The Magi: Who Were They?

Posted on December 20, 2018

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Note: I have a series of Christmas-related articles I like to run every year. Here is the first of them.

by David Ettinger

magi lead

Unexpected Visitors
We can only imagine Joseph and Mary’s amazement when a contingent of eastern visitors known as “Magi” paid them a visit at their humble abode in Bethlehem. “Stunned” is likely the most accurate word to describe them as they would have been astonished to see these distinguished men from the East drop to their knees and pay homage to the Christ Child.

Who were these Magi?

The Magi were members of a priestly caste of ancient Persia who studied the stars to gain insight into the workings of the world. Many of these learned men would leave their Persian homes to form communities throughout the ancient world, some settling as far as Egypt. Some of these “wandering Magi” would find their way to Babylon where they became a vital part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s inner-circle of advisors.

While in Babylon, they came under the jurisdiction of a Hebrew exile named Daniel, who was “appointed … chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” (Daniel 5:11). Daniel’s influence likely had an enormous impact on their interest in seeking out the child king of the Jews.

Why is this important?

By the time of Jesus there was already a well-developed notion among Jews and heathens of a Hebrew child who would usher in a “golden age” upon the earth and would save men and women from the ravages of evil upon the earth.

Where do you think this idea came from?

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The Holy Scriptures
For believers in the divine sovereignty of God, the answer is clear. When the Hebrews were exiled to Babylon (and later migrated further east to Persia), they took with them their holy writings and scrolls – the Old Testament to that point. Though the Israelites were sinful, disobedient, and idolatrous, they learned their lesson while in exile and became what they were created to be, a monotheistic (one-God) people.

Also while in exile, they clung to those scriptures which pointed to the promised golden age, primarily Isaiah chapters 9 and 11. How could they not? In describing the Ruler who would lead his people in the golden age, Isaiah writes:

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (11:3-4).

The kingdom He will lead will be characterized by peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

As leader of the Magi, Daniel would have shared these truths with his colleagues. The Magi were a monotheistic group adhering to the teachings of the sixth-century B.C. spiritual leader Zoroaster, who himself believed in but one god, whom he called Ahura Mazda. Daniel most likely introduced the Magi to the true identity of this one God. In so doing, Daniel may well have also taught them about the precise time when this new King would arrive. Daniel 9:20-27 outlines the time of His coming. Over the next 500 years, these prophecies would be handed down among the Magi.

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The “Shekinah Glory”
By the time of Christ’s birth, the Magi were already looking for the King. Then, on one unforgettable night, a “star” appeared in the sky. What was this star? Quite possibly, it was what is known as the “Shekinah Glory” of God that first appeared to Israel during their desert wanderings when the Lord led the nation in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13:21). God’s “Shekinah,” from the Hebrew phrase “he caused to dwell,” signified a divine visit. The “star” the Magi beheld may well have been the “Shekinah” glory of God made visible only to them.

Add to this some divine “prompting” from the Lord, and the Magi set out to find the One “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) while the “Shekinah” of God guided them. Most likely, the contingent that left Persia for Israel was huge. Banish the thought of “three kings.” This is a determination based on the three gifts given to Jesus. Travel in those days – especially for a journey of one to two years, as theirs was believed to have been – was dangerous. A literal small army was required to navigate the Near East safely. Therefore, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the traveling party of Magi could well have numbered in the hundreds.

A Toddler, Not an Infant
When at last these weary travelers arrived in Bethlehem and beheld the Christ-Child, they bowed before the two-year-old Jesus, not “the baby Jesus.” How do we know this? For one thing, King Herod asked the Magi when they had first seen the “star.” Based on their reply, Herod issued his satanic decree to kill all boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger. In addition, Matthew 2:11 refers to Jesus as a “child,” the Greek word indicating a toddler, while the Greek word used in Luke 2:12 for “baby” refers to an infant.

bethlehem
The modern city of Bethlehem.

While worshiping Jesus, the Magi honored Him with three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Aside from being expensive commodities fit for a king, they were also common means of exchange in that day, to be used as are traveler’s checks and credit cards today. During Jesus, Joseph, and Mary’s travels to Egypt and then up to Nazareth, these precious items would have purchased food, clothing, and lodging.

Men of Honor
Though the word “Magi” is associated with magic, we should not think ill of these distinguished searchers. On the contrary, they were a group of deeply religious men who sought God’s will, obeyed His command, diligently searched for the Christ Child, and, upon finding Him, fell to their faces in worship. In so doing, they have set a superb example of true worship to all who follow Christ.

Though there is much misunderstanding concerning the Magi and who they were – with some of this misunderstanding even making its way into song (i.e., “We Three Kings”) – history has properly honored these men as they deserve. They were among the first to seek the new Messiah, and recognized His deity and purpose from the beginning.

The Magi have earned their esteemed place in Christian history and deserve to be lauded. That which was said about these ancient sages who lived more than 2,000 years ago is still true for us today … wise men seek Jesus!


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