Were They Three Wise Men, Magi, or Kings? According to History, It’s a Little Complicated.

Image: Peter Paul Rubens / Wikimedia Commons

They’re the three men in glittering velvet robes and fake beards in the living nativity at church. Sometimes they tow a live camel. Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, following yonder star through the back of the sanctuary in the grand crescendo of our beloved annual Christmas pageant. I’m speaking, of course, of the Magi. Or is it wise men? Wait, kings?

Perhaps if Luke the historian had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “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…” (Matt. 2:1).

Intrigue swirls around these festooned foreigners. Where did they come from? With a wink Matthew writes, “the East.” Indeed, his description is so utterly “specific” that church traditions in dozens of countries claim to be their country of origin. And who were they? Technically speaking, Matthew calls them magi—but what are magi? Are they kings? Wise men? Sorcerers? Astrologers?

Christians have been trying to nail down their identity for millennia. As early as A.D. 200, Tertullian was laying out arguments that the Magi, while astrologers by trade, were considered kings. To the contrary, John Calvin felt strongly about anyone who would label them “three kings”: “Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.” Adding a further wrinkle, first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote several chapters about the Magi wherein they sound more like something from a Harry Potter novel. He details their skill in magic arts—including pouring boiled earthworms in the ear to cure a toothache!

Despite the disagreement, here are a few facts. The word magus is of Persian origin; however, Basil indicated that they were not confined to a specific empire but “scattered all over the country.” First-century Jewish historian Philo referred to Balaam from Numbers 22–24 as a magus. This anachronism indicates that by the first century A.D. it may have been adopted for more general use. Herodotus’s accounts of magi in his Histories (440 B.C.) portrays them as conniving political figures vying for royal power. Various kings in the ancient world frequently consulted these men because of their skill in interpreting omens, signs, and the stars.

These external witnesses corroborate the picture of magi we see in the Old Testament. The Persians and their magi crop up in the biblical timeline in the days of Daniel and Esther. One particular statement concerning King Xerxes’s magi might raise an eyebrow: “Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times…the men next to him being…the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom” (Esther 1:13–14). These seven men—clearly magi—are also labeled “wise men” and “princes.” So, are the titles interchangeable? And what do they signify?

As we reconsider these familiar Christmas characters, could it be Matthew was being intentionally vague with his coy “magi from the East”?

Call Them Magi.

The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the Magi were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams. When they arrived in Jerusalem, their curt bluntness had King Herod spitting out his morning coffee: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2).

These visitors were like a blast from the Hebrews’ past. The book of Daniel chronicles how he and his companions spent 70 years exiled among magi in the East. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in the habit of gathering the best and brightest from his vanquished foes into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. When he captured Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he added them to his menagerie of magi, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom” (Dan. 1:20).

In one episode from the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar had an ominous dream. Summoning his magi and enchanters, he demanded, “If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble” (2:5). When the magi only succeeded in coming up with excuses, Daniel rescued them all with the dream and interpretation from the Lord. In awestruck gratitude, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (2:48).

The whole episode with Daniel and the magi should feel like biblical déjà vu. Another famous Old Testament king had a penchant for keeping his court packed with wise men, astrologers, and magicians: Pharaoh of Egypt. Genesis tells of a young man named Joseph who was carted off to exile in Egypt. One night Pharaoh awoke from a terrifying dream. He found that none of his magicians could provide an interpretation. It was Joseph, the Hebrew exile in prison, who provided Pharaoh with God’s interpretation. In response, Pharaoh clothed Joseph like a king, “and they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus [Pharaoh] set him over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:43, ESV). Long before Daniel, Joseph knew what it was like to have magi bow before him.

When you call Matthew’s journeymen magi this Christmasdon’t be surprised to find them bowing before a Hebrew and heralding him as king. At Jesus’s birth, recognize how the tables have turned. This time, a star led the Magi into exile, sojourning in search of the scepter rising out of Israel (Num. 24:17). This time, they do not find a man seated at the right hand of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, but a child seated on his mother’s lap. As they bow and worship, they become the first to recognize the end from the beginning. This child would surpass both Daniel and Joseph as chief of the magi: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matt. 28:18).

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Chad Ashby