• Diana Dodd

The Joy of the Magi

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Matthew 2:1-12 “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 [Isaiah 60:6, Micah 5:2]

Who were the Magi, or wise men, from the Nativity Story? Who were these Gentiles who rode camels bearing gifts all the way to Jerusalem to find Jesus? Some Biblical scholars treat them as figments of Matthew’s imagination or as a piece of literary artifice, an attempt by Matthew to make the story more interesting, as if that were even necessary, because his is the only Gospel to mention them.

It’s important to keep in mind that someone may be a Biblical scholar without being a Christian, and there are those who’ve made a study of the Bible as a mere academic pursuit, without the desire or intention of knowing or worshipping God. Some even do so with the intention of trying to refute the Bible.

Those of us who do believe and accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, as 2 Timothy 3:16 attests, have no doubt that the Magi, or wise men, did intend visit the baby Jesus. I, personally, don’t think it’s valid to discount one Gospel by comparing it to the others. For instance, Mark skips Jesus’ birth and childhood entirely, choosing to focus on His ministry. Luke goes back to before His birth and tells the story of Zechariah’s prophecy and the angel’s visits to Mary and Joseph, and John begins by describing His deity and role in creation, skips His birth and childhood, and picks up with His ministry.

All four Gospels have versions of a few of the same miracles and parables, while some record miracles that others do not. It doesn’t give one book credence over another. It simply means that each author had a different perspective on the story and what they thought it was important to emphasize.

But I digress…back to the Magi. I think what has always most interested me in the Magi is that they followed a prophetic sign to a faraway land and arrived expecting to participate in joyous celebration and excitement over a long-anticipated event, and instead they encounter ignorance, confusion, perplexity, and even malice. How disappointing for them.

The way Matthew lays out the scene, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and immediately begin asking everyone where Jesus is, assuming the Jews know about the birth of their long-awaited, prophetic king. But, of course, no one knows of the baby born to a carpenter in a barn in Bethlehem. So, the travelers go to the most logical place to find a king, the palace – Herod the Great’s palace.

Herod is also ignorant of Jesus’ birth. He inquires of the chief priests who inform him that the Christ was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah (Micah 5:2). So, Herod suggests the Magi continue their search in Bethlehem, and the Lord shows them the way. The star that had initially alerted them to Jesus’ birth with its appearance (Numbers 24:16,17), that astronomical anomaly which no scholar or astronomer has been able to adequately explain, reappeared and guided them to the house where they found Jesus with His mother, Mary. (See Matthew 2:9.) The star moved and then stopped over the house where Jesus was. Regular stars don’t do that.

For the sake of clarification, let’s separate the fact from the fiction about this story. First, the exact number of Magi who visited is unknown. Matthew doesn't specify. Three is traditional because they gave three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). According to Wikipedia, in eastern Christian tradition, there were 12 Magi.

Second, they did not arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth but rather months later. The Bible says they found “the child” in a “house” with His mother (Matthew 2:11). So, Jesus was at least a few months old, and Joseph and Mary had found a house in which to live once the census ended and most of the visitors left Bethlehem. (See Luke 2:1-7.) As further evidence of Jesus’ age, when the Magi do not return to Herod and tell him where to find Jesus, he orders that all boys in Bethlehem aged two years and younger be killed. (See Matthew 2:7-18.) So, by all indications some time had elapsed between Jesus’ birth and the wise men’s visit.

Third, we don't actually know who the Magi were. The Bible simply calls them “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1). In his note concerning Matthew 2:1, John MacArthur says the Magi were “magicians or astrologers – possibly Zoroastrian wise men from Persia whose knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures could be traced back to the time of Daniel (Daniel 5:11).” The Encyclopedia Britannica says that Persian Magi “were credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge.” (www.britannica.com, “magus”)

Daniel 5:11 references King Nebuchadnezzar making Daniel “chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers.” In other words, Daniel was the most important wise man in the Babylonian court, and we know that since the Babylonians plundered the Temple when they attacked Jerusalem, they could have stolen the sacred writings and turned them over to their wise men to study, although this isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament account (See 2 Kings 25). The Magi of Daniel’s time also may have come by their knowledge of the Messianic prophecy directly from Daniel and the other Hebrew slaves.

The Magi from the Nativity Story arrived in Judea some 500 years after Daniel lived, and they were possibly Persian. Since Persia conquered Babylon, also in Daniel’s lifetime, it’s possible that the knowledge of the Hebrew prophecies had been handed down and studied by the Magi for centuries. Therefore, MacArthur’s theory is plausible.

In researching this blog, I ran across an interesting article that gives credence to a visit from wise men but offers an alternate nationality. The article entitled “Was the Magi’s Mission History or Myth?” explores the embellishments the story had over the centuries, but then its author, Dwight Longnecker, suggests that since Matthew’s Gospel was written in Judea, “wise men from the east” would have meant the Arabian Peninsula. He contends the wise men came from the country of Nabatea. He makes a compelling argument. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link to his aricle:


What I think is most important about the story of the Magi’s visit to Jesus is that they recognized the significance of His birth. They watched for and noted the appearance of His star. Then, they traveled hundreds of miles to find Him and worship Him. They reacted with joy and excitement to Jesus’ coming and went to great trouble to find him. These foreigners recognized what so many of Jesus’ own countrymen missed, the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior.

My vivid imagination can easily visualize the line of exotic-looking Magi in their brightly colored, intricately embroidered robes with turbans on their heads riding camels across the desert for weeks. I’m sure they made quite a sight entering Jerusalem in their foreign garb. Part of the reason for the confusion they encountered was probably due to people wondering why these strange-looking foreigners were asking about their Messiah. The Jews may have thought, “How could they possibly know that the Christ has been born if we don’t?”

The Magi were, in fact, the fulfillment of prophecies found in Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:10. Short, easily missed or misinterpreted prophecies that mention “a multitude of camels” bringing gold and frankincense, and kings bringing “gifts” and rendering “tribute.”

I suppose my last question is why did Matthew include them in his narrative when the other Gospel writers did not? That, I cannot answer. No one can, but we can rest assured that if it’s in the Bible, there’s a purpose. Perhaps they simply allude to the Gentiles who would later recognize Jesus as the Messiah and follow Him, or maybe Matthew was led by the Holy Spirit to illustrate the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus.

Someday, “in the sweet by and by” most likely, we’ll understand how all the pieces fit. Maybe for now we just see the Magi as an example of the determination we should all feel to seek and find Jesus, and when we do, to lay our best gifts before Him.

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