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The Magi

The three “wise men” of the Christmas story are some of the most widely recognized figures from the Bible, but much of the information about them comes from later legends.

Ravenna mosaic of the gifts of the magi

The magi, better known as the three wise men, are some of the most well-known figures in the Bible. Thanks to the role they play in the traditional Christmas story as mysterious visitors who bring gifts to the newborn Jesus, they are probably more familiar to the general public than far more important New Testament figures, such as the apostle Paul or John the Baptist. Despite their familiarity, they only appear once in the New Testament, in Matt 2:1-12. If you carefully read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, however, you may be surprised that many of the details that people assume about the magi are actually absent. In fact, much of what people think they know about the magi comes from later Christian legends rather than from the Bible.

The New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek word magoi as “wise men,” but this is not a very accurate translation. The word usually means “astrologers” or “magicians.” It can also refer, more specifically, to priests of the Zoroastrian religion—an Iranian tradition that has influenced both Judaism and Christianity. Zoroastrian magi were famous in the ancient world for their skills in interpreting the nighttime sky, so Matthew’s enigmatic figures may have been priests who hailed from Iran. Furthermore, the New Testament elsewhere views magicians quite negatively: consider the apostle Paul’s defeat of the magician Bar-Jesus in Acts 13, intended to show the superiority of Christian miracle workers over their pagan counterparts. It seems likely that whoever composed the Gospel of Matthew had in mind priests or celestial observers—not magicians..

Regarding their country of origin, Matthew says nothing more than that the magi hailed from “the East” (Matt 2:1), but most early Christians thought the magi came from Iran. The mosaic shows the magi wearing Phrygian caps, traditional Iranian headpieces that later became the inspiration for the pointed hats worn by magicians. However, there were different theories about where in the East the magi came from—either Babylon, which had a reputation as the birthplace of astrology, or Arabia, since the exotic spices brought by the magi came from that region. One ancient Christian text, the Revelation of the Magi, even portrays the magi as coming from China.

The mosaic depicts three magi, but you may notice that Matthew never says how many there actually were. Since the magi carried three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—a tradition developed that there were only three magi, each with a single gift. The familiar names “Balthazar,” “Caspar,” and “Melchior” mentioned in the mosaic do not appear in Matthew’s story either: they emerged in later Christian tradition.

The magi’s star, usually called the Star of Bethlehem, was just as intriguing for ancient Christians as for those celebrating Christmas today. The first question this star raised for them was how the magi knew that its appearance heralded the birth of a new Jewish king. Some of these early Christians assumed that the magi knew of the prophet Balaam’s prediction from reading the prophecy in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob.”

A second question was how the star guided the magi to the exact house in Bethlehem where Jesus lived. Ancient Christians knew that no ordinary star could do this, and they assumed that the star was an angel or some other entity that God had created for this specific occasion. Matthew’s infancy narrative never explains how this might have happened, paving the way for later ancient texts to fill in the gaps. Thus, in the Revelation of the Magi, the star is Christ himself, who transforms into a luminous infant after leading the magi to Bethlehem.

  • Brent Landau

    Brent Landau is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne, 2010).