The Story of the Magi

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1)

Note the term “wise men” is not used as a noun in the Scripture, but rather as an adjective. The Magi were referred to as being wise men descriptively, but never as a title, that is, “Wise Men.” About 300 years after their journey “Wise Men” was a title given to them for the first time.

In the ancient Middle Eastern world Magi were trusted advisors to kings, were learned men proficient in the knowledge of mathematical calculations, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, dream interpretation and history as well as practitioners of magic and paranormal arts. They were king makers as part of those who chose new kings.

Magi themselves were not kings. Had they been kings upon visiting King Herod, he would have followed tradition and celebrated their presence with a banquet. He was very impersonal in his treatment of them. 

Their number is not noted in Scripture. They would have been accompanied by an entourage of some size. Feed for the animals, security personnel, and the attendance needed to provide for the contingency would have been necessary.

It wasn’t until about the 8th century the names of Balthasar, Melichior, and Gathaspa in a chronicle known as the Excerpta latina barbari. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

The Magi did not consider Jesus as just the king of the Jews. The fact they bowed and worshiped Him indicates they believed Jesus to be divine.

They would not have ridden camels. Camels were the equivalent of 18 wheelers and not suitable for prestigious riders.

They would not have ridden donkeys. They were too small for such a long journey and were used for short distances.

They would not have ridden horses. Romans rode horses and anything associated with a Roman was beneath them.

They would have ridden mules, which were ideal for distant travel. Camels may have been used by them to carry items.

They had seen Jesus’ star in the east. It was when they were in the east, not the star. Bethlehem, and hence the star were to their west. Matthew describes them as “wise men from the East.” If the magi came from Perisa, aka modern-day Iran, it would be an estimated 1,400+ miles to Bethlehem, from Babylon/Mesopotamia  600+ miles to Bethlehem. The Arabian Desert would have a similar distance. 

Several places now claim to be the point of origin.

Such caravans, when moving, traveled 2 to 3 miles an hour.

They were following a star of unknown origin. Much has been speculated as to what was  considered the star. There are some possibilities, but nothing definitive.

It would have been easy to follow the star in that they would have traveled at night to avoid the oppressive heat of the desert days.

How would they have known to follow a star to find the King of the Jews? They had obviously heard of the importance of the Messiah from eastern Jews. Many Jews remained in Babylon/Persia after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C. and did not return to Israel. They would have told the Magi the account.

The office which Daniel eventually earned ( Daniel 5:11 ) was probably rab-mag –chief of the Magi. As such he may have been a source of prophetic insight. He would have required the Magi study the Torah, historical text, and the prophets. 

They were wise in preparing their gifts before leaving on the journey. Such faith was based on the prophetic accounts told them by Jewish exiles.  

In the second-century Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons was the first on record to postulate the magi offered Jesus myrrh (used for anointing corpses) to indicate that He was to die and be buried for the sake of mortal humans. Gold, because he was a king of an eternal kingdom, and Frankincense (burnt on altars as divine offerings) because he was a god.

The quantity of each gift must have been significant in that the gifts enabled Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to go to Egypt, live there a while, and return to Nazareth. 

Jesus is said to have been born in a manger. When the sojourners arrived He was in a house. The word used in the gospel of Luke to describe Jesus when the wise men arrived means “young child,” implying He was no longer a baby.

Herod was also aware of the time the star appeared, courtesy of the wise men, and when he tried to have Jesus killed to protect his own power, he had all the baby boys two years and younger killed. Jesus escaped only because an angel told Joseph to take the family away to Egypt to hide.

Historian Josephus does not mention Herod’s massacre of the infants of Bethlehem. This is not surprising since Bethlehem was a small village and the number of children could not have been large. Considering Herod’s many ruthless actions in murdering sons, wives, and all manner of political opponents, this event was of little historical consequence at the time.

There was a fourth gift to Him by the Magi. It was “worship.” They fell down and worshiped Him. These Gentiles were the first persons to worship Jesus.

Let us on a regular basis emulate them and worship Him.