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


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How old was Jesus when the Magi visited Him?

Several Bible passages help us make an educated guess. We know from Luke 2:21 that Jesus was circumcised at 8 days old. We also know from Luke 2:22-24 that when the 40 days of Mary's "uncleanness" had passed, [Mary and Joseph] presented Jesus, their firstborn son, in the temple in Jerusalem according to God's Law.

Herod asked the Magi when they had first seen the star (Matthew 2:7) and then later killed all of the male children in Bethlehem, age two and under (Matthew 2:16). Finally, 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: (1) Jesus was between 41 days and 2 years old when the Magi arrived; (2) The magi had to have come


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 (Matthew 2:13-15). This would have left no time or opportunity for the presentation in the temple.

Is the fact that Herod killed all Bethlehem boys age two and under evidence that Jesus was two? Not necessarily. First, the murder of these little ones does not necessarily mean 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 the 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 mean that Jesus was two. The star could have appeared before Jesus was born, giving the Magi advanced notice.

How did the Magi know that the new star they observed referred to the King of the Jews?

After the Babylonian exile (see II Kings 24-25), 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." This might explain how the Magi 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.

Do we know the names of the Magi?

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

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 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 Simeon's prophecy, that Jesus would be "a light of revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:31).

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