Who Were the Magi?
Bible passages and other ancient texts give us clues about who these astrologers and 'kingmakers' were.
BY: the Rev. Richard P. Bucher
The original Greek in Matthew 2 calls the men who came to visit Jesusmagoi
. 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..."). The only other occurrence of the Greek wordmagos
is in Acts 13:6, where it is translated "magician," meaning one who practices sorcery. The Greek Old Testament has an occurrence ofmagos
(Daniel 2:2), and there it also means "magician."
Fortunately, other ancient literature helps us to understand who the 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 about the 7th century B.C. in the Median empire (Herodotus
I, ci). At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Magi were an ancient priestly caste dwelling within the Parthian empire, a large area to the east of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. These priests practiced astrology, which at the time was a hybrid of astrology and what we now call astronomy.
They were adept at interpreting dreams (which we possibly get a flavor of in Daniel 2). At the time just prior to the birth of our Lord, the Magi formed the upper house of the Megistanes council, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (Strabo
, XI, ix, 3). Thus, the Magi at this time were possibly "kingmakers."
What scripture passages tell us about 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 [bearing] 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. Furthermore, Matthew is fond of telling his readers when an event in Jesus' life is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. 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 Magi prophecies.
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 kingmakers
. By the way, no early church father held the Magi to be kings.
How many Magi were there?
We don't know. Matthew 2:1-16 simply uses the plural. We know there were two or more. Christian art from the first centuries of the Church shows various numbers of Magi, ranging from 2 to 8.
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 lived east of the Roman Empire.
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).