The account of the Wise Men found in Chapter 2 of the Book of Matthew is a part of the Christmas story that is fascinating and inspiring — yet enigmatic. Exactly who were these visitors? What do we know about them?
Some have even wondered if the story of the Magi somehow means that the Bible is OK with astrology.
“There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
Our knowledge of the Wise Men is limited. At the time of Christ’s birth, castes of learned men from outside Palestine existed in parts of the ancient world. Though we have no direct proof of which nation the biblical Wise Men called home, some scholars conclude they came from Persia. The Persians had a history of conflict with both the Jews and Romans, which may explain why inhabitants of Jerusalem were “troubled” (literally, “agitated”) at their arrival (Matthew 2:3).
Christmas cards and carols usually depict just three Wise Men, though their entourage was certainly larger than that. The number was perhaps assumed to be three because verse 11 of Matthew 2 lists three gifts that were brought to Jesus ― gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The early Christian writer Tertullian (who died around 225 A.D.) concluded from certain Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 49:7, 60:3) that the Wise Men must have been Eastern kings. That the Wise Men were people of power and wealth is clear from their ability to undertake the trek to Jerusalem, their ability to gain an audience with Jewish and Roman leaders, and the extravagance of the gifts they brought.
The word from which we derive the title “magi” comes from a term that could mean a variety of things. In the ancient world, this same root word could be used in speaking of a learned man, a sorcerer, or a scientist. In addition to its use in the Matthew 2:1-12, the word “magi” is found two other times in the New Testament, referring to occult activities (Acts 8:9; 13:6-12).
The text of Matthew 2, however, in no way implies these Wise Men practiced any sort of dark arts. Their trip to Jerusalem seems to have been initiated by familiarity with the Jewish prophecies of a coming leader. Their careful, guarded interaction with Herod and their gifts imply wisdom and sincere piety, but not occultism.
So How Did They Know to Come and Look for Jesus?
Numbers 24:17 says, “There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
It is touching that Jesus’ birth was made known to lowly shepherds and non-Jews from the East.
The words of this Old Testament prophecy about the coming Messiah may have prompted the Wise Men to travel to Jerusalem to seek the Christ child. Some have wondered if use of the term “scepter” (something belonging to a king) was a prophetic allusion to Christ’s deity. But how would the Eastern kings have known to seek out the newborn king?
Truths about the coming Savior may have been circulated in their midst centuries earlier by the prophet Daniel. While the Israelites were exiled in Babylon, Daniel had been “chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48). Even as a political captive, Daniel may have used his position to make the ancients aware of the prophesied Messiah that was to come through the Jewish people.
It is likely the Wise Men did not arrive in Jerusalem until possibly two years after Christ’s birth. Matthew tells us they found the house (literally, “the residence”) where Jesus was (verse 11). This was probably sometime after Jesus’ presentation in the temple (Luke 2:22-39). After the Wise Men’s visit, Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, where they stayed until after Herod’s death (4 BC).
If Astrology Worked for These Guys, Why Not for Me?
The Wise Men may have been part of some ancient priestly guild that mixed astronomy and astrology. Besides studying the stars and planets, and assuming their influence on human affairs, the Wise Men also had at least some familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures. But their human understanding (and even the light of a star) could only take them so far. Commendably, they made it all the way to Jerusalem. But they needed help to make it all the way to Jesus. On arrival in the holy city, they still had to ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”
The company of Wise Men may have been practitioners of astrology, but their stated purpose in traveling so far — “We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him” — shows they were not just idolatrous pagans. They followed the light they had in an apparent quest to meet a deity they did not yet know.
It is touching that Jesus’ birth was made known to lowly shepherds and non-Jews from the East. Clearly, the Christ child was to be the Savior for all people. The Wise Men sought the One who is wisdom. They carried with them earthly treasures in their search for the One who is the heavenly treasure.
We should note that the Wise Men:
1.) personally worshiped Jesus;
2.) sacrificially followed God’s leading; and
3.) took a public stand for their beliefs. Far from being an implicit endorsement of horoscopes or astrology, the story of the Wise Men reflects faith and obedience.
Even with a supernatural star for guidance, the Wise Men had far less divine enlightenment than we. Their level of devotion depicts wisdom we would all do well to emulate.
Dr. Alex McFarland is a religion and culture expert, national talk show host, speaker and author of 18 books, including “Stand Strong America.” He also serves as director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at the Christian Worldview Center of North Greenville University in Greenville, South Carolina, and spent 20-plus years training teens and adults in the biblical worldview.