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Who Were the Magi?

The Christmas carol is called We Three Kings, but they weren’t kings, and there probably weren’t three.

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In the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew tells us that magi, or wise men, came from the east to visit him.

Were there really three magi?

Contrary to the traditional manger scene, Matthew does not say there were three magi. We assume there are three because we know they bring three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but we don’t know for sure how many there were.

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When did the magi come?

They also didn’t arrive with the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.

Mary and Joseph are living in a house in Bethlehem when they come (according to Matthew 2:11), and Herod the Great tries to kill the children in Bethlehem two years of age and under (according to Matthew 2:16). This means Jesus may have been as old as two.

Where did the magi come from?

The magi were probably Persian or Arabian astrologers who charted the stars and attached religious significance to their movements. They were not kings, as is sometimes supposed.

While some have doubted the historicity of this visit, it bears the marks of credibility. Many people in the ancient world believe that stars announced the birth of great people. The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus even speak of an expectation that a world ruler would come from Judea.

It is not surprising that Eastern astrologers would see in a particular astral phenomenon the sign of the birth of a Jewish king.

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What happened when the magi met Herod?

The ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth was Herod the Great, so the magi visited him first when they arrived in Judea. Warned in a dream of Herod’s evil intention to kill the child, Joseph escapes with the family to Egypt, where he remains until the death of Herod.

While the historian Josephus does not mention Herod’s massacre of the infants of Bethlehem, this is not surprising since Bethlehem was a small village and the number of children could not have been large. Considering Herod’s many ruthless actions in murdering sons, wives, and all manner of political opponents, this event was of little historical consequence.

At the same time, Matthew’s account fits well with what we know of Herod’s paranoia and ruthless cruelty. The irony of the magi’s visit is that while even pagan astrologers come to worship the Jewish Messiah, the illegitimate king of the Jews seeks to destroy him.

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This post is adapted from the Four Portraits, One Jesus Bible online course, taught by Mark Strauss. Take a look at the FREE introductory video from Dr. Strauss:

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