthew is fond of telling his readers when an event in the life of Jesus is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (see, for example, 1:22-23; 2:14-15; 2:17-18; 3:3; 4:12-16; 12:15-21; 13:34-35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10). Therefore, the fact that Matthew doesn't do this in the case of the magi is an argument against Isaiah 60:1-7 or Psalm 72:10 being prophecies of the magi.

2. What are "magi"?

The original Greek in Matthew 2:1ff., calls the men who came to visit Jesus magoi, the plural of magos. The English word "magi," is based on this Greek word, but is actually the Latin plural of magus, which in turn is simply a transliteration of the Greek New Testament word magos. Confused, yet?! More importantly, what does Matthew 2:1-12 tell us about magi? The text reveals that they had the wealth and knowledge to travel and offer lavish gifts; they also had knowledge about the stars ("We have seen his star in the east . . ." Matthew 2:2). Does the remainder of the New Testament tell us more about magi? The only other occurrence of the Greek word magos is Acts 13:6,8, where it is translated "magician," meaning one who practices sorcery. The Greek Old Testament (LXX) has an occurrence of magos (Daniel 2:2), and there it also means "magician." But see also Jeremiah 39:3,13, where a "Rabmag" is mentioned.

Fortunately other ancient literature comes to our aid in helping us to understand who magi were. From the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek historian Herodotus, and the writings of Strabo, a clearer picture of the people called the magi appears. The magi first appear in history in about the 7th century B.C. in the Median empire (Herodotus I, ci). It is possible that we see examples of them in Daniel 2 and Jeremiah 39. At the time of the birth of Jesus they were an ancient priestly caste dwelling within the Parthian empire that practiced astrology (note: at this time, "astrology" was a hybrid of astrology and what we now call astronomy). They were adept at interpreting dreams (which we possibly get a flavor of as early as Daniel 2). Also at the time just prior to the birth of our Lord, the magi formed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (Strabo, XI, ix, 3). Thus, the magi at this time were very possibly "king makers." (Sources: D. W. Jayne, "Magi," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4:31-34; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War; Herodotus, The History of Herodotus; A. Holmstead, History of the Persian Empire).

3. Why do we call them "wise men"?

Because, as said above, magi were priests, serving an ancient priesthood, astrologers, interpreters of dreams, and government officials who had the authority to elect the Parthian king. In the context of the times, because they served these roles and had such amazing knowledge of mysteries as these, they were considered to be the scholars of the day.

4. Were the magi kings?

There is no conclusive evidence that they were kings, Isaiah 60:1-7 and favorite Christmas carols notwithstanding. However, as mentioned above, they might have been king makers. By the way, no early church father held the magi to be kings.

5. How many magi were there?

Unknown. Matthew 2:1-16 simply uses the plural. We know there were two or more. It is interesting that Christian art from the first centuries of the Church show various numbers of magi, ranging from 2 to 8.

6. Where did they come from?

The only thing we can say with certainty is "from the east" (Matthew 2:1). Our best knowledge is that members of the Magian priesthood existed in Parthian empire at this time, which encompassed a large area to the east of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

7. Did the magi visit baby Jesus while He was still in the manger?

No. Matthew's Gospel clearly says that the magi entered a house (2:11).

8. How old was Jesus when the magi visited Him?

The Biblical data to guide us in answering this is as follows. (1) We know from Luke's Gospel (2:21) that Jesus was circumcised at 8 days old; (2) We also know from Luke 2:22-24, that when the 40 days of Mary's "uncleanness" had passed (see Leviticus 12:1ff.), they presented Jesus, their first born son in the temple in Jerusalem, according to God's Law (Exodus 13:2ff.; Numbers 3:13, 8:17. (3) Herod asked the magi when they had first seen the star (Matthew 2:7) and on this basis later killed all of the male children in Bethlehem, age two and under (Matthew 2:16). In addition to this, there is (4), that the magi came during the reign of King Herod, whom we know died in 4 BC;

On this basis we can lay out the following with a fair amount of certainty. Jesus was between 41 days and 2 years old when the magi arrived. The magi had to have come after Jesus' presentation in the temple, that is, after Jesus was 40 days old. Why? Because, Matthew's Gospel tells us that after the magi departed, an angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt, since Herod would seek to kill Jesus. According to Scripture, Joseph left that very night and went to Egypt (2:13-15). This would have left no time or opportunity for the presentation in the temple, which we know happened.

Is the fact that Herod killed all Bethlehem boys age 2 and under evidence that Jesus was 2? Not necessarily. First, the murder of these little ones does not necessarily mean that the magi told him that the star had appeared two years before. They could have told him a lesser number and ruthless Herod might have chosen two years in order to "take no chances." Second, if the magi did tell him that the star had appeared two years before, this also does not necessarily mean that Jesus was 2. The star could have appeared before Jesus was born, giving the magi advanced notice.

9. Was the star an ordinary star?

No. It was clearly supernatural. For, according to Matthew 2:9, the star moved ahead of them until it was directly over the house where Jesus was and then stopped. No ordinary star does this. Rationalists have long tried to come up with a natural explanation for this star, that it was a comet, conjunction of two planets, or some other phenomenon. But, first of all, there is no proof for their natural explanations. And second, as said above, this star did things that normal stars do not.

10. How did the magi know that the new star they observed referred to the king of the Jews?

It is one thing to say that the magi were astrologers and they noticed a new and unusual star. But they were Gentiles. How did they know that the new star referred to a foreign-born king?. First, we know from the Old Testament that when the Babylonians conquered Judah and Jerusalem, they deported the majority of the population to Babylon (see 2 Kings 24-25). The deported Jews lived as exiles in Babylon for 70 years, until the Medes and Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Persian kings (esp. King Cyrus, see Ezra 1:1-4) allowed the Jews to return to Israel to rebuild the temple (see Ezra) and the city of Jerusalem ( see Nehemiah) and many returned. However, not all returned. Many Jews continued to live in the Persian empire. Thus, by the time of Christ's birth centuries later, the Hebrew religion would have long existed in the "east." Because of this, it is highly likely that the Hebrew Scriptures were also known, Scriptures that foretold the coming of the Messiah. Numbers 24:17 is one possibility. Also, Daniel, who was a famous man in Babylon and among the Medes, has several key Messianic prophecies in his book. This might explain how they had knowledge of the Messiah, the king of the Jews.

It still does not fully explain, however, how the magi knew to connect the star with the king of the Jews. However, given that it was through a dream that God warned the magi to return to their homeland another way (Matthew 2:12), it is possible that it was through a dream that God communicated to them about the significance of the star in the first place.

11. Do we know the names of the magi?

No. The Scriptures are silent on this. The traditional names, dating from about the 7th Century A.D., are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. This is the western tradition. Eastern Christians have other names.

12. What is the significance of the visit of the magi?

The account of the magi is rightly celebrated as an epiphany of our Lord. In other words, the main significance of this account is that God so wonderfully revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah and King of the Jews to these Gentile magi. It seems to be a wonderful fulfillment of the prophet Simeon's prophecy, that Jesus would be, "a light of revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:31).

By Pastor Richard P. Bucher

January, 1998