At the request of a friend, I am putting this online.
I did this study a year ago. I have quoted various articles I found online at that time, but did not get the names of those I was quoting since this was simply a study I did for myself–it was not intended to be posted.
I have been studying the Magi this Holy season to gain a better understanding of who they were and what their purpose was. What I learned is that there is still some mystery shrouding them. I personally love it when God leaves a bit of mystery for us; it encourages us to ponder on these things and let’s our thoughts dwell on His Word.
Tradition calls them Magi, Wise Men, Kings, and/or Priests.
(NASB Matthew 2) The Visit of the Magi
1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east…
Some versions refer to them as Magi from the East and some as Wise Men from the East. In either case, the original word is the same:
1) a magus
a) the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.
b) the oriental wise men (astrologers) who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him
I found it very interesting that other than in the 2nd Chapter of Matthew the word Magi is never used again in the bible. Also, when I looked up the term Wise Men of the East this is the only other reference I found:
1 Kings 4: 29 God gave Solomon very great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sands of the seashore. 30 In fact, his wisdom exceeded that of all the wise men of the East and the wise men of Egypt.
“However, let’s see what else is known about them. Matthew 2:1 says the Magoi came from the east. Most of the world east of Israel all the way to India was controlled by Parthia from 247 B.C. to A.D. 228. This area would be areas now in present-day Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan. At times they even controlled parts of today’s Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The people of India and China had regular trade with the Parthians.”
…arrived in Jerusalem…
So, the Magi or Wise Men arrive in Jerusalem; not necessarily in Bethlehem. Here is where I MUST amend this note—having visited the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem I found that the wise men DID indeed go to Bethlehem. How did I find this out? Because carved on the doors of the church were images of three wise men
in Persian garb—the ONLY reason why that church was left intact when the entire town was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD.
…saying, 2″Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?
Double meaning here: first of all, why are the Magi asking where is the King of the Jews? I can only assume that the Star did not “lead” them at all times. Also, King of the Jews was a title that Herod claimed.
For we saw His star in the east…
When I looked up Star, it came up as simply star. (To see a fascinating study on the star, watch the dvd The Star of Bethlehem.) However, the Vines Dictionary adds that metaphorically it can mean the Star of the Wise Men, or the Star of the Messiah; the Morning Star. Look up Morning Star and it seems to coincide with that thought:
“I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
… and have come to worship Him.”
Why would the Magi or Wise Men worship the Messiah if they belonged to a different religion? There seem to be two schools of thought on this. One is that these Wise Men are possibly the descendants of Daniel from the Babylon area. The other is that these are representative of the Gentiles who will worship Jesus later.
“Not much is known about these astrologers (traditionally called wise men). We don’t know where they came from or how many there were. Tradition says they were men of high position from Parthia, near the site of ancient Babylon. How did they know that the star represented the Messiah? (1) They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the Exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. (2) They may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world. Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, they would have had copies of the Old Testament in their land. (3) They may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah. Some scholars say these astrologers were each from a different land, representing the entire world bowing before Jesus. These men from faraway lands recognized Jesus as the Messiah when most of God’s chosen people in Israel did not. Matthew pictures Jesus as the King over the whole world, not just Judea.”
This third point really doesn’t have much validity. In Matthew it says that the Magi “left for their own country”. Not each to their own country and not countries. This seems to indicate that the Magi were all from the same place or region.
3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Now, if these were only three old men on camels coming into Jerusalem, why would that trouble Herod and Jerusalem? Herod murdered his wife and his sons, why would three old men bother him? I liked what my study found out and what the pastor at The Corners also stated. These were not just any men. These were Magi. Magi were second only to the king in their country. They were powerful men with their own armies; the people who put kings in place.
“The wise men were a sect called magi, extremely accurate as early astrologers. They traveled in groups of 30 to 50 and they have been mistakenly thought to be only 3 because of the 3 gifts.”
“The Magoi were still influential in Parthia. The Parthian empire was ruled by kings. But there was also a governing body, the Megistanes, which means “the great ones” or “lords”. The Megistanes consisted of the Sophoi and the Magoi (or Sophi and Magi). It is very interesting to note that the Magoi were responsible for choosing the kings of the great Parthian empire. They had an unusual amount of power and control for an eastern monarchy in which they were not the absolute kings. In fact, there is a sense they were like kings or lords in terms of power. Little wonder that some of the words or songs written about them over the centuries has referred to them as “kings”. Their power was in fact only exceeded by the absolute kings themselves.
What is known of the Magoi makes them seem like they would have come thundering into the area of Jerusalem on Arabian stallions accompanied by some tough-looking dudes carrying serious weaponry. Their cavalry was known for defeating the Roman army. There could have been scores or hundreds of people accompanying them. Many people have said that the Magi came with a small army. (The pastor said that the normal company of soldiers traveling with the Magi would have been about 1,000.) Some think that the normal garrison of Roman soldiers that usually occupied Israel was off fighting the Homonadensian War, leaving them unprotected. Also, do not overlook the fact that the Magoi had the authority to choose someone as king over the Parthian empire, which was every bit an equal to the Roman empire. It’s little wonder that when the Magoi showed up asking about a king, Matthew 2:3 says “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Three ordinary astrologists strolling into Jerusalem on camels would not even disturb King Herod’s lowest bodyguard, much less the whole city of Jerusalem. But the arrival of these guys freaked everybody out in Jerusalem!”
4Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
Interesting to note that Herod asked the Chief Priests & scribes, NOT the Magi.
5They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
6′AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”
7Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
And, based on this information he had all the boys 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem murdered. This gives indication that a) the Magi have been traveling for 2 years and b) that when they found Him, Jesus would have been close to 2 years old.
8And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
Herod tells the Magi to go to Bethlehem and the Magi start out; and the star “went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” It doesn’t say infant or baby, but child. It doesn’t say that the star led them to Bethlehem or stood over Bethlehem, but over the place where the Child was.
10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
If the star has been leading them constantly, consistently for two years, why would they rejoice exceedingly when they saw it? Again, it gives the idea that the star was not constantly seen in the night sky. In fact, it would seem that it had not been seen for quite some time, or why would they rejoice with “exceedingly great joy”?
11After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother;
They came into a house not a stable, and saw a child, not a baby…
…and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.
Their first response is worship. They offered themselves.
Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Their next response is to offer their treasures. Gold was the gift given to Kings; they were in effect making Him king at that time. Frankincense was what the priests used—acknowledging His Royal Priesthood. Myrrh is what they used to prepare bodies for burial; acknowledging His sacrifice.
“Matthew’s infancy narrative contains little information concerning the identity of the magi. Matthew states only that the magi were “from the East” (Matthew 2:1-2), an ambiguous point of origin that left room for many subsequent hypotheses. Some church fathers proposed Arabia on the basis of where the gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh, 2:11) were likely to have originated. Others suggested Chaldea or Media/Persia because Persia had a caste of priests (magi), which would fit the description in Matthew.”
Persia fits what I learned in Bethlehem—that the reason the church was spared was because of the depiction of three wise men in Persian garb. Those who were conquering the city are said to have left the church standing in order to honor the memory of their ancestors.
12And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
They left for their own country—one country for all of the Magi, no matter the number. By another way—as the pastor said; once we meet Jesus, we go another way.
Traditionally we think of their being “three kings” or “three wise men”. I think we get this from Psalm 72:
10Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; The kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. 11And let all kings bow down before him, All nations serve him.
And also from the three gifts that are mentioned. We don’t know if there were more than three gifts, only that three gifts were mentioned.
We also give them the names of Gaspar (Caspar), Melchior, and Balthazar—where did these come from?
“The most thorough account of the magi comes from Marco Polo’s “Travels.” His account places the tombs of Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar in a section of Persia called “Sewa,” which is also called “Sava” or “Saba.” Marco Polo also wrote how the people of the area recounted the story of the magi’s travels to and from Bethlehem, what gifts they took and the symbolism behind the gifts and what happened after they returned. Marco Polo’s account from around 1300 A.D. has sealed the names of the magi into our accepted tradition.”
ABC news talked about a manuscript kept in the Vatican that has only recently been interpreted. This manuscript is supposedly the journal of the trip to Jerusalem by the Magi themselves.
In the link above it talks about the Magi having come from Sewa; which the translator interprets as China. They also talk about how there was a spice route open from Jerusalem/Bethlehem all the way to China, so it is possible. However, when you query the word Sewa today, you get a place in Africa. According to Marco Polo’s accounts; Sewa was a section of Persia. Could the Sewa in Africa today be the same Sewa that was a part of Persia in the past? Looking at a map of ancient Persia, I can see that the ancient Persian Empire was vast. To say that the Magi came from Persia is one thing, to say they came from Babylonia in Persia is much more specific, and closer to the border of Africa.
“Extrabiblical evidence offers various clues that shed light on the place of origin and positions held by the magi of Matthew 2. The historian Herodotus mentioned magi as a priestly caste of Media, or Persia, and, as the religion in Persia at the time was Zoroastrinism, Herodotus’s magi were probably Zoroastrian priests. Herodotus, together with Plutarch and Strabo, suggested that magi were partly responsible for ritual and cultic life (supervising sacrifices and prayers) and partly responsible as royal advisers to the courts of the East. Believing the affairs of history were reflected in the movements of the stars and other phenomena, Herodotus said, the rulers of the East commonly utilized the magi’s knowledge of astrology and dream interpretation to determine affairs of state. The magi were, therefore, concerned with what the movement of the stars (as signs and portents) might signify for the future affairs of history. Such an interest could account not only for the magi’s interest in the star in Matthew, but also their conclusion, shared with Herod, that the star’s appearance signified the birth of a new ruler of great importance (2:2).”
“The visit of the magi plays a significant role in introducing Matthew’s Gospel. From the beginning it reveals the true identity of the infant as the long-expected and prophesied royal Messiah of Israel. This is brought out first in the appearance of the “star,” which carried clear messianic connotations: “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, a scepter shall arise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17; see also Isaiah 60:3). Second, the interchange between the magi, Herod, and the chief priests and scribes (Matthew 2:2-6) reveals that Jesus is the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy of Micah 5:2, the ruler of Israel coming from the small village of Bethlehem. Third, the offering of the gifts (Matthew 2:11) may also echo the possible messianic promises of Psalms 68:29 and 72:10.
In addition to confirming that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the account of the magi’s visit, as part of the introduction to Matthew’s Gospel, introduces several prominent themes that reappear in subsequent chapters. First, the account establishes that Jesus’ messiahship has bearing not only on the Jews but even on the Gentile world (symbolized in the “wise men from the East”). A second theme, which surfaces later, is the surprising Gentiles’ faith, a faith that is lacking among Jesus’ own people. Even as the foreign magi honor the infant Messiah, Herod and possibly the chief priests and scribes of the people plot the baby’s death (Matthew 2:3-6, 16). So also elsewhere in the Gospel, Gentiles exhibit faith in Jesus, which often contrasts markedly with the faithlessness of the Jews (see 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 27:19, 54).
So, what are the true gifts of the Magi? I believe it’s what they teach us.
A) That pursuing Jesus is worth EVERYTHING. Our time, our commitment, our resources, our all.
B) That He is worthy of worship and we should bow before Him.
C) That He is the King of kings, the High Priest, the Lamb of God sacrificed for my sins.
D) That once encountering Him, our lives will take a different direction: they will never look the same.