As recorded in the Bible, after observing a “star” (aster) which was a sign to them that a Jewish king had been born in Judea, wise men (Magi) from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for the Jewish king:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star (aster) when it rose and have come to worship him. — Matt. 2:1-2 (NIV)
Who were the Magi?
Where did the Magi come from?
Why would Magi from a foreign country travel to Bethlehem to worship a Jewish king?
What Information Does the Bible Provide about the Wise Men (Magi)? here
Common Misconceptions About the Magi Referenced in the Biblical
The only account of wise men (Magi) arriving in Jerusalem looking for one “born King of the Jews” is found in Matthew 2:1-12.
Traditionally, English translations of Matthew have used the word “Magi” although the King James Version (KJV) and American Standard Version (ASV) use the term “wise men.” A few translations (e.g., the New English, the Living Bible and the Phillips) use the term “astrologers.”
In sum, Matthew 2:1-12 provides the following historical information about the Magi:
- They came from a country east of Jerusalem (Matt. 2:1)
- They arrived in Jerusalem asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”; so, they arrived in Jerusalem believing a “king of the Jews” had been born (Matt. 2:2)
- Since the Magi arrived in Jerusalem asking Herod where the newborn Jewish king was, they apparently knew the king was in or about the area of Israel, but did not know his exact whereabouts (Matt. 2:2)
- They told Herod they had seen “his star” (referring to the Jewish king) in the east (Matt. 2:2)
- They told Herod they had come to worship the Jewish king (Matt. 2:2)
- Herod asked the Magi when the “star” (aster) had appeared (Matt. 2:7) so at least Herod believed the Magi knew when the “star” had first appeared;
- After learning the Micah the prophet had prophesied a Jewish king would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem and were “overjoyed” to see the star (aster) which “stopped over” (or, alternatively translated, “stood over” or came to “rest over”) the place where the child was (Matt. 2:9) more;
- On coming to the house and seeing “the child” with his mother, the Magi bowed down and worshiped the Jewish king (Matt. 2:11);
- They presented the child king with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt. 2:11)
- After being warned in a dream not to report back to Herod where the Jewish king child was, the Magi returned to their country in the east by another route (Matt. 2:12)
A reading of the biblical account of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12) reveals several misconceptions about the Magi commonly portrayed in commercialized versions of the Christmas story:
Rather than finding the “baby” Jesus lying in a manger, Matthew 2 indicates Jesus was a child (not a baby, but less than two years old) by the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem (more>>).
Instead of finding Jesus in a stable, lying in a manger, Matthew reports the Magi found Jesus in a house with his mother, Mary (Matt. 2:10-11);
Why Would Magi from Another Country
Travel to Bethlehem to Worship a Jewish King?
According to Thayer’s Greek lexicon, the word Magi “springs from a Babylonian root meaning oriental scientist, wise man, astrologer, or seer.” [Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (revised 11/2010) citing to Thayer’s Greek lexicon)]
As summarized by Paul Maier (a professor of ancient history), extra-biblical references to Magi indicate they were originally a clan of the Medes who formed the priestly class in Persia (modern-day Iran). They were well-educated, specializing in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination and magic. [Paul Maier, “The First Christmas” (2001)]
According to Herodotus (1:101), Magi existed in Persia in the sixth century BC, they were a priestly group among the Medes who performed religious ceremonies and interpreted signs and portents… “…[F]rom the fourth century BC onwards Magi were increasingly associated with astronomy and astrology….
As noted by Christian apologist, Rick Larson (a proponent of the Jupiter proposal for the Christmas “star” (aster) more, although Magi were generally considered to be magicians or astrologers, around the time of Jesus’ birth (7 B.C. – 2 B.C. more) a Jewish philosopher by the name of Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to 50 A.D.) described a certain Persian school of Magi as “pseudo scientists” [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star, DVD (2006)]
Among the Persians there exists a group, the Magi, who investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth. . . initiate others in the divine virtues, by very clear explanations. — Philo
[Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 74; see also, On Special Laws 100]
Rick Larson believes Philo’s description of the Magi in Persia is a significant clue to the identity of the Magi referenced in Matthew 2 since Persia (including Babylon) was east of Jerusalem and the Magi referenced in Matthew 2:1-2 were “from the east”. [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star, DVD (2008)]
Moreover, both Rick Larson and Hugh Ross (a proponent of the recurring nova proposal for the Christmas star more) suggest the Magi referenced in Matthew 2 may have been part of the legacy of the Jews who were transported to Babylon from Jerusalem after King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon besieged Jerusalem in 605 B.C.
As recorded in the Book of Daniel, the Jews transported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan. 1:3-4, 6). These men were from the royal family and the nobility. They showed “aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” (Dan. 1:4) Daniel was eventually appointed to be the “chief governor over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48)
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Babylon was part of the Persian Empire having been conquered by Cyrus the Great (king of Persia) in 539 B.C. [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star, DVD (2006); Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (updated 11/2010)]. Babylon remained part of the Persian empire until about 650 A.D. Babylon is presently located approximately 55 miles south of Bagdad, Iraq.
As noted by Hugh Ross, Daniel 9:25 is the only biblical passage that gives a time line of the Messiah’s coming. Since Daniel recorded this prophecy while he was serving in the Persian court and since Daniel had a history of speaking out boldly about his God (see, e.g., Daniel 2:27-28; 5:18-23), Ross maintains there is a reasonable basis for presuming the sages in Persia were aware of Daniel’s prophecy and had reason to be looking for a sign of the coming of the “Anointed One” (the Messiah) around the time of Jesus’ birth [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (12/02)]
In sum, many Christian theologians and apologists propose the Magi were most likely a legacy of the Jews transported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar or they at least believed in the God of Israel:
- The Information the Magi had About the Newborn Jewish King Was the Same Information Recorded by Daniel in Babylon
Hugh Ross finds it particularly interesting that the only two items of information the Magi knew when they arrived in Jerusalem were the same items of information referenced in Daniel’s prophecy recorded in Daniel 9:25: 1) One had been “born king of the Jews”) (aka, the Anointed One — the Messiah) and 2) the time of his arrival. Notably, the Magi asked Herod where the king was so they apparently were not aware of the prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2 which foretold where the Messiah would be born — Bethlehem.
Ross argues this makes sense since the Micah 5:2 prophecy had been prophesied in Israel in about 750 – 725 B.C. rather than Babylon where Daniel had given his prophesies some time after 605 B.C. Ross agues the fact that the Magi only had the information contained in the Daniel 9 prophecy and apparently did not have other information which was not available in Babylon at the time, reasonably suggests the Magi obtained the information from Daniel in the area of Babylon. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (12/02); see also, John Mosley, “The Christmas Star” (1988)]
- The Actions of the Magi Hint of a Jewish Heritage or at Least a Belief in the God of IsraelAs Some theologians and apologists go a step further and suggest the Magi were either of Jewish descent or had come to believe in the God of Israel, just as Nebuchadnezzar had (see, Daniel 4:34-37). Such propositions are offered to explain the following:
- The reason the Magi were interested in a star which was a sign of the birth of a Jewish king Matt. 2:1-2);
- The reason the Magi traveled such a long distance to find a newborn Jewish king;
- Why the Magi would have brought expensive gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh to a Jewish king (Matt. 2:11);
- Why Magi from “the east” would have bowed down and worshiped a Jewish king (Matt. 2:11);
- Why the Magi listened to a warning they received in a dream not to return to Jerusalem to tell King Herod where Jesus could be found as Herod had instructed them to do (Matt. 2:8), but went back to their own country via “a different route.” (Matt. 2:12)
- The Information the Magi had About the Newborn Jewish King Was the Same Information Recorded by Daniel in Babylon
Regardless of their particular heritage or beliefs about the God of Israel, Magi visiting other countries was not a particularly unusual event in biblical times.
Not only are there historical references to Magi visiting kings and emperors in other countries, but Josephus (a Roman historian) recorded that Magi had visited Herod several years earlier in about 10 B.C. See, Suetonius, Nero 13 and 30; Tacitus, Annals, 16:23; Dio Cassius, Roman History, 63:1) [Colin Humphreys, Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 5, pgs 83-101, “The Star of Bethlehem” (Oct. 1995)]
Due to the limited amount of information disclosed about the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12, it seems imprudent to draw firm conclusions about their identity.
However, historical evidence outside of the Bible indicates Magi from the east of Jerusalem (Persia, including Babylon) were well-educated men who studied astronomy. Historical evidence further verifies Magi had a reputation of traveling to other countries to pay homage to foreign kings.
Because Matthew’s account of the wise men (Magi) is consistent with extra-biblical historical descriptions of Magi from Persia, the account cannot be easily written off as made-up myth, as many skeptics attempt to do.
Likewise, because Christian apologists and scientists have proffered a handful of astronomical candidates which are consistent with Matthew’s description of the Christmas “star” (aster), it is unfair for skeptics to write off the account of the “star” as a made-up fiction. [See summaries of the proposed astronomical candidates in the article entitled “The Christmas Star – Fact, Fiction or Miracle? Summary and Introduction” here>> ]
© 2014 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: November 5, 2014 / Last Edited: December 21, 2014
Paul Maier, The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story (Kregel Publications, 2001)
Slideshow Photo: A 1698 painting of City of Bethlehem and surrounding area by Dutch artist Cornelius de Bruijin (1652 – c. 1726/27). The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art which is in the public domain in the U.S. and countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.
Philo of Alexandria: A portrait of Philo of Alexandria by André de Thevet (1516 – 1590) downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is in the public in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.
Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar II: This 2004 photo of a Plan of Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar II, 600 B.C. was taken in Iraq in 2004. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org (“which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.CC-BY-SA-3.0