BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY: Who Were the Magi?

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Did Three Kings Visit Jesus in Bethlehem?

EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 200+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Following the birth of Jesus, distinguished individuals from the East traveled to Bethlehem to honor him as the King of the Jews. This visit is still remembered today by many people around the world who celebrate Christmas.

In certain regions, individuals construct Nativity scenes portraying the Oriental visitors as three kings bearing gifts and approaching the infant Jesus. In other parts of the world, children march around their communities dressed as “the Holy Kings.” Despite the passage of 20 centuries, people worldwide still recall these extraordinary visitors. But who were they exactly?

In the New Testament, the Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus are some of the most mysterious figures. Who were they, and where did they come from?

Matthew recounts their visit to pay homage to the newly born 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.'” (Matthew 2:1-2, English Standard Version)

Were They Kings?

The account of this occurrence is recorded in the book of Matthew in the Bible. It states: “After Jesus was born . . . wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'” (Matthew 2:1, 2, New International Version) This version of the Bible refers to the visitors from the East as wise men rather than kings. But why does it use the term “wise men” instead of “kings”?

A bronze coin of the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, dating to 3 BC. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The scriptures utilize the plural version of the Greek term “ma’gos.” Different Bible translations translate it as “wise men,” “astrologers,” “stargazers,” or they leave it as “Magi.” This term denotes individuals who provide guidance and predictions based on the alignment of the stars and planets. Therefore, the Bible identifies the visitors to Bethlehem as diviners who utilized supernatural practices that were frowned upon by God. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

But were the Magi also kings? If that was the case, it would be logical to expect that the Bible would have explicitly referred to them as such. In Matthew 2:1-12, the word “king” is used four times, once regarding Jesus and thrice regarding Herod. However, not once are the Magi referred to as kings. The Catholic Encyclopedia supports this stance, stating that “No Church Father considers the Magi to have been kings.” The Bible itself also does not identify them as kings.

Papyrus P77 dates to about 110-150 CE and is among the earliest surviving copies of Matthew’s gospel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Clues in the Biblical Text

To determine the identity of the Magi, we must first discard the legends and traditions that became attached to them much later in history. For instance, the names commonly associated with the Magi—Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar—are not mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. Instead, these names likely originated from an Armenian infancy gospel dating back to around 500 CE, which refers to them as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia. The notion that the Magi were Chinese mystics comes from an eighth-century Syriac manuscript that suggests they were from the distant land of Shir, possibly China. However, few scholars give credence to this theory because its primary source is from a much later date and there are more plausible candidates for their origin.

By disregarding subsequent legends and traditions, the earliest written depiction of the Magi is believed to be the most reliable. Unlike accounts that were composed hundreds of years later, the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first century, probably about 40-45 CE, no later than 50 CE. His description of the Magi (Greek μάγος, magos) provides three clues that may assist us in identifying them:

  • They originated “from the east” (Matthew 2:1)
  • They arrived to honor a new king after observing a star (Matthew 2:2)
  • They presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11)

It’s worth noting that nowhere in the biblical text does it specify the number of Magi who came, their place of origin, or that they were kings. More on this later.

An astronomy tablet from Babylonia, currently housed in the Louvre Museum. Photo: Todd Bolen / BiblePlaces.com

Common Suggestion to Whom the Magi Were

Several groups have been proposed to identify the enigmatic Magi. Some suggest they were Babylonian astrologers, while others believe they were Persian priests, perhaps adherents of Zoroastrianism. Some even propose that they were Chinese mystics. These claims are usually based on clues found in ancient texts outside of the Bible.

It’s important to note that there were no Babylonian or Persian empires at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Seleucids had taken over the region that was once governed by the Babylonians and Persians, and the Parthian empire had taken over from the Seleucids.

However, is it possible that the Magi were part of a group of astrologers who inherited their training from the Babylonian astrologers of old? Could they have been priests who still practiced a form of the Persian religion? Is there a more fitting group to associate the Magi with?

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who is known as the “father of history.” He was born in Halicarnassus, a city in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), around 484 BC, and he spent much of his life traveling to different parts of the ancient world. He is thought to have met Sophocles and resided in Athens before leaving for Thurii, a new colony in southern Italy that was sponsored by Athens. Herodotus published his most famous work, “The Histories,” sometime around 425 BCE. Unfortunately, very little is known about his life beyond what can be deduced from his writings.

Magi From the East

In the first century, when Matthew wrote his gospel, what would the average person in Judea or Galilee have thought of when they encountered the term “Magi”? Examining how this Greek word was employed in ancient sources can be helpful.

a. Magi as a Tribal Group

Herodotus mentions that the Magi were one of the ancient Median tribes: “Deioces, then, united the Median nation by itself and ruled it. The Median tribes are these: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, the Magi. Their tribes are this many.” (Herodotus, Histories 1.96)

In the Behistun Inscription, King Darius claims that a man named Guamata from the Magi tribe pretended to be Smerdis, the brother of King Cambyses, and seized the throne. “Afterwards there was one man, a Magian, Gaumata by name; he rose up from Paishiyauvada… he thus deceived the people [saying) ‘I am Bardiya the son of Cyrus brother of Cambyses’; afterwards all the people became estranged from Cambyses (and) went over to him, both Persia and Media and the other provinces; he seized the kingdom.” (Behistun Inscription, Paragraph 11)

b. Magi as Persian Priests

The term “Magi” could also refer to a class of Persian priests who were greatly esteemed by the Persian kings.

Xenophon mentions that Cyrus the Great utilized these Magi to offer sacrifices to the gods before his battles:

“But though they had got to the camp, the pickets, acting on the orders of Cyrus, would not let them in till dawn. With the first faint gleam of morning Cyrus summoned the Persian Priests, who are called Magians, and bade them choose the offerings due to the gods for the blessings they had vouchsafed… Thus he took pains to show that he was the more assiduous in his service to the gods the higher his fortunes rose.” (Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.5.5-6)

“The famous Audience Relief from Persepolis depicts King Darius on the throne, the crown prince Xerxes standing behind him, and a Magi standing right behind Xerxes.”

Philo, the Jewish philosopher who wrote in the early first century, noted that “Among the Persians there is the body of the Magi, who, investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, do at their leisure become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations.” (Philo, On the Life of Moses 1.12)

The Audience Relief from the treasury at Persepolis depicts (from right to left) King Darius I on the throne, the crown prince Xerxes standing behind him, followed by a magi, an armor bearer, and guards. Photo: A. Davey / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

c. Magi as Magicians

By the first century, the term “Magi” had taken on a more general sense, referring to people with specialized knowledge in the magical arts. In Acts 13:6-8, Paul and Barnabas encountered a Magi (magician): “When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician [Greek μάγος, magos], a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.” Similarly, Philip, Peter, and John encountered a Magi (magician) named Simon in Samaria, who “practiced magic [Greek μαγεύω, mageuō]” (Acts 8:9).

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It is noteworthy that in the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Daniel, the magicians in Nebuchadnezzar’s court are also referred to as Magi (Daniel 1:20, 2:2, 2:27). Some have even suggested that a group of astrologers or astronomers existed whose ancient Babylonian instruction was passed down from generation to generation. They may have been aware of Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks (Daniel 9:24-27) and knew the approximate time of the Messiah’s birth, but this is conjecture.

A coin of the Parthian king Phraates IV. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In Summary

After considering the evidence, many scholars suggest that the magi came from the region of ancient Babylon and Persia (under Parthian control during Christ’s birth), fulfilling the biblical criterion that they came “from the east” (Matthew 2:1). It is possible that those from the MaJgi tribe were the first to become the caste of Persian priests who were held in high regard by the king. Given their interest in the star, some try to link the magi to earlier groups of astrologers or astronomers from Babylon.

However, as the term “magi” had taken on a broader meaning by the first century, it could refer to wise men in general, particularly those with specialized knowledge, including in magic. Therefore, in many modern English translations, the term “magi” is translated simply as “wise men.” This aligns with their apparent role in the courts of ancient kings, particularly in Babylon or Persia. The magi may have been a priestly caste who dabbled in astrology and the magical arts, revered for their knowledge and often consulted by the kings of old. It is possible that the Parthian king, Phraates IV (ca. 37-2 BC), who was likely ruling during Christ’s birth, also employed magi/wise men in this way and sent them to honor the newborn king upon learning of the significant sign in the heavens.

Parthian empire and the Nabataean kingdom – http://www.thomaslessman.com/History/ or http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info

Another Suggestion

Some scholars propose that the magi could have been Nabataean wise men from the courts of King Aretas IV, who ruled from about 9 BC to AD 40. The Nabataean empire was an independent kingdom with territory in modern-day southern Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, making them a possible group to fulfill the biblical criteria of the magi coming “from the east” (Mt 2:1). The Nabataeans were renowned traders who controlled trade routes along the Incense Road, transporting frankincense and myrrh, which they held a virtual monopoly on at the time of Christ’s birth. They had access to gold in their territory and were familiar with astronomy from their travels through the desert. Early Church Fathers associated the land of myrrh and frankincense with Arabia, and Justin Martyr explicitly stated that the Magi came from there. The theory of Nabataean magi has merit but has been largely ignored in favor of older theories about priests/astrologers from the area of ancient Babylon or Persia, which were under Parthian control at the time of Christ’s birth.

Al Khazneh in the ruins of Petra (Jordan)

Were There Three?

The Bible doesn’t mention how many Magi there were who came to see Jesus, but the traditional view is that there were three because they brought three types of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, this is based on tradition rather than the biblical text itself. The Bible simply states that the Magi presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Is it a valid assumption to believe that the Magi were three in number just because they gave three different gifts? This common belief is not supported by the Bible. The account of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon is a good example. She presented him with three different gifts, but it is clear that she was the only one who gave them. The number of gifts did not necessarily indicate the number of people who brought them. In the same way, the three gifts given to Jesus do not provide any evidence regarding the number of Magi who brought them.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Gospel doesn’t mention how many Magi visited Jesus, and there’s no solid tradition on the matter. Some Church Fathers suggest three Magi, possibly influenced by the three gifts. However, different works of art depict two, three, four, eight, or even twelve Magi. Ultimately, we cannot know for sure how many Magi there were.

The gifts of the magi may have looked like these: (Left) A gold Nabataean pendant with garnet dating to ca. 2nd to 1st century BC. It is currently housed in the Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim. Photo Credit: Neck Bürgin. (Center) A ceramic Nabataean unguentarium in which perfumes like frankincense were kept. Photo: Metmuseum.org/Public Domain. (Right) A calcite alabaster beehive jar was the type of jar used for myrrh; these are found all along the trade route from the area of modern-day Yemin up to the area of ancient Petra. This one dates to the second century BC. Photo: The British Museum/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

A Popular but Inaccurate Story

Despite its popularity, the story of the three kings visiting Jesus at the time of his birth is not accurate according to the Bible. The Magi, who were not kings but astrologers, first arrived in Jerusalem after Jesus was born and later visited him in a house, not a manger. The Bible does not mention how many Magi there were. Although traditional Christmas stories may be viewed as harmless holiday tales, they are not entirely Scripturally accurate.

In Conclusion

According to ancient writings, the magi who visited Jesus were likely priests or astrologers who served as wise men in the courts of the Parthian kings, who controlled the territory that was once held by the Babylonians and Persians. It is possible that they held the same role as the magi who served the Persian kings.

There is also a belief that the magi could have been Nabataean wise men from the courts of King Aretas IV, who would have been reigning at the time of Christ’s birth. As renowned travelers in the desert, they would have been familiar with astronomy and could have followed a new star to find the newborn king. It is possible that Aretas sent them to pay homage and offer gifts to the newborn king.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Regardless of their identity, the fact that wise men came to honor the newborn king is historically plausible within the context of the ancient near east. Magi were real people with special knowledge and wisdom, particularly in the magical arts, and their history likely spanned hundreds of years.

The irony of the Christmas story is that while gentile magi came to honor the newborn king, the Jewish chief priests and king did not.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Carson, D. A. (1995). Matthew. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  2. Collins, R. F. (1993). The Wisemen from the East. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 55(3), 405-422.
  3. Evans, C. A. (2012). Matthew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Geisler, N. L. (1978). A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  5. Kitchener, K. A. (2018). The Magi in Early Christian Traditions. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 26(1), 1-20.
  6. Metzger, B. M. (1994). The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). (1996). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  8. Powell, M. A. (1998). The Magi as Kings: An Argument from the Silence. Westminster Theological Journal, 60(2), 189-198.
  9. Spangler, A., & Tverberg, L. (2019). Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  10. Strong, J. (2007). Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries. Hendrickson Publishers.
  11. The Catholic Encyclopedia. (1911). The Magi. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  12. Thiede, C. P., & D’Ancona, M. (2006). The Quest for the True Nativity: On the Date of Christ’s Birth. London: Lion Books.
  13. Turner, M. B. (2000). The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Online Resources

  1. Biblical Archaeology Society: Who Were the Magi? by Steven Fine https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/who-were-the-magi/

  2. Bible Gateway: Matthew 2 (ASV) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+2&version=ASV

  3. Bible Hub: Matthew 2 (ASV) https://biblehub.com/asv/matthew/2.htm

  4. Catholic Encyclopedia: Magi https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm

  5. Encyclopædia Britannica: Magi https://www.britannica.com/topic/Magi

  6. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Magi in Art and Literature https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/magi/hd_magi.htm

  7. Bible Odyssey: The Magi in the Bible and Beyond https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/magi-in-the-bible-and-beyond

  8. History: Who Were the Magi? https://www.history.com/news/who-were-the-magi

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