Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Magi: Astronomers of the East

By Matthew Zuk

A depiction of the wise men

The wise men are in the group of people commonly featured in most Christmas nativity scenes. They can also be grouped into the intelligent ancient man category. They were skilled astronomers, and while we don’t really know much about them, they are an important example for us about the true focus of Christmas.

Map of Parthia, the Magi most likely came from somewhere in the green area on the map.

Origin of the Magi

Matthew 2:1-12 is the section of Scripture where we find information about the mysterious magi. It is impossible to determine exactly who they were or where they came from. Some suggest that they were Parthian (the kingdom who was in control of the land that was formerly Babylonian). 

The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament translates the word extremely well:
“32.40 μάγοςa, ου m: a person noted for unusual capacity of understanding based upon astrology (such persons were regarded as combining both secular and religious aspects of knowledge and understanding)—‘a wise man and priest, a magus.’ 
ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ιεροσόλυμα ‘soon afterward, some magi came from the East to Jerusalem’ Mt 2:1. In Mt 2:1 "μάγοι" may be translated as ‘men of wisdom who studied the stars.’”[1] So from the language used it is clear that they were men of great understanding (however they were not kings, that is another misconception that seems to be widely accepted today), and based on their knowledge of the Jews it seems probable that they were from Parthia. Babylon had a great knowledge of Jewish culture and prophecy because they held the Jews in captivity. This knowledge was retained by the kingdoms that came after the Babylonian empire. Thus the Magi were most likely of Persian descent and knew of the Jewish prophets such as Daniel.

When we first read about them they are seeking information about the king of the Jews:
“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, saying, 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.”

How did they know?

It is interesting to note that they saw this star and ascertained that it was the star of the king of the Jews, the Messiah. There are many theories attempting to explain how they did that. Some say that they simply may have figured it out from the sky, they were after all called the “Magi” (specialists in astronomy as stated above). Others suggest that they received the information from Jewish prophecies such as Daniel’s. Some say they knew of Balaam’s prophecy of the “star” which was to come out of Jacob found in Numbers 24:17. It is possible that it is all three, however while it is unknown exactly how they knew what the star meant we do know why they travelled all the way to Bethlehem, to worship this newborn king, the Messiah.[2]

How much did the Jews know?

“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

From this passage it is plain that the scholars of Jerusalem knew full well the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and yet they rejected Him. This goes to show that knowledge of the truth does not mean acceptance of the truth. As we find in Romans 1, all people know that God exists but some suppress that truth in unrighteousness and reject Him as Creator God.

How old was Jesus when the wise men arrived?

“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him. After listening to the king, they went on their way.”

Later we find out that Herod sent out an order to kill all infants two years old or younger, thus from that, we can ascertain that Jesus was no older than two years old at this time. Herod based his order off of the wise men’s response to his inquiry of when the star appeared.

“And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Apparently the star had disappeared from the night sky for some time, thus they were grateful when it reappeared to lead them to Bethlehem.

“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

A depiction of the "three" wise men.

How many wise men were there?

It is unknown how many wise men there were. In most nativity scenes there are three wise men, one for each gift. This has led many to the belief that there were only three, however there is no place in Scripture that gives their number.


Based on what the Bible has to say about the wise men we can conclude that: they were skilled astronomers who were very familiar with the night sky; they knew who Jesus was and worshipped Him as King and Messiah; they were filled with reverence for Christ based on their long journey to worship Him and present gifts to Him.

What can we learn from them?

So what can we learn from this amazing group of men who travelled to worship Christ based only on a star in the sky? The focus of Christmas isn’t about gifts, food, decorations, lights, or songs. It is all about who was born, it is all about Jesus becoming a man and humbly obeying the Father and taking on the form of a servant to die on the cross and rise from the grave three days later! It is about the event that changed everything, God becoming a man yet remaining fully God.

There is nothing wrong with gifts, food, decorations, lights, and songs so long as the focus remains on Jesus the Messiah, our Savior and Redeemer! So give gifts with Him in mind, fellowship with others around the dinner table with the focus remaining on Christ, sing songs that praise Him for what He has done for us! The wise men travelled hundreds of miles across mostly barren landscape to worship Jesus! They gave gifts to honor Him as Messiah! So follow their example, praise God for what He has done – but praise Him most of all for who He is!

For more information on the wise men please visit:

[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996 Logos Edition
[2] Evans, Craig A. Bible Knowledge Commentary. Eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985. Logos Bible Software.

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