Yesterday, Pastor Byron shared the final message on Advent. You can listen to it here (Dec. 22, 2019). Today, I’d like to reflect on the Wise Men in the Christmas narrative. There is much legend surrounding these Magi, or Wise Men. We will look at likely truths regarding these men from the East. I’ve referenced one website that has the following elements.
What Are Magi?
The term used in the Bible to reference these men is Magi. It is the term of highly educated priests from the Persian region (Iraq, Iran, etc.). The origin of the term Magi is:
English: Magi<–Greek: Magos<–Persian: Magupati, which means “Priest.”
Magi were not simply priests. They were highly educated and very in tune with Astrology/Astronomy (same field back then). Part of their religious duties entailed a study of the constellations. This will be discussed in our third point below.
Whether they were rulers or not (possible, but not necessary), they were highly prominent figures in their regions, and likely dignitaries in transit, thus an audience with King Herod. Only three gifts were mentioned, so assumptions were made that only three Magi came. However, being important dignitaries (possibly kings), they would have travelled with an entourage. There was probably a caravan of travellers with a significant amount of each of the three gifts.
Tradition tells us their names were: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. There is no real evidence of this, but it’s fun trivia to know. Scripture tells us they came from the East. The site above suggests the possibility of coming from Yemen, which had a Jewish population, and may have even had Jewish rulers/kings. In the end, we at least know these travelling Wise Men from the East held a title (Magi) reserved for very prominent Astronomer priests who were sufficiently wealthy and may have been rulers or kings. They traveled to Israel in pursuit of an astrological star indicating a new king was born. This may also have been the reason they stopped at King Herod’s, with the assumption that the King would be born in the King’s palace.
Were They Jews?
It is very likely that the Magi were of Jewish descent. This isn’t necessary and scripture doesn’t indicate it, but it would explain their insistence of worshipping the King of the Jews. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Persian priests to come all the way to Israel to worship a Jewish king if they didn’t have Jewish roots or heritage. As the above site suggests, they may have in fact been rulers or kings from the Yemen region, which seems to have had Jewish rulers. They probably came from Jews who decided to stay in Babylon during the end of the Babylonian captivity at the end of the 6th century BC. Not all Jews migrated back to Israel. Those who stayed could eventually worked their way into prominent government positions. These Magi likely came from those lines. They were therefore of Jewish ethnicity and served in prominent priestly roles within Persian/Babylonian society and government.
When they saw the sign of a new King of the Jews being born, the prophecies of their ancestors resounded. They remembered stories they heard as children about their ancestral lands and prophets, like many English people did with King Arthur, awaiting his return when their people most needed him.
So the Magi were Jewish astrologer priests in Persian lands East of Israel whose religious duty included studying the stars. When they saw the Bethlehem Star, they recalled the ancient prophecies and realized after centuries, the time had come. The King of the Jews was born.
How Did They Know the Star of Bethlehem?
Being Magi (or Magupati), they noticed the anomaly in the sky. I’ve heard some people reference Haley’s Comet. I have also heard that it was when Jupiter and Saturn overlapped in the constellation of kings. At the end of the day, we don’t really know what historical astronomical phenomenon occurred, but it was notable. Comparing their astrological education to the prophecies of Israel, they recognized something significant happened for the covenant people of God. They embarked on a journey to their ancestral lands, hoping to celebrate the newborn king of the Jews.
Today we call the start pointing to the East the “Star of Bethlehem. We have also integrated it into our Christmas tradition by placing a star atop our Christmas trees. Again, whatever the constellation, they recognized it as significant for the covenant people of YHWH. As the Magi followed the star, they ended up at Herod’s palace, where Jewish scribes talked about the prophecy of a king born in Bethlehem. The star didn’t lead them directly to Bethlehem, conversing with Jewish scribes did. The bible never called it the Star of Bethlehem. We have adopted that term because of where they ended up, as found in Matt. 2:1-2.
Knowing the significance of the astrological sign, they set out with gifts for the newborn worldchanger.
So those are a few points of reflection on the Magi found in the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke. These Eastern Jewish Priestly Astrologers packed up some riches and a caravan to travel to Israel to worship the newborn Jesus, King of the Jews. God’s providence caused even Persian priests to take note of when Jesus was born. From here, the world would never be the same, neither the cosmos for that matter.