The Magi: Misconceptions and Mythicism

January 6, 2014 | 4 comments

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when Western Christians celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. The account of the visit of the Magi can be found in Matthew 2:1-18. According to Scripture, “wise men from the East” followed a star to Jesus’ location and then “fell down and worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11).

What do we know about the Magi?

The traditional belief that there were three wise men is a development based on the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh recorded in Matthew 2:11. The identification of the wise men as kings may have developed from a reading of Psalm 72 that says, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:11).

Most Nativity scenes include the Magi, but we know from Scripture that they did not arrive until later. Some Bible scholars suggest that this may not have occurred until up to a year and a half later, based on King Herod’s command in Matthew 2:16:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.

The fact that Herod had all the male children up to two years old killed suggests that some time had passed before he ascertained the age of the Christ child from the Magi. In any case, Matthew does not tell us exactly how much time had elapsed between the birth of Jesus and their arrival.    

The Magi and Mythicism

According to the website religoustolerance.org, “The Egyptian God Horus was born of the virgin Isis; as an infant, he was visited by three kings.” Of Hercules, Osiris, Bacchus, Mithras, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus, and Horus, the site claims all of them had been “visited by ‘wise men’ during infancy.” In classic popular mythicist fashion, there are of course no primary source citations to back up these claims.

As I have already pointed out, Matthew’s Gospel is silent on the number and political status of the Magi. These are later developments in Christian tradition and not a matter of Gospel record. Because we know these traditions arose from biblical inferences, we can say with confidence that they have nothing to do with pagan mythology.

Furthermore, of the pagan deities mentioned above, none of them were visited by three wise men or kings. The burden of proof is with the mythicists, and they will be hard-pressed to deliver anything credible.

A Star in the East

Some mythicists will also claim that, like Jesus' birth, the births of certain pagan gods were herladed by a star in the east. Mythicist author and blogger D. M. Murdock writes, “Rather than representing a ‘historical’ event surrounding the birth of a Jewish messiah, the star at the coming of the savior can be found in the myths of Egypt.”

Of the Magi, Pope Benedict XVI explains that it is possible these men could have been part of a Persian priesthood, or they could have been something else (cf. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 94). Whoever they were, they were probably not Jewish. This point is significant, because even if there were a parallel here with some pagan god and the birth of Jesus, it makes sense that the Magi would recognize a sign familiar to them and respond to it. But there are no pagan parallels.

Some mythicists attempt to connect Sothis—a star that the ancient Egyptians believed to be significant—to the birth of Horus; however, this can be achieved only through a series of rigorous mental gymnastics.

The Egyptians most often connected the rising of Sothis (a.k.a. Sirius) to the rising level of the Nile River, which was very important to them. The flooding of the Nile brought with it fertile soil necessary for farming (cf. Oxford Guide to Egyptian Mythology, p. 256). In the astral realm, the goddess Isis was sometimes identified with Sothis, and her husband, Osirus, identified with the constellation Orion. Their sexual union was said to have produced Horus (ibid., p. 171). Even if Jesus were an astrological deity as some mythicists claim, there is still no parallel here.

The other “star in the east” parallel claims are met with the same obstacle: little to no evidence. There are other accounts from antiquity that appeal to astrological events as a sign of some spiritual significance, but none of them play out like the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi.


Jon Sorensen earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-...

Jesus Of Nazareth 3: The Infancy Narratives
Jesus Of Nazareth 3: The Infancy Narratives is the momentous third and final volume in the Pope's international bestselling Jesus of Nazareth series, detailing the stories of Jesus' infancy and boyhood.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Bruce Killian - Los Alamitos, California

There is an Biblical astronomical non astrological explanation, that most couldn't find because they look in the sky, rather than the Scriptures for the answer. Daniel was the chief of the Magi so they could know of the Bible see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xHE9U3Pq4o His Star the Bright Morning Star marked the sign that brought the magi to Jerusalem and 1.6 years later the magi in Bethlehem followed that star during the day to arrive at Jesus' home on the ridge west of Bethlehem 20 minutes after sunset on Passover March 27, AD 1. Jesus' birth Dec 25, 1 BC like His death Apr 3, AD 33 was marked by the sun being darkened and the moon to blood before His face. See also Venus the Star of Bethlehem on www.scripturescholar.com

January 6, 2014 at 6:46 pm PST
#2  Michael Horan - Irving, Texas

There is an interesting video on this subject called "The Star of Bethlehem." I don't know if its claims would hold up, but it is worth a watch if you are interested in this subject. http://www.bethlehemstar.net/

The video claims that the star was a real astronomical event, and provides evidence to back up the claim.

January 8, 2014 at 11:20 am PST
#3  Gregory Lee - Santa Maria, California

The relics of the Magi are located at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Their identity is known; their names are Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Tradition has it that they were baptized by St Thomas the Apostle and their bodies were discovered by Constantine's Mother St Helen. She brought their remains to Constantinople. They were later transferred to Milan where they remained until Emperor Fredrick brought them to Cologne Germany in 1164 where they remain to this day. Their relics may be viewed there.

January 9, 2014 at 10:26 pm PST
#4  Gerald Todd - Bakersfield, California

I always wondered how the promise of a Redeemer was passed on from Adam and Eve to the Prophets, fulfilled in Jesus. No one teaches much more than Noah and Jonah. I studied the only place where the mythology could be passed along as mankind dispersed about the earth... in the stars and constellations. Psalm 147 tells us God named the stars. Psalm 19 says night to night - to bring wisdom to the simple.

Here is a summary of what I learned and rejoice in: http://www.webcommentary.com/php/ShowArticle.php?id=toddgv&date=121130

Sadly, this beautiful and timeless story has been blurred by our prurient interest in astrology for the wrong reasons. In this time of widespread unbelief, it has been my hope for a long time this story in the stars will bring people back to the reality of God's plan for us.

January 15, 2014 at 9:00 pm PST

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