As an important part of the nativity story, “wise men from the East” have long captivated our imagination. In my collection of nativity sets, I have many camels and kings to represent these ancient travelers. But did they really look like this? How did they know about the Messiah and where did that strange star come from?
Where we have it all wrong I grew up with the notion that 3 kings visited the newborn Jesus soon after his arrival, and I’ve seen them included in many nativity scenes since. I love to sing the carol, "We Three Kings of Orient Are" as part of my Christmas celebration. These are fun “facts” from my childhood, but over the years I have discovered there are several problems with my assumptions about these voyagers.
The Greek word translated in Matthew 2:1 as “wise men” is magos (plural magi). It roughly means “learned man” or, as we would say today, “scientist.” The word is from the Persian language and originally referred to priests in ancient Persia. The same term could also be translated as doctor, teacher or priest. The wise men were probably early astronomers who had obviously studied Old Testament prophecy. Their interests may have been many and varied, and they were probably the scholars of their day. In fact, The Message Bible calls them, “a band of scholars.”
This would tend to negate the idea that they were kings. Five hundred years earlier, in the prophet Daniel's time, magi were astrologers, interpreters of dreams and advisers in the king's court. It makes sense, then, that the skills of these men had improved and grown with the passage of time.
Applying this and other references, and going back to that fun Christmas tune, I’ve since learned that these men were not kings at all, there probably were more than 3 of them, and they were not from what we consider the Orient. (But I still love to sing that song.)
Tradition says the names of the 3 “kings” were Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. Unfortunately, this has no confirmation in scripture, and was only a popular idea in writings which appeared 600 years after Jesus' birth.
The idea that there were just three wise men who made the trip also comes from much later tradition, not the Bible. It’s probably based on the fact (as we do see in Scripture) that the travelers brought three gifts, implying there were 3 magi. But this is a false notion because any number of them could have gone together and purchased one gift for the baby – especially given the cost of the 3 gifts!
The Magi came from the east, but not from what we label “the Orient.” Instead, they traveled from the Middle East, probably Persia (which is now Iran) or Babylon (which is now Iraq), a distance of almost 1000 miles. There is no reason to assume the Magi waited to start their journey until Jesus was actually born. Luke 2:39 implies the family of Joseph returned to Nazareth when Jesus is still a baby, which indicates the wise men probably visited soon after the Christ child was born. They likely arrived within a few weeks, or even days, of Jesus' birth.
However, they did not enter the stable with the shepherds as many nativity scenes depict. Scripture tells us they entered “the house” where the child was located, not the stable.
What history tells us about the wise men We don’t know what unique new star these Magi saw. Modern scientists have determined that there was an unusual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter about 7 B.C., which could have appeared as a new light in the evening sky. Four years later Halley’s Comet passed through the skies. Either of these would have been viewed as a “star” by the magi.
Some Bible students think the star seen by the wise men wasn’t a star at all. They believe the term translated as “star,” which also means “brilliance,” suggests the Shekinah glory, the visible manifestation of God’s presence. Just as the Israelites followed God in a visible form when they left Egypt, the magi could have been expressly following him. It could also have been an angel. The angel appearing to the shepherds at Christ’s birth was extremely bright.
Finally, there is no indication in the biblical text that anyone other than these wise men actually saw the star. This might indicate that it was a special revelation given just to these men, and not a huge astronomical event. Whatever the “star” may have been, we know it was specially sent by God to guide the magi.
The Magi's commitment to their journey is revealed in their willingness to risk their lives to make the pilgrimage. Historians tell us the journey to Bethlehem was fraught with danger. Outlaw bands and robbers were everywhere along the roads the magi must have traveled. However, the Bible indicates they showed no fear for their safety.
The magi probably knew something about Herod, if only his reputation for ruthlessness. Surely they guessed that Herod would not be thrilled about a new king. But, they are not afraid of him, either. Being able to express their worship to the Messiah was so important that they were willing to sacrifice months of their lives and risk their own personal safety.
A side note about Herod Herod was a half-Jewish man appointed by the Romans to keep order in the Jewish territories. Insanely jealous of his position, he was constantly plotting revenge and trying to keep his position secure. During his reign, he murdered his wife and mother-in-law, then assassinated 3 of his sons. The wise men took a big chance telling Herod there was a new contender for his throne!
Why did Herod have to learn this news from foreigners? Certainly some of his advisers were “religious” enough to have read Scripture. They must have known what the prophets foretold. Yet they didn’t tell Herod about the newborn Messiah in their midst. Wouldn’t you want to check it out, even if you were skeptical about the claims?
History shows that, during this period, the Jews had heard so many claims of a new Messiah that they probably were jaded. It had been so many years since God had sent messengers that they were just worshiping out of habit. I don’t think most of them even believed Messiah would ever come.
What the Bible tells us about the wise men They were wise because they sought the Messiah We may be curious about the names of the Wise Men or the true nature of the star, but those are apparently not things God wanted us to know. What is really important is that these were non-Jewish men who had come from a far land, at great personal danger, to worship the newborn King.
Matthew stresses the fact that Jesus is not just the Messiah for the Jews, and he did not come just to save Jewish people. Now, that seems very obvious to us, but it was pretty radical stuff in Matthew's day. To tell a 1st Century Jew that Messiah would be Savior for both Jews and Gentiles was, to them, a shocking statement.
The Bible does tell us these men came from the east. The major powers to the east had been the Babylonian and Persian empires. Since we know the Babylonians specialized in studying the stars, this is the likely home of the magi.
Verse 11 says that they found Jesus in a house, not a stable. Some scholars say it would have taken the Wise Men many months to make their journey, so it is no surprise that Jesus had moved from the stable by the time they arrived.
The gifts they brought demonstrated their faith that he was a king: *Gold, perhaps in the form of rings or wedges – a fitting gift for royalty. *Frankincense, a white aromatic gum drawn from several Arabian trees, burned in devotion to God. *Myrrh, a fragrant spice used to embalm the dead, a foreshadowing that this Infant King would also be the Crucified Lord. All 3 were rare and costly!
The Old Testament book of Daniel speaks of the wise men in Babylon. The men who saw the Christmas star had likely read the writings of Daniel, and maybe even his holy scriptures. That was probably how they determined the baby would be “King of the Jews.” So, while the Biblical account doesn’t say the star actually led the wise men from their home to Jerusalem (just from Jerusalem to Bethlehem), they would have known from their study that this sign represented the King of the Jews. Jerusalem, capital of the Jews, was a logical place for them to head.
The End of the Story All the information we have about these magi ends with them returning home after they met and worshiped the baby. They were especially warned by God not to return to Herod and they obeyed. The Bible makes no mention of them after this, so we can’t be sure what impact the experience had on these learned men. I choose to believe that Mary and Joseph told them of the miraculous birth, and that they spent the rest of their lives learning about Jesus!