The Mythology of the Magi
A Fresh Look at the Wise Men and the Star
The visit of the magi to the Child-Messiah, recorded in Matthew 2:1–12, is one of the most familiar biblical scenes to most Christians. The average conception of this event, however, has been unfortunately marred by a large number of popular misconceptions. Only when we view this passage through historically sensitive, Jewish eyes can we discern the accurate meaning of the magi’s journey to find the one who was born “King of the Jews.”
It is amazing to realize how many misconceptions surround these events. Consider the following list of erroneous ideas about the wise men:
- They were three in number.
- They were kings.
- They were from the Orient (i.e. Far East).
- They were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
- One of them was a black man.
- They visited the baby Jesus in a stable.
- They were astrologers who followed an astronomical comet or nova to Bethlehem.
All of these ideas compose what might be called the mythology of the magi. Some of the misconceptions can be corrected by simply reading Matthew 2:1–12. Others can be dispelled by a logical reading of the text giving attention to its historical and Jewish background.
The idea that there were three kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar dates from medieval times, as well as the idea that one of them was a Negro. No number of magi is mentioned by Matthew, but the fact that they presented three different types of gifts (“gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” in 2:11) probably gave rise to the traditional number of three visitors. Also, they are not called kings, but magi—a special caste of religious men in Persia which we will examine later. Matthew 2:12 says that they were from the East. In modern times we might think of lands like the Far East. That is not, however, the way the term was used in biblical language. The “east” was that region just beyond the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This would be the area of ancient Persia—today, the countries of Iran and Afghanistan. This would also argue against the idea that one of them was black, although this is remotely possible if one of them came from as far as India. Their names, of course, are purely traditional.
Far more prevalent is the idea, perpetuated by millions of nativity scenes, that the magi were present with their camels along with the shepherds at the manger of the baby Jesus. This idea confuses Matthew’s version with Luke’s account of the nativity, particularly Luke 2:15–20, and is refuted by statements in Matthew 2:1–16. First, we read in Matthew 2:1, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod, the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” Furthermore, Matthew 2:11 states, “And when they were come into the house [not a stable or cave], they saw the young child [paidion in Greek, not brephos, the word for baby in Lk. 2:12, 16).” Jesus could have been as much as two years old, since Herod ordered all the boys from two and under to be killed, according to the time when the star had originally been seen by the magi (Mt. 2:7, 16). Whatever age Jesus was at this time, He was not a baby in a manger but a young child living with his parents in Bethlehem before their flight into Egypt and eventual settling in Nazareth (Mt. 2:19–23).
According to many interpreters, the magi were astrologers who had discerned through their stargazing that the sign of a Jewish king had appeared and that he had been born somewhere in Israel. While the magi may have engaged in some form of astrology, it is difficult to comprehend how God would communicate His will through a means He had so strongly condemned in such passages as Deuteronomy 18:9–14 and Isaiah 47:12–14. If we allow for such a method of divine communication, how can we condemn the utilization of astrology for fortune telling today?
Others do not emphasize the magi’s astrology but suggest that the magi had observed some unique astronomical phenomenon—either a comet, a supernova, or a planetary conjunction. For example, the great astronomer Kepler observed in 1603 A.D. an unusual conjunction of planets and found that in 6 B.C. there had been an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Therefore, Kepler placed the nativity of Jesus at that time. Chinese astronomical tables also testify to the appearance of a comet in 4 B.C., agreeing approximately with the date of the birth. Although this explanation has satisfied many sincere students of the Word, it does not explain the fact that the magi referred to “his star” (Mt. 2:2). Furthermore, it is difficult to comprehend how such an astronomical phenomenon could have moved to Bethlehem “before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Mt. 2:9). If a comet had performed that feat, there would have been no house or town remaining from the heat!
Having evaluated the various myths surrounding these interesting visitors, what can be concluded about their identity and their knowledge about the promised Jewish king? Furthermore, what was the nature of that wondrous “star” which prompted their long journey? It is important to recognize that there is no real necessity to look beyond the sacred Hebrew Scriptures of the Jewish people for the answers to these questions. A Jewish understanding of Matthew 2:1–11 provides us with all the keys for the passage’s explanation.
For example, it is distinctly possible that the prophecies of Balaam served as the source for the expectation of a Jewish king who would be the national deliverer. Of the four oracles delivered by that fascinating man from “Pethor, which is by the river” (Num. 22:5, the Euphrates River in the land of Persia), the last is most expressive: “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, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17). Is it possible that the magi from Persia had preserved the words of their ancestor Balaam and remembered his ancient prophecy when a “Star” did appear out of Jacob?
While the evidence for the above assertion is interesting to consider, an even stronger source for the magi’s knowledge comes from the Book of Daniel. In the Greek translation of that book in the Septuagint (LXX) one of the words translated “wise men” is the same as the Greek word used in Matthew 2 (magoi) (Dan. 2:2, 10). The function of these magi in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon was to serve as a religious caste in the state religion. One of their functions was to interpret dreams—a role in which they failed miserably in Daniel 2:1–13 and were ordered to be killed. Note Daniel 2:13, “And the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they sought Daniel and his fellows to be slain.” Therefore, Daniel and his three friends were associated with the magi due to their God-given ability demonstrated earlier in Daniel 1:20–21. When Daniel accurately interpreted Nebuchaduezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:17–45, he was rewarded with an even higher position among them: “Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48).
With this information, it is proper to remind ourselves of Daniel’s amazing prophecy of the “seventy weeks” in Daniel 9:24–27. Among many truths mentioned in that prophecy, verse 26 states that “Messiah [shall] be cut off” after a period of 69 sevens (483 years). Therefore, Daniel’s book provides a timetable for the coming of the Messiah. This timetable from their leader must have been kept through the years by the magi even when Babylon was conquered by the Persians.
There must have been a growing expectancy among the magi as the years passed by. Even though this prophecy dealt primarily with the Jewish people, these magi must have been watchful of it since it was originally given through one-of their own many years before. It should not be forgotten that a large Jewish community continued to exist in Persia and in the city of Babylon down through the centuries, even until the early 1950s. They would have cherished Daniel’s prophecy and kept the hope of it alive.
Some have also suggested that one of the functions of the magi was that of king-makers. It was they who went through the ritual of crowning new kings in Babylon and Persia. This would also shed light on their desire to encounter the “King of the Jews” and to “worship him” (Mt. 2:2).
Having seen the Old Testament background of the magi what help can be found there for the correct interpretation of the star? Must we be faced with only an astrological or astronomical explanation? Mention has been previously made of the objections to the idea that the star was seen in astrological observations. Furthermore, the idea that a physical star could stand over Bethlehem is simply incredulous. The supernatural character of this brightness spoken of as “his star” (Mt. 2:2) becomes evident. I suggest that this unique shining was that of the glory of God described so often in the Old Testament as the visible manifestation of God’s presence (see Ex. 16:10; 24:16–17; 33:22; 40:34, and dozens of other references).
When we consider how the incarnation of the Son was a manifestation of God’s glory (Lk. 2:9; Jn. 1:14), it is easy to see how the star was just such a supernatural and visible token seen only by a selected number (the shepherds and the magi). No wonder that “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Mt. 2:10).
It is that glory which the aged Simeon discerned in the babe in his arms (Lk. 2:32). It is that glory that shone through the earthly tabernacle of Jesus’ body on the mountain of transfiguration (2 Pet. 1:17). It is that glory concerning which He prayed in His High Priestly prayer (Jn. 17:5, 22, 24). It is that glory with which He shall come in great power (Mt. 25:31).
The Jewish people refer to the glory of God as the Shekinah. Yes, it was the supernatural Shekinah which inspired the magi and directed their steps to the young Messiah so many years ago. May we also follow that “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6) and go forth to “Declare his glory among the nations” (Ps. 96:3).
Reprinted with permission from Voice magazine.