Who Were the Magi?

One of the stranger features of contemporary culture is the oddity of Catholics who call the Magi as witnesses to the validity of astrology, while simultaneously dismissing the story of the Three Wise Men as a fable invented by the biblical writer. It’s an amazing example of our ability to learn the exact wrong lesson.

The first thing to know about the Magi is that there is, in fact, quite a bit of evidence for their existence. First, of course, is Matthew 2, which says, “wise men (Greek: magoi) from the East” appeared in Jerusalem one day, seeking “he who has been born king of the Jews”. They claimed to have “seen his star in the East” and came to worship him. Matthew tells us they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts and that their visit provoked the paranoid Herod to kill all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old. Matthew also notes they returned to their own country in secret after having been warned in a dream of Herod’s impending doom. He does not, however, tell us how many there were, nor make a claim of royalty for any of them. How then did they attain their legendary crowns and fixed number of three?

The number part is pretty easy: three gifts, three kings. As to their alleged royalty, this is more complicated. Beyond the biblical record, there is other evidence about them. The historical magoi appear to have been a priestly caste in eastern lands. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. And Jeremiah refers to one of these eastern priestly figures, a Nergal Sharezar, as Rab-Mag, “Chief Magus” (Jeremiah 39:3, 39:13). Magi had long been involved in the various religious and political struggles of Persia and their influence continued through the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Parthian empires. By the time of Jesus, they had long provided priests for Persia and been a major religious influence. One ancient writer named Strabo says Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.

Magoi is, of course, related to our English word, “magic” but it is not really accurate to speak of them as “magicians”. They lived in an age which had not distinguished between the attempt to control and understand nature by what we now call “science” from what we now call “magic”. They believed, like most people of their age, that everything was somehow connected and they suspected the connection involved the movements of the heavens. So they studied the stars and tried to understand their meanings for earthly affairs. But we might just as easily say they practiced the rudiments of astronomy as astrology. In fact, the gifts they gave were gifts of their work, for these things were used by learned men of the time to measure, to make ink, and to offer prayer for wisdom in their studies.

Precisely what star they saw, whether it was a natural or supernatural event, and how they concluded from this that a King had been born to the Jews, we do not know for certain. We do know that Jupiter conjoined Saturn three times in seven months in 7 BC. We also know Mars joined them and produced a very striking configuration. Further, there is some speculation that the Star of Bethlehem may have been an occultation of Jupiter by the moon that occurred in 6 BC, with the re-emergence of the royal planet from behind the moon’s disc. We even have an ancient Chinese chronicle called the Ch’ien-han-shu which states that an object, probably a nova, or new star, was observed in March in 5 BC and remained visible for 70 days.

In discerning the meaning of the celestial signs, perhaps the Magi were influenced by messianic ideas floating around their country from Jews of the Diaspora. Perhaps they mingled their Babylonian lore of the stars with the Jewish Scriptures concerning a “star out of Jacob” (Number 24:17). At rate, Scripture records that they came and there is not really any evidence that they did not, along with lots of reason to think an astrologer would have seen things full of portent for them. And since they came from outside Israel to pay homage to the new king of the Jews, subsequent Christian theology saw in them the very first Gentiles to respond to Christ.

Which brings us back to where we started. Because the Catholic astrology fan is getting things exactly backward from what the Magi learned. Catholics who ignore the teaching of the Church and run after astrology are like people who trade in their Maserati for an ox-drawn cart. The Magi were right to think there was something connecting all of creation. But they were wrong about what the connection was. It was not the stars connecting creation: it was Jesus Christ. God met the Magi where they were and used their best efforts to understand the connection between the heavens and the earth to lead them to Bethlehem. But once you’ve arrived at your destination, who goes back to read the road signs again?


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