Who Were the Wise Men?

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the wise men. They show up in nativity scenes, Christmas plays, carols, tree ornaments, and paintings. Because of this abundance of wise men, everyone knows the supposed biblical facts about them: There were three wise men, they rode camels, and they brought their gifts to the baby Jesus as He lay in a manger. But not so fast. The Bible doesn’t tell us any of these supposed facts about the wise men, other than that they brought gifts to Jesus. The rest is holiday lore that accumulated over the centuries, which too many have assumed is in the Bible. This Christmas it’s time for a closer look at who the wise men really were.
The only biblical mention of the wise men (magoi in Greek, which translates into Latin as magi) occurs in Matthew 2:1-16, where we’re not told how many of them there were, only that they came from “the east” led by a star to find the “king of the Jews.” (Some people assumed there were three because they brought three gifts. Later Christian tradition assigned them the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.) Frightened by a potential rival to his throne, King Herod tried to use the wise men as informants to learn Jesus’ whereabouts and kill Him. But after finding and worshiping the Christ child, they thwarted Herod’s plan by bypassing him on their way home, being warned to do so in a dream from God.
Contrary to the image portrayed in most nativity scenes, Jesus was likely between one and two years old when the magi arrived. Matthew provides at least three clues suggesting this. First, he calls Jesus a “child” (2:9, 11) rather than a “baby” in the story of the wise men. Second, he says Jesus and Mary were in a house at the time of the wise men’s visit (2:11), not the stable where He was born. Third, apparently based on the date the magi’s guiding star appeared, Herod executed all boys in Bethlehem ages two and under (2:16), hinting that the sign of Jesus’ birth appeared two years before their arrival.
And what about the wise men’s country of origin? Babylonia and Persia are perhaps the two most popular speculations. Originally, “magi” was the name of the Persian priestly caste, but later the term was used more generally to describe magicians and astrologers (see Acts 13:6). Most countries in Western Asia had magi in this broader sense, but Babylonia had developed a particularly sophisticated system of astrology by the first century. Another fact suggesting a Babylonian origin is the wise men’s apparent knowledge of Judaism and its expectation of a coming king—knowledge readily available in a land where the Jews were once exiles. Ultimately though, we can only guess where the wise men came from (and some have suggested lands as far away as India and China).
Another mystery is the star that guided the magi to Jesus. Many have attempted to explain it with astronomy. Origen of Alexandria and other early theorists viewed the star as a comet while later thinkers, including Johannes Kepler, explained it as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in the year 7 BC. More probably though, the star’s appearance was a supernatural act of God.
Of course, all this speculation is enjoyable and has a place in Christian scholarship. Still, we should not let it overshadow the most important realities of the wise men’s visit: In the earliest days of Jesus’ life, God the Father was already drawing Gentiles to come and worship Him as a foreshadowing of the Great Commission—where He would call Christians to make disciples of all nations.
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

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