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Mysteries of the Magi

Jimmy Akin

‘When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Matt. 2:1).

“Wise men” is a common translation in English Bibles, but it doesn’t give us a good idea who they were. The Greek word used here is magoi, the plural of magos. These terms may be more familiar from their Latin equivalents: in St. Jerome’s Vulgate, we read that magi came from the east; an individual member of the group would be a magus.

Who were the magi?

Originally, the term magi referred to a group of people in Persia (modern Iran). Around 440 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus listed the magi as one of the six tribes of the Medes (Histories 1:101:1).

Apparently, they were like the Jewish tribe of Levi in that they exercised priestly functions. Herodotus says that whenever a Persian wanted to sacrifice an animal to the gods, he would cut it up and then “a magus comes near and chants over it the song of the birth of the gods, as the Persian tradition relates it; for no sacrifice can be offered without a magus” (Histories 1:132:3).

In the book of Daniel, magi are called upon to interpret dreams (1:20; 2:2, 10, 27).

The Persians also looked to magi to interpret heavenly omens. Consider the case of the Persian king Xerxes I (also known as Ahasuerus, who married the biblical Esther). In 480 B.C., he asked the magi to tell him the meaning of a solar eclipse that occurred as he was about to do battle with the Greeks.

They told him that the sun was special to Greeks, so when it abandoned its place in the daytime, the god was showing the Greeks that they would have to abandon their cities. This emboldened Xerxes (Histories 7:37:4), but things didn’t work out well. His expedition against Greece failed.

Even so, this shows the original magi were interpreters of astronomical portents, as later magi would be for the star of Bethlehem.

Over time, the term magi ceased to refer exclusively to members of the Persian priestly caste. The skills they practiced became known as mageia, from which we get the word magic in English, and by the first century, anyone who practiced magic could be called a magos.

Thus, in Acts 8, we meet a man named Simon, who was a Samaritan, meaning he had mixed Jewish ancestry. Simon practiced mageia (8:9, 11), and so he became known as Simon Magus.

Full Jews also could be magi, and in Acts 13 we meet a Jewish man named Bar-Jesus, who is described both as a magus and a false prophet (13:6). This means that in Jesus’ day, the term magus was flexible, so we need to ask another question.

Who were these magi?

Matthew’s magi were clearly dignitaries of some kind, as shown by the facts that:

  1. They saw themselves as worthy to congratulate a distant royal house on a new birth.
  2. They had the resources and leisure to undertake such a lengthy journey.
  3. They could offer costly gifts.
  4. They received a royal audience with King Herod the Great.

Matthew says that they came “from the East,” which from the perspective of Jerusalem would point to locations such as Arabia, Babylonia, and Persia.

Jews lived in all of these regions. Consequently, some interpreters have proposed that the magi who visited Jesus were Jews, who would naturally be interested in the newborn king of their race.

However, most scholars have concluded this is unlikely. If they were visiting Jewish dignitaries, Matthew would have identified them as co-religionists. The fact he merely describes them as being “from the East” suggests that they were Gentiles who came from a distant eastern land. Matthew also tells us that they went back “to their own country” (2:12), suggesting they were among its native inhabitants rather than Jews living in exile.

In fact, there is a theme in Matthew’s Gospel of Gentiles who respond to the true God. Matthew uses it to show his Jewish readers that Gentiles can be Christians. The pattern culminates in the Great Commission, when Jesus tells the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (alternate translation: “make disciples of all the Gentiles”; 28:19).

The Magi are part of this pattern: they are Gentile dignitaries who represent an early response to God’s Messiah, in contrast to the Jewish king, Herod, who seeks to kill him. This prefigures how the Jewish authorities kill Jesus, but Gentiles embrace his gospel.

Scholars have concluded that Matthew’s Magi were Gentile astrologers from an eastern land, though we can’t be sure which one (see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 168-170).

The earliest discussion we have is found in St. Justin Martyr, who around A.D. 160 said that they came from Arabia (Dialogue with Trypho 78:1). Around A.D. 210, Tertullian deduced that this is where they came from based on the gifts they offered (Against Marcion 3:13). Although in the ancient world gold and frankincense were associated with Arabia, this isn’t conclusive since they were widely traded in the region.

Many scholars have seen Babylon as a possibility, and the Jewish readers of Matthew would have been familiar with the book of Daniel, which associates magi with Babylonia. It has also been argued that the major Jewish colony there could have given the Magi a special interest in the Jewish Messiah, though this was also a common expectation of Jews in other lands.

Most Church Fathers concluded that the Magi were from Persia. Just after A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria identified them as coming from there (Stromata 1:15), and they were commonly depicted in early Christian art wearing Persian clothing. They may have been members of the original class of magi.

How did they know?

In popular accounts, the Magi are depicted as following the star that brought them to Bethlehem. That has led many to see the star as a supernatural manifestation that moved around in the sky in a way stars don’t.

But this isn’t what Matthew says. He never claims they were following the star, only that it was ahead of them as they went to Bethlehem and that it stood over the house (2:9). This was a providential coincidence.

They weren’t being led by the star for, as Pope Benedict XVI points out, they initially went to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem—the natural place to find a newborn prince (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, ch. 4). They assumed that Herod the Great or one of his sons had had a baby boy who would grow up to be king. When the magi learned there was no new prince at the palace, they had to consult with the chief priests and scribes to learn where they needed to go: Bethlehem (2:4).

The fact that the chief priests and scribes looked to a well-known prophecy of the birth of the Messiah (Micah 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:6) suggests the Magi could have seen the appearance of the star as signaling not just the birth of an ordinary king but of a particularly great one: the predicted messiah.

Although Magi weren’t following the star, it did tell them when he was born, for they said, “We have seen his star in the East” (2:2).

Recently, scholars have argued that this is a mistranslation and that the Greek phrase rendered “in the East” (en tê anatolê) should instead be “at its rising”—that is, when it rose over the eastern horizon as the Earth turned. Some have argued that this is a technical term for what is known as a star’s heliacal rising, which occurs when it briefly rises above the horizon just before sunrise.

The real question is what told the Magi that the star was significant and why they linked it to a king of the Jews. Here we can only speculate.

The system of constellations in use at the time, which includes our own zodiac, was developed in northern Mesopotamia around 1130 B.C, and Babylonian and Persian astrologers used it.

It’s not surprising that they would associate a particular star with the birth of a king, because at that time astrology was used to forecast national affairs. Horoscopes weren’t normally worked up for the hoi polloi. Heavenly signs were interpreted as having to do with things of importance, such as relations between nations, wars and rebellions, whether the crops would be good or bad, epidemics—and the birth of kings.

What the star they saw might have been is difficult to determine, but one possibility is Jupiter. At that time, Jupiter and the other planets were considered “wandering” stars, since they moved against the backdrop of “fixed” stars.

Unlike some later Greeks, Mesopotamian astrologers didn’t see the stars as controlling events on Earth. Instead, they thought the gods made their wills known through celestial phenomena, so it was a form of divine revelation. Jupiter was associated with Marduk, the king of the Babylonian pantheon, and it was often involved in signs associated with kings. For example, one Babylonian text says that if Jupiter remains in the sky in the morning, enemy kings will be reconciled.

An Assyrian text indicates that if a lunar eclipse takes place and Jupiter is not in the sky, the king will die. To protect the king, the Assyrians came up with an ingenious solution: they took a condemned criminal and made him a temporary, substitute “king” who could then be executed to save the life of the real king!

Whether Jupiter was the star the Magi saw depends on when Jesus was born, and that’s also something scholars debate.

When was Jesus born?

According to the most common account you hear today, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., so Jesus would have to have been born before this.

In Matthew 2:7, Herod secretly learns from the Magi when the star appeared, and in 2:16, he kills “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.” This indicates the star was understood as appearing at Jesus’ birth, which is to be expected, since such portents were associated with births (as opposed to conceptions).

It also indicates that Jesus was born as much as two years before the magi arrived—though it may not have been a full two years, since Herod may have added a “safety” margin to his execution order.

Many scholars have thus proposed that Jesus was born around 7 to 6 B.C., and this is the date we commonly hear.

However, other scholars have argued that a better case can be made that Herod died in 1 B.C. (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., and Andrew Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul). This likely would put Jesus’ birth in 3 to 2 B.C., which is the year Church Fathers identify as the correct one.

It also fits with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his ministry (3:23), shortly after John the Baptist began his in “the fifteenth year of the reign Tiberius Caesar” (3:1)—i.e., A.D. 29. Subtracting 30 from A.D. 29, we land in the year 2 B.C. (bearing in mind that there is no “Year 0” between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1).

What was in the sky?

Regardless of which date of Jesus’ birth is correct, it occurred in the first decade B.C. So what notable astronomical events took place then that could have served as the star of Bethlehem?

A large number have been proposed. The sidebar below contains only some.

One of the most interesting of these events was the rising of Jupiter and Venus on August 12, 3 B.C. Since Babylonian times, Jupiter was seen as a heavenly king, and Venus was seen as a heavenly queen, suggesting a birth. Furthermore, the Babylonians named Regulus (the brightest star in Leo) “the king,” and the lion was a traditional symbol of the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:9).

Also interesting is what happened on September 11, 3 B.C. In Revelation, John says, “A great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). This woman gives birth to Jesus (12:5). Some have proposed that this encodes information about when he was born: when the sun was in the middle of Virgo (“the virgin”) and thus “clothing” it, with the moon at her feet.

Obviously, we can’t say which if any of these events corresponds to the star of Bethlehem without knowing precisely when Jesus was born. That’s something the Bible doesn’t tell us, and the Church Fathers had different opinions, with only some proposing December 25.

The role of Jewish thought

Thus far, we’ve looked at how the Magi would have interpreted celestial events in terms of established Mesopotamian astrology. This association with paganism gives rise to the question, “Would God really use pagan astrology to signal the birth of his Son?”

That’s a matter for God to decide. Scripture indicates God cares for all people and makes himself known to them in various ways (cf. Rom. 1:19-20). It wouldn’t be so much God using pagan astrology to mark the birth of his Son as choosing to preserve certain true ideas among Gentiles to point to this event.

Also, if the Magi were Persians, they wouldn’t have been polytheists. By this period, the Persians did not believe in the old gods, and their dominant religion was Zoroastrianism. This faith taught the existence of a single, great, all-good creator god to whom they referred as “the Wise Lord” and whom they believed would vanquish evil in the end. They believed in the renovation of the world, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the dead.

If the Magi were Persians, they could have seen themselves as spiritual kin to the Jews and as worshiping the same God—the only true God—using their own terms for him. Additionally, they may well have had contact with Jews living in their own land and thus may have come into contact with biblical revelation that influenced their perception of the star. They could have learned, for example, of the lion as a symbol of Judah, and they could have associated the coming Jewish Messiah with a star.

One of the most famous messianic prophecies is that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). At that time, this prophecy had long been associated with the Messiah, which is why in the A.D. 130s the messianic pretender Simon bar Kosiba was hailed as “Simon bar Kokhba” (Aramaic, “Simon, son of the Star”).

What about astrology?

What about the role of astrology itself in this account? Although astrology was popular among Gentiles, it wasn’t so among Jews, many of whom looked down on it. This in itself argues that Matthew’s tradition about the magi is historically accurate. It’s not the kind of thing that Jewish Christians would make up.

However, while astrology wasn’t as popular among Jews as among Gentiles, it did exist. Genesis says that God made the sun, moon, and stars “to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (1:14). This could mean that they are simply to be timekeeping markers. But some Jews thought that their function as “signs” included information about future events. Thus, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain astrological texts.

In the ancient world, there was no rigid distinction between astronomy and astrology. It’s only in the last few centuries that the two have been disentangled. This happened as scientists discovered what the effects the sun, moon, and stars do and don’t have on life here on Earth.

Even Thomas Aquinas, based on the science of his day, thought that the heavenly bodies had an influence on the passions and could, for example, make a man prone to anger—but not in such a way that it would overwhelm his free will (Commentary on Matthew 2:1-2, ST I:115:4, II-II:95:5).

Subsequent scientific research showed they don’t have this kind of effect, and consulting the stars for these purposes is superstition. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against consulting horoscopes (CCC 2116).

While the stars don’t have the kind of influence many once thought they did, that doesn’t mean God can’t use them to signal major events in his plan of the ages. The fact he signaled the birth of his Son with a star shows he can. This isn’t what people think of as astrology, but it’s part of divine providence.

In fact, this doesn’t appear to be the only time God did something like that. On the day of Pentecost, Peter cited the prophet Joel’s prediction that the moon would be turned to blood as fulfilled in their own day (Joel 2:31-32; Acts 2:20-21). It so happens that on the night of the crucifixion (April 3, A.D. 33) a lunar eclipse was visible from Jerusalem. The moon did turn to blood.

Sidebar: What Could Account for the Star of Bethlehem?

7 B.C.

  • December 1: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction

6 B.C.

  • April 17: Jupiter has its heliacal rising in Ares (a constellation associated with Judaea), with several other significant features in the sky
  • May 27: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction
  • October 6: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction

5 B.C.

  • March: A comet in Capricorn

4 B.C.

  • April: A comet or nova (which one is unclear) in Aquilea

3 B.C.

  • August 12: Jupiter and Venus rise in the east, in conjunction with each other, in Leo, near Regulus
  • September 11: The sun in mid-Virgo, with the moon at the feet of Virgo
  • September 14: Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus

2 B.C.

  • February 17: Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus
  • May 8: Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus
  • June 17: Jupiter in conjunction with Venus
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