What are "Magi"?

The original Greek in Matthew 2 calls the men who came to visit Jesus magoi. 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 word magos is in Acts 13:6, where it is translated "magician," meaning one who practices sorcery. The Greek Old Testament has an occurrence of magos (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 king makers. 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).

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 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 (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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